Guest Post: The Death of Prince Arthur

I’m happy to be the next stop on the blog tour for Sean Cunningham’s Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was, released earlier this month in the UK and coming in the next few months in the US.

Over to Sean:

The Tudor Regime Crashes Off Course: The Cause and Consequences of Prince Arthur’s Death

In the early morning of 5 April 1502, a messenger disturbed the pre-dawn routine at Greenwich Palace with the dreadful news that Arthur, Prince of Wales had died. This man had ridden across country from Ludlow after the prince had drawn his last breath just before 7pm on Saturday 2 April; an amazing feat of horsemanship at odds with the shattering news he carried in a journey he surely had not wanted to make.

Henry VII’s counsellors sent for the king’s confessor, whose task it was to pass on the dreadful fact that his eldest son was dead. The queen was awoken immediately. Together, Henry and his wife took the first steps in dealing with their loss. A herald was on hand to record their words of consolation to each other and the beginning of a response built on their faith in God. This was a deeply emotional and poignant moment, but there was little relief available as they ‘took their painful sorrows together’.

The detail captured by the herald at that time seems almost like an accidental and highly personal inclusion in a larger record of the state’s major ceremonies – christenings, weddings, investitures and funerals. It offers a rare glimpse of Henry VII as a man almost out of control with grief, who needs the presence and strength of his equally-devastated wife to be able to start the process of coming to terms with what had happened. The news must have triggered horrible feelings of despair that they had not been able to see their dying son; guilt at having sent him to be trained far beyond the regular destinations of the travelling royal household; and uncertainty about what their future without him might hold.


Arthur’s chambers at Ludlow Castle, where he died on 2 April 1502

The prince had shown no signs of illness or debility as the centre of attention at his wedding five months previously. He performed traditional Maundy Thursday rituals at Ludlow on 24 March, nine days before his death. The account suggests a sickness came upon him very rapidly. Use of the words ‘driven in the singler parties of him inward’ has been taken by some writers to suggest the appearance of a tumour or a wasting disease; perhaps even of his genitals (which is also convenient as an explanation of the uncertainty over his performance in the marriage bed). Compared to Edward VI, whose decline in the summer of 1553 is recorded in harrowing detail, Prince Arthur was as healthy as normal ten days before his death.

There is no eyewitness account of Arthur’s final days. The herald’s record was written up after his funeral several weeks later. That makes it very difficult to make accurate assessment of what killed the prince. It does seem most likely, however, that Arthur was a victim of an outbreak of the sweating sickness in the Marches. Local mortality research indicates that Ludlow and Leominster were the centres of unusually high death rates by the end of 1502. At Arthur’s interment at Worcester, the herald’s account notes that many people were unable to attend because of the ‘siknes that then reigned emonges theym’.

This was a disease that spread very rapidly; sometimes in a matter of hours but often over a period of days. Symptoms moved through stages of coldness, shivering, headaches, limb and chest pains, fever, hot sweats, delirium and death. It was also very contagious.

If the English Sweat did kill Prince Arthur, then we might have expected more victims within the prince’s household. There is a suggestion that Princess Catherine was struck down at the same time. A chair was prepared for her at the funeral, but she did not attend the services at Ludlow or Worcester (it is unclear if this was protocol or evidence of her sickness). The remainder of Arthur’s household seems to have escaped infection. Catherine’s illness could be evidence that she had spent much time in close physical contact with her husband. Surely there should be no surprise that two teenage newlyweds spending winter on the Welsh Marches would have used the opportunity to get to know each other well? Discussion of that topic will have to continue elsewhere.

Why Arthur should have succumbed to infection in 1502 when he had been unaffected (as far as is known), over the previous nine years he had lived there might have been purely due to chance. The only significant difference within Arthur’s familiar community after November 1501 was arrival of the large group of Catherine’s Spanish courtiers and servants in Ludlow. Had they inadvertently carried infection from Spain then it is likely that it would have become apparent in London at the time of the wedding. Arthur seems to have been unlucky enough to be the most prominent victim of a violent outbreak of disease.


Arthur’s tomb at Worcester Cathedral

King Henry and Queen Elizabeth had already buried Princess Elizabeth, aged three, in 1495 and Prince Edmund, at the age of sixteen months, in June 1500. Premature death was a regular visitor to families at all levels of medieval society, but familiarity would not have lessened the pain. Arthur’s loss seems to have been felt more keenly because he had not been a constant presence in the day-to-day life of the royal family. The reality of Henry VII’s political survival meant that Arthur was far more valuable to the Tudor crown as a leader on the marches of Wales, learning how to rule in his own right, than he would have been as a resident at court.

In his reaction to Arthur’s death we can see, nevertheless, a little of the tension and frustration the king and queen must have experienced. Like all parents, they would have wanted to keep their son close. They also knew that his education in a region he dominated would be Arthur’s best possible preparation for kingship. It would have been difficult for the prince to absorb the weight of responsibility by watching the king’s court at play or observing civil servants at work without being able to take direct ownership of the interconnected strands of government, as he did at Ludlow. It was a risk that Henry had agonised over. It did isolate his son and placed his welfare and security in the hands of others. But it was a chance worth taking if it formed a strong ruler who would take forward Henry VII’s ideology of kingship.

At the end of 1501, that plan seemed to be working very well. Arthur was highly praised by foreign ambassadors, courtiers and other officials for his bearing, skill, intelligence and authority. His marriage in November 1501 was an acknowledgement that, at the age of fifteen, his training to be king was passing into a final stage of adult responsibility.


A near-contemporary image of Arthur from Great Malvern Priory, c.1501

There is no hint in evidence so far found that Arthur was sickly, inactive or uninvolved in life as a powerful marcher figure. He travelled widely, learned the techniques of lordship through hard work and open hospitality, made friendships, wrestled with his responsibilities in the law, and safeguarded his income from his lands. Arthur was on track to becoming a well-rounded and diligent king with very deep support in his own country.

What would be needed – and what might have been part of Henry VII’s plan after his son’s marriage – was to capitalise on the outpouring of goodwill and celebration associated with the royal wedding. It seems likely that Arthur would have been given a greater national profile as he entered his later teenage years. Ideally, Princess Catherine would soon become pregnant and the security of the succession would be even more firmly established (and it is possible that their return to Ludlow at the end of November 1501 was arranged with that purpose in mind).

More time at court could only have built Arthur’s growing confidence. It would have allowed for a transition between the king’s old allies and advisors, already beginning to die off, and the younger generation of Arthur’s friends and the senior officials who knew him well. At that stage of his development, the prince would have returned to the Westminster fold at exactly the time that his own experience was ready to be blended with the deeper knowledge possessed by the king’s most loyal followers, honed in keeping Henry VII on the throne since August 1485.

This sketch of possible plans is important because it shows what was totally undone by Arthur’s tragic death. Arthur’s status and position were based upon his development within a group that had grown and adapted with him. His brother Henry could not be inserted into this network in the expectation that it would continue as before. Henry was eleven years old and had not been brought up with the same urgent and precise need to build a broad range of kingly skills.


Would King Arthur have looked something like this? An image of Henry VIII from a Plea Roll in 1521

It almost goes without saying that Arthur’s death was a family tragedy for Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth. The life their son had led meant that they cannot have come to know him particularly well. The death of the king-in-waiting brought a halt to Henry VII’s programme to safeguard the realm as Arthur’s inheritance. His death left a vacuum. His brother Henry had to fill it, but it would take time before he was ready for the role of Prince of Wales.

The four-year age gap between the Tudor brothers made a big difference to the demands that could be placed on Prince Henry. Waiting for him to grow into a strong teenager only allowed further deaths – especially of Queen Elizabeth and Reginald Bray in 1503 – to bring disaster even nearer.

The Tudor regime had been resilient to conspiracy and rebellion for over fifteen years. It was strongly positioned to usher Prince Arthur into his role as king with a comprehensive plan that had been in development for the prince’s whole life. When Arthur died, there was no alternative in place. Henry VII had perhaps been so sure of God’s support that he had not yet looked at a role for his second son that mirrored some of the training Arthur had been given.

Some efforts to improve the regime’s strength were taken almost immediately. Queen Elizabeth became pregnant in the weeks after Arthur’s death. This was a risk and a reaction to the vulnerability that Henry VII then felt. But Elizabeth did not survive the birth of Princess Catherine in February 1503. The king was plunged into despair as a result. Without his queen Henry lost much of his former energy and focus. The power of government was put in the hands of cold-eyed professionals like Edmund Dudley. They used the force of the law to rule in a way that gave the regime a strong tint of tyranny by 1509.

The final five years of Henry VII’s reign became a ruthless exercise in survival as attempts were made to reinvent Prince Henry. The carefree lifestyle that Arthur’s brother had enjoyed was transformed. He was closeted, protected and placed on an accelerated and intensive programme to give him some of the expertise that Arthur had developed naturally in his council and household on the Marches of Wales.

The sophistication and luxury of a metropolitan royal lifestyle was not something his Prince Henry gave up willingly. His relationship with his father became strained as the king’s health also began to fail. At his death in April 1509, Henry VII’s regime was just-about able to pass the crown to Henry, Prince of Wales; but only with some sleight of hand from the king’s old counsellors to withhold news of the old king’s death.

Henry VIII therefore became king with an enormous opportunity in front of him, but without the comprehensive arsenal of skills that King Arthur would have possessed. That was not the only legacy that the new king inherited. When he eventually married Arthur’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, England was placed on an altogether different route through the sixteenth century than the one that King Arthur would have taken.


Henry VIII’s Tudor dragon about to devour Catherine of Aragon’s pomegranate symbol
from the King’s Bench Plea Roll, TNA KB 27/1003, 1512

About the Author
Dr Sean Cunningham is Head of Medieval Records at the UK National Archives. He main interest is in British history in the period c.1450-1558. Sean has published many studies of politics, society and warfare, especially in the early Tudor period, including Henry VII in the Routledge Historical Biographies series and his new book, Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was, for Amberley. Sean is about to start researching the private spending accounts of the royal chamber under Henry VII and Henry VIII for a new project with Winchester and Sheffield Universities. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and co-convenor of the Late Medieval Seminar at London’s Institute of Historical Research.

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