Catalina: the real history of The Spanish Princess favourite
Returning to our screens for Part II in October 2020, drama The Spanish Princess aims not just to reclaim the story of Catherine of Aragon, but also another woman who has been lost to history: Catalina, a lady of the bedchamber to the young queen. We found out more about the woman who inspired Lina and how, for actor Stephanie Levi-John, portraying her is a source of great pride…
The Spanish Princess tells the story of Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Spanish royalty who journeyed to England to marry Prince Arthur Tudor before becoming Henry VIII’s first wife, repositioning the queen in a history in which she is so often reduced to a single word in a rhyme. But as well as placing a fresh spotlight on the royal, the show also brings another forgotten woman of history into focus.
Known as Lina in the drama, the character played by Stephanie Levi-John is based on a woman who appears in the records only as ‘Catalina’, a slave and royal bedmaker. An Iberian Moor, Catalina (sometimes also ‘Cattelena’) is known to have arrived in England in 1501 with her royal mistress Catherine of Aragon, whom she served for 26 years as the lady of the bedchamber. Since some slaves in royal service were known to assume the same name as their mistress, this may be how Catalina came by her name – Catherine’s name was anglicised from ‘Catalina’ upon her arrival in England. The ‘de Cardones/Cardenas’ element that sometimes appears as a surname, including that of Lina in the drama, may well come from Catalina being conflated with Katherine Cardenas, a chief lady-in-waiting in Catherine of Aragon’s household, writes Lauren Johnson.
Watching The Spanish Princess? Find out more about the real history that inspired the drama:
Catherine, the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, was sent to England as part of a marriage strategy that aimed to consolidate Spanish power and contain France, and in the show, Lina attends to the needs of ‘la infanta’, ensuring that she is treated in a manner befitting Spanish royalty and custom, however ‘foreign’ some behaviours might seem to English courtiers. The travelling party from northern Spain included Jews and Muslims, and was certainly noted for its difference at the time. Dr Onyeka Nubia has written how Catalina “was almost certainly one of the number of African people referred to by Sir Thomas More rather mockingly” when he saw Catherine's train enter London in 1501; More described in one letter “hunchbacked, undersized and barefoot Pygmies from Ethiopia”.
Part of Catalina’s duties would have been to wait on Catherine’s bedchambers and attend to tasks of an intimate nature. Some sources suggest that Catalina could have even known the truth of whether Catherine and Arthur consummated their union, a question that proved pivotal in Henry VIII’s later attempts to annul his first marriage. Indeed, Giles Tremlett writes that during the trials, attempts were made to locate Catalina as a witness.
In the drama, Lina and soldier Oviedo (Aaron Cobham) marry at the end of Part I, and in reality, Catalina did marry a “hace ballestas”, a crossbow-maker also of Moorish origin, and they had two daughters. Catalina eventually returned to her hometown of Motril in Granada and after 1531, when her husband died, there is no further record of her life.
There’s a true love story there, says co-creator of The Spanish Princess, Emma Frost. “We only have tiny nuggets from history about this, but we have every reason to believe that Lina and Oviedo had a very successful, long and happy marriage. They're the counterpoint to the toxicity that happens eventually with Catherine and Henry.”
After Part I of The Spanish Princess arrived on screens in May 2019, the drama received backlash from some quarters – attracting comments that Frost calls “lazy and offensive”. “They tried to suggest that we had invented these characters and that there were no black people in England until three and a half minutes ago,” she says. Elsewhere, the decision to foreground characters of colour in the drama, alongside emphasis on Catherine’s achievements and agency, saw the show called “a glossy type of revisionism”.
Frost says that these comments are partly why inclusion is so important. “It’s the reason why we write those stories, because the only way you overturn those attitudes is actually by trying to reappropriate history.
“This has always been a show that has done that for women; we wanted to say that history wasn't just about men, and white men – it was also about women. And when you have a show in which you are trying to reappropriate history for people who didn't have a voice, you can't just do that for women. You have to ask: who else has been excluded?”
For anyone who might still cry anachronism, there is plenty of evidence that Catalina was by no means alone as a person of colour in Tudor Britain, and it was a period of significant immigration and settlement. “Africans weren’t just found in England’s provinces,” writes Dr Nubia for BBC History Magazine. “In fact, some rubbed shoulders with the country’s most powerful figures – in the Tudor court.”
Miranda Kaufmann has written for BBC History Magazine on some other Africans who called England home in the 16th and 17th centuries, including one man called John Blanke, the “blacke trumpeter”, who was employed by Henry VII and Henry VIII from 1506–12. When Blanke married in January 1512, says Kaufmann, Henry VIII showed his esteem for his “black trumpet” by giving him a generous wedding present: a gown of violet cloth, a bonnet and a hat.
Listen: Miranda Kaufmann tells the little-known stories of several Africans who resided in 16th-century England, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Fellow Spanish Princess co-creator Matthew Graham spoke of his excitement at “finding out how many people of colour there were in the Scottish court”. After reading that African musicians drummed the Scottish soldiers into battle, “we wanted to include that detail,” he explains, particularly in the drama’s portrayal of the 1513 battle of Flodden.
“That's why we created the character of Negasi, who is a courtier, not a servant. I mean, they're all servants, of course, to the royal family. But he’s a courtier in the Scottish court, a musician. His compatriots are banging drums and blowing pipes as the Scots march into battle, which is apparently what happened.
“Those details are fantastic for us”, Graham says. “Before this I would never have imagined that African drummers drummed early 16th-century Scottish warriors into battle.”
I would never have imagined that African drummers drummed early 16th-century Scottish warriors into battle
The prevailing concern at this time, say Frost and Graham– and perhaps one that took precedence over colour – was foreignness. “It was foreign people from other countries who attracted suspicion,” says Graham. “People were suspicious, but they were suspicious if you came from France, or if you came from Wales.”
This rising prejudice and tension will make an appearance in Part II of the drama, in the form of the Evil May Day Riots of 1517. “This was an event when some people of London turned on outsiders,” says Frost. “It wasn't specific to the colour of anyone's skin or their race, but towards anybody that Londoners perceived as being not from London that was taking their trade or their jobs.”
“Of course, that feeling evolved into something even more racially toxic over time,” adds Graham. “But that wasn’t really at the heart of it at that point.”
A part of the story
Even with the unequivocal fact of the presence of people of colour in British history – people who have been historically overlooked or so often in the margins – representation isn’t without challenges. It is an inevitable hurdle that there is less in the historical record to work with for both the writers and the actor who plays Lina, Stephanie Levi-John. “There is definitely a lot more written about Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII,” says Levi-John. “But it was it was a nice challenge to have.”
“Matthew and Emma have written some incredible scripts that give me a lot to play with,” she says. “I took things that they said from the script and then tried to back that up with historical evidence. For example, [in the show] Lina’s parents were Moriscos. They converted to Christianity to stop themselves from being persecuted."
“I did my research and really tried to solidify what that would mean for Lina. That’s her heritage, she comes from the Moors, from a culture rich with so many beautiful aspects that she has to kind of stifle in order to fit into [English] society.” Knowledge of these historical aspects helped Levi-John “flesh out and create a multifaceted character who has thoughts, feelings, strong beliefs and has an objective within the show, and a journey”.
Levi-John also describes the “overwhelming and beautiful” feeling that “little girls everywhere, especially little black girls or mixed-race girls, can see themselves within history. That's something that I hold very dear to my heart. The sense of pride that I feel to play such an incredible woman within this period of time is truly a blessing.”
Just before Levi-John was cast in The Spanish Princess, she says, “a friend of mine, who’s not an actor, said how she couldn’t wait for me to do a historical piece. And I just thought ‘I don’t think so’, because I'd never seen it, it was never something that had been discussed. You kind of just assume that black people or people of colour were not a part of this society.”
The character of Lina, and the historical basis for her, “really opened my eyes” says Levi-John. “Lina is not subservient, she’s someone who's very much her own person, who has her own thoughts, her feelings, who has her own story within this – and a definitive story as well. She is a rock to Catherine, and to see that sisterhood and the humanity, I think is extremely important.”
And as for Lina’s emergence from Part I as a firm fan favourite? “I'm really happy that she's been well-received,” says Levi-John. “And I hope that it urges people to read more about people of colour within history, especially within historical periods that we wouldn’t necessarily consider ourselves being a part of.”
Stephanie Levi-John, Emma Frost and Matthew Graham were talking to Elinor Evans, deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra.