Following in the vein of “The White Queen” and “The White Princess” before it, Starz limited series “The Spanish Princess” is inspired by Philippa Gregory’s novels. The story follows Catherine of Aragon, who arrives in England in the 1600s betrothed to Prince Arthur, then encounters his father, Henry VII. In adapting the story for the modern audience, let alone the modern medium of television, showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham set their sights on being true to the cultural diversity recent research has revealed, while giving Catherine more “agency” than might have been allowed at the time.
Restoring the Royal Court
“History is the tale of the victors,” Frost says, and because of that, “history books are written by those in power, who were white men.” But, Graham adds, even a “cursory Google search” now proves there is a much richer history that has been whitewashed out of such books.
“Parish records in England show that hundreds, if not thousands, of people across the country had come from Ethiopia and North Africa,” he says.
In order to restore that truth to the series, Frost points out they changed Catherine’s main lady-in-waiting from Gregory’s depiction of a “slightly older, matronly Spanish woman.” “We do know is that she stayed with Catherine for 24 years and she married another African who probably came over with her. So we know there was a friendship and we know there was a love story, and so Matthew and I immediately felt that this was a very, very important thing to show politically as well as dramatically. It was part of Catherine’s history.”
Introducing an Integral Relationship
One scene Graham says they lifted in a “fairly recognizable form” from Gregory’s novel “The Constant Princess” is the moment when Henry first asks to see Catherine without her veil.
“We were drawn to this scene because it had the clashes of sex, the clashes of gender, the clashes of culture,” Graham says. “He was expecting a subservient woman, and instead she was strong and defiant. He was expecting her to parade herself before him, and instead her culture told her, ‘No, I’ve got to keep myself hidden away.’”
As Gregory wrote the scene, there were some lines that “are very unpalatable for a 21st century audience,” Frost acknowledges, such as, “Is she scarred by the pox and they did not tell me?” So while Frost and Graham felt it was essential to still capture the emotions of such a meeting, they wanted to do so in a new way.
“There’s no reason for [Henry] to be that aggressive with her,” Frost says, “so we filtered that into a man who is very anxious for her arrival because his family’s whole future hinges upon this girl being here.”
Additionally, in the book Henry is written with a very clear sexual attraction to Catherine, but the story Frost and Graham have been telling is that Elizabeth of York is “the only one Henry has ever loved” and they wanted to “stay with the emotional line we established,” Frost says.
Therefore, what Henry is attracted to in Catherine is “a strength, but also a purity of what it means to be a good monarch,” she continues. “What Henry should see in Catherine is a sense of his own lost innocence and his own lost idealism. When she looks him straight in the eye, he feels shame; he’s just barged in like a bull in a china shop, he’s been rude, and Catherine just looks at him like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ and that levels him.”