There are perhaps few historical figures who loom as large as Henry VIII — the voracious, tyrannical King whose need for an heir led him to divorce, murder, and plunder his way through the lives of his six wives.
Starz’s The Spanish Princess has sought to unpack Henry’s early life with a particular focus on his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. European royalty in her own right (unlike Henry’s subsequent wives), Catherine came to England from Spain as a teenager and when life threw her destiny off course, she sought to claim it back on her own terms. All season long we’ve been building to a version of Catherine more familiar to the amateur historian — wife of Henry VIII and Queen of England.
Through her trials and tribulations, we knew deep down that her struggles would end with a temporary triumph — a second royal wedding and the English crown. And yet, Sunday’s finale chose not to end with a romantic first kiss as man and wife or Catherine’s coronation.
Instead, The Spanish Princess concluded with a final exchange between Henry and Catherine, the first real moment of deep distrust between the lovers. As Catherine questioned Harry as to whether he’d messed around with her sister Joanna, he turned the question back on her and her relations with his brother Arthur. Catherine lied and denied; after all, she’s pledged her life on this untruth at this point. A fact that left both Catherine and audiences wondering if Harry was also lying. Was this the first in a long series of infidelities she would have to endure?
Without getting a firm answer, we end on Catherine striding out into the corridor toward an uncertain destiny of her own choosing. A destiny we’ll see continue to unfold in a newly announced second season.
To get the details on this Tudor twist, we called up showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham to talk about this ambiguous ending, why they chose to play with the historical record when it came to the supporting characters, and how to make Tudor tax law into scintillating drama. So pour a draught of ale, keep reciting, “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” to yourself, and jump into The Spanish Princess finale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There are a lot of places you could’ve chosen to end this season and this chapter of Catherine’s story. Why did you choose to end on this exchange between Harry and Catherine and a more ambiguous moment rather than a blatantly triumphant bit of her story?
EMMA FROST (co-creator): We wanted to do a proper justice to the truth about Catherine and Harry’s relationship. There was genuine love and passion from both sides. As we know, Catherine professed love to him right up until her death, actually. And she was definitely the love of his life. But we felt it would be trite and untruthful to try to suggest in this story it was all just, “Hooray, hooray, it’s all romantic, isn’t it? All lovely.” And from a feminist perspective, it would be unfair to women’s history, the struggle and all of the incredibly tough realities about this story. This is really a complicated relationship and Henry will prove to be, to put it mildly, not an ideal husband.
In our version, we’ve chosen to explore that Catherine is the one who lied about her virginity. So whichever way you cut it, they will be going [down] that aisle on a lie. We wanted to tell the truth about the power struggle and the lies that got them there. There’s a bit of bittersweet history. She’s going to marry him. She’s going to become the Queen of England, hooray for her, but that’s a little bit of an empty celebration. It really isn’t this happy, simplistic romance. This is something much more complicated. Catherine is going to have to reap the rewards of things she’s sown.
Clearly, you want us to make up our own minds about whether or not he was with Joanna, but you do really get the sense this is the first moment of doubt and possible infidelity in a relationship that will be riddled by it.
FROST: Whatever decision you make by the end of it, what you think Harry did or did not do with her sister, there is an argument that says even if he did, did he do it to even the score? Because [of] his own male pride. He loves her, but he couldn’t let that go without getting even.
MATTHEW GRAHAM (co-creator): It was also inspired by the end of the first Godfather film. That moment when Diane Keaton says to Al Pacino, “Did you have your own brother-in-law murdered?” And he says, “You can ask me this one time and I’ll give you the truth.” She asks, and he lies to her face and says, “No, I didn’t”. As the door closes on the two of them, you see them looking at each other and she knows he’s now a different person. We felt [this was a] more mature ending. Rather than keeping it in the fairy tale moments.
FROST: We would like the audience to make up their own minds about what did come to pass, but we wanted in that final moment to really say to them, “You are judging Harry right now. You think he shagged her sister. Hang on, have you all forgotten what she did?” We wanted them to be completely equal in that final moment. And for them to both really look at each other and go, “This is what I am doing. This is the lie I am marrying on. And this is the person I am marrying. Look at what we’re both capable of.”
In terms of the historical record, there’s the least surviving information about Lina and Oviedo, which gives you a lot more free reign as to where you take their story. So why did you want to push them into mortal danger here and then turn around and give us probably the happiest ending of anyone?
GRAHAM: The way we structured the story, basically halfway through episode 8, [it] was concluded. He’s become king. His father died; he becomes king and professes [his] love. What we had was a really exciting first half of the episode with pace, energy, and agency, and we didn’t want to throw that out or change it. But we wanted to find something in the second half. So we started to think [what] if we put Lina and Oviedo in mortal danger and make Catherine and Harry’s relationship pivotal to saving them? We manufacture this exciting second half where Margaret Beaufort is becoming increasingly unhinged since her son’s death and increasingly desperate. [She] goes to this extraordinary length to get these petty, horrible acts of revenge [on] people…That links all the characters together in an exciting way. It also exposed the genuine obsession of being on the right side of God and lineage. Margaret is doing some wicked things, but there is some sympathy for her. They are damned. They are cursed. And she knew it.
History is never going to give us a definitive answer as to who killed the princes in the Tower. Richard III was very popular for a long time, thanks to Shakespeare. In recent years, Lady Margaret and Henry Tudor have become the more popular choice, thanks partly to Philippa Gregory’s writings. As dramatists, why did you decide to go with that angle?
FROST: The very first step down that road came from Philippa’s books. Philippa’s take on it is that Margaret was behind the murders of the princes in the Tower…When I did The White Queen and The White Princess, I did a lot of research. I did more research at that point than any single other thing in the show because I really wanted to get my head inside the theories. It was quite compelling. The argument’s that Richard III is least likely because it just seems like he would have been cleverer. If it was him, why would he have done it in such a way that all fingers pointed to him and everybody thought it was him? It seems such a set up in many ways and it would’ve been very easy for him to release them and arrange them to be killed when they were not in his custody. The reality is we went with that route, A) because Philippa had done it, B) because it becomes interesting, and C) because it absolutely, squarely explores woman as murderer as well as mother, and that’s really interesting. So ultimately, when Margaret died the very worst thing she’s done her whole life is going to come back to haunt her. And the worst thing is murder. So Jasper stands in the doorway banging the pillow against his legs, and it’s the pillow that she’s smothered him with. Then the little boys run around, and it’s her imagining the terrible deeds she’s committed in her life are coming back to haunt her on her death bed.
Tudor tax law is a dense subject, but it plays a major role in the events of the finale and Harry declaring himself firmly as the king against his grandmother and the council. How did the two of you tackle breaking down something that complex and rooted in jargon to make it work for your drama?
GRAHAM: We truncated that. Our research has shown that Henry VIII was inheriting a country that was under the yolk of many illegal taxes, implemented probably with Henry VII’s blessings. Certainly with Margaret Beaufort’s knowledge. Dudley was in prison for quite a while before he was executed. He was in prison long enough to write a book all about parliament…We created Dudley as something of a Dickensian villain. There was a lot of discussion early on about whether or not we were going too far with Dudley, making him too sort of, “Muahahahaha.” But in the end, we just thought, “Oh come on. It’s fun.” And then we were determined to give him a really gruesome death.
When we were writing that, the thing that was on my mind was, “You do not just arrest someone and execute them in 24 hours. Not even the Tudors were that ruthless”. But we did some research, and we discovered that there was such a thing as effectively imprisoning the king. By thoughts and ideas. It was treason, and there was such a thing as Extraordinary Sessions of Council. If somebody had to die immediately, there could be an Extraordinary Session of the Privy Council and have it done quickly.
FROST: I’ve actually forgotten how much of that we made up and how much of that was real.
GRAHAM: The crimes are real. Dudley was accused of them, but he did spend enough time in prison to write a novel…What did happen is they did arrest lots of people. Margaret and the Privy Council tried very hard to cover their tracks before Henry VIII returned from Hatfield. They knew full well what they’d done was wrong. So we basically took that, ran with it, and made it more extreme.
Speaking of running with things, we don’t have a lot of information about what Maggie Pole was up to in between her husband’s death and returning to court. We know she was destitute but otherwise not a lot. So what made you decide to give her that treason storyline, which is something that comes into her life much later down the line?
FROST: We knew it happened later. We [had] literally thrown every brick at her character, and there has to be a point where she rebels. It felt like the right moment to bring that in. Inspired by history. It seems to be Maggie’s fate to always be the moral conscience of the show but also to be the one who, no matter what she does, her life goes to s—.
The first eight episodes were this epic love story grounded in a woman fulfilling her destiny through a lie. How would you describe the back eight, which will comprise the next season?
FROST: I can only really say it’s the second half of the story about the lie.
GRAHAM: They were living the consequences.
FROST: Yeah, living with the consequences of the lie and living with the consequences of getting what she wanted. Be careful what you wish for.