Arthur, the firstborn child and eldest son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was born on 20 September 1486 about an hour after midnight. He was the longed-for male heir, the tangible sign of God’s favor for the Tudor/York marriage, and the hope of peace in a kingdom long beset by internal wars for the crown.
The baby was born slightly ahead of schedule, perhaps because his mother had been sent from London to Saint Swithun’s Priory for her lying-in, or perhaps because he was conceived a few weeks before his parent’s wedding on 18 January 1486. Not that this would have been a ‘scandal’; once the marriage contract was signed the bride and groom were legally wed and often ‘made free’ to enjoy conjugal love, and many Medieval brides said their vows with a bulging belly and no need to be ashamed. The king and queen wouldn’t have needed to fudge the due date to preserve the queen’s honor. It’s more likely that the little fella was indeed a bit premature.
Queen Elizabeth had gone to St Swithun’s Priory to have her baby because it was in present-day Winchester, believed by some Medieval scholars to be the site of Camelot, where King Arthur centralized his power and beat back the Saxon invasion of Britain. The king and queen wanted their child – their hoped for son – to be born in Camelot because King Arthur was believed to be, like Henry VII, from Wales. Henry Tudor was proud of his Welsh heritage, displaying the Red Dragon of Wales in his Coat of Arms, and wanted the world to view his son as a Welsh Prince as well as the Prince of Wales.
All of the Tudor king’s dreams of dynastic glory were manifested by his son’s arrival, and the baby was named Arthur after the legendary Welsh ruler. Perhaps his parents hoped that he would unite Britain as King Arthur had done before him? A united realm was what King Henry was constantly struggling for, and was possibly his greatest wish for his son.
Four days after Arthur’s birth his grandmother, Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and his aunt, Cecily of York, carried him down the aisle of Winchester Cathedral for his baptism and were given the role of his godmothers. His godfathers were the three noblemen who had been crucial to Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth Field: John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford, Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, and William FitzAlan, 16th Earl of Arundel. The tiny prince was then taken to the royal nursery at Farnham, which was headed by his mother’s former nurse, Elizabeth Darcy. Although it seems odd to modern eyes to send one’s newborn off to be raised by strangers, it was the custom and ‘right’ thing for Arthur’s parents to do, and it does not mean they loved him any less than modern parents love their children. The king and queen were kept appraised of the baby’s health and development and needs, and spared no expense to make sure he was safe and well-cared for.
From Arthur’s first breath he was Duke of Cornwall, and shortly after he turned three years old he was made a Knight of the Bath. Just a few months later, on on 27 February 1490, he was appointed Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. As the Prince of Wales, the toddler was given an establishment of his own, separate from the royal nursery. Sons of the most privileged and powerful peers in the realm joined him there, his playmates and future courtiers. It was thought that the children of loyal retainers deserved the honor, among them the boy would become Arthur’s closest friend, Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas. Gruffydd’s father was one of the most powerful men in Wales, and had allegedly stuck the blow that killed King Richard III.
On 8 May 1491, little Arthur was made a Knight of the Garter and subsequently created warden of all the marches towards Scotland. It was obviously a symbolic post for three and half year old boy, and the true duties of the office were carried out by the Earl of Surrey. Likewise, when King Henry VII went to France in October 1492, Prince Arthur, now at the ripe old age of six, was named Keeper of England and King’s Lieutenant. Arthur was also made the titular head of the Council of Wales and the Marches, although the actual power was held by the prince’s great-uncle, Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford.
Arthur was adored by his parents. And why not? He was everything that would make doting parents proud. He was, like his younger brother, Henry, Duke of York, extremely intelligent and physically adept. The prince danced well, and according to contemporary sources, was a “superb archer”. Moreover, he was sweet-tempered and hard to anger, taking after his mother and her natural tendency to be peace-maker. In August of 1497 the secretary to duke of Milan, Raimondo da Soncino, described the eleven year old Arthur as being taller than average for his age, as well as gifted with “singular beauty and grace” and a ready ability to speak Latin. Henry VII, not the most demonstrative of men, proudly “showed off his nineteen-month-old son” to representatives from Spain, “first dressed in cloth of gold and then stripped naked, so they could see he had no deformity.
Prince Arthur’s marriage was given the same solemn attention to detail as the child’s offices of state. In an important diplomatic coup, Henry VII secured his son the hand of Catherine of Aragon on 27 March 1489, in the Treaty of Medina del Campo. This was a major achievement for an upstart king and a backwater little kingdom like Britain. The young teens were formally engaged by proxy on 25 August 1497, with ambassador Roderigo de Puebla standing in place for Princess Catherine.
Just as his own parents had fallen in love after their marriage was arranged, Arthur was determined to love his new bride. He wrote to her frequently, in their common language of Latin, and told her “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.” At their proxy engagement, he assured the Spanish representatives that “he much rejoiced to contract the marriage because of his deep and sincere love for the Princess.” Arthur was no less enchanted with his betrothed in person. He wrote to her parents, assuring them that “no woman in the world could be more agreeable to him” and that he “had never felt so much joy” as when he “beheld the sweet face of his bride”.
The royal wedding was as lavish as Tudor England could make it … and thus VERY lavish indeed. There were processions and pageants and feasts for days before the marriage. The ceremony itself took place in St Paul’s Cathedral on 14 November 1501, with the bride and groom both dressed in white and resplendent with jewels. The whole wedding party was raised up on a platform 4 feet high, 12 feet wide, and 350 feet long. The ten year old brother of the groom, Henry, Duke of York and the Duke of Cabra escorted Catherine to the church, where she entered to the fanfare of trumpets. After the vows, Arthur and his new wife walked the length of the platform hand in hand, “so the present multitude of people might see and behold their persons.” The wedding was marked with feasts and celebrations and pageants, all of which continued for several days after, and included tournaments as well.
Although their marriage was unconsummated (I take Catherine’s word for it and discuss it in this post: http://www.kyrackramer.com/2017/02/13/did-arthur-tudor-consummate-his-marriage/), there is no reason to supposed the young couple didn’t bond with each other during their brief time together. Both teens would have felt compelled by cultural norms to TRY to love the spouse their families had chosen, and felt religiously beholden to give their spouse due respect. With good-looks and good-nature between them, their chance at happiness was more than fair. The couple probably did not consummate the marriage because doctors viewed sex to be dangerous for boys Arthur’s age. Coitus could drain his ‘vital essences’ and deplete his health to dangerous levels. Better, it was thought, to wait until the groom was sixteen or seventeen.
The newlyweds lived together at Tickenhill Manor for a month, no doubt enjoying the revels, before they decamped for Wales, where they would take up residence at Ludlow Castle. Arthur had been taking an active part in the governance of the Council of Wales and the Marches for a few years by now, and it would be excellent practice for him before he assumed the full mantel of kingship.
Alas, the couple’s union was doomed. They both became ill with what was thought to be the sweating sickness or an ‘ague’ at the end of March 1502. Catherine would recover, but the Prince of Wales, his parents great hope and named for the great King of the Britains, died on 2 April 1502. (I discuss my theory that non-classic cystic fibrosis was his killer in this post: http://www.kyrackramer.com/2017/04/02/the-death-of-arthur-tudor/)
Arthur’s parents were destroyed when they heard the news two days later:
The King was awoken from his sleep by his confessor, who quoted Job by asking Henry “If we receive good things at the hands of God, why may we not endure evil things?” He then told the king that “[his] dearest son hath departed to God,” and Henry burst into tears. “Grief-stricken and emotional,” he then had his wife brought into his chambers, so that they might “take the painful news together”; Elizabeth reminded Henry that God had helped him become king and “had ever preserved him,” adding that they had been left with “yet a fair Prince and two fair princesses and that God is where he was, and [they were] both young enough [to have more children]”. Soon after leaving Henry’s bedchamber, Elizabeth collapsed and began to cry, while the ladies sent for the King, who hurriedly came and “relieved her” [by reminding her of the same things she had said to comfort him].
Arthur’s embalmed body was interred in Worcester Cathedral on 25 April, leaving his grieving parents with the ashes of the dreams they had when he arrived in Westminster. Nor were they the only ones to have truly loved the Prince of Wales. When his best friend, Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas, died in 1521, his will requested his remains be laid to rest beside Arthur’s in Worcester Cathedral.
A pawn of state, Arthur’s widow was soon engaged to the new Prince of Wales, the future Henry VIII.