When he took the throne prior to defeating Richard III at Bosworth Field in August 1485, Henry VII’s claim to the throne was unstable. His only source of royal blood stemmed from his mother Margaret Beaufort, descendant of the female branch of the House of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses that had been barred from the succession in England and later legitimized. Henry needed a solid claim to the kingship, if not for himself, then for his lineage. To do so, on 18 January 1486, he took as his wife Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of the late Edward IV and heiress to the House of York in her own right. Their marriage united the two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet, but it also began a new dynasty for England’s monarchy – the Tudors. It was for this reason that the couple’s first child was named after the legendary King Arthur, as he was to be a symbol of unity and prosperity for his family and his people.
Arthur Tudor was born in Winchester on 20 September of that year near one o’clock in the morning, bringing with him the first drop of undoubted royal blood. His birth was met with great celebration and a sigh of relief from his father, whose family now had a solid claim to power in his son. Arthur was a healthy child with the customary red-brown hair of the Tudors and light eyes, proclaimed Duke of Cornwall at birth and later designated Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, and a Knight of the Bath in his own right. He grew to be tall for the time and was said to be very handsome, his looks accompanied by a gentle personality and a friendly attitude. His parents showered him with affection, though they would go one to have three more children – two girls and a son.
Stained glass window depiction of Henry VII and his beloved wife Elizabeth.
When he was still young, it was decided that Arthur would marry a Spanish princess. His chosen bride was Catalina, youngest daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Sicily and Isabella I of Castile, also called Catherine. Catherine of Aragon was a year his senior, but a pretty girl, and it was agreed that the two would be married once they reached canonical age. Arthur wrote to his bride-to-be in Latin, expressing how much he wanted to meet his “dearest spouse” and promising that he would be a “true and loving husband”. When he was fifteen, Catherine landed at Plymouth and was escorted to Hampshire by Henry, Arthur’s ten-year-old younger brother, and when the couple met for the first time, they quickly realized that they had each learned different forms of Latin and were unable to communicate verbally. However, this did not deter them and the two were married in November 1501, setting up their home in Ludlow Castle.
Soon after the wedding took place however, an unknown epidemic swept through Europe. Called the Sweating Sickness, it took hold of many lives, including both Catherine and Arthur. While we do not know just what the Sweating Sickness was, we do know several symptoms – extreme sweating, cold shivers, headaches, severe neck pains, rapid pulse, intense exhaustion, and in some cases, pains in the heart and delirium. While Catherine was able to recover from the disease, Arthur did not. He died on the Second of April in 1502. He was not yet sixteen. When news of his son’s death reached the King, the normally stoic man with a fixed poker face wept. His wife Elizabeth, also stricken by grief, did her best to calm her husband, saying that all was not lost. They still had a son, she reminded him, and they were young enough to have more children. The boy was buried in Worcester Cathedral.
Arthur’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral. In 2002, ground-penetrating radar proved that the prince was buried under the floor beneath the monument atop, which was added 20 years after his death.
Arthur’s death set the stage for a series of tragic events in Tudor England. His younger brother Henry became heir apparent at the age of ten and soon, Elizabeth was pregnant again. Confined to the Tower of London in February, she gave birth to a daughter who lived for only minutes and, succumbing to childbed fever, died on the Eleventh of February, her thirty-seventh birthday. As theirs had been a loving and true marriage, her death sent the king into a fit of hysteria and madness. He grew cruel and increasingly paranoid, dubbed the Winter King for his coldness. Six years later, Henry VII died of what was rumored to be a broken heart, allowing his only surviving son to rule England as the notorious Henry VIII.
Catherine of Aragon as a young widow
Even after his death, Arthur plagued his younger brother. When Henry took the crown in 1509, his first act of business was to marry his brother’s widow. Their marriage was littered with troubles, the chief of which was Catherine’s difficulty conceiving. Though she became pregnant at least six times, the only child to reach adulthood was a daughter. Henry knew that a girl could not rule a country with acceptance and soon became desperate for a male heir, but by this time, Catherine was in her thirties and past the age where it was considered possible fro a woman to give birth. Then Henry meet Anne Boleyn and the possibility became a reality as the king fell head over heels in love. Desperately seeking a way out of his marriage to Catherine, Henry sought comfort in the Bible, specifically in Leviticus, which stated that a man’s union with his brother’s wife would prove childless. This brought up a plaguing question: had Catherine and Arthur been husband and wife in both the spiritual and physical sense? This, Henry thought, was the key to the divorce he desired. If Catherine had consummated her wedding vows to Arthur, then she could not have been a true wife to Henry as this would have made her the king’s sister in the eyes of God. The Queen stood fast and swore that she had entered her marriage to the king as a virgin. Whatever the truth, an annulment was issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, Anne Boleyn was declared to be the king’s lawful wife and Catherine was banished from court and stripped of her title as Queen and died of heart disease in 1536. Including her, Henry would marry a grand total of six times, two of which – to Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard – ended in execution.