Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Spanish Princess

No, I am not referring to either daughter of Spain's Present King Felipe VI, but to the new STARZ TV series of that name that premiered this past Sunday. Based on that first episode - its script, its acting, its costumes, its sets, and its staging - The Spanish Princess promises to be well worth weekly watching, whether of lovers of Tudor-era history like me or those just looking for a well done love and adventure story.

The Spanish Princess dramatizes the famous saga of Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), the daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille, whose 1469 wedding had united and created modern Spain (the union now tragically threatened by Catalan separatism). Catherine married Arthur, Prince of Wales, the son of the Tudor dynasty's founder, Henry VII - and then, after Arthur's very early death, eventually married his healthier and longer-lived brother, the future Henry VIII (who apparently was - and is certainly portrayed as - everything Arthur wasn't). Henry and Catherine were a great medieval power-couple, who reigned together for some 24 years, the happiness of their marriage tarnished by its failure to produce the desired male heir to shore up the new Tudor dynasty, eventually causing Catherine to be cast aside, making her one of history's tragic figures and setting the stage for the first and most calamitous Brexit experience - Henry VIII's secession from the Roman Catholic Church and his creation of the Protestant Church of England.

With The Spanish Princess, STARZ continues the story so fabulously begun in 2013 with The White Queen, a 10-episode BBC drama about Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to England's Yorkist King Edward IV, during the period of the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth was the unhappy mother of the "Princes in the Tower," murdered during the reign of their usurper uncle Richard III. But she is also, through her daughter, the ancestor of every British monarch since England's Henry VIII and Scotland's James V.  Her story was continued in STARZ' 2017 sequel, The White Princess, about the reign of that daughter, Elizabeth of York, whose marriage with Henry Tudor ended the Wars of the Roses and helped set England on the road to national greatness.

The Spanish Princess' opening episode (set in 1501) captures the contrast between rich and powerful Spain and little England, each desperately in search of an alliance with the other. It highlights the roughness and precariousness of life and the specific challenges of being royal at the time, whether perilously on the throne or - as perilously - too near to it.  It portrays powerful people - and people who would be powerful, if only to stay in the game (or just stay alive) - and how their relationship with political power defined their relationships with family, attendants, allies, country, and God.

Particularly effective are the portrayals of (besides the young, unabashedly assertive Catherine herself) the powerful women in the story and the soon-to-become most powerful man. In the order of appearance the first is, of course, Queen Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, sister of the murdered "princes in the Tower," absolutely committed to protecting and advancing her own children. The second is her cousin, the tragic Blessed Margaret Pole ("Aunt Maggie"), destined to be martyred in her old age by Henry VIII. She held a noble title and lands in her own name, loved her commoner husband and children, was devoted to prince Arthur whose household she and her husband managed. But her life and relationship to Queen Elizabeth and the family have been forever damaged by the execution of her (probably mentally defective) brother as part of the price to make Arthur's and Catherine's wedding possible. She is played Laura Carmichael, who as Downton Abbey's Lady Edith certainly knows something about playing a privileged character with lots of bad luck. Finally there is King Henry VII's mother,  the formidable Lady Margaret Beaufort (played by another Downton veteran, Harriet Walter), who as much as anyone had worked to engineer her son's improbable access to the throne. 

Even those who know little of the period's history will almost certainly know that Catherine will eventually marry Henry. The show highlights (probably exaggerates) the contrast between them. Arthur is sympathetic but shy and overall unimpressive. Henry, from the moment we meet him, is good-looking and charming, hyper-masculine and self-confident. And Catherine is already attracted to him, as he to her. (The dramatic device of Henry's having written Catherine the letters she thought were from Arthur and having received and responded to her replies in turn is  artistic license which almost certainly never happened. But it gives great insight into Henry's character - as does his first encounter with a crossbow in Catherine's pre-nuptial apartment in the Tower of London.) As is often the case with these historical dramas, an obvious effort is being made to reveal the young Henry that charmed not just Catherine but so much of Europe - before he became the proto-Stalin of the English Reformation.

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