Mean Royals: The Spanish Princess vs the Tudor Matriarch & Grand-Matriarch – Did Such a Rivalry Exist?

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Was Katharine of Aragon’s relationship with her mother and grandmother-in-law, Elizabeth of York and Margaret Beaufort respectively, tense and fraught with discord as shown in The Spanish Princess? The miniseries, a sequel to The White Queen and The White Princess hasn’t aired yet but the latest trailers has given us a taste of what we can expect.

Like its aforementioned predecessors, the miniseries will be using the common trope of other female lead costume dramas: Women vs women.

This is a trope that has been played to dead. And it is not bad, when well done. But that is the problem here. Did it really happen and if it didn’t, how will it play out?

Should we care?
No. If accuracy isn’t what you are looking for. If all you care is about storytelling, this shouldn’t bother you one bit. But if you are a historical purist, then I suggest you turn off the TV and switch to another channel.

As previously stated, the Mean Girls trope has been played to dead. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Contrary to popular belief though, it wasn’t that common.

Women did fight each other for wealth and position, but these fights didn’t as long as they are depicted in these costume dramas. In fact, more often than not, women who started off as enemies, became allies if not friends in the end.

This was no different for Katharine of Aragon. Forget her rivalry with Anne Boleyn, let’s go further back to the start of the sixteenth century, when she landed on Plymouth, England.

Everyone who saw her was enchanted by her, this includes Elizabeth of York. Little is said about Margaret Beaufort’s opinion of her. Given the written records and what’s known about these figures thus far, there is no reason to think that she disliked her.

If anything, Margaret’s attitude towards Katharine had more to do with prioritizing her son and his dynasty’s interests first above her personal opinions. Unlike Elizabeth of York, Margaret was politically active. Following the death of her eldest grandchild, she would advised Henry VII and gone along with his final decision.

Margaret’s hold over her family is well known and much has been written about it, but Margaret’s actions were no different than other older grand-matriarchs. Elizabeth of York on the other hand, chose to take on a passive role. In this, she excelled tremendously, earning the love and admiration of the English people.

lambeth palace exterior
Lambeth Palace

Elizabeth was intrigued by her future daughter-in-law. There’s no proof of animosity between them. Days before her London entourage, she had stayed at Lambeth Palace. The day when her procession began, the King and Queen had sent their youngest son, Henry, Duke of York to accompany her. They had even offered her a carriage, which she politely reclined, opting for a humble mount instead.

Katharine displayed tremendous gratitude for all the work and effort that had been put into the celebrations, something that wasn’t lost on the royal family and her future subjects. When the ceremonies came to an end, she retired to the Bishop of London’s home at St. Paul’s (where she would be married to Arthur two days later on Sunday, November 14th). In her dual biography on Katharine and her older sister, Juana (I) of Castile, Julia Fox, notes:

“The royal family were delighted with everything and everyone. Queen Elizabeth had caught her first glimpse of Katherine, and the princess was due to visit her the next day.” (Fox)

st paul cathedral interior
Interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral

Arthur’s letters to Katharine had been passionate. This is a key factor that nearly all historians note in their multiple biographies on these notable historical figures. Neither Margaret Beaufort nor Elizabeth of York felt threatened by Katharine’s grace and humility. If anything, these virtues brought them relief.

England had endured a terrible period of dynastic civil war. The repercussions of these royal affairs served as a bitter reminder of what happened when women’s voices rang louder than those of the king’s trusted men. Women played an integral during the wars of the roses. Active or not, they became the object of controversy -real or created- and these controversies were used as weapons against their husbands and sons. After all this chaos, the people expected consorts who took more of a backstage role than a public one. Elizabeth of York had become that and more, to the point of becoming a quasi-religious icon immediately after her death.

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Katharine’s soft and apparent humble demeanor, mirrored those of Elizabeth of York, whom Katharine hoped to emulate in her coming years as Queen of England.

For her part, Elizabeth of York had communicated to Katharine’s mother, that both she and her husband were pleased with her daughter. Elizabeth’s correspondence to Isabella had begun some years before. Knowing that Katharine would have to communicate in something other than English with her son, she advised the Queen of Castile to take advantage of Margaret Habsburg, who’d recently married Katharine’s brother, Prince Juan of Asturias. Margaret like Katharine, was highly educated. One of the languages she had come to master was French. While Katharine and Arthur could continue to write to each other in Latin, Elizabeth felt it better if she started to learn and practice French too, since it was language that was still highly popular among the English upper class.
Isabella took Elizabeth’s advice to heart. When Katharine came to England, she committed herself to learning England and slowly but surely, becoming indistinguishable from any of the English ladies at court.

Katharine did succeed, but her success did not come until much later when she was Henry VIII’s queen. During these trying years of battling for dominance, standing her ground against Tudor legal forces and foreign interests that underestimated her intellectual capacity and perseverance, Katharine remained the Spanish Princess. The unfortunate widow whose virginity was often debated and contested, which also placed into doubt her eligibility as the next King of England’s future bride. The future seemed bleak for Katharine. Rather than being discouraged by these seemingly impossible odds, Katharine remained adamant. Her first motto as Princess of Wales had been “not for my crown.” She continued to push, finding other outlets to survive and remain in England, until she got what she wanted.

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Elizabeth of York had promised she’d look over her daughter-in-law and be there to guide her through the difficult adjustment into her new country. Following her son’s funeral, Elizabeth did what she could to provide the widowed Spanish Princess with moral support. It is not known what was her opinion of Katharine’s resolute affirmation of her virginity and her parents, especially her mother, pushing for a renewal of the Anglo-Spanish alliance by marrying her to the remaining crown prince, Henry (now) Prince of Wales. Elizabeth’s choice to take on a more conciliatory role as Queen Consort would have made her opinion -if she voiced it- irrelevant. Henry VII had the final say in this matter. Margaret Beaufort’s involvement in this matter seems to have been very minimal. Whatever Henry VII decided, it was for the good of the realm and she, like all his subjects, would follow his lead.

Coming back to the novels this miniseries is based on, from the moment Katharine of Aragon meets Margaret Pole, the two hit it off. This is historically accurate. The two women became best friends, with Margaret reaping the benefits of this friendship right after Katharine weds Henry VIII and is jointly crowned with him. The earldom of Salisbury that had been in her family was restored to her, becoming one of the few female title holders (femme sole) up until that point. But there is a dark history to Katharine and Arthur’s union, a condition which the miniseries will undoubtedly touch upon.

After Katharine and Margaret Pole become fast friends in The Constant Princess, she asks Margaret if she doesn’t blame her for her brother’s execution. Margaret brushes it off as one of many tragic moments in her life, and a reality that royals have to live with.

Is the miniseries going to have Elizabeth of York blame Katharine for what happened to her brother and cousin? The White Queen and The White Princess (based on the novels of the same name) follow the school of thought that Perkin Warbeck was who he claimed he was, the youngest of the lost princes in the tower, Richard of Shrewsbury, better known as Richard, Duke of York. “The White Princess” takes a lot of historical liberties (more so than its predecessor, also deviating from its source material), having Elizabeth of York being one of the plotters behind her brother and cousin’s downfall. Yet, to excuse her actions, she might reason that she was forced into these drastic measures because of Katharine of Aragon’s parents, the Catholic Kings who in real life DID pressure Elizabeth’s husband to secure his throne or else, their alliance was off.

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Notable biographer Sarah Gristwood, takes on a different approach from past historians, inferring in her multiple biography on the women of the wars of the roses, “Blood Sisters”, that Margaret never got along with Katharine and held back a gleeful smile when her granddaughter-in-law’s longed for triumph, was nearly ruined by pouring rain. Katharine had come to substitute her as her remaining grandson, Henry VIII, now an adult and the new King of England, trusted adviser.
The Spanish Princess, based off Philippa Gregory’s two novels The Constant Princess & The King’s Curse which protagonists are Katharine of Aragon and Margaret Pole respectively. Judging solely by the miniseries’ trailers, it looks like The Spanish Princess is taking this perspective. In the last chapters of “The Constant Princess”, Margaret Beaufort nearly explodes when Henry VIII begins to listen less and less to her and more to his charming new bride. The miniseries will no doubt recreate this season with Margaret realizing -as Sir Thomas More, Lord Mountjoy and countless others during her joint coronation with Henry VIII- that Katharine of Aragon is not just any Princess, but a woman who was born to be Queen.

In the trailer, Elizabeth reminds Henry VII of the importance of this alliance. “Spain and England unite against our enemies so our son is protected on his throne.”
It’s unknown whether she says this BEFORE or AFTER Arthur dies, and whether or not she is talking about Arthur or Harry. Judging solely from her tone of voice, this conversation could take place after Arthur’s death, when she starts to view Katharine more as a threat and a bitter reminder of the sacrifice they had to make to ensure this alliance. The next line is spoken by her husband in what can only be assumed is an earlier moment in the series, where he warns his Queen that until “that girl arrives, we are lost.”

“Elizabeth of York was glad that after so many delays, the Princess from Spain had finally reached England. In a month’s time, she and Arthur would be wed, and within a year –God willing- she would be a mother. But the Queen’s happiness had come at a price. Before his daughter could come to England, King Ferdinand had demanded the death of the hapless Earl of Warwick. The Young man, though he was a prisoner, was a continuing threat to the security of England, he believed. Until he was properly dealt with, Ferdinand declared, he would not allow his precious daughter to leave Spain. Henry VII complied. To secure the alliance, Warwick and Perkin Warbeck were put to death in 1499.” (Hui)

Taking all of this into account, it’s not far-fetched to say, that part of Elizabeth’s anger towards Katharine will stem from the the losses she and Henry had to endure and the heavy toll they had to pay for the sake of the Anglo-Spanish alliance. Elizabeth’s response to her cousin, Margaret Pole, when Margaret asks what will happen to the widowed Spanish Princess, may be confirmation of this.

Regardless of the historical liberties and deviation from the source material, this miniseries is set to have many historical buffs talking. Hopefully, it will make more people interested in finding out about the real people behind this costume drama, especially Katharine of Aragon, whose beginnings are often overshadowed by her tragic end.

Sources:

  • Penn, Thomas. Winter King and the Dawn of Tudor England. Simon & Schuster. 2012.
  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine. 2011.
  • Williams, Patrick. Katharine of Aragon: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s First Unfortunate Wife. Amberley. 2013.
  • Hui, Roland. The Turbulent Crown: The Story of the Tudor Queens. MadeGlobal. 2017.
  • Gristwood, Sarah. Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses. Harper. Collins. 2013.
  • Licence, Amy. Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife. Amberley. 2017.
  • –. The Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII. Amberley. 2014.
  • –. Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen. Amberley. 2013.
  • –. Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort. History Press. 2016.
  • Gregory, Philippa. The Constant Princess. Harper Collins. 2005.
  • –. The King’s Curse. Simon & Schuster. 2014.