The Spanish Princess: The Black Tudors, Untold
On May 5 2019, Starz released their latest Philippa Gregory adaption (Amazon Prime in the UK), The Spanish Princess.
Following Wolf Hall and The Tudors, this latest rendition of The Tudors was the first show on British television that included African Tudors in such an evident way. The Spanish Princess features an eclectic mix of characters — the spiders, the fly on the wall, the roses — and snakes meandering through Greenwich Palace full of friends and flowers, featuring Prince Arthur and his marriage to Catherine of Aragon ending with Henry coming into his throne.
Despite oozing all things Tudor, including pomp, performance and vanity — this show isn’t early-set Game of Thrones. It’s not as Hollywood as the Showtime series with Dormer and Meyers. It’s very European. With the addition of Catherine’s multiracial entourage, I saw me. And even prior to the reign of Henry VIII, there were Tudors from the Continent. It’s a shock to the system for period drama purists that have grown up accustomed to lord and lady whitey frolicking across the green hills of Pembrokeshire.
The common narrative of Black British history is that there were no Black people in this country until the wind rushed into Tilbury Docks in 1948. To show people that there were non-White people in Britain for centuries prior to the Windrush Generation is forcing them to acculturate. It’s an organ rejection of epic proportions — for them to reconsider the history they were taught inside the classroom by teachers who used whitewashed history books.
That British history isn’t that White. The iconic ‘Staying Power’ by the late Peter Fryer starts “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here.”
It just speaks volumes, doesn’t it? That for every Prince Arthur or Thomas Cromwell, there needs to be a John Blanke standing next to them. For every Boudicca, there were Afro-Romans. Men that occupied bits of England for the best part of three hundred and fifty years. Troops that defended a fort near Hadrian’s Wall — a division of Moors (for example) named numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum stationed at Aballava (now Burgh-by-Sands).
Watching The Spanish Princess with the African Tudors, following David Olusoga’s Black and British, where he talks about Henry’s trumpeter John Blanke, to then see him in the series, it was just pure poetry. When people get taught a version of history that plays counter to their ideology, it’s open season. In period drama circles where diversity in itself sparks hostility and hatred, to have their dominant idea of history “unwhitewashed” in front of their eyes brought in a Brexit-level, 48:52-style hatred. You can smell it.
When people hear the term “Black History,” connotations that arise in this country are of postwar immigration and the Slave Trade. We think of Empire Windrush and sugar plantations. We think of race riots and discrimination in Thatcher’s Britain. And to those part of the African diaspora living outside of the Continent, it is problematic to say the least. To have a history that was so negative — from blackface to the Brixton riots; who or what did little Black boys and girls have to look up to in the national imagination?
However, seeing these positive Black characters in The Spanish Princess brought tears to my eyes. Especially when you’re subjected to slavery dramas (as good as they are) that show Black trauma so raw and unflinching — Edwin Epps fawning after Patsy in cotton fields in the gaze of the jealous Paulson’s Mrs Epps. When we think slave, we think of these films. There’s more than enough, including physical buildings like the International Slave Trade Museum in Liverpool. And that exhibit of the Ku Klux Klan is haunting. Visiting there, I saw my people on exhibition like ghosts.
Fair attention is not given to the Black characters of British history with positive stories to tell. From the Black Victorians to the Africans in Henry VIII’s court and Europe’s relationship with pre-colonial Africa.
And these new revelations in the British historical narrative have questioned what it means to be British, since due to how British history has been propagated (especially abroad), to be British was to be White. It has proven challenging for 21st century Britons to push aside their idea of Britishness away from whiteness. And the greatest thing about The Spanish Princess is how the writers feel no need to explain how these Black Tudors came to be in their queen’s service. They don’t feel the need to explain the history or to talk about race. They are Tudors. They are Black. That’s all we need to know.
In an era enveloped by Spain and Portugal, England was a small fish in a big pond. In the epilogue of Christopher Columbus’ supposed discovery of the Americas in 1492 and his subsequent genocidal, slave-trading exploits, characters like Lina and Oviedo (Aaron Cobham) are a welcome sight.
The Spanish Princess showed me my worth. It showed me that British period dramas are just as much for people that look like me, as they are for White people. As Miranda Kaufmann says in her book Black Tudors, “for all who thought they knew the Tudors, it is time to think again…” — yes, this is a TV show written for entertainment in which bits have been dramatized. But these writers have given a voice to a people previously erased from the past.