The rich Moorish influence of 16th century Spain meets the stiff grandeur of England’s Tudor dynasty in Starz’s gripping period drama “The Spanish Princess.”
The eight-part miniseries, which follows Catherine of Aragon from infanta to queen, is the latest addition to a celebrated anthology series about the ascent of determined royal women during and after the Wars of the Roses.
“The White Queen,” “The White Princess” and this new narrative about their European successor were all adapted from Philippa Gregory’s novels, but their stories are also linked by politics, lineage and an efficacy not often associated with women of the time. And while Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York and Catherine have been defined by their husband’s legacies, this British series of dramatic adaptations illustrate how they impacted the course of history from behind the scenes.
Premiering Sunday, “The Spanish Princess” continues the anthology’s dedication to sweeping cinematic beauty, spot-on casting and smart storytelling while introducing a fresh culture, language and religion to drab old England.
The royals are not amused by the sun-kissed princess or her “exotic” imperial entourage of Africans, Moors and Muslims, and that culture clash makes for some of the series’ best moments.
Catherine is brought to life by Charlotte Hope in a performance packed with haughtiness, verve and regal magnificence, even in the least noble of circumstances.
Moments after we meet the teen princess, she’s vomiting into a crude wooden bucket, sickened by the high seas on her journey to Britain where she’ll meet her future spouse. As the daughter of the world’s most powerful monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, she was betrothed to England’s heir-apparent Prince Arthur (Angus Imrie) as a child.
Now nothing can stand between the determined redhead and her destiny as queen, not even an angry ocean. Little does she know her voyage is smooth sailing compared to the treachery that awaits.
The Tudors are a paranoid and plotting bunch, with the exception of Arthur, but he dies just five months into their union, leaving her at the mercy of the late prince’s grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort (played wonderfully by consummate period villain Harriet Walter). The matriarch does everything in her power to eject “the foreigner” from their lives and lineage.
Catherine, however, is strong, resourceful and cunning. She sets her sights on Arthur’s younger brother, Henry (Ruairi O’Connor), claiming her first marriage was never consummated because Arthur was impotent.
Of course, Henry is Henry VIII, the same monarch who broke from Rome, divorced Catherine, created the Church of England, married Anne Boleyn, beheaded Anne Boleyn and wed four more times before his death. But here, Henry is still a young, impressionable, hormone-driven prince who’s facing a throne he never expected to inherit.
Enough about him. This is Catherine’s story.
She is flanked by her East African handmaid and closest ally, Lina (Stephanie Levi-John). But Lina stands out at the palace, as does her secret lover, Moor soldier Oviedo (Aaron Cobham).
The inclusion of black characters in the royal court isn’t just television folks bending history to fit modern demands for diversity on screen. It’s quite the opposite: Africans existed on both sides of the palace walls during this part of the Tudor era. Popular historical accounts just chose to omit them.
Their love affair is challenged by their diverging faiths, loyalty to Spain or the English crown, and the cutthroat politics that permeate every aspect of life in the royal court.
The maneuvering and scheming is nonstop, and of course poor Lady Margaret Pole (Laura Carmichael) takes more heat in one episode than Lady Edith did over six seasons of “Downton Abbey.” As one of the last Plantagenets left standing after the Wars of the Roses, she’s mistrusted by her Tudor cousins, and anyone familiar with Maggie’s fate knows that the perpetually terrified expression on her face isn’t for naught.
That brand of tension makes this series as much a political thriller as a historical drama. The cat-and-mouse games played by all the ladies and men of the court are deadly but so pretty to watch! The wardrobe is stunning, from Catherine’s pearl-white wedding dress and shimmering veil to the velvet capes and jewel-encrusted headpieces of her ladies in waiting.
It’s an elegant and powerful tribute to a queen who’s all too often been defined by the gluttony of her husband but whose influence changed the very fabric of England.
‘The Spanish Princess’
When: Sundays, 8 p.m.