The Tudor era is one of the most popular periods in English history and has been the subject of much discussion and research, not to mention countless dramatic and literary works. Interest in the Tudors revolves largely around King Henry VIII and his six wives. One of the most documented events of Henry VIII’s reign – his decision to break from Rome and form the Church of England – stemmed from his desire to seek an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. But history would have gone down rather differently if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate and untimely death of a young Prince, nearly three decades before the Reformation began to take shape. Because Henry VIII wasn’t supposed to marry Catherine of Aragon. Indeed, it wasn’t expected that he would become King at all. Both obligations fell to his older brother – Prince Arthur.
Arthur Tudor was born in Winchester Castle on September 20, 1486. He was the first child of the newly crowned Tudor King Henry VII and his Yorkist wife, Queen Elizabeth, and his birth was regarded as a sign of the union between the two houses. A Tudor heir symbolised the end of the Wars of the Roses and the promise of peace and stability. The young Prince was named Arthur, after the legendary King.
When he was just a child, Arthur was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon, in an effort to secure a marital alliance with Spain. The young couple exchanged letters during their betrothal, and in 1501, they were married in London. Shortly after their wedding, Arthur and Catherine moved to Ludlow Castle, where Arthur resided in his capacity as Prince of Wales. Sadly, in 1502, Arthur contracted a mysterious illness, and succumbed to it shortly afterwards, just a few months short of his sixteenth birthday.
A few years after Arthur’s death, his widow married his younger brother Henry, who by then had ascended the throne as King Henry VIII. When his marriage to Catherine of Aragon failed to produce any surviving sons, King Henry sought to have it annulled on the grounds that Catherine had previously been married to his brother. He subsequently married Anne Boleyn and was married another four times before his death, after which he was succeeded by his son, Edward. The rest, of course, is history.
But had Arthur survived, and remained married to Catherine, things might have been considerably different.
From what history reveals about Arthur’s nature, it seems that he would have been less confrontational and more inclined to fidelity than his brother. Having been brought up to rule, Arthur understood his duty to his country, and would have been unlikely to forgo the alliance with Spain that had been formed through his marriage to Catherine. Apart from the political implications, a successful marriage would have flown in the face of what was the catalyst for the Church of England breaking away from Rome during the reign of Henry VIII.
And although the English Reformation might have taken place anyway, it would have been considerably delayed and under different circumstances. Unlike Henry, who, as the younger son, had been trained in the workings of the Church, Arthur would not have been as involved or interested in the Church of England. Further, Catherine was a devout Catholic and firmly opposed to the break from Rome, and had he become King, Arthur might have been inclined to support his wife’s beliefs rather than risk excommunication.
And what if Arthur, unlike his younger brother, had managed to produce surviving male heirs with Catherine?
History could have gone one of two ways. In all probability, Arthur’s sons would have carried on the Tudor line for multiple generations. Although Henry VIII and his descendants were on the throne for almost a century, there was only one generation between the last Tudor ruler, Queen Elizabeth, and the first Tudor King, her grandfather Henry VII. Had Arthur and Catherine’s sons survived to adulthood and had children of their own, there’s no saying how many centuries the Tudor dynasty could have carried on for.
Of course, this would have had overarching consequences. The death of Queen Elizabeth without an heir meant that the throne passed to her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, who effectively united the crowns of England and Scotland when he ascended the English throne as James I. If the Tudor line had continued, it is unlikely that the English throne would ever have been occupied by a Scottish King, and the subsequent Union of the Crowns would have been impossible.
However, there is another possibility. Some historians have suggested that Arthur was a sickly child, and even if he had survived the bout of illness in his youth, it would have weakened him. If he had gone on to die only shortly after Catherine gave birth to a son, it would have left an infant on the throne for the second time in a hundred years. The last time that happened was when Henry VI ascended the throne when he was nine months old, and his reign was rife with political unrest and conflict.
In the early 16th century, the Tudor dynasty had only been ruling for a few decades and had not yet garnered the popularity that it would enjoy in its later years. If Henry VII had been succeeded by a baby (instead of his younger son, who was a strapping lad of 17 when he became King) it is likely that the country would have once again been divided into factions, with one side rallying around the Welsh Tudors and the other supporting Plantagenet claimants such as Richard de la Pole, ultimately resulting in a civil war similar to the Wars of the Roses.
These alternatives to the course of history explore the political and religious implications of Prince Arthur’s survival for a newly formed dynasty and a country that had just emerged from decades of civil conflict. But what about Arthur as a monarch? The Tudor era saw the development of literature, music and the visual arts with the emergence of the Renaissance in England. Would that have been the case under the rule of King Arthur and his descendants?
There is no way to know for sure, but probably, as a child, Arthur was educated in poetry, rhetoric and ethics, and is believed to have read the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid and Cicero, among others. This reveals that Arthur did, in fact, have a great of appreciation for literature and the arts, and would have undoubtedly patronised poets, artists and musicians.
Although Henry VIII inherited a financially stable country from his father, his extravagant lifestyle and expenditure on wars with France and Scotland depleted the royal treasury, forcing him to resort to the dissolution of monasteries to recover the money. However, since Henry VII had intended for Arthur to be King after him, he would undoubtedly have instilled a sense of frugality in his older son. That, combined with his gentle nature and disinclination to go to war with other countries might have resulted in a more prosperous economy during Arthur’s reign.
When Prince Arthur was born, King Henry VII – and indeed, all of England – had high hopes for his oldest son and heir. Now, some five hundred years after his death, Arthur Tudor is easily forgotten, overshadowed by an infamous brother, and longer living nephews and nieces. But Henry VIII’s reign, which would not even have begun had it not been for unfortunate circumstances, cannot be dissociated from the death of his brother. Because history would undoubtedly have been very different if, in 1509, the throne of England had been passed on to the second Tudor king: King Arthur.