In this season’s final moments, The Spanish Princess returned us to the event that has fueled so much of the drama so far: Catherine (Charlotte Hope) holding fast to the lie that she did not consummate her marriage to Arthur. That, of course, paved the way (a twisted path though it was) for her to marry Harry (Ruairi O’Connor) and become Queen of England. The first part of this season—a second set of eight episodes has already been ordered—focused on the martial alliance and machinations that would secure Tudor power on the English throne. But in that final scene, Catherine confronts Harry over a rumor that he slept with her sister. He denies it, telling her he didn’t sleep with Joanna … just like Catherine didn’t sleep with Arthur.
In the wake of all of this fantastic drama, I was able to speak with the Starz series’ co-showrunners, Emma Frost and Matthew Graham (Frost has helmed this War of the Roses anthology since its White Queen beginnings), who helped unpack that final scene and much more.
So what are we meant to take from Harry’s words to Catherine? “I think we would like the audience to interpret that themselves,” Frost said of those explosive final moments. Thankfully, the series will be continuing, but Frost also spoke about that moment serving as a potentially controversial cliffhanger:
“I think the best thing to say is that we always conceived the entire show at 16 episodes. And for us, this is very much the midpoint of the whole journey between Catherine and Henry. [In] Episode 8, Henry VII dies, Margaret Beaufort dies, Henry becomes king. We know that Catherine’s going to marry him to be his wife and become queen. Everything is going her way.” However, Frost adds that given what we know about the story and Henry VIII “as a man, and arguably later on a psychopath […] we couldn’t really ask a 21st century audience, in particular a mostly feminine audience, to go, ‘hooray, she’s getting married to Henry VIII! It’s all going to be fantastic. Let’s all celebrate the romance.’ This big fairytale is not a fairy tale. We know it’s not a fairy tale. Also in our version of the story, we’ve committed to the fact that it was her who lied about her marriage to Arthur and that in fact she did consummate. So there was a really fascinating thing for us about the idea of exploring, ‘be careful what you wish for.’”
In that final encounter, it seems clear that Catherine and Harry are finally on equal footing. “Catherine and Harry are peas in a pod. They are the same. They look at each other and they are absolutely a match for each other. They are both ambitious, political and capable of lying,” Frost explained. “And in the Tudor world, that’s enough of a lie to see you go to hell and have God not smile on your marriage. So I think what we wanted was, in that final scene, that the audience is shocked at Henry and angry and affronted on Catherine’s behalf. But then of course you’re forced to remember, hang on a minute, she lied too. So is his lie any worse, does it just make them equals? Where did it leave them?” Frost then laughs, “It ain’t going to be plain sailing! There was real love on both sides, but you know, hold onto your hat kids—this is not going to be Romeo and Juliet walking off into the sunset.”
When you think of a sweeping historical romance, you don’t typically think of taxation being a major part of it. (“But you’ve seen The Phantom Menace! There’s nothing more exciting than taxation disputes,” Graham joked.) It did make for one of the most intriguing political storylines in the final episodes … and one very grotesque beheading.
“We basically had research showing us that under Henry VII, with the advice of Margaret Beaufort and the Privy Council, were basically conducting illegal taxation on the country,” Graham explained. “When Henry VII died, there was an absolute scramble to cover their tracks because Henry VIII was going to swirl into Westminster and they were terrified. He was gonna start asking awkward questions about why the people are close to rebellion, why is there this heavy taxation … Basically he would now have access to the books, and he’d be looking at the them and going, ‘what the hell are you doing?’”
In real life, Dudley (Morgan Jones) spent many years imprisoned, long enough to write a book about his time in Parliament. As Graham said, “what we did discover was—to get back to our first love, which is taxation, of course—this interesting thing where there was this form of treason called imprisoning the king, and basically imprisoning the king with ideas—tricking him or gaslighting him into committing certain acts that were basically immoral or illegal. So we took that idea and then said, okay, well look, you know, if it’s applied to Dudley, then immediately it’s a death sentence because it’s treason. And if we invoke this thing called extraordinary session of council, which they only did in very extreme cases where they could basically as a kangaroo court, you basically bring them in, tell them they are guilty and kill them. So we do that really quickly. It’s not unrealistic, it just didn’t happen to Dudley that quickly.”
“[Dudley] was such a nasty piece of work, a Dickensian villain that we just thought the audience might enjoy it,” Graham added. “Also, I’m sorry, but I am not going to write an entire drama series set in Tudor England and at some point not get to film a really horrible beheading. I just refuse!”
Her Lady the King’s Mother, Margaret Beaufort (played by Harriet Walter in this iteration) has been such a fascinating figure in all three of these War of the Roses series, often driving so much of the overall strife. What was it like to say goodbye to such a central character after all of these years? “I have two answers,” Frost said, “On the one hand, I was so glad to finally say goodbye to Lady Margaret. There’s always something really satisfying about properly ending a story. And I think she went out with such a fantastic episode. Harriet is absolutely brilliant in that final episode particularly. [Now] there’s a whole new energy, and I’m ready for that new energy.”
Graham added, “I loved writing Margaret. Harriet felt close to Margaret and protective of her, defensive actually. In the second half of the season, where Margaret has become increasingly vicious, Harriet came to us and said ‘I don’t want her to be a villain. I don’t want it to be evil and wicked.’ And we had long conversations about it; we talked about Margaret’s legacy, that she brought education for women into England, and she promoted William Caxton and his printing press. We all, look, you know, Margaret isn’t a villain. She is a product of her time. She’s a powerful woman who believes she is plowing a very lonely furrow. She says it on her deathbed, ‘It’s so lonely being being right,’ being the voice of God.” So Harriet really got into that. But as a kind of funny aside, once she did her first scene where she had to be vicious and scream in Maggie’s face, she came off set and she looked at us and she had a little twinkle, and she went, “oh I rather enjoyed that.” So once she got into that, she loved doing more of it. I was sad to see her go.”
One fan-favorite relationship in The Spanish Princess was that between Lina (Stephanie Levi-John) and Oviedo (Aaron Cobham), who were married in the finale. But will the two be able to remain at court, and would they even want to? Emma Frost cleared up any fears fans might have: “Historically what we know about Lina is that she was part of Catherine’s household 24 years. So for us, the friendship that that implies was such a key piece of the show right from the very beginning.”
Lina and Oviedo’s stories are also two explorations of the experiences of people of color in Tudor England, which Part 2 will continue to document. “There was an incident called Evil May Day, which was kind of like a Tutor Brexit,” Frost said regarding what their research of the period uncovered. “There was massive rioting and civil unrest and anybody who was perceived as a foreigner in any way was caught up in it. And that felt like such an integral part of the story. Not just for anybody who is living London as an immigrant in this period, but also it has such obvious resonances with our current times. So we, we dig into that story.”
Frost also teased some challenges for Lina and Catherine’s close friendship which (according to my own guess) might stem from Ovideo asking her to put him and their family above Catherine, though Frost stayed mum about any spoilers. That friendship, though, did certainly serve as the anchor for the series’ first run of episodes, including a particular coziness once Catherine moved to Durham House. As Graham put it, “There was an intimacy and domesticity there, among Rosa and Lina and Catherine, and each seem to have made it easier for us, I think, to sort of show them all together as friends and equals.”
The friends and equals part was particularly fascinating given our expectation of pageantry wherever royalty goes. When Dudley bursts in and tells Catherine she’s behind on the rent, I was shocked to find that, yes, she had to pay rent! Graham explained, “the young princes like Harry they did go off to to the tavern. And you know, anyone who has seen Henry IV, Prince Hal is going off and drinking with Falstaff and Pistol, and that they’re all like mates. They were much more in touch with the ordinary people. Even when the king or the queen went out, they were only separated from the public by probably, you know, 20 or 30 soldiers in a single file. So one person separated them. We sort of forget there was an immediacy that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Despite her hatred of the Tudors, Maggie Pole (Laura Carmichael) did forge a true bond with Catherine after her marriage to Arthur, even admiring her courage in standing up to Lady Margaret and others. So now that her lands are restored and Catherine is on the throne, will she continue to operate with the rebels, or has she made peace with Harry in his reign?
“She feels quite loyal to Catherine, but the Tudors themselves and the entire dynasty—as far as [Maggie’s] concerned—are responsible for the death of every single person she has ever loved, including her husband,” Frost said. “ I don’t think she will ever forgive anybody who is part of the Tudor family. Her relationship with Henry VIII moving forward … that will be the secret she has to try to keep. But there are perhaps some things that are surprising as well with Maggie in the back eight [episodes].”
Matthew Graham added, “I think it’s safe to say, without giving too much away, that Maggie’s story with regards to fighting the Tudors is over now. She never will forgive them, and in her heart there is hatred for the Tudors and what they’ve done. But her fealty is now is now in place in terms of, she will not be involved her with more York rebellions or fighting. But we have got another story for her that it will be connected to her faith. and to her loneliness as a woman, actually. We are creating a very interesting relationship story for her that I think will take Maggie to a very, very unusual place, quite a challenging place for the audience and for us as writers. We’ve sort of played out that Maggie-as-the-secret-York-rebel. She has to knuckle under. It’s the reign of Henry VIII. The Tutors ain’t going anywhere!”
Given the short span of episodes, and so much history to traverse, there might be a presumption that Part 2 of The Spanish Princess may come after a time jump. But Graham explained that, “we won’t be jumping too far forward, because one of the things we do want to enjoy and we want the audience to see is what an extraordinary early reign Henry VIII had, and Catherine with him. I mean it was a boom for England. The economy was growing, the confidence was growing, it was becoming the sexiest and coolest country in Europe. They were like rock stars, and we want to have a little bit of fun, really, seeing that. We do want to pick up early on in the reign, and then we carry it forward and explore, in great detail really, the machinations of their marriage and how Henry starts to become increasingly paranoid about not being happy, having an heir.”
Graham teased the widening scope of the back eight episodes as well, “It’s a wider ranging a run I think, in terms of its arena, even than the first eight because we were going to also be seeing what happens to Meg in Scotland with James IV. There’s a war between Scotland and England. There’s also what happens with Mary, who’s now a beautiful young woman and is married off into France, to the court of King Louis. So, it’s not just going to be all the tangles within Westminster. It’s going to be tangles in Scotland and tangles in France, and how they all sort of center around the nexus, which is, which is Catherine in London. […] I think the Catherine and taking on the role of queen has been really exciting to write about, and how that encompasses not just [her as a] politician, but army commander and other things that she really was involved in.”
“I think for me there is a massive new chapter of female identity and female experience that we get to explore in the back eight that I’ve never really been able to explore with any iteration of this shows so far, because the York women were always so fertile or popping out babies left right and center,” Frost said. “As a matter of historical record, poor Catherine really struggled to produce that very much wanted heir. And I think there is a whole theme of emotion that is unexplored for me in a drama, but also one I think will really resonate with an audience. It’s not often enough talked about.”
Frost went on to note to overwhelming feedback she got after the episode where Rosa suffers a miscarriage and the women come together to mourn. “I was really moved by how many people reached out on social media and just said thank you for showing that, and saying ‘I lost a baby at so many weeks or months, and people don’t really deal with it. And thank you for sort of showing their ritual afterwards.’ And that really blindsided me. I wasn’t quite expecting to receive such emotional responses from that.”
Frost also detailed a personal family tragedy in which a relative lost her baby while Frost and Graham were writing these back eight episodes about Catherine’s experiences. “There was a really profound sense for me of just that connection over the centuries of women’s experiences. You don’t know how many people this has happened to. That struck me so much as we were dealing with Catherine’s story, that nothing has changed. There were certain experiences women have that go underground and you know, women feel shame and they feel they can’t talk about it and they blame themselves. So I think for me, exploring that is really important.”
In closing, we spoke about the series continuing on with this same cast, which Frost described as “the most joyful cast to work with.” She also teased that, “in the back eight, the stories are bigger and better and more exciting even than the front eight, we think. So it would’ve been such a tragedy if we weren’t able to make them. We hope we’ve saved the best for last.”
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV