Black Tudors: The Spanish Princess And Representation

When I was boy, going to school in Northamptonshire, I soon saw how White European-centric the history syllabus was.

A t fourteen I knew enough about British history to know that Wilberforce didn’t end slavery on his own. But how the British talk about slavery, and teach slavery (when they do teach it), makes it sound like William Wilberforce singlehandedly ended slavery purely based on his moral convictions. Despite fifty years of abolitionist campaigning, there were slave mutinies simultaneously across the Caribbean, and years before he began. What about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution? What about Sam Sharpe and the Christmas Rebellion? The Maroons? There were revolts in Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Grenada and more. But we focus on Wilberforce, why?

Yet, now older, I still notice that Black and brown people’s right to be included in British (and European) history is contested — the right to be characters in our national stories, outside of slaves and poor immigrants. Whether we’re talking about the Afro-Romans, or Black Georgians (who weren’t all slaves) — when the seemingly die-hard history buffs / period drama purists see an absence of whiteness in Shakespeare or adaptations of classic novels, there’s a backlash. Couldn’t a Black boy play Oliver Twist? What about Bajan Rhoda Schwartz in Vanity Fair? I always read Heathcliffe as Black. Have a think.

Photo: Starz Entertainment LLC

Representation matters and that’s why, on its release, we should all be watching Starz’s The Spanish Princess. Seeing the trailer showed me, me. I saw me. The Black Tudors were out in full force and I think it’s great that these histories are finally getting scope in the mainstream. Both Black and British by David Olusoga and Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann talk about this nuanced history, a story that’s been whitewashed to the back of Europe’s throat. From John Blanke to Cattelena of Almondsbury, the Black Tudors existed and their stories are just as valid as that of Prince Arthur, Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.

The recent Oscar-nominee as well, Mary Queen of Scots, is another benchmark for representation — Adrian Derrick-Palmer, Gemma Chan, Adrian Lester, Ismael Cruz Cordova — a film that represented not only in terms of race but sexuality too, as if being gay is some new phenomenon. Please. When you talk to the die-hard period drama fans, the fact these sorts of characters could exist in Tudor times or the days of Dickens or Austen does somewhat offend them!

In a landscape of their swaggering xenophobia, the release of The Spanish Princess is a welcome sight, even if it’s simply to show people how far back the Black presence in Britain really goes. Before Enoch’s River of Blood, before Empire Windrush and Sir John Hawkins’ slave-trading exploits — there were people of colour here in Britain that lived, some of whom may even have been pieces in the Tudor saga. The fact that Catherine of Aragon’s chamber mistress was “a North African Moore called Cattelena” (Olusoga, Black and British) during her marriage to Prince Arthur put her into the spotlight. I’m intrigued into how the writers approach race, if they feel the need to discuss race at all.

Despite being part of the Windrush cliché in the Black British narrative, the character Lucille Anderson in ‘Call the Midwife’ is a great example of representation, as she breaks this immigration trope (BBC One)

Now, most of my relatives have stories about racism. They were lessons in punishment and pain for being born a different colour — whether it’s humiliation in the workplace or being hospitalised (or killed) during the rule of skinheads and the National Front. I do too. I was raised on the stories of slavery and pioneers like Walter Tull. Yet, what of the Black Victorians and Black Georgians? And I was taught people who looked like us to be the furniture in the background, like the slave children in Georgian paintings, always living life on the defence.Something tells me The Spanish Princess will write these characters as people. People with ideas, feelings and motivations. And being Black will be an afterthought to the characters themselves.

This is the first time I’m seeing something of this nature on television. I’m excited. From Wolf Hall (based on the books by Hilary Mantel) to Showtime’s The Tudors; to my memory, they were more or less exclusively White. The fact that there could have been people of African origin in this country before 1948 ruffles the feathers of so many — the fact that Britain isn’t as White as it once thought — the idea that not all the Romans that came here would have been White Italians — that there were multiracial families — the notion that when Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, gathered her men to face the Spanish in 1588, there could have been Africans spectating from the crowd.

When people think of Black communities in England (pre-Act of Union, 1707), not just Tudor England — or even Black people in history, they think of slavery and servitude. There are plenty of slavery-era dramas that help in spinning this yarn — 12 Years a Slave, Roots, The Long Song, Amistad, Belle, The Book of Negroes, Underground. In Britain, the narrative is Black people came here as Windrush migrants and slaves. Yet, historians like David Olusoga and Miranda Kaufmann have shown that we’re more than that. And even in stories like The Long Song by the late Andrea Levy, about slavery, she shows slaves contradicting White stereotypes of what they thought Black people were.

Diversifying period dramas is a must and shows like Les Miserables and Vanity Fair have done well. The Spanish Princess can be the next stage in this moment. We need to support shows like that, so representation doesn’t become tokenistic or politicised (poisonously), but a norm in storytelling. Representation is Naomi Ackie in Lady Macbeth but it’s also Erin Kelly as Éponine in Les Mis. The latter is set in 19th century France but its still British-made and France is another country living in the aftermath of colonialism.

Ackie in Lady Macbeth and Adrian Lester in Mary Queen of Scots; it’s not explained why they are there nor how they got there. It doesn’t need to be, and I hope to God that The Spanish Princess follows suit. There were people of colour with families and jobs and livelihoods in those times and that should be enough. Validation is not an option. Modern Britain is multiracial Britain. To be Black and British is to live on a fault line and it’s time to change the narrative, and it can be done through the types of stories we tell.

“Having a straight, cis, White character is good and all but there needs to be a good reason to do that, you know?” — Nobody Ever

British period dramas are made to perpetuate how Britain sees itself, but also the international image of Britain (how America sees Britain) — as British history has been sold as decadent and White. These period dramas have denied actors of colour work and in doing that have whitewashed Britishness. In The Spanish Princess, we have what could be, a chance to bring back some form to British identity and that’s a massive responsibility and opportunity.

Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth in Mary Queen of Scots

When you have actors and characters from all types of backgrounds, including people of colour and the working class, that’s representation. It’s a visible narrative that people can see themselves in. From Peaky Blinders to Call the Midwife (big up, Lucille Anderson) — race matters, class matters, representation matters. I will be watching The Spanish Princess, not only for the story but simply to support actors that look like me in arts. Theatre is making waves (big up, Hamilton). Screen is still playing catch up.

When we talk about representation, many ask “Where are the British Black and Asian actors?” My answer to that is Hollywood. From Riz Ahmed to Gugu Mbatha-Raw to John Boyega— they’re in LA making money because we don’t look after them properly here. And it’s a damn shame.

Now, The Spanish Princess (I hope) will be another win, with the Black Tudors (especially women) at the nucleus of the Tudor saga. Fantastic!

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Public Historian-Essayist | Poet | Speaker: Race in arts/humanities, Black History, dyspraxia/autism | Work: tre@treventour.com | Neurodivergent

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Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Public Historian-Essayist | Poet | Speaker: Race in arts/humanities, Black History, dyspraxia/autism | Work: tre@treventour.com | Neurodivergent

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