“Fight Like a Woman”: ‘The Spanish Princess’ and the Warrior Queen Obsession

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#FightLikeAWoman, the hashtag for season two of The Spanish Princess tells us – so why don’t we let the women of period drama fight like the actual women they were? With the second season of The Spanish Princess beginning its airing last Sunday, I’ve been struck by how heavily its promotional material – not just the aforementioned hashtag, but also its billboardstrailersteasers, and posters,  have featured imagery of Catherine of Aragon clad in armour – and it’s not just The Spanish Princess.

The last two decades or so of period dramas based on the Plantagenets and their Tudor, Stuart, and Trástamara descendents have been filled with armour-clad warrior queens. There’s Fanny Ardent as Marie de Guise in Elizabeth (1998). Its 2008 sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2008) saw Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I. In 2006, there was Joanne Whalley as Mary I of England in The Virgin Queen. Then, there is Veerle Baetens as Margaret of Anjou in The White Queen (2013) and Sophie Okonedo in the same role, in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses (2016). Saoirse Ronan as the titular Mary, Queen of Scots (2018), Alicia Borrachero as Isabel of Castile in season one of The Spanish Princess (2019), and most recently Charlotte Hope as Catherine of Aragon in the same show’s second and final season, currently airing.

Amongst these depictions, these women are shown as having had varying levels of involvement in the actual fighting, and with similarly varying relationships to historical accuracy — all depictions vary from “a little exaggerated” to “utterly inaccurate, bordering on ridiculous”. So why do we, as 20th and 21st century consumers of historical fiction, keep returning to the trope of the active Warrior Queen? Why can we not appreciate these women for the carefully calculated roles they did play in these specific battles, and in matters of state in general? Is it an attempt to “spice up” the period, lazy writing, perhaps a desire to see these women through a modern lens? 

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In the LRB, Hilary Mantel discussed the tendency within historical fiction to paint Early Modern women as “hotshot herbalists or minxy witches” in an attempt to create characters we will find exciting and empowering, while ignoring their “usual weapon”, which was literacy — and I believe a similar phenomenon is going on here. We’re grasping for the inherently dramatic and scandalous – witches, women in armour – because it transcends our understanding of the gender norms and “woman’s place” of the 15th and 16th centuries, allowing us to experience and root for female characters who thrill us with their rebellion. But, as Mantel points out, we do so at the expense of ignoring the real ways these women did rebel: 

“Gaily agreeing that the chief female virtues are meekness and self-effacement, they managed estates, signed off accounts, bought wardships and brokered marriage settlements, all the while keeping up a steady output of needlework. In some cases, they conspired against the crown while claiming, if it went badly, that their weak female brains had been addled by male influence, and that ‘fragility and brittleness’ allowed their trust to be easily abused.”

All of these qualities are also applicable to the previously listed Early Modern women who have been depicted in the warrior queen trope. When one surveys the lives and character traits of Marie de Guise, Elizabeth I, Margaret of Anjou, Catherine of Aragon, Mary I of England, Margaret of Anjou, Isabel of Castile, and Mary, Queen of Scots can all certainly be said to have lived lives filled with conspiracy to win, retain, or steal various crowns, negotiating marriage contracts, and managing estates – and, yes, plenty of needlework too. But, how accurate are each of these militarised depictions when compared to the historical record?

Catherine of Aragon in The Spanish Princess is the most recent recipient of this depiction, one that takes the concept the furthest. The idea that Catherine would fight while right in the midst of the battle is ridiculous. Especially as we do have primary sources on exactly the level of her involvement, including details of how she apparelled while doing so. Giles Tremlett, Catherine’s biographer, did an excellent job in his 2011 book of accessing contemporary sources describing these events, and from his parsing and analysis of these contemporary sources we can emerge with a fairly clear picture of what actually happened when Catherine was Regent, and how she was involved in the victory at Flodden. Tremlett concluded that Catherine was “bold at war”, so how exactly did this boldness present? Significantly, she wore no armour as such, but had two different helmets, and a headpiece with a crown ordered for the occasion. This in itself has the potential to be a striking image if depicted on film or television – for presumably alongside the helmet she would be wearing normal riding clothes.

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It is a shame that The Spanish Princess chose to ignore this, as this combination is a good representation of the multiple roles Catherine was having to inhabit as England’s regent of the crown (representing her role as regent. For, she is in this moment, England’s king), alongside riding clothes (showing her as part of an army on the move, adapting her normal everyday clothing to extraordinary circumstances), with the helmet (not the full suit, legs, and breastplate she is depicted as wearing in The Spanish Princess, but a piece of armour nonetheless, representative of her rising to the challenge of embodying her position as Captain General of the King’s Forces not just in theory but in practice, and becoming a Queen Militant. 

The promotional material, cast, and show runners have all really emphasised the combination of Catherine’s armoured fighting with her being pregnant. This is precisely part of what makes the decision to have Catherine charging into battle and then being caught up in a mêlée so ridiculous – Catherine, a woman who was struggling to provide an heir who would survive, would never have put herself and her pregnancy in such danger. This is acknowledged in the episode, with Catherine going against the advice of Margaret Pole and her army’s General in fighting. Yet, this is depicted as an ultimately positive decision, with Margaret apologising and saying Catherine was ultimately right to fight. In the final scene of the episode, after the battle is won and order restored at court, Catherine begins to miscarry. Her pregnancy loss and military endeavours are linked in the next episode, when Thomas Boleyn toasts that “the Queen had a victory” recently —“No”, Henry replies, “the queen had a loss”. Later, he bitterly states that she “lost our child because you tried to be a man”. Then, in yet another fight, Henry tells her “I wish you hadn’t fought. I wish that you would be a wife, instead of soldier”. Clearly, he views her duties as consort as to be considered more significant than those as regent.

It is true that Catherine was pregnant during her regency, but in actuality she gave birth to a (probably premature) son, who lived only a short time and had died by the time Henry returned from France. Again, by embellishing instead of taking advantage of the historical facts, The Spanish Princess’ storytelling is missing out on an opportunity for interesting storytelling. You don’t need a pregnant Catherine to literally fight in order to highlight the various roles her body was playing at the time. Catherine is embodying the medieval concept of the body politic in a rather literal fashion – she is Queen Consort, in the midst of carrying and producing her nation’s heir to secure its future. She is also captain general of her country’s army, and regent – she is, in effect, temporarily the king, charged with protecting the country in every other way too. With her nation facing invasion, she is having to embody all these roles simultaneously, using her physicality and clothing in various ways to further each aspect of her nation’s security.

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Her actual role seems to have been a speech to the troops, making banners and badges for the army, and leading a tertiary army, either intended to join the second line or defence or become its own – but before they could reach their destination, the battle was won. Catherine sent a jubilant letter to Henry VIII along with the bloodied coat of their brother-in-law, the King of Scots, who had been killed in battle. Catherine, she explained to Henry, would have liked to send the body to Henry in France – but the Englishman’s hearts would not suffer it. This is something that is briefly touched upon in The Spanish Princess’ Flodden episode, but only with a throwaway line. But, honestly, who needs a warrior queen in armour, when the bloodlust of her military command positively drips off the page? When you can get the same effect with mere words?

As news of Catherine’s exploits spread across Europe like wildfire, they naturally were embellished and given added colour, so that stories of her in armour and amongst the battle were reported. But these were exaggerations. They do tell us though, something of what Catherine’s contemporaries thought her capable of. This is something that would be repeated when she and Henry were at odds over the end of their marriage – there are multiple recorded remarks by Henry and his courtiers, that Catherine might “take to the field like her mother Isabella”  with a “crown on her head”. It also demonstrates that the appetite for a warrior queen riding into battle is not just a modern taste, but clearly appealed to the 16th century imagination too. 

So, what about our other examples? None of them are quite so exaggerated, and don’t end up with the mildly ridiculous feel of The Spanish Princess’ depiction of the Battle of Flodden. Isabel of Castile is shown leading a small band of fighters against some Moorish adversaries who they encounter on the road. This doesn’t seem wildly outside the possibilities of what she might have engaged in if needed, and she was famous for moving around Spain with her troops. In another scene, she is armoured, with a crown on her head when she appears to Catherine in a vision. She scorns Catherine’s burgeoning relationship with the future Henry VIII, saying “a boy kisses you, and you forget everything I’ve taught you!?”. She warns that “the betrayal he will deal you, it will break the world” (which, yes, history bears that out) and Catherine suddenly finds herself in armour, an arrow bloodying her side – and being pulled out by a malicious Henry. This use of armour is more clever and effective – it’s metaphorical, rather than literal. A product of dream logic, and a strong visual, rather than an ineffective attempt to paint its subject as a kick-ass Girl Power heroine.

Fight Like a Girl: Women Warriors and their Armour ...
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As for Elizabeth I: She did give a famous speech to the troops as Tilbury before they faced the Spanish Armada, embodying a similar role to Catherine at Flodden decades earlier. Elizabeth I: The Golden Age exaggerates this slightly by having her in armour, rather than the normal (if, still opulent) clothing she would have worn historically. It works better than in The Spanish Princess though, as it doesn’t go so far as to show her actually fighting. In the fictionalisation and the world of the film, it serves as a visual but does not turn literal. In the film’s previous instalment, Elizabeth, Scotland’s regent Marie de Guise is shown in the aftermath of battle, a Dowager Queen wearing a breastplate, ruff, skirt, and flowing sleeves. She dismounts to comfort a bloodied, dying child soldier. She dabs at his forehead with her handkerchief, and then presses it into his hands. “Go back to England.” She tells him. “and take this to your Queen. Hm?” She continues in French: “English blood on French colours. Send him back to his Queen… and make sure he remains alive. Tell that bastard Queen not to send children to fight Marie de Guise!”

Elizabeth has a similar relationship to accuracy as The Spanish Princess (as does it’s writer, Michael Hirst’s, other foray into Tudor drama, Showtime’s The Tudors, which ran from 2007-10), so this is all fiction. But, again, it works in a way. Marie de Guise was a forthright woman – she famously said that she couldn’t accept Henry VIII’s proposal of marriage because “I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck.” Echoing the comment of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, in the days before he had her executed – that her death would not take very long, as “I only have a little neck.”, and she was an active regent for many years on behalf of her daughter.  So to see her angry and in the midst seems to fit her personality, if not the historical reality. And again, she’s not shown actually fighting, so the exaggeration doesn’t get too excessive. 

Marie’s daughter, Mary Queen of Scots is similarly shown in armour and riding/conversing with her soldiers in the 2018 biopic starring Saoirse Ronan. She states that “our guns are not just for show”, but avoids getting in the midst of battle. And so again, it falls into the realm of bearable under the guise of fictional flourish in a film that has a great cast but writing of mixed quality. The same might be said for The Virgin Queen’s Mary I, who wears armour ostensibly for protection against plotters who want to replace her with her sister, in a scene with her half-sister Elizabeth. The armour serves as an apt metaphor for the way she feels she has to put up her guard with her sister. She holds the power she now has over Elizabeth, her documented love for her half-sister (and indeed, her personality) forever distorted by the emotional (and, in the latter case, potentially physical) abuse she suffered at the hands of father and her keepers during her teens and early adulthood, when she was forced to be Elizabeth’s servant. Elizabeth wants them to reconcile, to forget the past – but Mary has gone too far into the darker aspects of her personality, and finds herself unable to do so. Margaret of Anjou’s The White Queen shows her fighting in battle, and advising Anne Neville on “what it is to be Queen Militant”. As Margaret did fight in the Battle of Tewkesbury, this is perhaps the most accurate depiction of the bunch. Similarly, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses shows a crowned, breastplated Margaret delighting in ordering the death of Richard, Duke of York, her husband’s rival for the throne. Considering she is recorded to have ordered his head to be paraded around York after his death (echoes of Catherine and James V, anyone?), this doesn’t seem out of character. 

Film Review: Mary Queen of Scots - The Adelaide Review
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However, this overall aesthetic trend for armour, which is usually more ahistorical than not, surely owes its popularity to other pieces of popular culture, especially in the fantasy genre — such as Éowyn in Lord of the Rings or Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. We might also wonder why we don’t turn to actual female warriors of this period, if we have such an appetite the trope – such as Gráinne Ní Mháille, known in English as Grace O’Malley, the Irish pirate and clan chieften who famously refused to bow when she met with Elizabeth I, as she did not acknowledge Elizabeth’s title of “Queen of Ireland”. O’Malley is the subject of the Broadway musical The Pirate Queen, but she is somewhat lacking in the film and TV treatment, and notably absent in biopics about Elizabeth I, despite most depictions of the Virgin Queen delighting in giving her another powerful woman to interact with.  This is a recurring problem within historical fiction — the hyperfixation on certain eras and figures, at the expense of others.

Hilary Mantel frequently invokes the idea of authors of historical fiction, and those looking at history in general, as “translators” of the past. The metaphor of translation seems an apt one for this particular topic. The issues of translation – adapting a concept, an understanding from one group to another. Translating the past into a piece of fiction, using the historical record as a guide. Some will merely task it as inspiration, more interested in telling a good story rather than an accurate one — as Gregory Cromwell says of the historical fiction he is himself reading in Mantel’s Wolf Hall: “some of these things are true and someof them lies. But they are all good stories.” Where  The Spanish Princess often trips up, is that it tells a story that is neither good nor true. In interviews, the creators of The Spanish Princess, it’s two companion series, and the novels on which they are based – Emma Frost, Matthew Graham, and Philippa Gregory – all have claimed high levels of historical accuracy in their work that really doesn’t bear out when one looks at the actual history, and have frequently made choices that have infuriated and/or baffled those interested in the periods and historical figures they are depicting. 

So, is there a place for this type of exaggerated armoured warrior queen, even if the historical record doesn’t bear it out, and what does it say about us? While I for one think this period of Catherine’s life is hugely under depicted, I also think it’s interesting and novel and entertaining enough that this kind of exaggeration isn’t quite necessary. Still, as I’m sure as the case with many period drama obsessives – I’ll take something over nothing. So, I will (…sigh) be once again tuning into The Spanish Princess this weekend. However, in the vein of Hilary Mantel, I’ll be contemplating the extent of the accuracy, effect, and entertainment value of its “translation” as we go.

by Chloe Esslemont

Chloe Esslemont (she/hers) is a 24 year old writer and artist, obsessed with art, pop, culture, history, and how they intersect. Her bylines include DazedPolyesterArt UK, and Hyperallergic.

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