Arthur, Catherine and Henry: a story of early Tudor triumph and tragedy

When the teenage Arthur, first prince of the Tudor royal family, married Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon in a spectacular wedding ceremony, it sparked a chain of events that would change the face of England forever. Here, Sean Cunningham explores their short marriage and the seeds of the second union that was to come…

Prince Arthur around the time of his marriage, c1501 and Catherine of Aragon, 1502. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
 

The wedding of Arthur, first prince of the Tudor royal family, to Catherine of Aragon reveals King Henry VII’s ambition for England in the rapidly changing European political firmament at the end of the 15th century. The negotiations were long and complicated, and the ceremony the most spectacular seen in England for more than a century. Yet the marriage was tragically short – ended by Arthur’s death in April 1502 after only five months as a teenage husband. Its consequences were to become enormous once Arthur’s brother, Prince Henry, made the decision to ask Catherine to be his wife.

Most late medieval English royal weddings had been private, sometimes even secret, events. That was not the case with the marriage that allied England and Spain in November 1501. Arthur and Catherine’s matrimony was manipulated for maximum public impact on an international scale. Henry VII had already demonstrated that propaganda was an essential tool in establishing Tudor rule. The birth and christening of Arthur at Winchester in September 1486 emphasised his family’s connection to the ancient and mythical rulers of Britain, while elsewhere Henry VII had also worked more practically to enhance his legitimacy through negotiation and promises.

Henry’s own pledge at Christmas 1483 to marry the 17-year-old Princess Elizabeth, believed to be the last surviving heir of Edward IV, did much to maintain the momentum of opposition to Richard III (although we don’t know what she thought of the plan, having the status to claim the throne in her own right). This marriage took place in January 1486, and Arthur’s birth on 19 September strengthened belief in the legitimacy of Tudor power. Henry also knew that his seizure of the crown in battle made it essential that the new English king found firm friends who would help sustain his regime in the face of the backlash he knew was coming. Domestically, Henry began a conciliatory policy to build loyalty. Internationally, he sought alliances and the containment of foreign support for his enemies. 


The children of Henry VII, showing Prince Henry (1491 - 1547), Arthur Prince of Wales (1486 - 1502) and Princess Margaret (1489 - 1541), c1498. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

A union with Spain

The new king recognised that Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile were on the cusp of exerting great influence across the continent. The Reconquista of Iberian territory was in its final phase (defeat of the Emirate of Granada came in January 1492), and the opening of sea routes to the Caribbean would soon follow. The Anglo-Spanish treaty of Medina del Campo of 27 March 1489 had first set out the plans for Prince Arthur to marry Catherine, the youngest child of the Catholic monarchs. It also brokered trade agreements and established the basis by which both countries might fight France. 

Marriage agreements and proxy ceremonies were finally confirmed after the execution of the pretender to the throne Perkin Warbeck and the last Yorkist prince, Edward Plantagenet. Their deaths proved to Ferdinand and Isabella that Henry had made England a safe place for their daughter to live and rule as wife of a future King Arthur. Throughout the year 1500, the king’s councillors began to plan how the pageantry, ceremony and entertainment of the marriage celebrations would promote Tudor legitimacy and power. Henry VII was certainly ambitious. This was to be one of the greatest public spectacles ever seen in England. 

Catherine’s landing was meant to be in Southampton with a quick ceremonial journey towards London. Poor weather delayed her departure from northern Spain, however, and she did not land until 2 October 1501 – and in Plymouth. Her journey to London then became a rapid progress. The street closures and construction of theatrical entertainments could not easily be shifted from the elaborate plans the king had already put in place.

 

Preparing for a spectacle

Pageants of welcome laden with symbolism, mechanical devices and actors would begin on the river Thames and continue into the city. Cosmic and religious allegories emphasised the ancient heroic lineage of the couple, their closeness to God and therefore their fitness to rule in England together. Henry VII cleverly boosted his family’s credibility by exploring how ancestry already linked Catherine and Arthur.  

The interior of St Paul’s, as the venue for the marriage ceremony on Sunday 14 November 1501, had been redesigned. A raised walkway drew the attention of all people crammed into the space as the royal couple, dressed in white satin, took centre stage in a full-blown royal performance. The festive spirit can only have been helped by the provision of an endless fountain of wine for the London public by the west door of the church.

 
Catherine of Aragon, c1509. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

Work to prepare venues around London for the wedding had been under way for over two years. Reworking the existing glazing, statues and carvings in Westminster Palace to include dragons, greyhounds, roses and portcullises left no doubt about the elevation in status of the Tudor-Beaufort royal family. The king’s English cooks were instructed to indulge their imaginations as well as promote the best of English produce, which was served on gilded plate reported to be worth as much as the income from a national tax. Three days of tournaments at the rebuilt tiltyard at Westminster Palace completed a week of wedding celebrations. A final exchange of valuable gifts of jewels, books and paintings marked the transfer of Catherine into England’s care. 

Counterbalancing Henry’s high-handed statesmanship was the personal story of Arthur and Catherine. At the centre of the lavish and elaborate events were two teenagers who had met briefly for the first time only 10 days before their marriage – at Dogmersfield in Hampshire on 5 November. Catherine was probably exhausted and overwhelmed by her first five weeks in her new country. The security of Henry VII’s future depended upon the relationship that she and Arthur were able to build.

Both royal children were highly educated and therefore fully aware of the expectations of a semi-public life. Their betrothal had been in place since they were young children. When they did meet, the language barrier led to some comedy as they resorted to speaking Latin; but Arthur’s surviving letters to Catherine suggest his determination to do everything possible to love his new wife and make her life in England a success. After less than two months, the Spanish entourage left behind the bustle of London and headed for Prince Arthur’s domain on the Welsh Marches.

The king had already paid to upgrade the Duke of York’s house in Bewdley, Tickenhill Palace as a comfortable private home for his son and daughter-in-law. Their official residence and the seat of Arthur’s marcher government, however, was the more imposing Ludlow Castle. The newlyweds probably arrived there in mid-December 1501. Celebrating Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Night as Prince and Princess of Wales in their own country must have made this a period filled with happiness and optimism. The arrival of Catherine’s large Spanish household also must have been a spectacular and unusual sight in the small Shropshire town. Arthur wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella expressing the joy he felt at seeing the face of his sweet bride. The only news that could have delighted the royal parents more would have been to hear that Catherine was pregnant.

 

A marriage consummated?

Proclaiming the fertility of the next generation of Tudor rulers would have boosted Henry VII as his kingship entered a new phase with the deaths and retirements of his old friends and allies after 1500. Catherine did not, however, become pregnant. In 1527–28, during the evidence-gathering for the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII, she was adamant in her assertion that she was still a virgin at Arthur’s death. Shyness and exhaustion might have explained why nothing happened on the wedding night, but the couple had time to become intimate during a less-hectic life in Ludlow over the winter of 1501–02.

A generation later, the bawdy evidence of how Arthur greeted his friends on the morning after his wedding sounds like the well-rehearsed tale of a teenager trying to impress. The prince emerged from his chamber and called servant Anthony Willoughby over with the words: “Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.” Then to all of the others present: “Masters, it is good pastime to have a wife.” 

Other lords like Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset, recalled having seen Catherine awaiting Arthur under the bedclothes during the previous evening’s bedding ceremony. He then noted Arthur’s “good and sanguine” complexion the next day. Willoughby, too, believed Arthur and Catherine had lain together as man and wife at Ludlow until Arthur became fatally ill at Easter 1502. Sir William Thomas, a groom of the prince’s privy chamber, revealed how he had many times escorted Arthur to Catherine’s room and collected him again in the morning. 

While other evidence suggests the frequency of their contact, only Catherine and Arthur would have known what went on behind the bedroom door. Even if there was a possibility that, at the start of their life together, Arthur was unsure exactly of what his duty as a husband entailed, that would surely have been corrected over time; unless, of course, there was some medical reason why he was unable to make his wife pregnant. Arthur’s premature death on 2 April 1502 probably resulted from a regional outbreak of sweating sickness, and there is a possibility that he succumbed where others survived because of an existing health issue. Reports of his role in the Maundy Thursday service on 24 March 1502, however, give no indication of debility or weakness. So his death was unexpectedly sudden. 

Catherine’s testimony was a powerful factor. A solemn oath carried great weight, even if she was searching her memory of events at the start of the 16th century. Given the intensity of her first few months in a foreign country, it is unlikely that she would have forgotten such details. 


The need to know the intimate details of Catherine’s first marriage forced Henry VIII to think deeply about his dead brother, suggests Sean Cunningham. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
 

The five months that Catherine and Arthur spent together in 1501–02 must have created intense memories for Catherine. For Henry VII’s other surviving son, Henry, Prince Arthur perhaps stirred different recollections. Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine was secured without the truth of events in his brother’s marriage-bed being established. By 1530, the need to know the intimate details of Catherine’s first marriage forced Henry VIII to think deeply about his dead brother. 

Arthur and Henry were alive together for only 11 years. As duke of York, Prince Henry was mindful that all of his father’s attention was diverted towards preparing Arthur to rule. Prince Henry stayed around the royal household and during Arthur’s life he received little training for a role as a loyal supporter of his brother’s future reign. Arthur’s residence at Ludlow meant that they met only at state occasions and probably a few other unrecorded times. Arthur seems to have shouldered the burdens of personal rule from an early age, whereas Henry used his charm and attractiveness to master the social side of courtly life. That trained Henry to be a political manipulator, but did little to involve him in the mechanics of government before his brother’s death. By then, Henry’s love of the good things about court and household was deeply engrained. Yet, as Prince Henry entered his teenage years, his father had to force him into a new role as Prince of Wales, with all the responsibilities that went with it. Arthur’s death came as the king’s old friends were also beginning to die off. These personal losses created the pressure to expand the Tudor royal family – something that led directly to the death of Queen Elizabeth in childbirth on her 37th birthday, 11 February 1503. 

We cannot know if the 11-year-old child Henry somehow blamed Arthur for the change in his circumstances or for the death of their mother. A manuscript illustration recently identified in the National Library of Wales (Vaux Passional, Peniarth MS 482D) shows the court in mourning for the queen, with a young Prince Henry sobbing separately in the background. A few years later, Henry would have realised that he could not have become king had his brother lived a healthy adult life; so his feelings, eventually, must have been mixed. Henry kept Arthur’s portrait and some of his books and clothes but also maintained a lifelong fear of infectious disease. He seems to have loved Arthur deeply, but more as a memory of princely virtue than as an elder sibling with whom he had shared any childhood time. The nature of Arthur’s sudden death preyed on Henry’s mind the longer he went without a male heir. That failure was a major factor in the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Queen Catherine. 


A depiction of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, testifying at the Legatine Court, at which she defended the legitimacy of her marriage and her position as Queen of England. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
 

Henry had followed in Arthur’s footsteps as second son, second Prince of Wales, and from 11 June 1509, second husband to Catherine of Aragon. Whatever he learned about Arthur’s character surely came through conversations after 1502 with Catherine and others who had known Arthur in the Welsh Marches. His own memories of his brother must have been limited and idealised. Arthur probably remained a mysterious figure to the second Tudor king, but he was a prince whose short life had a profound impact upon England’s subsequent history.

 

Dr Sean Cunningham is head of medieval records at the UK National Archives. His main interest is in British history in the period c1450–1558. Sean has published many pieces on politics, society and warfare, especially in the early Tudor period, including a biography Henry VII (Routledge 2007). His study, Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was, is out in paperback on 15 June 2017. Sean is currently working on the projection and reception of the kingship of Henry VII and Henry VIII as part of the Tudor Chamber Books project with Winchester and Sheffield Universities. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and co-convenor of the Late Medieval Seminar at London’s Institute of Historical Research.

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