The History of the Spanish Princess: Three deaths and a curse

I really didn’t expect to be enjoying The Spanish Princess nearly as much as I am. I’m not just enjoying the drama but I’m actually living for the way they’ve dramatized history. At the end of each episode comes a disclaimer that events have been dramatized which usually means ‘we’ve taken these historical characters and slapped them into situations beyond even the wildest of soap opera storylines.’ The Spanish Princess has exaggerated events, condensed them and many of the characters are the wrong age but so far there’s been nothing absolutely so glaringly inaccurate that I’m left wondering what I just watched. Though, I do wonder why Katherine has been kissed by her mother-in-law and groped by Margaret Beaufort. I’m only half way through the first season so no doubt I have some excellent ‘history’ awaiting me.

This post will focus on events of episodes 2 and 3, specifically the death of Arthur Tudor, his mother Queen Elizabeth, and her newborn baby Catherine Tudor. For the sake of drama the events are shown closer together than they actually were but the three were lost in relatively quick succession. Arthur died in April 1502, Elizabeth in February 1503, and baby Catherine just a few days after her mother. In the show, however, these events are brought together so they only take place over a few months. I mentioned in the last post that Elizabeth wasn’t pregnant when Katherine of Aragon arrived in England and I wasn’t sure why the writers included it as a detail. Turns out, it was to allow Elizabeth to die in childbed earlier than she did, which cuts out a year of pregnancy during which the more interesting things happening for the Crown involved bolstering defences at fortifications in Calais. Thrilling stuff.

Arthur’s Death

In the show, Arthur is shown running around in the gardens with the Pole children as the Poles and Katherine enjoy a picnic. Katherine’s attendant falls sick first and come morning, Katherine finds her bed empty but the drenched shape of Arthur remains. She finds him shivering and shaking in another wing of the castle. Margaret Pole tells Katherine that it is ‘the sweat’ and she should stay away. The Pole children are sent away and a messenger immediately dispatched to inform the king.

When Henry receives the message, he and Queen Elizabeth leave immediately for Ludlow. While they ride, Arthur deteriorates rapidly and despite entreaties that Katherine should stay away, she goes to his side. He tells her how he has dreamed of a heaven-like Camelot where his executed cousin waits to greet him and a few moments later goes off to join him. Back at the other palace, Margaret Beaufort and Arthur’s siblings receive word that he has died and there’s much weeping. The messenger apparently managed to miss the king and queen, who arrive at Ludlow, greeted with the news that their son and heir has died. Elizabeth falls to the ground sobbing, comforted by Henry as Arthur’s body is prepared for his funeral.

This scene didn’t happen but the costumes are gorgeous.

The royal family return to their own palace (I want to say Greenwich but I’m not sure) sans Katherine. My Lady, the King’s Mother sends a litter to escort Katherine to the funeral but she refuses, choosing instead to ride behind his coffin on a donkey in an imitation of the Virgin Mary. Some take it as a signal that she’s pregnant with Arthur’s child and the people shout their blessings to her as she passes on her way to the funeral.

Inside the cathedral, Arthur is laid to rest. The royal family gathers with the court while Katherine sits nearest the coffin. Richard Pole breaks Arthur’s standards over the coffin as her Katherine’s ladies weep, wail and scream. Margaret Beaufort asks them to stop but Queen Elizabeth allows them. After the funeral, Katherine lives with the royal family at their London palace while everyone speculates as to whether or not she’s with child (featuring some groping from Margaret Beaufort).

Historically, it’s long been the general consensus that Arthur died of the sweat but that isn’t without its contestation. The sweat was fast-acting with most cases proving fatal within twenty-four hours of the first symptoms showing themselves. Arthur, however, was sick for some weeks before he eventually died. Historians have offered the plague, influenza, tuberculosis, and David Starkey has suggested testicular cancer. Katherine also fell ill with the same ailment (or at least a similar one) but we can assume it wasn’t testicular cancer in her case.

The king and queen didn’t rush to be at Arthur’s side. They didn’t hear of his death until two days after the fact. If news had reached them of Arthur’s illness it would have been far too dangerous to expose the monarchs to it. They couldn’t have gone to him even if they’d wanted to. Richard Pole wrote to Greenwich and the king’s confessor was summoned to deliver the news. After Henry was told, he had his wife brought to him and told her what had happened himself. Elizabeth comforted him, telling him that his own mother had only had one child and he’d succeeded the throne. Besides, they had a son still living, two daughters, and were young enough to have more. She then went to her rooms where she broke down, and Henry came to her, comforting her in turn.

Katherine was escorted from Ludlow in the Queen’s own litter rather than on a donkey, partly out of concern for a potential heir but mostly because she was still recovering from the illness that had potentially killed Arthur. Neither she nor any of Arthur’s family attended the funeral. Convention disallowed any royalty to attend anybody’s funeral, protecting them from looking upon death. In the king’s case, it was treason to cast a horoscope of the king or speculate on his death in any way. Funerals being a hotbed of death were thought to only encourage these thoughts. Katherine’s ladies didn’t attend either but Richard Pole did break the staves of his office over the coffin; a sign that Arthur’s household was to be disbanded. By this point, Katherine was known not to be pregnant and likely wasn’t groped by her grandmother-in-law.

More deaths and a curse

Harry tells his parents that he wishes to marry Katherine, moments before Elizabeth goes into labour. This scene also didn’t happen. Elizabeth was already in confinement, Katherine’s second marriage was a question for her parents in Spain, and Harry was twelve years old at this time.

Elizabeth is already pregnant when Arthur dies so the show doesn’t have to worry about a lengthy time jump before Elizabeth goes into labour. She’s walking with her husband, talking with their son when Elizabeth feels the baby coming early. She’s rushed to her chambers to give birth with her mother in law and daughter, Meg (Margaret Tudor) in attendance. Margaret Pole joins her but is banished when she infers that Perkin Warbeck was Richard of York as he claimed to be. Henry is asked to leave but refuses, holding his wife through a very bloody labour. Margaret Beaufort takes the baby when she’s born (there’s a lot of blood. It’s quite graphic) but despite her best efforts to coax the child to breathe, she’s already dead.

Elizabeth predicts her own death, saying she’ll be with Arthur by the end of the night, and that she’ll take their daughter to heaven. As Meg rushes to find Henry and Mary so that they can say goodbye to their mother, Elizabeth begins to have visions of the future. She talks of a curse that afflicts the Tudors and begs Henry not to let their son marry Katherine, however much he may want it. She says that the line will end with Henry if it does and after him there’ll be no more boys. By the time her other children arrive, Elizabeth has died.

In the aftermath, Henry VII locks himself away. He doesn’t eat or bathe. Only his mother is allowed to attend him as he wrestles with his grief. She is appointed Regent in the king’s absence and the people speculate that he is dead.

The show might dramatize the events but it’s fairly close to what happened. Elizabeth wasn’t pregnant when Arthur died but she did become within a month of his death. The show doesn’t want to drag it out so compresses the events to take place over a few months rather than a year. Elizabeth did go into labour early though Henry was not allowed to be present. Instead, he paced outside the doors of the Queen’s apartments in the Tower, waiting for news and calling for medical advice.

After a difficult birth, Elizabeth delivered a girl named Catherine for her recently widowed sister in law. Catherine and Elizabeth are noted as having died in childbirth, which the show presents in the most dramatic fashion. In reality, however, dying in childbirth didn’t necessarily mean immediately and/or during the act. It often meant from complications arising from the act of childbirth. In Elizabeth’s case, she contracted an infection during labour and died within a week. Catherine, weak from the trauma and timing of her birth, didn’t survive either.

Her family would not have been allowed to be with her, as Elizabeth was still in her confinement when she died. That said, they were utterly devastated by her loss. Elizabeth was close to her children and beloved by her husband. Her funeral was lavish but once again nobody in her family was present. Her husband, the king, had indeed shut himself away where he became so ill he almost died himself. He mourned deeply for six weeks, barely eating and at one point completely unable to swallow. Only his mother attended him but although she nursed him back to health, he never got over the loss of his wife. He didn’t remarry and when compelled to look for a second wife, his description of what he wanted was of Elizabeth.

We can’t know what Elizabeth said on her deathbed but it was unlikely to be a prophecy about the end of the Tudor line. The idea of a curse hanging over the Tudors and preventing them from having male heirs is an entirely modern idea. The notion begins in Philippa Gregory’s book ‘The White Queen‘ where Elizabeth of York’s mother curses the family who killed her sons. Later, it’s revealed that it was the Tudors who did so. Given that the show draws from Gregory’s book ‘The King’s Curse‘ we could expect to see it here. But there’s no contemporary talk of a curse. Even if there was, it would be unrealised. While it’s true the Tudor line ended with Queen Elizabeth I who had no male heir, that isn’t to say there were ‘no boys’. Henry VIII may have lost the majority of his sons during childbirth or shortly after, but he did have two sons who lived beyond infancy. His illigitimate son, Henry Fitzroy died aged seventeen while his successor, Edward VI died at fifteen. They are both thought to have died of consumption.

Next time: Katherine’s road to the crown feat. did Henry VII propose to her? Did she sleep with Arthur? Did Henry VIII sleep with her sister, Joana? Gasp!

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