Can We Enjoy Historical Dramas Knowing Their Subjects Were Antisemitic?

The royals of "The Spanish Princess" forced the Jews out of Spain. What's a Jewish history fan to do?

Like many history (and drama) enthusiasts, I am a huge fan of historical television, films and novels, with a particular fondness for Tudor England. Thus, when Starz released the limited series “The Spanish Princess” about Catherine of Aragon, the lesser-known wife of the infamous Henry VIII, I was ecstatic.

Usually remembered as the first and unfortunate wife of Henry VIII (she’s the first “divorced” in the famous “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” phrase), Catherine of Aragon was a beautiful, calm and regal queen of England. Because her life was so tumultuous — again, thanks to Henry VIII — many often forget about her background as a Spanish princess. But Catherine was not just a Spanish princess. She was also the daughter of Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon.

You know, that Isabella and Ferdinand. As in, Spanish Inquisition Isabella and Ferdinand.

The Spanish Inquisition was essentially a forced exodus of the Jews out of Spain (and later Portugal) simply for being Jewish. Those who chose to remain in Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism and were continually doubted, questioned and persecuted. Those who left were forced to leave behind their homes and everything they knew. So, yeah, Isabella and Ferdinand are not exactly the kind of historical figures Jews want to celebrate.

At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Catherine of Aragon was just a child and lived a vast majority of her life in England. In other words, her involvement in and understanding of the Spanish Inquisition was undeniably minimal. Nonetheless, I am still hesitant to clear her name entirely. How could someone who was raised by two notoriously antisemitic parents be anything but antisemitic? Do we judge a person by the actions of those around them? And, most importantly, should I allow myself to enjoy “The Spanish Princess” as a Jew?

For a feminist history-loving Jew such as myself, it can be very challenging to find an unproblematic historical figure to admire. I love to learn about female leaders, heroines and monarchs. And I cannot help but be entranced by Tudor England. “The Spanish Princess” had my name written all over it — a show featuring a female monarch during the Tudor era? Sign me up.

But then I remembered I am Jewish.

Of course, I couldn’t resist the drama and intrigue of the show and I quickly found myself binging every episode, even getting my mother and boyfriend interested alongside me. The portrayal of Catherine is refreshing — giving autonomy back to a woman whom history has remembered as nothing but a steppingstone to the more famous Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. In “The Spanish Princess,” Catherine fights for a better future for herself with a love for England that is intoxicating. One of the most iconic scenes of the show occurs in episode ten, “Flodden,” when she rides into battle while very pregnant. Even if it isn’t wholly historically accurate — it is historical fiction, after all — “The Spanish Princess” reclaims Catherine’s story by telling it from her perspective.

Though I can and do find Catherine fascinating, I cannot help but wonder how to separate her accomplishments from her parents’ antisemitism. Do I ignore the Jewish part of my identity in an effort to appreciate Catherine of Aragon for what she was? Perhaps she really was just the daughter of antisemites and not an antisemite herself, but we will probably never know what she really thought about Jews.

I personally believe that Catherine of Aragon was an interesting queen worthy of study, and I loved watching actress Charlotte Hope portray her in “The Spanish Princess.” But, for me, I will never glorify her because of her family’s devastating policies with regard to Sephardic Jews.

History is difficult and uncomfortable because people are difficult and uncomfortable. The best thing we can do is see the good and the bad in any given person and take it all in. Balanced representations of historical figures in media would be massively helpful in accomplishing this, but we, as consumers, also have a responsibility to understand before we judge.

So, I will happily watch “The Spanish Princess” again and root for Catherine along the way. I will even declare her my favorite wife of Henry VIII. But I will always remember the Spanish Inquisition.

Caroline Levine

Caroline Levine (she/her) is a language-obsessed junior at the University of Florida. When she’s not studying linguistics or foreign languages, you can find her sewing a new costume or trying out different Jewish recipes from around the world. Caroline is a 2021-2022 Alma College Writing Fellow.

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