If Henry VIII’S elder brother had become king, England might have fought against the Protestant Reformation and allied with Spain to colonise America together
If Henry VIII’S brother had survived, King Arthur would have fought against the Reformation
Who was Prince Arthur Tudor?
The long hoped for heir of Henry VII, who cemented his father’s claim that he was uniting the Lancastrian and Yorkist royal houses. Arthur had lots of different strands of royal blood flowing into him, and he was expected to be a unifying king. He had a very elaborate christening at Winchester, and from that point on he’s really trained to be the second Tudor king. He learns from a very early age how to be a lord, how to look after institutions, how to defend the law, how to run his lands and how to manage people. So by the time he died aged 15 and a half, he’s really on the cusp of independent rule.
How did Arthur die?
Arthur and Catherine of Aragon were married in November 1501 in a spectacular ceremony. It was a very lavish celebration of dynasty and union between the Spanish kingdoms and England. They stayed in London for about a month, and probably travelled back to Ludlow [where Arthur had grown up] in time for Christmas. But right at the start of April near Easter Sunday he died. We think that was because of the ‘sweating sickness’, which was a disease that came over to England with Henry VII’S army in 1485. It had flu-like symptoms of shaking, sweating and convulsions, then a coma and either death or recovery. It was just unlucky that there was a big outbreak in
Worcestershire and South Shropshire in the spring of 1502. It was a new-ish disease that they didn’t know how to deal with.
Could his death have been avoided, then?
If they’d not travelled for Christmas but stayed until March, they might have avoided the outbreak and both lived as man and wife for much longer.
Henry VIII and Catherine struggled to produce a male heir, do you think Arthur and Catherine would have had the same problem?
I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t have had children. Obviously we assume that they tried to have children once Arthur and Catherine were married, [although] Catherine said she was still a virgin when Arthur died. I find it a bit unusual that after six months there’s no evidence they slept together. Certainly Catherine would say it didn’t happen because it was in her interests to marry Henry VIII. So would time have given them an heir? Possibly. I’m sure they would have been on the case to make sure there was an heir fairly soon. But of course Henry VII would have still been aligned with Elizabeth of York, [Prince] Henry might have been married to one of Maximilian’s daughters, so there could have been other routes for a Tudor child to emerge under Henry VII and a bigger, broader family, with lots of secure European alliances through marriage.
What would have happened to Prince Henry if he hadn’t assumed Arthur’s throne?
The idea that Henry VIII might have been destined for the high church – [becoming] Archbishop of Canterbury – was put forward by Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury, who wrote The Life And Raigne of King Henry VIII in the 17th century, but the claim was backed by no evidence; although he did use documents and state papers, some of which might now be lost. Henry did know much about the church and had a very solid interest in theology – as he showed in the late 1520s when the proceedings for annulment of his marriage gathered speed. As a royal cleric he would have been determined to show his pre-eminence and power. Since in reality he was not afraid to destroy the structures of ecclesiastical life when dissolving the monasteries, had he joined the high ranks of the church, I can see him launching a campaign to become Pope at some point in his life. He would have had a chance to use his charm and influence to win the election.
“Arthur had lots of different strands of royal blood flowing into him, and he was expected to be a unifying king”
Arthur Tudor depicted in a church stained glass window in Worcestershire, near where he died
A fellow of the Royal Historical Society and head of the Medieval Records team at the National Archives, Sean Cunningham is the author of Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Wasand has also written biographies of Henry VII and Richard III. interview with… Dr Sean Cunningham