The Spanish Princess EPs on Illuminating Catherine’s Complicated Legacy and the Turmoil of “Tudor Brexit”Photos Courtesy of Starz TV Features The Spanish Princess
On October 11th, The Spanish Princess will start the first part of its final journey. Among the Starz anthology series based loosely on Philippa Gregory’s novels (which include The White Queen and The White Princess), it is the first to get a second season. Fitting, perhaps, as its lead has the most agency of all the women we’ve met so far. And fortunately for us, Part 2 came in just under the wire regarding COVID-related filming shutdowns.
We spoke to executive producers Emma Frost and Matthew Graham in a video call about the new installment of the series, and asked if the production had been affected by the quarantine. “Our last day of filming was the last day of global production,” Graham told us. “So we were literally trying to wrap up a scene with Ruairi [O’Connor] and Charlotte [Hope] by a lake as we were getting phone calls, saying that various countries were closing down production. And then various productions in the UK were closing down around us. We had like the ticking clock, we were like Indiana Jones rolling under the door just before it closes down. So yeah, then we did all our post remotely, everyone worked from home. It was pretty extraordinary.”
The turmoil to wrap production off-screen mirrors some of the turmoil on-screen as well, as The Spanish Princess Part 2 begins to chart the end of Catherine and Henry’s hopes for “Camelot” as they are faced with the challenge and resulting heartbreak of not producing a living heir.
“What we wanted to do, very consciously, was sort of tell the origin story of Catherine and Henry,” Emma Frost told us. “Everybody thinks they know about Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII. What they know is this kind of stereotype of him as this murderous psychopath, and her as the unwanted wife who gets dumped for Anne Boleyn. And the truth of the matter was, they were together for 24 years—[Catherine] was the love of his life. There were much better wives for him on paper when he became king, but he chose to marry her, even had to get a Papal dispensation to allow that to happen.”
The first season of The Spanish Princess follows this part of the story, but the new installment picks up just after the coronation. “When they were crowned, he had her crowned alongside him, and crowned together. That was such a statement of them being equals,” Frost explains. “He really respected her politically, as well as loving her and having a passion for her so we very much wanted to celebrate that as well and tell the story of their love. Because that’s the bit that I think nobody knows or remembers, or it gets lost somehow, in all of the much more melodramatic stuff that comes later.”
Both Henry and Catherine believe that they are chosen by God to lead England, but very quickly in Part 2 we start to see how their different backgrounds and viewpoints challenge their relationship. “The marriage goes wrong, because the problem is this need for a son on every level to cement their power to cement, of course, their marriage. But in Henry’s mind, lots of people didn’t want him to marry her anyway, because there was this question over whether or not she’d consummated her marriage with his brother. And the more she’s unable to produce this son and heir, the more he becomes possessed with the idea that he was wrong, and God knows he was wrong, and God is punishing them and God is telling him over and over again, ‘You made a mistake. I do not smile on your kingship, I do not smile on your marriage,’ and Henry’s going to hell. So he becomes possessed with that,” Frost said.
One thing The Spanish Princess has done and continues to do so well, though, is not make this all about Henry. At the start of this season, we see how much power Catherine has in court, and the importance of her influence. Once Henry begins to unravel, it makes the whole seat of power within the country unstable.
“For Catherine, it becomes about a battle between gender and power,” Frost told us, a struggle that is reflected early on with Catherine donning some iconic pregnancy armor as she charges onto the field at Flodden. “She has power at the beginning, she has parity, she has everything she ever wanted. But because she’s unable to deliver what they want from her as a woman, all of it gets stripped away. She goes from being this person with agency to kind of wrapped in cotton wool and turned into a brood mare: ‘Just lie still and give birth to a son for God’s sake!’ And so for Catherine, she wants all these things, she feels her identity to be the same as her mother’s—you know, she comes from a matriarchal society, she doesn’t think she should have to be less as a woman. She wants to be there at that table dealing with global politics. And she can’t have that because her body won’t produce the thing that they all needed.”
Catherine sustains a number of tragedies through miscarriage and infant death during this time, and it’s something the series is committed to showing—sometimes with brutal starkness. According to Frost, “we we wanted to take the lid off of something that just isn’t talked about and isn’t shown and is considered, I only assume, something that is distasteful to show. And I think issues around conception, infant mortality, and miscarriage are such a fundamental and gigantic part of women’s lived experience that it seems bizarre—and a wrong that needs to be righted—that in 2020 we still don’t ever see this depicted in a TV drama.”
Frost also shared a personal experience that helped inform her writing these difficult scenes: “When we were writing this show, one of my nieces gave birth to a little boy who lived for 90 minutes and then he died. And she knew she was going to lose him several months earlier. But what really shocked me was when that happened to her the number of people in the immediate community around her who’d had that same experience. And it feels like it happens like so rarely and it’s this big shock. But oh my God, it happens so much. And we just don’t talk about it. And this is a common experience that women have had since Tudor times, and obviously for millennia—why don’t we talk about it? Why don’t we show it? We felt we had to dignify the reality of that grief and that experience and not shy away from it. And really just say, this is how tough it is; this is how tough women have to be. And look what Catherine went through, to really dignify her experience.”
As Graham concurred, “I would love [viewers] to see that these people lived.” He went on to explain how the original ending for this second (and final) season focusing on Catherine saw “the credits over her tomb in a cathedral in the middle of England, in modern day. So you see tourists walking along just taking photos, kids bored, people sort of picking their nose, looking at their iPhones. And there would be her tomb, the tomb of Catherine of Aragon.” Much like, as he noted, the end of Gangs of New York as we see the tombs of the characters age and decay as the city rises up around them.
Sadly, that final shot was unable to happen, but as Graham went on to say, “Obviously this [show] is drama, we’re dramatizing it. But Henry was a person. He wasn’t a character in a storybook. Nor was Catherine. Lina and Oviedo particularly, who are just words, just names written down in an ancient piece of document: ‘Lina married Oviedo.’ That’s it. We know we haven’t gotten their lives right by their standards, but I love to think that they’re up there looking down going, “Hey, look, we got a mention on this special box thing that they all love watching!”
And yet, for as much as things change, perhaps some key aspects of womanhood depicted in this anthology do not. Frost concluded our talk by saying, “I think for me, it’s extraordinary that the show [takes place] nearly 500 years ago, so much should have changed. But the similarities is what came out to us—the show has plague, it has riots in London ‘because the foreigners are taking all their jobs and they want the foreigners to go home’—it’s a Tudor Brexit. There are so many similarities in this show. And I think the lived experience of women is a constant. We’d love to think a lot has changed for women and for women’s lives, and it hasn’t. Don’t get complacent, because in so many ways things are being eroded and our rights are going backwards. And I hope that this story, on a really personal level, I hope it inspires a young generation of women to fight for their rights and to fight for their own power. And not to take no for an answer, because it is so easy for things to go backwards.”
The Spanish Princess Part 2 premieres Sunday, October 11th on Starz.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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