King Henry VII of England’s eldest son and first in line to the English throne was Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486-1502). However, he suffered an untimely death at the age of 15 and this led Henry to become first in line to the throne - and later King Henry VIII of England. But what would have happened had Arthur survived and become King of England? Casey Titus explains (and follows her past Tudor article on King Edward VI here).

Arthur, Prince of Wales. Painting c. 1500.

Arthur, Prince of Wales. Painting c. 1500.

The Tudors are one of the most renowned and notorious English royal families in history with countless books, movies, articles, and research devoted to understanding them. No doubt King Henry VIII is the center of historical interest in the Tudors, with particular emphasis on his six wives and the reigns of his three children. Henry VIII of England presided over sweeping political and religious changes that brought the nation into the Protestant Reformation and radically altered the fabric of English life.

But Henry was only second in line to the English throne after his elder brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, who died in April 1502, most likely of tuberculosis. The short life of Prince Arthur Tudor is overshadowed and largely forgotten from Tudor history, only to be recounted in “The King’s Great Matter” nearly thirty years after his death. Had Arthur lived and ascended to the English throne instead of Henry VIII, what course would English history have taken?

 

The Birth of Arthur

When Arthur was born in Saint Swithun’s Priory (now Winchester Cathedral Priory) on September 19/20 1486, not only was he heir to the English throne but the result of two unified royal houses, York and Lancaster. His place of birth was believed to have been the capital of the legendary Camelot and the site of King Arthur’s castle. Hence, the infant boy was given the name Arthur, to induce memorable sentiments of the legendary King Arthur, who led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5thand early 6thcenturies.

With the Tudor dynasty off to a successful start, Henry VIIwas convinced his son’s birth would bring about a golden age. Arthur was given a magnificent christening on September 24th, noted by David Starkey as “the first of many spectacular ceremonies that Henry used to mark each stage of the advance and consolidation of the Tudor dynasty.” At two years of age, Arthur was betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of the joint Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. The following year, in November 1489, Arthur was became Prince of Wales. In 1492, in a traditional precedent set by the grandfather, Edward IV, the heir to England was sent to reside at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches to begin his education as the future king.

Starkey writes of Arthur growing up to be “a model prince” who “displayed the exaggerated sense of responsibility of the eldest child.” Personality wise, he was “intellectually precocious” and presented a stiff public manner. Historians Steve Gunn and Linda Monckton describe Arthur as “amiable and gentle” and a “delicate lad.”

 

Meeting his future wife – And Tragedy…

In the autumn of 1501, Katherine of Aragon landed in England and met her husband-to-be at Dogmersfield in Hampshire. They were married on November 14th, 1501. Arthur’s 10-year old brother Henry escorted the bride to the cathedral. Arthur wrote to Katherine’s parents that he would be “a true and loving husband.” We do not know exactly what followed after the traditional bedding ceremony, which was the only public bedding of a royal couple recorded in Britain in the 16thcentury. Yet, the next morning Arthur boasted: “bring me a cup of ale for I have been this night in the midst of Spain!”

His sincere affection and longing for Catherine is noted in a letter from October 1499 in which Arthur refers to Katherine as “my dearest spouse,” and writes:

I cannot tell you what an earnest desire I feel to see your Highness, and how vexatious to me is this procrastination about your coming. Let [it] be hastened, [that] the love conceived between us and the wished-for joys may reap their proper fruit.

 

After living at Tickenhill Manor for a month, Arthur and his new bride traveled to the Welsh Marches where they established their household at Ludlow Castle. Plague and illness had been lingering around this area, though the young prince disregarded it and carried on with his duties. In late March 1502, he and Catherine were suddenly struck by “a malign vapour which proceeded from the air.” Catherine recovered but not before her husband and heir to the English throne died on April 2nd- just six months short of his sixteenth birthday. Fifty-one years later, Arthur’s nephew, the last male heir of the Tudor dynasty, would die at the same age.

Theories on the cause of Arthur’s death range from cancer to possible consumption. A commonly suggested cause that is consistent with Katherine of Aragon’s illness is the deadly sweating sickness. This disease first made its way to England in the fifteenth century when Henry VII first took the throne and occurred sporadically, with one of the worst epidemics being in 1528.

The heavy responsibility as new heir to the throne would fall on the young Henry VIII who married his brother’s widow in 1509. When his marriage to Catherine of Aragon failed to produce any surviving male heirs, King Henry desired to have it annulled on the grounds that Catherine had been previously married to his brother, something that was forbidden according to Scripture. Catherine argued in defense that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated. Henry would take matters in to his own hands and break from the Roman Catholic Church to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, establish the Church of England, and catapult along the Protestant Reformation in England.

 

What if… Arthur had become King?

But had Arthur survived and remained married to Catherine, how would history be different? Specifically, what would be the role of reformation in England and would he have lived up to the great legend and “golden age” his parents hoped for?

By all accounts, Arthur’s nature most resembled his father. Italian visitors in 1497 reported that Henry VII “evidently has a most quiet spirit.” In 1504, a Spanish visitor reported back to the Catholic Monarchs that “… He is so wise and attentive to everything; nothing escapes his attention.” It seems the late prince would have been less argumentative and more faithful to his wife like his father and unlike his brother. With his understanding of duty to his country and the likely happy marriage Arthur Tudor and his Spanish bride would have had, Arthur would have had little reason or temptation to relinquish the alliance with Spain. He would have had much less reason to break away from Rome and catapult the English Reformation, especially if Arthur and Catherine managed to produce male heirs. The Reformation had already sprouted in German states.

Much unlike Henry, who would have been trained in the workings of the church as the younger son, Arthur would not have involved or interested in the English church and the strict devotion to Catholicism of Catherine would further deter him from risking excommunication. If, by any far-stretched chance, Arthur was faced with the same succession crisis as Henry, would he have divorced Catherine and remarried? Being the staid boy he was, Arthur would have made some foreign alliance with another European power through a second marriage.

All of this is simply speculation though. If Arthur had indeed fulfilled his parents’ hopes, it would likely have been in the image of his father, which would represent a more careful and consolidated reign that would both avoid war and replace medieval rule with a centralized and united Tudor state. The court would have remained very similar and there would likely have been a distant and occasionally absent king.

 

And the Tudor Dynasty?

On the question of the continuation of the Tudor dynasty, Arthur and Catherine’s surviving children could have accomplished this for multiple generations. Yet, where would the union of the crowns of England and Scotland come into place? Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I, without an heir, the English throne was passed to her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, uniting the crowns of both countries. It is unlikely this would have taken place under the continuation of the Tudor dynasty.

Especially under Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, England saw a golden age of literature, music, and visual arts in the midst of the English Renaissance. Would the same have occurred under King Arthur and his descendants? As a child, he was a skilled pupil and educated in poetry and ethics and studied the works of Cicero, Homer, Ovid, and Virgil. By 1501, he had even learned to dance “right pleasant and honourably.”

As for the economic might of England, Henry VII’s hopes for his eldest son would have undoubtedly included lessons on wisdoms and parsimony. Combined with Arthur’s temperate nature and disinterest in fighting wars with other countries, this could have produced a more flourishing economy during Arthur’s reign.

At the time of Arthur’s birth, the fate and hopes of England and that of his father rested on him with the expectation of ushering in a new era. Now, five centuries after his untimely death, he has been easily forgotten and overshadowed by his younger brother, the infamous Henry VIII, and his nephews and nieces. If the 15-year old prince had survived his deadly affliction in 1502, no doubt history would have been drastically different.

 

What do you think? How would English history have been different if Arthur had become King instead of Henry VIII?

Sources

“Arthur, Prince of Wales.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Nov. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur,_Prince_of_Wales.

Buckingham, Maddie. “What If Arthur Had Become King of England?” W.U Hstry, 16 July 2016, wuhstry.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/what-if-arthur-had-become-king-of-england/.

Crowther, David. “The History of England.” The History of England, 2016, thehistoryofengland.co.uk/resource/henry-vii-character-and-portraits/.

NikitaBlogger. “A Real King Arthur: How Would English History Have Been Different If Arthur Tudor Had Lived?”Royal Central, 17 May 2017, royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/a-real-king-arthur-how-would-english-history-have-been-different-if-arthur-tudor-had-lived-82381.

Ridgway, Claire. “Arthur, Prince of Wales.” The Anne Boleyn Files, 20 Sept. 2010, www.theanneboleynfiles.com/arthur-prince-of-wales/.

Ridgway, Claire. “The Death of Arthur Tudor by Sarah Bryson.” The Tudor Society, 16 July 2018, www.tudorsociety.com/arthur-tudor-sarah-bryson/.

The Tudors monarchs were a very important part of English history for over 100 years. The Tudor kings and queens ruled from 1485 to 1603. Here, Anthony Ruggiero follows his article on Tudor Queen Mary I (here), and considers how the Tudors took power in England and the importance of the reigns of King Henry VII and King Henry VIII. The article includes a consideration of England’s relationship with France and Spain.

Portrait of King Henry VIII of England,

Portrait of King Henry VIII of England,

Throughout the sixteenth century, the monarchs of the Tudor dynasty each left a mark on England. For example, King Henry VII reorganized a country that was in disarray after years of civil war, while his son, King Henry VIII, established precedence through forming the Church of England. The Protestant Reformation also greatly affected the country. The Reformation challenged the practices of the Catholic Church, as well as the Pope’s authority in Rome. Many English people were critical of the Roman Catholic Church and embraced the Reformation. While religion was one of the most important and persistent issues, the Tudor monarchs also handled foreign relations with two prominent Catholic and Western European nations at the time, Spain and France. These two countries engaged in an on-and-off rivalry during the sixteenth century, with Tudor England being placed in the middle. England’s involvement with Spain and France would have both negative and positive impacts on the country, such as war, marriage, and trade.

 

The Tudor Rise – King Henry VII

Prior to the Tudors, the political and social state of England during the fifteenth century was in disarray. The country was divided in a civil war between multiple noble families who were all vying for the English crown. Fifteenth century England was a “prison-house,” where any progression seemed impossible to achieve due to the country’s political issues.[1]Church officials, nobles, and knights controlled a majority of the aggregate land. For example, between 60 and 170 barons, earls, and dukes controlled the land.[2]These nobles produced two-thirds of revenue in the country.  Additionally, there were between 9,000 and 10,000 Church parishes in England.[3]Resources produced on these manors were primarily being sold in local markets. Additionally, foreign advances in trade and alliances were scarce, despite England controlling lands such as Calais in France.[4]

The year 1485 was a pivotal year in England’s history as it resulted in the rise of one of England’s most significant dynasties, the Tudors. Throughout the fifteenth century, the English crown was primarily divided between the ruling houses of Lancaster and York, which fought in a civil war known as “The War of the Roses.” By 1485 the York house had been restored, and King Richard III ruled over England. Despite the restoration, the country was still engaged in a civil war, now between King Richard III and Henry Tudor. Henry’s claim to the throne came through his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was a descendant of King Edward III. Although his claim was questionable, Henry staunchly fought for his right to the throne.[5]The two engaged in battle at Bosworth Field, where on August 22nd, 1485, Richard III was slain, and Henry, later styled King Henry VII, emerged as the new king of England, effectively ending the War of the Roses.[6]During his reign, Henry VII managed to have multiple positive impacts on the country that helped move England from a decentralized, medieval state towards a stable nation. For example, Henry managed to unite the feuding houses in England through his popular marriage to Elizabeth of York, who was viewed as having a strong claim to the throne in her own right. Henry VII was also responsible for printing books, building more chapels and monasteries, helping reorganize Parliament, and establishing trading relations with the Netherlands and Spain. The latter two resulted in more revenue for England, such as obtaining more trade products in cloth and access to fisheries to increase English food supply and trade circulation.[7]The Spanish treaty also resulted in the marriage of Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, to Henry’s son Arthur, and after Arthur’s death in 1502, to Henry’s younger son, Henry. [8]England under Henry VII experienced political stability, economic expansion and a royal marriage that addressed decades of animosity with Spain.

 

King Henry VIII

Following Henry VII’s death in 1509, his then seventeen-year-old son, who would ultimately become one of England’s most famous and notorious monarchs, Henry VIII, inherited the throne. Henry VIII would ultimately be remembered for breaking away from the Catholic Church; however, prior to these events Henry was a devout Catholic, raised with a strong knowledge of theology. Earlier in his reign, when German priest Martin Luther spoke out against the practices of the Catholic Church that sparked the Protestant Reformation, Henry defended Catholic traditions and was declared “Defender of the Faith,” by Pope Leo X in 1521.[9]However, after the papacy refused to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to remarry to produce a male heir to the throne, Henry sought autonomy from the Catholic Church and decided to break from the Church in what would be known as the English Reformation between 1532 and 1534. During this time, Henry and Parliament devised a series of acts that ultimately fashioned Henry as the Supreme Head of the newly-created Church of England.[10]The Act of Restraint Annates, devised in 1532, forced the clergy in England to stop paying taxes to the church in Rome and required them to pay taxes to the Church of England, which ultimately meant the crown.[11]That same year Parliament would also pass the Submission of the Clergy Actthat would force them to deny the authority of the Pope or face confiscation of their landholdings.[12]Finally, the Act of Royal Supremacy in 1534 officially recognized Henry as the head of the Church of England.[13]Although many of these changes shared similarities with Protestantism, Henry’s new church possessed many Catholic traditions. For example, under the publication of his Six Articlesin 1539, the clergy were recommended to take vows of chastity, which contradicted the Protestant views that the clergy should be allowed to marry. This publication also declared private mass and Holy Communion valid, and any denial of these decrees was subject to excommunication and execution.[14]Henry VIII had a lasting legacy and effect on England through his establishment of the Church of England. Despite these reforms religion would remain a controversial and divisive issue through the reigns of Henry’s three children: Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. 

 

Foreign Policy – France & Spain

England’s involvement with two of the major European powers, Spain and France, would have significant impacts throughout the Tudor period. During the 1490s and early 1500s, Spain prospered from multiple explorations and the accumulation of resources from the New World. During this time, King Charles ruled over the Catholic Spain and would later be created Emperor Charles V.[15]Despite both countries maintaining the Catholic faith, Spain would often clash with France. Ruled by the Valois family, particularly under King Francis I, France plunged itself into war with Spain over claimed lands in Italy, known as the Italian Wars, throughout the sixteenth century.[16]During this time both countries made attempts to rally England behind them; these alliances would alter throughout the fifteenth century and inevitably lead to conflicts between each country. Under both Henry VII and Henry VIII’s regimes England’s relationship with both countries regularly shifted. England’s treaty with Spain earned the country revenue and resulted in the marriage between Catherine of Aragon and the later King Henry VIII. England and France would engage in battle 1513 and would attempt to negotiate a treaty in the years that followed, including at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, which resulted in the betrothal of Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary, to the dauphin of France.[17]However, Henry’s pro-French policies quickly soured, the betrothal of Mary to the dauphin was canceled, and Henry once again turned his attentions towards Spain. This new alliance also resulted in the betrothal of Mary to Charles V who was sixteen years her senior. However, the age gap was an issue for Charles, who ultimately called off the betrothal in favor of a matured bride. This angered Henry who again looked to France for an alliance.[18]This back and forth would ultimately continue through Henry’s reign, but would also occur throughout the reign of his three children.

 

In Conclusion

The Tudors had significant impact on England during their reign over England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Henry VII brought stability to England following years of warfare. Although Henry VIII may be remembered by some due to his six marriages, his religious changes ushered in the English Reformation, impacting England for years to come. Furthermore, through Henry VIII’s three children: Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Edward VI, England would continue to experience various changes that would ultimately result in the country emerging as a world power.

 

What do you think of the importance of King Henry VII and King Henry VII in the rise of England as a global power? Let us know below.


[1]Feiling, England Under The Tudors and Stuarts,8.

[2]Peter Turchin and S. A. Nefedov, Secular Cycles(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 83.

[3]Turchin and Nefedov, Secular Cycles, 84.

[4]Feiling, Keith. England under the Tudors and Stuarts. New York: H. Holt and, 1927, 7-8.

[5]Feiling, England Under The Tudors and Stuarts, 19.

[6]Sharpe, Kevin. Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-century England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, 61-62.

[7]Feiling, England Under The Tudors and Stuarts, 27.

[8]Sharpe, Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-century England, 62-64.

[9]Jones, Whitney R. D. The Mid-Tudor Crisis: 1539-1563. London: Macmillan, 1973, 75.

[10]Jones, The Mid-Tudor Crisis: 15.

[11]Conrad Russell, The Crisis of Parliaments: English History, 1509-1660(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 94.

[12]Russell, The Crisis of Parliaments: English History, 1509-1660, 98-99.

[13]Russell, The Crisis of Parliaments: English History, 1509-1660, 100-101.

[14]Jones, The Mid-Tudor Crisis: 1539-1563, 77.

[15]Thomas, Hugh. The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America. New York: Random House, 2010, 2-4.

[16]Titler, The Reign of Mary I, 77.

[17]D. M. Loades, The Reign of Mary Tudor: Politics, Government, and Religion in England, 1553-1558(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), 6, 8.

[18]Loades, The Reign of Mary Tudor: Politics, Government, and Religion in England, 1553-1558, 8-9.