This week marks fertility awareness week in the UK with the slogan you are not alone. Therefore, it seems fitting to recognize that infertility issues and recurrent miscarriage have plagued women for many centuries. Today we review a 16-part mini-series, The Spanish Princess.
This hit historical drama centres around Katherine of Aragon, played by Charlotte Hope. She portrays the Spanish princess who became Queen of England as the first wife of King Henry VIII. Katherine of Aragon was married to the infamous Tudor monarch for almost 24 years. Unfortunately for Katherine, while she bore the king a daughter, she was unable to provide him with a male heir.
Falling pregnant wasn’t an issue
Throughout the marriage, their relationship was plagued by multiple miscarriages and Katherine was eventually cast aside by Henry in favour of her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Yet things started well for Katherine. At 23 and five years older than Henry, there was no obvious reason that she would have any problems conceiving. Adopting the pomegranate, a fertility symbol at the time, as her personal badge she became pregnant almost immediately.
However, Katherine went into premature labour 7 months into her pregnancy and gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She was devastated by the loss and tormented by guilt. She wrote to her father, King of Spain, “Pray, your Highness, do not storm against me. It is not my fault; it is the will of God. The King, my lord, took it cheerfully, and I thank God that you have given me such a husband.”
Three months later she was again pregnant. And on New Year’s Day, 1511, Katherine gave birth to a son amidst great bonfire celebrations in London where, it was said, ‘wine flowed in the conduits.’ But the celebrations were short-lived, a day or so later the little Prince died. In September of that year she was again pregnant, but we know nothing of the outcome, so can only assume it was another miscarriage.
Plagued by miscarriage and still birth
In 1513 she gave birth to another stillborn son. The same thing happened in 1514, and in early 1515 there was another miscarriage. Finally, in 1516 she finally gave birth to a healthy child, described by courtiers as, “a right lusty daughter!” This daughter would become Queen Mary I of England. Henry was overjoyed and told visitors, “We are both young, if it was a daughter this time, by the grace of God the sons will follow.”
He was wrong. It is thought that several more miscarriages followed and another stillbirth, this time another daughter occurred in 1518. By 1520 it was all over, Katherine was well past usual childbearing age for the era. In the male-orientated society of 16th century England, blame for stillbirths and miscarriages always fell on the woman. Some people also felt that Henry had made a mistake in marrying an older woman.
The King of France, known for his cruelty wrote, “My good brother of England has no son because, although young and handsome, he keeps an old and deformed wife!”
Although the King never reproached the queen personally the failure hung heavily on Katherine. Henry began to wonder why God had denied him a son. We know the rest of the story!
We won’t ever know why Katherine had such difficulty in carrying a pregnancy to term or when she did it ended with still birth. Some documented facts include:
- Katherine fasted for religious reasons during her pregnancies. This would be strongly advised against today
- Poor medical care and hygiene were part and parcel of life in the 16th century, even for monarchs
- There was a family history of child mortality both in Katherine and Henry’s family. Two of Katherine’s siblings were stillborn, as were three of Henry’s.
Charlotte Hope, the actress who plays Katherine in The Spanish Princess, said, “I wanted to make sure that we were telling a story about Katherine. That was about a woman in Tudor England but was also as much a study of the modern female condition because the stuff that she’s going through is still stuff that we’re going through today.”
She is talking about infertility, pregnancy loss, and the blaming and shaming of women when it comes to reproduction.
Charlotte Hope as Katherine of Aragorn in The Spanish Princess, alongside Ruairi O’Connor playing Henry VIII.
Charlotte continued, “It’s not just about Katherine can’t produce an heir and that’s devastating for her, it’s also devastating for Henry and ultimately what tears apart these two people who completely love each other. It’s circumstance, and the circumstance is infertility.”
Actress felt a personal connection to Katherine’s anxiety
For Charlotte as an actress, playing Katherine was somewhat personal. As a teenager, she was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome one of the most common causes of infertility. When she was diagnosed, she was advised by her Doctor to have children before the age of 30. As a result, she lived with this fear for most of her 20s. She said, “I felt that I really needed to hurry up and get married and have kids. She described this as a kind of background anxiety.
This anxiety is what helps power her strong performance in the role of Katherine. She said, “All of the fears that Katherine has about not being able to have children, or not being able to produce a male heir are anxieties that I’ve lived day in day out.”
The Katherine she plays is never a victim, or passive and is constantly fighting. Even as the character suffers, she never gives up and constantly moves forward.
According to Charlotte, the grit and hope she expresses as Katherine was something, she found in many of the women she talked to in researching the role.
The Spanish Princess is available to watch on Amazon Prime. If you are affected by the content of this programme, then support is available through Fertility Network UK. You are not alone and they are happy to support you through this difficult time.