In Catherine’s Court
A Starz limited series flips the script on Catherine of Aragon, first wife of the much-married Henry VIII.
"At its best," says Emma Frost, coshowrunner of Starz's The Spanish Princess, "this show is a kind of female, period House of Cards."
The scene playing out at Bottle Yard Studios in Bristol, England, illustrates the point: Charlotte Hope (Game of Thrones), playing a young Catherine of Aragon, is being cross-examined by Harriet Walter's Margaret Beaufort, who wants to find out if Catherine is pregnant by Margaret's grandson, Henry VIII. They spar with words unspoken but keenly understood — in a manner that would make the Underwoods proud.
"I've always wanted to be a princess," Hope says later. "And Catherine was one hell of a princess."
The Spanish Princess is the third Starz limited series drawn from Philippa Gregory's historical novels, following The White Queen and The White Princess. When it debuts May 5, it will return viewers to the English court. But the writers have taken a story we think we know — Henry VIII and his first spouse — and flipped the script.
"We think of Catherine as this barren, divorced wife," Hope says, "but this story is about them when they're young. We're learning about her as the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, rather than as the ex-wife of Henry VIII. She has her own strength, passion and identity. She is a real match for him, rather than just being an adjunct."
History tells us that Catherine of Aragon came to England from Spain to marry Prince Arthur, Henry's older brother and the future king. But five months after their betrothal, Arthur died. Catherine claimed she was still a virgin, so she was able to marry Henry and become queen.
"What's fascinating," Frost says, "is that nobody knows if she was telling the truth. Is she as virtuous as history would have us believe, or did she take hold of her own destiny and make this audacious choice that she was going to be queen of England, come what may?"
The Spanish Princess focuses almost entirely on the female characters who have been overlooked by a history written largely by men.
"What we're always looking to do," says Frost, who wrote the teleplays for The White Queen and The White Princess, "is to distill the best of what's in Philippa's books, bringing in other stuff from history that we think is interesting and urgent, but always focusing through the lens of a 21st-century audience."
In that sense, The Spanish Princess is a very modern piece of Tudor history. Not only is the story one of strong women forging a path through a male-dominated society, it features a mostly female (three out of four) directing lineup. Women take several other key roles behind the camera, including a mainly female group of writers (four out of five).
Frost is coshowrunner with Matthew Graham (both are also writer–executive producers), and Maja Zamojda serves as director of photography. The show also addresses the whitewashing of Western history, featuring compelling black leads — in particular Catherine's lady-in-waiting and long-time confidante, Lina de Cardonnes (Stephanie Levi-John).
"We had this amazing opportunity to tell the story of some of the people of color in Tudor England," Frost says. "Catherine of Aragon comes to England with an incredibly diverse entourage. These are real people who've been consigned to the footnotes of history. We get to bring them center stage."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 3, 2019