Arthur, Prince of Wales

Posted By on September 20, 2010

On this day in history, 20th September 1486 (some say the 19th), “afore one o’clock after midnight”1, Arthur, Prince of Wales (Arthur Tudor), was born at Winchester, just eight months after his parents’ marriage.

Arthur’s mother, Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, got pregnant straight after her marriage to Henry VII and the news of her pregnancy was celebrated throughout England. His father, Henry VII, was ecstatic at the news and decided that the birth of his first-born would take place at Winchester, the place believed to have been the capital of the legendary Camelot and the site of King Arthur’s castle, and that the child would be called Arthur (good job it was a boy!). Henry was convinced that Arthur’s birth would bring about a new golden age.

Arthur’s Birth

David Starkey2 writes of how the court arrived at Winchester in early September and wonders if it was the 60+ mile journey on bad roads that caused Elizabeth to go into labour and give birth a month early. Despite being about a month premature, little Arthur was healthy. His mother did go on to suffer with some type of fever, but fortunately survived.

The birth of the heir to the throne was celebrated with bonfires in the streets and the singing of the Te Deum at Winchester Cathedral. Arrangements for the lavish christening had already been put in place but now needed bringing forward a month. However, Starkey writes of how Arthur’s intended godfather, John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, was still at home at Lavenham in Suffolk and needed to travel from there to Winchester, so the christening could not take place straight away. The date was set for Sunday 24th September.

Arthur’s Christening

David Starkey3 tells the story of Arthur’s christening, writing that those taking part in the procession gathered in the Queen’s apartments, while others like Elizabeth Woodville, Athur’s godmother and grandmother (also Queen Dowager), waited at the cathedral. After waiting three hours for the Earl of Oxford to arrive, Henry VII ordered that the ceremony should go ahead with Thomas Stanley, the Earl of Derby and the King’s stepfather, standing in for Oxford. The baby prince was named “Arthur” and baptised and then Oxford arrived and cradled Arthur in his right arm, presenting him for his Confirmation. The party then processed to the shrine of St Swithun, the cathedral’s saint, where hymns were sung. Starkey writes of how the adults then enjoyed “spices and hypocras, with other sweet wines [in] great plenty” while Lady Cecily, Arthur’s aunt, took Arthur home, processing past burning torches, through the royal nursery, to the sound of musicians playing, and to his parents.

Starkey points out that the christening of Prince Arthur “was the first of many spectacular ceremonies that Henry used to mark each stage of the advance and consolidation of the Tudor dynasty”4, it was the start of a whole new era.

Upbringing

The royal nursery was managed by Elizabeth, Lady Darcy, and Arthur was given a wet-nurse, a lady named Caroline Gibbons. Two royal “rockers” were also appointed to rock the baby prince’s cradle and two men, John Alcock, Bishop of Worcester, and Peter Courtenay, Bishop of Exeter, advised the King on Arthur’s upbringing.

On the 29th November 1489, Arthur was made a Knight of the Bath and on the 30th November was created Prince of Wales. On that same day, his baby sister, who had been born the night before, was baptised and named Margaret, after her grandmother and godmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Arthur’s brother, the future Henry VIII was born on the 28th June 1491 and his sister, Mary, was born on the 18th March 1496. Three other siblings – Elizabeth, Edmund and Katherine did not survive childhood, with Katherine dying on the day of her birth.

Arthur, Prince of Wales, was educated by scholar John Rede, French poet Bernard André and later Thomas Linacre, the English Humanist and physician who also educated Erasmus. In 1492, he was sent to Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches to begin his education as the future king. David Starkey writes of “Arthur’s driven, solitary childhood” and how the result was “a model prince” who “displayed the exaggerated sense of responsibility of the eldest child”. He was also “intellectually precocious” and had a rather stiff public manner. 5

Marriage

Starkey writes of how marriage negotiations for Arthur began when he was aged two, when he was contracted to marry Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, in the 1489 Treaty of Medina del Campo. Twelve years later, in the autumn of 1501, Catherine of Aragon landed in England and the couple met at Dogmersfield in Hampshire.

Arthur, Prince of Wales, married Catherine of Aragon on Sunday 14th November 1501 at St Paul’s Cathedral in another Tudor lavish ceremony. Arthur’s younger brother Henry, the man who Catherine later married, escorted the bride from the bishop’s palace to the cathedral. They processed into the cathedral on an elevated platform which ran the whole length of the nave and which allowed the bride to get through the overly crowded cathedral. The marriage ceremony then took place on a tall, tiered platform in the centre of the nave.

We don’t know exactly what happened after the traditional bedding ceremony, but Arthur boasted the next morning “bring me a cup of ale for I have been this night in the midst of Spain!” Later, when her second husband sought to annul their marriage on the grounds that Catherine was his brother’s widow and that the union was therefore incestuous, Catherine claimed that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated.

Arthur’s Death

Just before Christmas 1501, the couple left the royal court at Richmond to travel to Ludlow, stopping to celebrate Christmas at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The plan was for Arthur and Catherine to get experience in government by governing the Welsh Marches, but things were not to be. On the 2nd April 1502, Arthur died. It is not known what exactly killed him but theories include sweating sickness and consumption (tuberculosis). Catherine also became ill but recovered, although she missed her husband’s funeral at Worcester Cathedral, as did his father but then this could have been for fear of catching the plague in “plague-ridden Worcester”6. Arthur’s resting place and memorial, Prince Arthur’s Chantry, can still be seen today at the Cathedral.

Instead of a second King Arthur setting up a new Camelot and heralding in a golden age, the throne passed from Arthur’s father, Henry VII, to Arthur’s younger brother who became King Henry VIII, and it is Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s second daughter, who is known for her Golden Age. Arthur’s widow went on to marry his younger brother and tried her utmost to provide him with a much-needed Tudor male heir. She succeeded in giving him a daughter, Mary, the future Mary I, but this was not enough, and Henry VIII got their marriage annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Catherine ended her days in the remote Kimbolton Castle, where she was forbidden to see her beloved daughter, Mary, and she died there on the 7th January 1536. She was laid to rest at Peterborough Abbey, now Peterborough Cathedral, as the Dowager Princess of Wales, not Queen, on the 29th January.

Notes and Sources

  1. From Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours, quoted in Henry VIII: Virtuous Prince, David Starkey, p42
  2. Virtuous Prince, p42-43
  3. Ibid., p43-45
  4. Ibid., p45
  5. Ibid., p135
  6. Ibid., p165

22 thoughts on “Arthur, Prince of Wales”

  1. Eliza says:

    I always wonder how different history would be if Arthur had not died.. What would have happened to Henry? I think he was meant to become a cardinal, right? Arthur’s death totally changed England’s destiny.

  2. TinaII2None says:

    Great article Claire — thanks. As Eliza said, you can only wonder what might have been had Arthur lived to become King. And in playing these neverending “what if” games, you wonder whether he and Catherine would have had better luck in having children. Who in the world, at the time Arthur was born, could have foreseen where it would all end? All I can add is “WOW”!

  3. Eliza M. L. says:

    I’ve read copies of some of Arthur’s letters to Catherine, while she was still in Spain. He titled most of them “My dear wife.” I thought it was insanely adorable, seeing as how he was so young and must’ve felt very grown-up writing to a pretty girl.

    1. Emma W says:

      I was just wondering where you read the letters from Arthur to Catherine. I’m trying to do some research into Arthur and can’t seem to find out where these letters would be.

      Thanks

  4. lisaannejane says:

    Reminds me that the best laid out plans can all come to nothing. I usually have a plan B because life is filled with uncertain events. Perhaps Henry VII should have spent more time with Henry and had him more properly educated in political affairs and how the court worked so he would have been better prepared.

  5. Nancy says:

    I had to giggle (a little) when I read that Elizabeth of York came down with a fever shortly after Arthur’s birth but fortunately survived. I’m not sure that Anne would have agreed with you on that one. If Henry VII and Elizabeth hadn’t had their “spare”, Anne’s life would have been very different, and might have had a happier ending. It’s interesting (although futile) to speculate how different English history would have been if Arthur hadn’t died and Henry VIII had never become king. In all likelihood, Arthur wouldn’t have broken with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Church of England would never have been founded. Actually, the monarch wouldn’t have the title “Defender of the Faith, since it was Henry who wrote In Defense of the Seven Sacriments as a rebuttal to Martin Luther, I can’t imagine Henry as a member of the clergy – with his love of women, no one would have been safe – he’d have come on to parishioners, nuns, mother superiors, etc. And, of course, England would have never known the reigh of Elizabeth I. Most importantly, to those of us who have become addicted to this website, we wouldn’t be here discussing the subject, siince Anne would never have become queen in the first place!

  6. Emma says:

    If Elizabeth of York had died after Arthur’s birth Henry VII would have remarried and likely had other sons and daughters. Perhaps we would now have a webpage about one of them. Or perhaps we would still be talking about Anne. She was such a strong, intellegent, ahead of her time woman that even if there was no Henry VIII on the scene I think she would still have done something that would make her remembered today.

  7. Tara says:

    What is a rocker?

    1. Claire says:

      Their job is to rock the royal cradle 🙂

  8. BanditQueen says:

    I wonder how they decided who to appoint as a child’s rocker or nurse. It must have been very hard to get the choice right as you needed someone totally discreet and obedient and competent to meet the child’s every need as this was the most precious baby in England. The heir to the throne could not be handed over to jo bloggs who answers an add in the daily; they had to be vetted and hand picked for their personal loyalties and good qualities. I would have hated that responsibility. Imagine if anything happened and the baby got hurt! The baby servants must have been completely devoted and stressed out of their minds with concern for their special charge.

  9. Mila Johansen says:

    What languages did Prince Arthur speak? French?

  10. Sheila says:

    So much is made of Arthur and Catherine’s wedding night that we lose sight of the fact that they were a couple aged 15 and 16, and they lived together as a married couple from November until March/April the following year. They knew that they were married in order to produce the next generation. Not that it made any difference in the end because Henry’s decision was that Arthur and Catherine had consummated their marriage, but I find it implausible that they did not.

    1. Aud says:

      A marriage about 4 months and nineteen days. And Catherine never once became pregnant. And being so young, they may have thought they had all the time in the world and weren’t in any rush. Stranger things have happened in history. I find it implausible that KOA would lie about the consummation of her marriage and risk receiving a false dispensation which would mean that she wasn’t legally wed to Henry VIII and making her children with him illegitimate. Her duty was to get legitimate heirs, remember that!

      1. Jen says:

        Aud – Special dispensation was sought & granted for Henry VIII to marry his brothers widow, Catherine of Aragon. It was only later & when it became clear that her child (son) bearing days were over, that Catherine had every reason to ‘stick’ to her story that her marriage to Arthur wasn’t consummated. If proven false, it gave Henry more credence to his convenient belief that he had in fact committed a sin in the eyes of God by marrying her &, therefore, should be divorced in order for him to achieve his ulterior motive to move on with his next wife with a view of having a son & heir. It was also clear that Catherine was in every other way, a devoted & devout wife, so he couldn’t exactly cut her head off, without sparking all out war with Spain so I guess a divorce seemed more diplomatically appropriate.

        I believe Catherine would have slept with Arthur – two teenagers with raging hormones – back in the day when it was perfectly acceptable & expected for a young royal couple to do so….c’mon of course they did! Unless he was gay of course? Catherine stuck to her story so she would not lose her title &, possibly see her daughter, Mary disinherited.

        Regardless, Henry got his way in the end – not with a surviving male heir may be but certainly with his wives, religion & ruling the realm of England.

      2. Jen says:

        Aud – Special dispensation was sought & granted for Henry VIII to marry his brothers widow, Catherine of Aragon. It was only later & when it became clear that her child (son) bearing days were over, that Catherine had every reason to ‘stick’ to her story that her marriage to Arthur wasn’t consummated. If proven false, it gave Henry more credence to his convenient belief that he had in fact committed a sin in the eyes of God by marrying her &, therefore, should be divorced in order for him to achieve his ulterior motive to move on with his next wife with a view of having a son & heir. It was also clear that Catherine was in every other way, a devoted & devout wife, so he couldn’t exactly cut her head off, without sparking all out war with Spain so I guess a divorce seemed more diplomatically appropriate.

        I believe Catherine would have slept with Arthur – two teenagers with raging hormones – back in the day when it was perfectly acceptable & expected for a young royal couple to do so….c’mon of course they did! Unless he was gay of course? Catherine stuck to her story so she would not lose her title &, possibly see her daughter, Mary disinherited.

        Regardless, Henry got his way in the end – not with a surviving male heir may be but certainly with his wives, religion & ruling the realm of England.

  11. Susan says:

    Good article Clair thank u !!!

  12. Susan says:

    Hi Clair can u explain to me what Rex stood for as in Henry Rex !!!

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, “Rex” is Latin for “King”.

  13. Anastasia says:

    If Arthur had not died, him and Catherine could have lived a happy life together. He would become King instead of Henry and as a result less people would have lost their head. However if that happened Elizabeth I, whose time as Queen is often called “the golden age of English history” might not even have been born. English history would be a lot different.

    1. Christine says:

      I think Arthur and Catherine’s marriage would have been very happy and may well have lasted, they may have had a son and heir who would have become king but as for Henry, had Arthur heir died young then Henry would still have inherited the throne, if not he would doubtless have married and whoever his wife may have been, he would still have lusted after Anne Boleyn as she would still be at court, it’s fascinating to imagine what might have been, Henry and Anne would have married without all the trouble it caused, the split from Rome the reformation etc, and Anne and Henry may well have been together for many years, Elizabeth would have been there and probably her brothers and sisters as Anne wouldn’t have had the stress put on her to produce a son, her pregnancies may have resulted in healthy children, she and Henry would have been The Duke and Duchess of York, and she would not now be remembered as one of England’s most notorious Queens or Henry the husband of six wives.

      1. Aud says:

        Sorry, but that’s pure speculation. We don’t know what kind of man Arthur would have turned out to be. And Henry’s marriage, more than likely would have been a marriage of state, which would have meant him marrying a foreign princess. And being a Duke of York, he would have had to tow the line.

  14. Maryann Pitman says:

    There was confusion contemporary with the events, so Their Catholic Majesties obtained a dispensation that was intended to deal with either circumstance. One suspects that regardless of the duenna or Catherine’s claims, they believed the marriage to have been consummated. They took no chances in any case.

    Henry would have done well to develop his conscience a few years sooner. The ongoing conflict in Italy was always a risk to any plans he might have had to get a new wife. After Pavia, there was little chance at all, and that disappeared after the sack of Rome.

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