The real history behind The Spanish Princess

How historically accurate is The Spanish Princess? The new drama dramatises the story of Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish royal who married both the teenage Tudor heir Prince Arthur and his younger brother Henry. Read more about the real history behind the young princess’s arrival in England, her relationship with the princes and her journey to becoming the first wife of Henry VIII…

The Spanish Princess, starring Charlotte Hope as Catherine of Aragon, charts the story of the woman who married into the Tudor dynasty. (Image credit: Starz)

The Spanish Princess, airing on Starz from 5 May, dramatises the story of the Spanish Catholic royal Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), who married into the Tudor dynasty at the beginning of the 16th century, setting in motion a chain of events that would redefine the history of the western world.

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The new drama is based on two works by bestselling historical writer Philippa Gregory – The Constant Princess and The King’s Curse – and sets out to challenge the popular perception of her as “an unwanted and burdensome wife”, said a statement from showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham.

It follows two previous adaptations of Gregory’s work: The White Queen set during the Wars of the Roses following Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to Edward IV; and The White Princess, about the young Tudor king Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, a union that attempted to reunite the York and Lancaster houses after years of bitter dynastic conflict.

As The Spanish Princess continues, we explore the stories of the real figures portrayed in the historical drama…

The wedding and marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur

Catherine of Aragon was born in the Archbishop’s Palace of Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, on 15 or 16 December 1485, just four months after a Welshman by the name of Henry Tudor seized the English crown. The betrothal of Catherine, the daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, and Arthur, the Prince of Wales and son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, signalled a pivotal alliance between the kingdoms of England and Spain. The 1489 Anglo-Spanish treaty of Medina del Campo had first set out the plans for Arthur to marry the youngest child of the powerful Catholic monarchs, and the union between the children signalled Henry VII’s ambitions for the Tudor dynasty.

England’s king had elaborate plans to welcome the young princess to England, filled with pomp, ceremony and theatrical entertainment. However, her arrival was delayed by poor weather, the dangerous crossing taking longer than expected. She landed at Plymouth in October 1501, her journey to London becoming a rapid progress. Her retinue included Iberian Moor Catalina de Cardones (played in the drama by Stephanie Levi-John), who served Catherine for 26 years as the lady of the bedchamber.

Nadia Parkes as Rosa and Stephanie Levi-John as Lina, two ladies-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. (Image credit: Starz)
Nadia Parkes as Rosa and Stephanie Levi-John as Lina, two ladies-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. (Image credit: Starz)

On 14 November 1501, the teenagers were married in a sumptuous ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral in London; Catherine and Arthur were both 15 years old (Arthur’s younger brother Henry was 10 years old). As well as sealing the alliance, the wedding was an exercise in Tudor propaganda, writes Sean Cunningham, the author of Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was.

“The interior of St Paul’s had been redesigned. A raised walkway drew the attention of all people crammed into the space as the royal couple, dressed in white satin, took centre stage in a full-blown royal performance.”

Following the wedding the young couple moved to Ludlow Castle, Shropshire, where Arthur’s role as head of the Council of Wales and the Marches was considered to be good preparation for his future reign.

Stephanie Levi-John (Lina), Charlotte Hope (Princess Catherine), Nadia Parkes (Rosa) in The Spanish Princess. (Image credit: Starz)
Stephanie Levi-John (Lina), Charlotte Hope (Princess Catherine), Nadia Parkes (Rosa) in The Spanish Princess. (Image credit: Starz)

Did Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon consummate their marriage?

The intimate issue of Arthur and Catherine’s marriage consummation has been hotly debated for centuries, due to its later significance to Catherine’s marriage to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII. In 1527, Henry VIII tried to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that it had been “against God’s will” to marry his brother’s widow. However, if the previous marriage had been unconsummated it was not a legal union, and as Henry battled for an annulment Catherine adamantly claimed that she had still been a virgin at Arthur’s death. The truth of her assertion is still under scrutiny.

Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon
Prince Arthur around the time of his marriage, c1501 and Catherine of Aragon, 1502. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

“The bawdy evidence of how Arthur greeted his friends on the morning after his wedding sounds like the well-rehearsed tale of a teenager trying to impress,” says Cunningham.

“The prince emerged from his chamber and called servant Anthony Willoughby over with the words: ‘Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.’ Then to all of the others present: ‘Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.’”

Other lords such as Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, recalled having seen Catherine awaiting Arthur under the bedclothes during the previous evening’s bedding ceremony, later noting Arthur’s “good and sanguine” complexion the next day. Willoughby, too, believed Arthur and Catherine had lain together as man and wife at Ludlow, until Arthur became fatally ill at Easter 1502. Sir William Thomas, a groom of the prince’s privy chamber, revealed how he had many times escorted Arthur to Catherine’s room and collected him again in the morning.

Yet when defending her virginity at the time of her marriage to Henry, Catherine and many of her supporters insisted that the two young royals had only shared a bed for seven nights, while others stated that the small and physically weak Arthur had been too sickly to consummate the union.

“Catherine had ‘remained as intact and uncorrupted as the day she left her mother’s womb,'” writes Giles Tremlett of Catherine’s argument. “The sexual impediments to their marriage that could only be overcome by a papal dispensation had never existed. Henry’s argument, Catherine was saying, was irrelevant. They had been properly married – and still were.”

Cunningham concludes: “While other evidence suggests the frequency of their contact, only Catherine and Arthur would have known what went on behind the bedroom door.”

 

How did Prince Arthur die?

The cause of Arthur’s premature death on 2 April 1502, at the age of 15, is unknown, though it is most commonly attributed to a regional outbreak of sweating sickness. Others have suggested tuberculosis.

Sweating sickness symptoms included cold shivers, headaches, pain in the arms, legs, shoulders and neck, and fatigue or exhaustion. Far from being a disease that raged through the lower classes, many well-known figures in the Tudor court contracted the illness, including Anne Boleyn and her brother and father, George and Thomas. Catherine also fell ill, supporting the theory of sweating sickness, though she recovered.

A portrait of three of the children of Henry VII: Prince Henry; Arthur Prince of Wales and Princess Margaret. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A portrait of three of the children of Henry VII: Prince Henry; Arthur Prince of Wales and Princess Margaret. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Arthur’s death came suddenly and left Catherine a young widow after less than five months of marriage. Henry became the new heir to the throne at the age of 10.

Following the death of her elder son, Elizabeth of York was expected to provide another ‘spare’ male Tudor heir. Elizabeth fell pregnant but, following the premature birth of a baby girl at the Tower of London, the 37-year-old queen died in February 1503.

“Henry was aged 11: old enough to be fully aware of events, young enough to truly feel the loss of a mother,” writes Philippa Brewell of Henry’s relationship with his mother.

“The impact of losing his mother, with whom he had built such a strong bond during the many hours spent with her at Eltham Palace, is worth consideration when thinking about Henry’s subsequent relationships with women, wives in particular.”

Why did Henry VIII marry Catherine of Aragon?

Following Elizabeth’s death, in an effort to keep Catherine’s dowry the ageing King Henry VII began negotiations to marry Catherine himself, though his plans were blocked by Catherine’s mother, Isabella of Castile.

Upon the death of Henry VII in April 1509, 17-year-old Henry acceded to the throne. Prince Arthur’s death was to become even more significant when Henry VIII made the decision to marry his brother’s widow, a choice for which the couple had to receive special dispensation from the pope. Yet it was not a choice born purely of obligation, writes historian Alison Weir.

“While the truth about her marriage to Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, would remain a mystery for centuries, there was never any doubt that Catherine of Aragon’s second marriage to his brother, Henry VIII, was ardently consummated on their wedding night in June 1509.

“To the 18-year-old, idealistic king, she was a great prize, this princess from mighty Spain, who brought him a rich dowry and international prestige to the fledgling Tudor dynasty,” says Weir.

“He adored her: she was, we are told, ‘the most beautiful creature in the world’. She was 23, plump and pretty, and had beautiful red-gold hair that hung below her hips. Henry spoke openly of the joy and felicity he had found with Catherine.”

Was the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon a happy one?

Their union was not to continue happily, if it had ever begun so. Henry and Catherine were married for nearly 24 years, and while she bore him a daughter, the future Mary I (b1516), their relationship was plagued by multiple miscarriages and stillbirths.

Yet Catherine was an able and supportive consort to Henry and popular with her subjects, and it’s known that the couple rode and hunted together. She ruled as regent when Henry was fighting in France, and her army defeated the forces of King James IV of Scotland at the battle of Flodden in 1513.

However, as their struggles to conceive a healthy male heir continued, Henry VIII turned to many mistresses. His affairs produced a number of illegitimate offspring (though a son Henry Fitzroy was the only child to be acknowledged), and Catherine was eventually cast aside in favour of her lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn.

A 19th-century depiction of Catherine's trial, in which she insisted she was the rightful queen as Henry VIII fought for an annulment. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
A 19th-century depiction of Catherine’s trial, in which she insisted she was the rightful queen as Henry VIII fought for an annulment. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

As Henry sought an annulment to his marriage, Catherine was subjected to a protracted process of humiliation and heartbreak while she fought to prove her fidelity to Henry and insist that she was the rightful queen. When Pope Clement VII refused to grant the annulment that he so desired, Henry’s infatuation with Anne sparked a break with papal obedience, a key catalyst for the English Reformation.

Henry officially married Anne Boleyn in January 1533, although they had probably already married secretly at Dover in November 1532. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon wasn’t annulled by the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, until May 1533.

How did Catherine of Aragon die?

She is known only in the children’s rhyme about Henry’s wives as ‘divorced’. Yet Catherine of Aragon also ‘survived’ for three years after the annulment of her marriage. However, she was banished from the king’s court and cruelly denied contact with her young daughter, Mary, even during her final illness (Henry did grant a visit from Catherine’s friend Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to the Tudor court).

She died at the age of 50, of suspected heart cancer, on 7 January 1536 at Kimbolton Castle – just four months before Henry’s second wife met her horrifying and bloody end.

Catherine, in a grave marked ‘Dowager Princess of Wales’, was buried at Peterborough Abbey, now Peterborough Cathedral.

The Spanish Princess airs on Starz from 5 May 2019. Find out more here. UK viewers can watch each Sunday on STARZPLAY.

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Elinor Evans is the Deputy Digital Editor of BBC History Magazine.