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).
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?
“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/.