After The White Queen and The White Princess, the writing partners bring this third iteration to life and share how the Tudor saga is still relevant.
Everyone loves stories about royalty. Even if you think you are too highbrow for a juicy tale of crowned decadence, deep down you really love it. With The White Queen and The White Princess, writer Emma Frost has brought to life new versions of the War of the Roses, but she is joined by her real life partner, Matthew Graham, to bring forward the story of Catherine of Aragon. It is a decadent tale of political treachery and heartbreak. Sorry, Game of Thrones, but this battle for power is a lot more fun.
Graham has a lot of admiration for Frost’s writing, and he is able to easily contribute to this history. Catherine of Aragon is a fascinating character, so Frost and Graham had a deep pool to pull from. They are aware of how complex of a character she is, and they have one question that they based the entire series around. These are dramatizations, of course (something Graham acknowledges), but the writing entices you by inviting you to peek behind the curtain to see who is lying and what deals are being made.
Not only is the production absolutely stunning (production and costume design Emmy nominations feel inevitable), but the performances are stellar. Charlotte Hope’s Catherine must not only charm one son of Tudor, but two. Ruairi O’Connor’s performance as Prince Henry transforms from cocky brother of Prince Arthur to lovelorn putty in Catherine’s hands. The brilliant Harriet Walter commands the screen as Margaret Beaufort.
You can have the most ravishing costumes and skilled cast, but if the writing doesn’t work, it falls away very quickly. Frost and Graham are so attuned to this world that you don’t have to worry about that. They do the work for you.
This is the next story after The White Queen and The White Princess. What were you most anxious about in telling Catherine of Aragon’s story?
Emma Frost: There were several things. For both Matthew and I, we were both taken by the idea of the immigrants coming in to a world that was familiar to the audience. By the end of The White Princess, it was quite repressed and it’s very male dominated. Catherine comes from a matriarchal environment. Her mother is this incredible, fierce queen. These three young women come in with very different cultural references, very different ideas of gender and power, and there is an influx of Islam and there are people of color in Catherine’s entourage—which is completely historically accurate. There are new influences coming in and arriving like a bomb in this Tudor world. It felt very relevant in today’s world.
Matthew Graham: Catherine is somebody who is an outsider which is different from the other iterations. She comes from a different world and only has her ladies in waiting who become her friends and confidantes.
Matthew, this is the first time you joined this series. What was it like to join Emma on this outing?
MG: I really am a fan of both The White Queen and The White Princess. Since Emma and I are partners, I was very close on the process of The White Princess and I was able to watch that. I always loved that period of history so I was really excited when we started working together. I was thrilled to be involved really, and I was really keen on telling the story of Catherine. Emma can obviously do this on her own, and it was really nice that I was allowed to come in and play in that Tudor world. It was a real rewarding challenge, as a male writer, to write on a female-centric show through the female perspective. That helps you grow as a writer.
EF: I have to say that Matthew was really gracious and breathed new light into it. There’s always danger, with any show, that you will repeat yourself and lose the rhythms, so it was fantastic to have his perspective.
Fresh new eyes always helps, right?
Why do you think we are still obsessed with the Tudors and royalty in general?
EF: I think it’s sort of the same thing with celebrity. It’s about the rich and the entitled and it’s always a hotbed of politics. Historically, all the shows like The Crown, The Tudors, and our show show us a sumptuous, beautiful world—aesthetically as well. The locations, the costumes, the sense of history of the institution. My best guess is looking over the high wall of the gate.
MG: I think everything ties into the theory of the royal world. If you have a falling out with someone, you could be killed. If you have an affair with someone, you can go to hell. It’s like a soap opera in that all the stakes are death, war, and kingdom collapse. We know we can’t make these genuinely historically accurate—it’d be unwatchable. There’d be lots of people with terrible teeth and horrible hair and bad clothes.
When I was watching it, I felt sort of satisfied that I was watching a kind of real life Game of Thrones—even though I am the one person in the world that hasn’t watched that show. It’s all about thirst for power and murder and treachery.
EF: I am actually the other one person who never watched Game of Thrones.
I’m not alone!
EF: I don’t know if you know this—so forgive me if you already do—but George R. R. Martin based the Game of Thrones series on this period of history. So The White Queen and The White Princess cover The War of the Roses and that’s exactly the history he drew from. The Lannisters are the Lancastrians and the Starks are the Yorks.
I had no idea, so you’re teaching me! I’m so fascinated by Catherine in this. Just in the span of a couple of episodes, she goes so much. She’s such a strong character who learned to be strong from her mother, but then she’s thrust into this unfamiliar world. What can you say that you admire about her and what, if anything, do you dislike about her?
EF: Our take on Catherine was very much inspired by one particular thing. What history tells us is that Catherine and Arthur were married for 5 months. The morning after the wedding, he calls out to the corridor and says, ‘Last night, I was in Spain!’ In other words, he told everyone that the marriage was consummated. After 5 months, Catherine said that it was not and never had been. One of them lied. What’s interesting for us is the ‘what if it was Catherine’ because that’s such a compelling story. The story of whether Catherine lying is a story that has never been told. People always say that she was really pious, and she never would have lied. Well, why not? Sorry, but women can be really Machiavellian too. I like the idea of her inventing this and then everyone accepting it as the absolute truth.
I think what Matthew and I found really fascinating is that here is a young woman who, from early charges, was told that it was her destiny to be the Queen of England. She shows up in England, marries Arthur, and then he drops down dead. What does she do? Does she decide that God is wrong and this is her destiny? Does she lose her faith? Or does she filter that through the lens of ‘what does God want me to do’ in which case her decision to go after Harry can absolutely be interpreted through the prism of faith. Or she thinks, ‘Harry is already enamored with me…why not go for Prince Harry…’ So is Catherine at her most devout and her most dutiful as a daughter and fulfilling what her mother expects from her and what God requires from her. Or is she going after Harry out of naked ambition which is a very 21st century power play. She’s determined to get that crown on her head come what may, and if she has to go after the younger brother, who cares?
Or is there even a third element of Catherine is responsible for the well being of her household. They all depend on her for food and a roof over their head. And the stately life they were promised. Catherine would be sent back to Spain as a used wife. She’s never make another marriage, and what would happen to her entourage who have come here with her to support her and expecting certain things from this new world. For us, there was this fascinating layer around that question. If she lied, what was the reason for it? Does it make her the devout woman everyone thinks she is, or is Catherine something slightly different. That question infuses the whole show.
I found myself going back and forth as I watched her. I respect her for standing up to people, and then the next moment I would raise my eyebrow at her decisions. She’s so fascinating.
Oviedo practices Islam, and I was wondering if that felt really relevant since our horrible American president is banning things left and right. What was it like to bring forth those prejudices amid all this real life strife.
MG: It’s an interesting part of history. In Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand had an increasingly hard line when it came to dealing with Muslim and Jewish people in their country. They went from reclaiming, as they saw it, their country from the Muslims and telling them that they had to worship a Christian god or leave. When they thought that that wasn’t enough the Inquisition began, so there was profound violence and hate going on in Spain. In England, there was a much broader religious tolerance which kind of ticked off The Pope. It was not illegal to be a Muslim in England. There was an increasing intolerance towards a number of people coming into the country when Elizabeth I was queen. It was bizarrely an immigration issue. There is a wariness of anybody who isn’t Christian in this period. Basically, if you didn’t grow up in their country, they were wary of you. That was because the world was quite small to those people. If you came from France or Germany you were sort of seen in the same light if you came from Africa.
People on social media are kind of upset with us over this. They think we are apologizing or whitewashing the story. The point is that there was slavery in Europe, but it was related to politics. If you conquered a country, you made the people your slaves. That’s different than God saying someone is inferior and someone goes to Africa to find “lesser men” and take them to another country and make them slaves. There were wary about people not because of the color of their skin but because of where they were from. We found that very interesting, especially with Lina and Oviedo. Lina is a lady of certain standing and Oviedo is a working class soldier. Funny enough, the most obvious prejudice you have in the show is her against him because he’s not good enough for her. With regards to our show, it’s touched upon but not the focus. Margaret Beaufort comments quite positively about Oviedo’s religion to him. She tells him that she admires his dedication with how often he prays. It’s commendable to her. But there was fear. Now people are stoking fear, aren’t they.
MG: We’re honestly not trying to make it politically relevant but we are trying to convey the politics of the time and people can draw parallels as they choose.
So simply presenting the story as it is and allow people to connect with it how they want.
EF: But usually dramas dealing with this period they sort of ignore it. We were trying to carve a path with Catherine and the people around her. Some of those people would’ve been people of color and some of those people would’ve been Muslim. This stuff was tricky and it was there and it’s still tricky and it does make the show feel relevant and that’s a good thing.
Matthew, you brought up Margaret Beaufort, and she’s such a great character. I felt like I loved to despise her throughout the show. I love the scene between her and Catherine where Catherine tells her, ‘You could’ve been the greatest ruler England has ever seen if it wasn’t for your sex.’ What was it like to write such a rich, ruthless character?
EF: It’s slightly hard to answer that fully if you haven’t seen The White Queen or The White Princess because Margaret is in it from the very beginning as a young woman. Two very different actresses play her in each of those series before she’s played by the wonderful Harriet Walter. We’ve seen Margaret’s ambition and fervor for her son to be a ruler from the very start.
That scene that you mention was building up throughout because we know that that’s what Margaret really wanted. She tried to be King through her son and the lengths she went through with her son on the throne were extraordinary. And arguably very criminal depending on which history to choose to follow. In The Spanish Princess, I think we see a lot more humanity. At the beginning, she has everything she wanted. Her son is in the throne, she has two grandsons, so the Tudor throne is safe, and then this bloody woman shows up. The irony is that in previous seasons, Margaret is wrong, but in The Spanish Princess, Margaret is right. She is the one who says that Catherine is lying and that she slept with Arthur. Margaret is actually correct from the standpoint of Catholicism and that Catherine will plunge their house into sin. As far as Margaret is concerned, Catherine is not a virgin and the whole line will be punished.
You guys got picked up for a second batch of 8 episodes. Was that a surprise or was the secret plan?
MG: We never planned it as a returning series. When we spoke with Starz, we knew we wanted to do 8 as a first half of the story and then we could continue if there is an appetite for it. We built in an ending for the first 8 that is an emotional cliffhanger, I would say, that still ties up the story. The idea was that if we get cut off after 8, we would still have an ending. It wouldn’t just stop. We already started writing. Starz has been really gracious in really allowing us to develop the rest of the story. We basically have 8 scripts firmed up and almost cooked. It just gave us a chance to finish the story. The cast is wonderful and they love the show. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a cast that’s been so close.
The Spanish Princess concludes its first season on June 23. All episodes are available online.