The Death of Arthur Tudor

Arthur Tudor died at the young age of 15 on 2 April 1502 at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh boarder. It is springtime here, and Wales is covered with wildflowers and fields full of woolly little lambs. It seems exceptionally sad that Arthur died at this time of year, when he was a newlywed and also just entering the spring of his life.

Adding to the tragedy of his death is that no one is sure exactly why he died. A contemporary source records that Arthur’s ailment was “the most pitiful disease and sickness, that with so sore and great violence had battled and driven, in the singular parts of him inward, [so] that cruel and fervent enemy of nature, the deadly corruption, did utterly vanquish” (Starkey, 2003:76) the teenage prince. The onslaught of the illness that killed him began on March 27, 1502 and final breath Arthur took was less than a week later. What could have killed him in such a short space of time?

Thomas Penn’s biography of Henry VII states that the newlywed prince died of the sweating sickness, but the course of the sweating sickness – whether to resumed health or to the grave – went much faster. As Claire Ridgeway explained in her treatise Sweating Sickness in a Nutshell, the illness “lasted 24 hours, more or less”. Since it took Arthur almost a week to succumb, it was either an oddly long time for the sweating sickness to progress or it wasn’t sweating sickness at all. Influenza and/or pneumonia could have certainly caused it in that space of time, but Arthur’s physicians would have known and named either condition (Ricks, 2009; Wallis, 2010).

Testicular cancer has also been suggested as a reasonable explanation for Arthur’s rapid decline (Starkey, 2003:76-77), but the odds are good that one of his physicians would have noticed and tried to treat a tumorous mass on Arthur’s scrotum – especially if the prince’s health was failing. Medieval physicians were aware of cancer and its progression, looking for “morbid swellings that were hard, spread quickly … and eventually produced ulcers that corroded the flesh” (Wallis, 2010:344). Moreover, health care professionals past and present quickly learn the ‘cancer smell’ that comes with end stage cancer, “which somewhat resembles the scent of lilac or jasmine, mixed with an intolerably fetid odor” (Smith, 1855:96) or “rotting flesh, but even more pungent” (Gunter, 2012). Like influenza or pneumonia, Arthur’s doctors could have probably named the disease for what it was, even though they were helpless to treat it.

Other historians have speculated that Arthur’s death was the result of consumption (Whitelock, 2010:10), but if so it was again another surprisingly rapid case tuberculosis. A Spanish physician in Katherina of Aragon’s household reportedly diagnosed the prince with “tisis, a Spanish catchall word covering everything from pulmonary tuberculosis to any wasting, feverish disease the produced ulceration of some bodily organ” (Tremlett, 2010:91). If this was the case, why didn’t any of the prince’s doctors notice it? Certainly tuberculosis was a disease which any medieval physician would have recognized (Magner, 1992; Crabtree, 2013).  Could his disease have only produced consumptive-like symptoms a few weeks prior to his death?

I think it might have been genetic. Like his older brother Arthur, both Henry VIII’s sons that survived infancy died in their mid teens.  God knows that genetic conditions could flourish in a closed breeding population like the nobility. This is the theory I put forth in my book, Edward VI in a Nutshell.

In the book I argue that Arthur, Edward VI, and Henry Fitzroy had atypical cystic fibrosis, which usually doesn’t show up until later in childhood or when the patient is in his teens. Atypical cystic fibrosis would also explain why some eyewitnesses saw Arthur as healthy while he simultaneously developed a reputation for being ‘delicate’; his perceived health would depend on whether his atypical CF was causing him issues at the time and if you were aware of his chronic cough and/or indigestion. Moreover, CF can look a hell of a lot like tuberculosis to the untrained eye — the patient can suddenly go downhill fast. Doctors would have known TB well enough to know it wasn’t quite TB that killed the patient, but they wouldn’t have had any idea of what it really was. CF can also involve copious amounts of malodorous sweat, which may explain why they thought Arthur might have had some weird form the sweating sickness.

As many as 1/25 people of Northern European decent are carrying the recessive gene, so it wouldn’t be very far-fetched for cousins (albeit distant) Henry VII and Elizabeth of York to both have the gene. Neither it is beyond belief that both Bessie Blount and Jane Seymour, both descendants of minor Plantagenet houses, had the recessive genes as well.

What do you think killed the Prince Arthur?

23 thoughts on “The Death of Arthur Tudor

  1. It has recently been suggested that Edmund “Tudor” was in fact fathered by Edmund Beaufort rather than Owen Tudor. If true, that would have meant Henry VII’s parents were first cousins, hence very closely related indeed; and when his blood relationship to Elizabeth of York is added into the mix – her great-grandmother was a Beaufort as well – then it starts to provide an explanation for many of the health problems of the “Tudor” family.

  2. I understood he & his nephews died of syphilis that he was born with.

    1. There is no evidence (or even rumor) that the 15 year old Arthur or either of his parents had syphilis, and the idea that Henry VIII had the disease has been debunked for almost a century. The syphilis myth is like the undead; it cannot stay in its grave! 🙂

  3. I am somewhat amazed that the author does not realize that one of the first concepts of disease, is that not every individual who has the disease, suffers the same affects. In other words, when writing or speaking about TB, he failed to mention the simple fact, that one could carry this disease for up to ten year or more, before it physically makes an appearance, and that at times it travels either slowly or swiftly. Consumption was a real killer and would be remain as such until the early 20th century. As for the physicians at the time, recognizing diseases and etc…. No one could debate that, but their description of Arthur’s symptoms, are basically lacking in a full description. Then again they were not exactly the masters of “cure” were they? Of course the author, is just giving his opinion on the matter, but the problem with any academic opinion, is that if its wrong, people will cling to it anyway, as the Gospel truth. Yet, at least giving it the good college try! Actually, an autopsy of the remains would be called for, by the Queen wouldn’t be amused. Sometimes, remains of this period may not be fully intact, but there would be a good chance that enough bodily material would have survived!

    1. Please excuse a spelling mistake. “by the Queen”, should read “but”.

    2. The author is female, and should be referred to as “she” not “he!”

  4. Ladies and gentlemen,
    Once again I must apologize, but did anyone look at Arthur’s face? Is it me, or does Arthur have other issues?? It just could be the painter’s style, but he just does not look right! If I am mistaken, I am mistaken!

  5. This was more likely tuberculosis or pneumonia or syphilis. Cystic fibrosis is very rare, and most likely wouldn’t have allowed Arthur to reach the age of marriage. It would’ve taken him far earlier.

    1. Actually, atypical CF would easily allow him to reach his teen years, since it does have the massive early onset complications of typical CF. Moreover, there is no evidence (or even historical suggestion) that the 15 year old Arthur or either of his parents had syphilis. The physicians there at the time believed Arthur to have died of a strangely acting TB, which atypical CF would mimic, and pnemonia would likewise be a complication on atypical CF. I address these issues in more detail in my book.

  6. I thought I read that Katherine was also sick with the same thing and came close to dying herself.

    1. They both caught either a heavy cold or influenza (or sweating sickness) but Arthur’s then manifested something else, something unknown, while Katherina got better.

  7. What’s about the death (within a week) of the father of Elizabeth of York, King Edward IV?
    Could it be also atypical CF?

    1. I don’t think so; he had no other symptoms of it and it would have been more likely to have caused his death at a much earlier age (teens/early 20s)

  8. I read your book on Edward vi , and I suggest you edit the part where you mention Edwards first cousins, Edward and Henry Suffolk, were the sons of Mary Tudor. They were actually the sons of Catherine Willoughby.

  9. Years ago I came across a article/paper that speculated that Arthur Tudor dies as a result of a hunting accident with his younger brother Henry. I’ve not be able to find it. Have any of you come across this theory?

    1. I haven’t, but his death was too well documented at Ludlow and Henry was still in the nursery at the time for me to take it seriously 🙂

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