Tag Archives: the tudors

Screening History: "The Spanish Princess" (Season 1)

Having really enjoyed both The White Queen and The White Princess on Starz, I naturally decided to dive right into The Spanish Princess, which picks up the story several years later. By this point, Henry and Lizzy have settled quite well into their lives as king and queen of England. They now have four children that have lived to adulthood, and at last it is time to find a bride for elder, Arthur. Enter Katherine of Aragon, a young woman of indomitable will and sweeping passions. Katherine, however, will find all of her considerable charm, strength, and political skills challenged by the nature of the Tudor court.

From the moment that she appears on screen, Charlotte hope shines as Katherine of Aragon. She somehow manages to capture both Katherine’s steely self-control and vulnerability, her heart and her sharp intellect, and that’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve always thought that there’s been far too little focus on Katherine’s youth in popular culture, and The Spanish Princess really allows us to see how this young woman would grow into a queen who would hold her own against all who came against her.

Much as I liked Hope as Katherine, she’s a little outshone by two other members of the cast. The first, of course, is the divine Harriet Walter as Lady Margaret Beaufort. She’s a little less dour and bitter than Michelle Fairley’s iteration of the character, but she seems to be a bit shrewder in terms of her political abilities. She’s laser-focused on ensuring that her dynasty continues, even if that means destroying Catherine. Walter brings all of her considerable talent to bear in the role, and her presence helps to elevate some of the clunkier writing (it remains a little unclear why she bears Katherine such irrepressible hatred). Walter truly shines in the final episode of the season, as she has to confront the sudden death of her beloved son, the collapse of her own power, and the legacy of her own actions that brought her family to the throne. Walter fully captures the mix of strength and vulnerability that has always been key to Margaret’s character in all three of her iterations. As the only character that has had a substantial presence in all three series, it was very satisfying to see it brought to such a stunning conclusion.

In my opinion, the real star of this show is Lina, played by Stephanie Levi-John. Her character is fascinating for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we finally get to see a woman of color playing a prominent role in a costume drama set in the 16th Century (something that I’m sure will cause all of the racist fans of the genre to lose their minds). More than that, though, Lina’s storyline allows us a glimpse into the lives and mentalities of a group of people who have been largely ignored in costume dramas set in this period: i.e., the first generation of those who were forcibly converted by Catholic monarchs of Spain. In The Spanish Princess, it is precisely this question of faith that is one of the central crises that Lina must negotiate, since her beloved Oviedo still adheres to Islam. Her conflict, between her love of Oviedo and her devotion to Katherine, is one of the most moving in the entire season.

As with the previous two series, however, I found some of the writing infuriatingly lazy. For example, I’m not sure I buy the idea that Maggie Pole was in on the conspiracies against the Tudors rather silly (though Laura Carmichael is spot-on casting for this character). Unfortunately, some of this sloppiness is due to the nature of the source material. Philippa Gregory is a little notorious for her tendency to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction in her work, while insisting that she isn’t doing so, and the series carries on with that.

To some degree, The Spanish Princess is hamstrung by its own story. It’s a little difficult to feel much sense of narrative urgency or mystery about Katherine’s narrative, since we already know how it ends up. We all know that Katherine ended up being Henry’s first wife, if only because his attempt to get that marriage annulled would be such an earth-shattering historical event. The cast, however, deserves universal praise for doing their best to keep things moving forward and engaging.

Ultimately, The Spanish Princess is about the ongoing conflict between the past and the future in the Tudor court. Margaret Beaufort is, of course, the most visible icon of the past and its iron hold on the present, while Henry and Katherine are the promise and the peril of what’s to come. Even at this early stage, however, we can see the ways that Henry’s willfulness and disregard for how things are done are setting him on the road that will lead to his later despotism (and it’s worth pointing out that Ruairi O’Connor does an excellent job of bringing a young Henry to life. His is certainly one of the better interpretations of the monarch in his youth). Likewise, Katherine’s choices–particularly her claim to be a virgin–will come to have consequences that are truly historic in their impact.

All in all, I was mostly pleased with this outing into Renaissance England. Though some of the plot points felt rather contrived–and not particularly effectively, at that–overall I thought that the series did justice to Katherine of Aragon’s plight as she sought to navigate the vicious and venomous court. I’d ultimately place it somewhere between The White Queen and The White Princess. It has significantly better production values and acting than the former, but the writing and acting aren’t quite as strong as the latter.

I’m very excited about the fact that there is now a second season on the way, and I’m genuinely curious to see how far they take it. Given my endless fascination with the Tudors and with costume drama, I’m willing to go along for the ride.

Reading History: “Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait” (by Alison Weir)

When it comes to the wives of Henry VIII, a few stand out in the popular consciousness: Anne Boleyn (obviously), Katherine of Aragon, perhaps Jane Seymour. Then maybe Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. Rarely, I suspect, do many people give much of a thought to Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife whom, it was said, he found so physically disgusting that he had their marriage annulled. Indeed, it is often held that the failure of this marriage is what cost Thomas Cromwell the king’s love and eventually his life.

Poor Anne has not received much justice from popular culture. Joss Stone did a serviceable job portraying her in The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory brought her usual soapy approach to at least part of Anne’s life in her book The Boleyn Inheritance. But other than that, she has tended to hover in the background, eclipsed by her more glamorous peers.

Enter Alison Weir’s new book, Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait.

I’ll admit that when I first heard that acclaimed historian and historical novelist Alison Weir was writing a six-book series about these women, I was a little dubious that she’d be able to write anything new or exciting about them. To some extent, alas, I was proved correct. While the earlier entries in this series were enjoyable, they all seemed to lack a certain spark that would have made them really soar. Don’t get me wrong. They were enjoyable; they just weren’t thrilling.

With Anna of Kleve, I think she may have finally hit her stride. The novel doesn’t get bogged down in relentless recitations of detail (Weir is nothing if not rigorous in that regard), but it does give us a very rich, thorough portrait of Anna’s emotional state as she moves through the dangerous world of Renaissance politics, both in her own country and, later, in Henry VIII’s England.

The novel starts with Anna’s young adulthood in the Duchy of Kleve, during which she has an illicit affair with one of her cousins and gives birth to a bastard child, a secret she carries with her for the rest of her life. After interminable negotiations with the English, she eventually sets sail to be the next Queen of England. Unfortunately for her, King Henry takes an instant dislike to her, and she ultimately feels pressured to concede to an annulment, after which she is granted significant wealth and manages to stay out of the worst of the political troubles that afflict the kingdom.

The novel is quite a brisk read, and Weir manages to keep the pace going while also largely adhering to, and even correcting, the historical record. We learn, for example, that Anna was a devout Catholic, though her marriage was intended to solidify Henry’s relations with the Protestant German princes. Indeed, Weir does a fine job of conveying how integral Anna was to the politics of her day, and how astute she was in her own political calculations.

Admittedly, Weir does take some rather generous liberties with the established truth, most notably in the ongoing plot-line of Anna’s illegitimate son and her cousin Otho, who is truly the one love of her life. Her reasoning on this in the “Author’s Note” reads a little thin to me, but I will agree that it does give the book an emotional core and resonance that I think it might otherwise have lacked (the irony is not lost on me that the very thing that makes the novel really work is the one thing that is probably not true).

That quibble aside, the novel is a strong outing. Indeed, one of its greatest strengths is in its ability to portray Anna’s emotional attachment to Henry. Rather than fighting to hold onto a position that knows is rightfully hers, she quickly gives in to the king’s request and becomes, in effect, his sister, blessed with manors and incomes and wealth. She’s shrewd enough to realize that she has far more to gain as the king’s sister than as his wife, and her reasoning proves sound when it is revealed that Catherine Howard has been committing adultery with and is summarily executed. At the same time, however, Weir does show how it must have stung for Anna to accept what was, in many ways, a humiliation, even if a lucrative one.

In that sense, the novel is more emotionally textured than I found the other three entries in the series to be. There, I often felt at somewhat of a remove from the titular heroines (part of this may be due to the fact that Weir chose to narrate each of the books in third person limited, rather than the first person). Here, however, we really get a chance to live inside Anna’s head, to experience with her the trials and tribulations of the Tudor era. It also allows us to get a more sympathetic perspective on Henry, a man vainly fighting against encroaching age and infirmity.

Likewise, it answers the question: what exactly happened to Anna after Henry VIII died? Some, no doubt, remember that she was actually present at Mary’s coronation, but others will have assumed that she died in obscurity. In fact, she continued to fight for rights against all the odds. While she died in her early 40s (probably of breast cancer), she nevertheless managed to outlive all of Henry’s other wives. Needless to say, that is quite a feat!

Anna of Kleve is a fascinating portrait of a royal woman’s struggle to not only survive but thrive in a world haunted by the past. Confronted with challenge again and again, she nevertheless perseveres. And when, in the end, she finally succumbs to illness, she does so surrounded by the people that she loves, including her illegitimate son. Her story is one, then, of ultimate triumph over adversity. Finally, after all of these centuries, Anna gets to tell her own story, and Alison Weir deserves tremendous praise for doing it with such grace, beauty, and eloquence.

Reading History: “Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen” (by Alison Weir)

If Anne Boleyn has gone done in history as one of England’s most notorious, and thus documented, queens, her successor Jane Seymour has done the opposite. She hovers in the background of Henry’s reign, remembered largely for her success in bearing Henry the son that he had long desired.

Alison Weir’s new book, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, seeks to rescue Jane from this bit of historical amnesia, giving her a chance to tell her own story. We meet Jane in her youth, as she navigates the fraught waters of her deceptively simple country family and struggles with whether she should join a nunnery. She is gradually drawn to the world of the court, however, where she serves first Katherine and then Anne, before herself becoming the queen of Henry VIII. Though she succeeds in bearing him the son he has so long desired, she dies soon thereafter.

Now admittedly, Weir is not the most graceful of fiction writers. As with her nonfiction, Weir aims for workmanlike sentences over sophisticated ones. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed this as much had I not just been reading several other historical fiction authors who do have a true gift with language (such as Madeline Miller and Mary Renault). However, Weir does have a remarkable eye for period detail, and one does often feel a sense of immersion in this darkly beautiful and dangerous world.

Furthermore, Weir manages to let us as readers have a keen look inside Jane’s mind, what motivated her as she attempted to survive in the cutthroat atmosphere of Henry’s court. We are left in no doubt as to the fact that it is Henry and Henry alone who has the power, even as there are many around him–Cromwell, Anne, Jane’s family, and even Jane herself–who try to manipulate him into doing their bidding and granting them the power and influence they so desperately crave. Jane, like her predecessors, must learn the craft of trying to maintain her own persona in the face of the various forces around her, without falling victim to the fall from grace that sent Katherine into exile and Anne to the headsman.

Throughout the novel, two things dominate Jane’s sense of herself and her role as Henry’s queen. First is her absolute love and devotion to Katherine. It is precisely this loyalty that enables her to be a participant in Anne’s downfall (though she later expresses regret at her complicity). The second, equally important component of her personality is her commitment to Catholicism. Not for Jane the Reformist sentiments of Anne Boleyn (or her brother). Indeed, Jane is particularly vexed and saddened by the fate of the monasteries, which are in the process of being dismantled by Henry and Cromwell. She desperately wants to keep Henry from continuing in this vein and does whatever she can to convince him to change his course.

Unfortunately for Jane, even she cannot quite escape the power that is Henry VIII. Though he feels more affection for her than he does for Anne, he only does so as long as Jane is willing to submit to him. This she does, though she is always aware of just how much it costs her to do so. Weir does an admirable job conveying the many conflicts of conscience that Jane experiences as she tries to survive the reign of this king who sees himself as the absolute center of the universe and will brook no opposition to his will.

All in all, I’d say that Weir does justice to one of Henry’s most enigmatic queens. She may not have been as flashy and independent as Anne, nor as stalwart as Katherine, but it is important to remember that she lived in a very dangerous time indeed (as her untimely death attests). Can we really blame her if, confronted with the dreadful examples of her two predecessors, she opted for a third way? Weir allows us to experience with Jane the sense of impending doom, the possibility that at any moment she might go the way of her predecessors. The Tudor court was a place of exquisite beauty, but it was also a place where the wrong word or gesture could lead one down the beginning of a path that would end on the block. Or worse.

One can’t help but wonder, however, what might have been had Jane lived. Would she have produced more children to add to the Tudor dynasty? Would Elizabeth–and the magnificent reign she produced–have ever happened? Would Henry have tolerated her independent streak after she produced the longed-for son, or would he have instead found some way of getting rid of her as well? The very unanswerability of these questions continues to structure the myth of Jane.

Thank goodness we have Alison Weir to shed light on these for us!