The History of the Spanish Princess: The King is Dead, Long Live the King

The first season of The Spanish Princess ends with the death of Henry VII and thus the accession of Henry VIII. In typical Starz style, there isn’t a simple transition of power between a monarch and his heir. Oh no, there is drama!

In brief: Henry VII dies suddenly forcing his mother, Margaret Beaufort, to conceal his death in order to cover up the illegal activities of Henry and his Privy Council. While Margaret is distracted with this, Katherine of Aragon’s loyal servant Oviedo betrays Margaret’s confidences, telling Katherine that Henry VII is dead. Katherine then makes all haste to ensure she is the first one to tell Harry Tudor that he is now king.

While Margaret is executing Sir Edmund Dudley, a convenient scapegoat for the council’s treason, Katherine intercepts Harry, tells him the news, and the two resolve to marry. They return to court where Margaret can hide the truth no longer. Henry VII is dead, long live Henry VIII. Margaret and Harry argue over his intent to marry Katherine and the sudden execution of Edmund Dudley, before Margaret realizes that she’s lost. She has something of a mental breakdown and has Oviedo sentenced to death for stealing, without a trial. Oviedo and Katherine’s lady, Lina, are married before his execution with both a Catholic priest and an Islamic Iman present. As Oviedo is hanged, Katherine and Harry intervene, saving his life and all but banishing Margaret. Margaret gloats that they still can’t marry without papal dispensation but Oviedo reveals they had the dispensation all along! Gasp! Margaret was just hiding it.

Margaret is left to die alone while Harry and Katherine prepare for their wedding. During the build up, Katherine asks if it’s true that Harry slept with her sister, Juana. Harry denies it of course. Harry asks if she slept with his brother, Arthur. Katherine denies it of course, and the two go on knowing exactly what the other has done.

In general terms, this is not how the succession went down. We can dismiss Katherine’s role in it entirely. She did not intercept Henry VIII on his way to court and they did not resolve to marry en route. Neither did Margaret conspire to keep them apart or attempt to execute one of Katherine’s followers. We can basically put Katherine’s entire presence in this episode’s events down to story telling. The show is called The Spanish Princess after all, so it would be kind of weird if Katherine didn’t play a pivotal part in events.

At the time of Henry VII’s death, Katherine had already accepted, albeit reluctantly, that she was never going to be Queen of England and that she should return to Spain. For seven years, Katherine had fought in every conceivable way to remain in England so that she might marry Harry Tudor but the result had only seen her forced deeper into penury. She had few friends, less supporters, and her health was suffering. In March of 1509, Katherine wrote to her father declaring that Henry VII had thoroughly defeated her and her only desire now was to enter a convent. Within a month, her belongings were being transported back to Spain, but a week later Henry VII was dead and Henry VIII willing to marry her after all. Six weeks after that, Katherine and Henry were married and she was crowned Queen of England.

The Death of Henry VII

Did Henry VII die in the bath? Sometimes I look at the questions I ask on this blog and question my life choices. Not as much as I question the life choices of the Starz writers but here we are. In The Spanish Princess Henry VII dies suddenly and expectedly while bathing. He’s having a conversation with his mother, Margaret Beaufort, coughs a little, there’s blood, and presumably he chokes on the blood. It’s not entirely clear but then, it is quite sudden. Margaret is distraught and after a short time of coming to terms with it she grabs someone to move Henry from the bath to the bed. The doors are closed and they go about pretending it’s business as normal.

The king is definitely not dead, why would you even suggest such a thing? He just doesn’t want to be disturbed right now. Sir Edmund Dudley and Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, are drawn into the conspiracy to set certain matters in hand before Harry becomes king. The Privy Council has been engaged in illegal doings and they don’t want the next king to find out and potentially condemn them all for treason. Margaret gives all the evidence to Dudley and tells him to hide it for a while until the Privy Council decide how to proceed. News of Henry VII’s death is therefore delayed and his body lies in his bed, while Margaret orchestrates the cover up of their crimes.

Henry VII’s death was not as sudden and unexpected as portrayed in The Spanish Princess. Henry’s health had suffered since the death of his wife, Elizabeth, and three years later, in 1507, he began to decline. He was prone to prolonged bouts of illnesses followed by slow periods of semi recovery. Court life moved from London to the palaces in which Henry convalesced but he didn’t take part in it. Instead, his son, the soon to be Henry VIII, presided in his father’s place.

There were numerous occasions where it looked as though Henry VII was close to death. During these times, his mother, left her home and travelled to court to nurse him through them. Her attendance was successful. Henry pulled through all but his final illness, which incidentally, his mother was not present for. When his health truly failed, it took twenty-seven hours before he finally breathed his last. Determined to fight until the very end, Henry promised to turn over a new leaf and become a different man (more on this later).

Henry was surrounded by his closest group of courtiers which did not include Thomas Boleyn who was not yet Earl of Wiltshire. Nor would he be for another twenty years when Henry VIII was all grown up and pursuing Boleyn’s daughter Anne. At one point, young Henry was brought to his father so he could hear some final words of wisdom. Then he returned downstairs and waited for the news that he was king. At eleven pm on April 21st 1509, the fifty-two Henry VII died of tuberculosis leaving his eighteen year old son to succeed him.

Except, for two days, he didn’t. News of the king’s death was not announced as the innermost circle of the court quickly descended into a struggle for power. In The Spanish Princess this collusion is given entirely to Margaret Beaufort. Historically, Margaret Beaufort had nothing to do with it, but there was a plot to keeps the king’s death a secret.

The Death of Edmund Dudley

In the show, with the conspiracy to delay the announcement of the king’s death and cover up the council’s less than above board activities, Margaret Beaufort summons the Privy Council. She tells them that Henry is dead and unless they figure out a way to hide what they’ve been doing, they’re all up the Thames without a paddle. Inspiration strikes her and she realizes that they can pin the blame on Edmund Dudley. After all, he was the man who carried out illegalities on behalf of the council, and he is the one with all the evidence in his sole possession (after Margaret pushed it on him). Dudley is a convenient scapegoat who can be summarily tried and executed before Harry becomes king and discovers what they’ve been up to.

Dudley is summoned to the Tower of London. He’s ambushed by Margaret and the council and executed without trial. He cries out that he was only ever acting on their orders and begs for Margaret’s mercy but to no avail. His pleas turn to curses as the axeman fails to dispatch him, taking several strokes before his head is removed. When Harry comes to court to assume his throne, he asks Margaret why Dudley was executed so suddenly and without trial. He obviously doesn’t believe her response but also doesn’t challenge her on it.

In history, Henry VII’s illness caused a natural withdrawal into his bedroom and with him went an intimate circle of courtiers, among them Sir Edmund Dudley. Henry VII had a reputation for being a grasping and a miser and however unfair that might be as a general appraisal of his reign, it’s definitely true of his final years. Without the knowledge of parliament, Henry had enacted a series of private and secret taxes which were collected by Dudley and his colleagues. Doing so made Dudley hugely unpopular, and three days after Henry VII died, he was arrested for treason.

He was not executed within the hour and without trial though. Instead, he was attainted and placed in the Tower of London where he languished for a year. A trial found him guilty and he and his colleague were executed in 1510, a year after Henry VIII had succeeded his father. The brief two day silence around Henry VII’s death allowed his closest courtiers to ensure Dudley would be convicted but this was only a small part of their intentions. Mostly, the concealment of the king’s fate allowed them to protect their own interests and place themselves in the the most favourable position for when the new king succeeded.

The Death of Margaret Beaufort

By the end of the episode, Margaret has lost her son, had to execute an ally to cover up her involvement in financial crimes, and she’s been outmanoeuvred by Katherine of Aragon. Her attempts to keep Harry and Katherine apart have fallen apart as have her efforts to have Katherine’s closest servants murdered. She’s barred from attending Harry and Katherine’s wedding, but by this time she’s seriously ill.

Margaret is abandoned by everyone, briefly attended to by her long time enemy, Margaret Pole. Her cries for help are ignored and she’s tormented by the ghosts of the Princes in the Tower (the two boys she had murdered in the Tower) and Jasper Tudor (her brother in law with whom she was in love). Still crying out, she passes away alone, in pain, and by this point, quite mad.

So, I’ve written about the Princes in the Tower previously. The notion that Margaret Beaufort murdered them or had anything to do with them is certainly Philippa Gregory’s favourite answer for what happened to the boys, but it remains a notion. We can assume then that she wasn’t tormented by their ghosts in her dying moments. Nor is she noted for crying out for Jasper Tudor. Again, the idea that she and Jasper were secretly in love is very much limited to the works of Philippa Gregory.

The death of Henry VII was naturally a blow to Margaret. She was far more than just the source of his claim to the throne. It was her perseverance and machinations that secured his throne and in many ways she was the rock upon which the Tudor dynasty was built. While distraught at the loss of her son, she attended her grandson’s coronation and was in good spirits. Apparently, she feasted a little too heartily and rapidly declined. She died in the company of her servants and Bishop Fisher who administered last rites. She died peacefully albeit quietly, having established one of the most popular royal dynasties in English history.

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