Henry VIII (Ruairi O’Connor) is a little like Star Wars. People find out the ending (and what happened to his wives), but don’t always bother to look up the rest (or, to finish the Star Wars analogy, go back to watch the prequels). By that reasoning, season one of The Spanish Princess, a series about Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) and her rise to power, is probably the lesser-known half of her story. Catherine didn’t come by her title easily. It was hard won, after her first husband — Henry’s brother, Arthur (Angus Imrie) — died and Catherine had to swear they never consummated the marriage.
That Henry won’t stop at one wife is a matter of historical record, but knowing what Catherine went through to become the Queen of England makes her fall in Season Two all the more tragic. While the first season saw Catherine give birth to a son, the second delivers the first blow early when Catherine’s son dies and, instead of supporting her, the king immediately pressures her to give birth to another son. That nothing would make Catherine happier doesn’t seem to matter. Henry’s obsession with a male heir is absolute, and there’s nothing satisfying about their break-up — the show can’t make Henry reasonable when he really wasn’t.
What the show can do is put viewers in Catherine’s painful shoes, and while there are quite a few new characters this season, one of the smartest things The Spanish Princess does is not try to tell everybody’s story. That doesn’t mean Catherine is the only point of view character but, as tempting as it to want to witness how Anne Boleyn (Alice Nokes) won Henry’s heart or to see how Chaplain Wolsey (Philip Cumbus) became so trusted, this isn’t the show for that (and there are plenty of other films and books that have explored those relationships). Understanding Wolsey and Anne would give viewers an advantage over Catherine, but it’s much more effective to be made to feel on the outs like she does and how frustrating that is, especially since (at least the way the show tells it) Henry and Catherine were in love originally.
On the other hand, the additional time spent with Henry’s sisters this season gives viewers a chance to reflect on Catherine’s position and how much power she has. Georgie Henley is ferocious as Meg, who has to adjust to court life in Scotland, where physical force gets results, not mind games. The full significance of Meg and Catherine’s parallel journeys isn’t revealed until later, but it does raise a question: “What does girl power mean?” Is it refusing to compromise — like Meg, her sister, Mary (Sai Bennet), and aunt, Maggie Pole (Laura Carmichael), seem to think (all of whom benefit from Catherine’s help at some point this season) — or is it trying to work in a system where Henry will always have the last word and where not playing the game at all is a surefire way to get killed?
To her credit, it’s not like Catherine plays it safe. She uses her influence a lot and even oversteps in the eyes of the English court at great personal risk, yet it’s never enough, and while Hope plays Catherine at some of her lowest moments this season, it’s a performance which understands that being vulnerable doesn’t make Catherine weak and that she’ll always be the warrior queen.
All of Starz’ series based on Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction have been entrancing, but The Spanish Princess might be the strongest yet, even if the ending feels a little manipulative in terms of the return of Rosa (Nadia Parkes) and leaving out how Henry will interfere with Catherine seeing her daughter (Billie Gadson).
The Spanish Princess: Part 2 is available on DVD now from Lionsgate.