It’s one final hurrah for Catherine of England and Henry VIII as ‘The Spanish Princess’ comes to an end with its second and final season, premiering on StarzPlay on October 12. And if history tells us anything, it’s about to get ugly.
“The first season was kind of a heady romantic bliss. And this season, Catherine goes through miscarriage, dead children, failure of a relationship, going to war and losing a child. It was very intense, but I also think it’s really important,” says Charlotte Hope, who plays protagonist Catherine of Aragon, later Queen of England. “Especially in period drama. So often, those dramas are just pure escapism, and our show is escapism [too] — the costumes, the passion, the romance and the locations are amazing. But also, it’s rooted in some really real issues that are relevant today.”
Fans who enjoyed watching Catherine and Henry’s young adult courtship in the first season will now come face-to-face with a heavier reality: the breakdown of their marriage, as Catherine struggles to give Henry the heir he so badly desires. (In later years, Henry went on to fight to annul his marriage from Catherine and famously married six women throughout his life.)
Ruairi O’Connor — the Irish actor who, despite a slim build and charming wit, was chosen to play the hefty King Henry VIII — says his casting was unlikely, but a welcome challenge.
“The first season, I was playing a teenager who was falling in love, he was trying to get out of the grasp of his parents … It was mostly teenage things to deal with, apart from horrific deaths, and you know, becoming King,” quips O’Connor. “But in the second season, he’s married, he’s not able to sire a child, it looks like his kingdom is going to be torn from his grasp … So, it’s just stress central. It’s like my personal version of ‘Uncut Gems’.”
“My favourite part of playing this character is that I would never have played a character like this had I not been cast as the teenage version in the first season. Because if you’re gonna cast a tyrannical despot that looks like Henry the Eighth, you know, it’s not going to be me. Like, I’m a skinny, soft little thing, pretty much,” says O’Connor.
“It was really difficult. The material is dark, it’s very emotional, and quite grandiose, as well. It was really far from where I want to act, which is maybe in like a bumble-y, naturalistic, awkward kind of fashion. So, I had to really push the boat out very far.”
“As an Irish person, I shouldn’t be sad…”
In doing his research for the role, O’Connor listened to hours of podcasts about King Henry VIII to try and find common ground with a man who died 473 years ago, who would likely gawk at the word ‘podcast’.
“I tried listening to all his music, but it was so terrible, because he used to write music, as well,” says O’Connor. “And I just tried to think like a tyrannical ruler and get behind someone who murdered someone. What’s his impetus? You’re kind of happy to leave it behind, because it’s a darker place to be. But it’s actually really sad.”
Will he miss the character now that filming is over? O’Connor has mixed feelings.
“I saw Meghan Markle and Harry’s wedding — they were in [St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle]. The commentators said they were passing over the gravestone of Henry the Eighth, and it really hit me. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s actually dead.’ Because I just researched him up to being, like, a teenager and slightly beyond. But I was like, ‘Oh, no, he’s dead, 500 years.’ That made me quite sad. And as an Irish person, I shouldn’t be sad for King Henry the Eighth being dead.
“So, he obviously has a fond space in my heart, because you have to like your characters, as well. He’s a difficult character to like, if you just look at the surface things, you know, killing his wives and, killing his friends and killing lots of people,” continues O’Connor, with a hint of dry humour in his voice. “You really have to spend a lot of time trying to like ‘em, and I think I really did successfully find a lot to empathise with. So, I miss him. I definitely miss him.”
Ask Hope the same question — was she sad to leave the role of Catherine behind? — and tears pop into her eyes.
“I’m really sad, I’m like so sad. Even when you just say that, I’m, like, welling up a bit. This character was a really huge part of my life… I’ve never played a woman that was so passionate and kick-ass and took on a traditionally masculine role. She’s not just a strong woman, she’s a strong woman who’s also really fragile and can shatter.”
For her, this season was more emotionally taxing, but also more rewarding.
“As an actress, I really love getting to play trauma. I think it’s one of the most real human emotions,” she says. “I’m someone who feels a lot of emotions in real life. Getting to use that in an acting job, it’s so immersive. It takes over your whole body in a really satisfying way. It’s not just like, turn up to work, say some lines, [and] ‘oh, yeah, the scene was fine.’ I was so in it.”
Hope wanted to make sure she and O’Connor didn’t simply throw away the connection that they built during the first season.
“It was really important to both of us that it wasn’t just a story of a marriage falling apart, and just an endless drudge into sadness ... This is a couple who tear each other apart, and then come back together, and then pull apart again, and then come back together. It felt very active. It was a story of two people who were trying their hardest to make it work, but the circumstances prevailed,” explains Hope.
Meanwhile, O’Connor wanted to make sure that the distance between them came across.
“Me and Charlotte are very close, but I wanted Henry and Catherine to have secrets from each other, because they’re very different understandings of what needs to happen,” her says. “Henry is totally focused on having a son and a viable heir to keep his kingdom going. And Catherine, of course, is dealing with that, but also with the physical side of miscarriage, and the fact that her husband is turning against her to a certain to a certain degree.”
The untold history
Showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham felt they’d lucked out with the “best cast” they could possibly imagine on any television show. Hope was the first audition tape they saw, and to Frost, she was always going to be Catherine.
“Her performance in season two is breathtaking,” says Frost. “She’s astonishing … She brings a depth and a maturity, [she depicts] the pain, but also the strength and the dignity and survival.”
“In turns, Ruairi does something that you don’t see in many performances of Henry, which is vulnerability,” Graham chimes in. “He’s not just this tyrannical monster rampaging around. He’s a young man with this huge burden on his shoulders, and he’s desperately trying to make sense of why he can’t get an heir and why God is punishing him. Ruairi brings that almost childlike, at times, fear into it,” he says.”
From the beginning, Frost and Graham knew they wanted to tell this story across 16 episodes — eight for each season.
But, why did it appeal to them in the first place?
“All anyone knows about Catherine is that she was the abandoned wife,” says Frost. “She was the middle-aged, dumpy, pious, boring baggage who gets dumped for Anne Boleyn. And everybody thinks that’s where the story starts. The story starts with Henry, a monster, and Catherine, this boring, unwanted creature. And that isn’t the truth. The truth of her story is so much more interesting. You only have to look at [the Battle of] Flodden, and the fact that she rode out to battle heavily pregnant in full armour. She was an incredible woman. And it was so important to explore that, and at least give people another vision for her life.”