"The Spanish Princess" Spotlights One of History's Fiercest Warrior Queens

Elena Nicolaou
·5 mins read
Photo credit: Nick Briggs
Photo credit: Nick Briggs

From Oprah Magazine

  • "Flodden," the second episode of Starz's period drama The Spanish Princess, takes place at a pivotal battle between England and Scotland.

  • 28-year old Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) played a major role in the Battle of Flodden—all while pregnant.

  • Here's what really happened at the pivotal Battle of Flodden, which resulted in the death of Scotland's King James VI.

"Flodden," the second episode of The Spanish Princess's second season, showcases Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) in her element. She's pregnant, wearing full battle armor. She's both warrior and queen, fulfilling her desire to be a military leader and her duty to bear an heir. And with her husband, Henry VIII (Ruairi O'Connor), away in France on a military campaign, she ruled England completely. For a moment there, Catherine had it all.

Through Catherine, Spanish Princess creators Emma Frost and Matthew Graham could explore a woman who straddled multiple identities—all of which come to the forefront during the Battle of Flodden in the show, and in real life.

The Battle of Flodden occurred while Henry VIII was off invading France—and reportedly because Henry VIII was off invading France. In declaring war on England, King James IV of Scotland acted in accordance to a treaty with France, designed to protect the other from England's advances. Breaking a peace treaty signed with England in 1502, James IV of Scotland traveled south to the English border with an army of 30,000 men.

What ensued was the largest battle between England and Scotland in terms of troop numbers, and one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil, according to the Guardian. The Battle of Flodden was especially devastating for Scotland, which lost much of its nobility—as well as King James IV himself, marking the last time a British king died in battle. The English army lost around 1,500 men, whereas the Scottish army up to 17,000, according to the Scotsman.

Photo credit: Nick Briggs
Photo credit: Nick Briggs

One part of lore The Spanish Princess skips over? According to England's National Archives, Catherine was determined to bring King James IV's body back to her husband, as a battlefield memento. Keep in mind that James had been married to Henry's sister, Margaret Tudor—so he was technically Catherine's brother-in-law. Instead, she settled with bringing Henry a bloody piece of the Scottish king's armor. In the show, she allows Margaret (Georgie Henely) to take her husband's body home, but insists on taking the armor herself.

While historically significant, the Battle of Flodden also offers a glimpse of Catherine as the fierce ruler she longed to be—the ruler she could have been, if given a chance. "It was so difficult to survive, particularly a woman in those times. Any of them that did must've been made out of steel," Hope tells OprahMag.com. Catherine, in the lead-up to the Battle of Flodden, literally was.

Historical documents show Catherine's excitement at getting a slice of military action, as her mother, Isabel of Castile, had so often. "We are all very glad to be busy with the Scots. My heart is very good to it," Catherine wrote in an 1813 letter to Thomas Wolsey, who was with Henry VIII in France at the time.

Photo credit: Nick Briggs
Photo credit: Nick Briggs

Throughout the battle's proceedings, Catherine was more a "director of events" than "passive figurehead" managed by Henry's counselors, according to an archivist who unearthed new papers about her pivotal role in 2020. Catherine led an effort to recruit soldiers across England; allocated money for supplies; and planned a battlefield strategy.

Catherine was ready to fight herself, if need be. Though she sent 70-year-old Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and 26,000 soldiers to the Scottish border, Catherine also rode north with troops herself. That way, if King James IV's troops were victorious, she and her army would be waiting.

Oh, one last thing? Legend has it that Catherine was pregnant throughout this entire process. According to contemporary historian Peter Martyr, Catherine really did address English troops ahead of the Battle of Flodden, wearing armor to accommodate her pregnant body, as she does in The Spanish Princess. Today, historians debate whether Catherine was really pregnant during the battle, but—for reasons of sheer narrative potential—The Spanish Princess goes with the legend.

Given how perfectly it encapsulates her personality, the powerful image of Catherine wearing armor ahead of battle ultimately serves as the main poster image for season 2 of The Spanish Princess. "There wasn't even a discussion—Matthew just said, 'I know what the poster is," Frost recalls, adding that the image was inspired by Demi Moore's Vanity Fair cover, in which she posed nude while pregnant.

Photo credit: Nick Briggs
Photo credit: Nick Briggs

"She had the armor made and she led the army to face the Scottish invasion," co-creator Graham tells OprahMag.com. "She didn't actually fight, but in our show she gets more involved."

In actuality, Catherine only made it as far as Buckingham, 60 miles north of London, before hearing of the victory on the field in Northumberland, the northernmost county of England. However, Graham and Emma Frost—the duo behind Starz's The White Princess and The White Queen, which focus on Tudor England from the perspective of its women—couldn't pass up an opportunity to finally stage a battle scene.

"For the first time, we could show a battle with the woman in the middle of it, which was a huge thing," Frost says. The previous series' protagonists, Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth Woodville, don't near a battlefield.

In "Flodden," Catherine fights fiercely and wins. Hold on to the rush of victory: There won't be many more in this grim season of The Spanish Princess. After Henry VIII returned to England after six months, Catherine's time as regent queen came to a close, and so too did her power. From then on, Catherine's primary duty was bearing a male heir—and that, as the series shows, was a battle she could not win.

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