Tuesday, 6 October 2009

What if Arthur Prince of Wales had been king?

by Kathryn Hadley

In the light of this year’s widespread commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne, the publication at the end of last month of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales edited by Steven Gunn and Linda Monckton about the life, death and memory of his younger brother may have been somewhat overlooked. Nonetheless, to a large extent, Henry VIII’s reign cannot be dissociated from, and was arguably shaped by, the death of his brother. I interviewed Steven Gunn to uncover the main aims and arguments of the book.

Arthur Prince of Wales died, aged 15, in April, 1502, at Ludlow shortly after his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in November 1501. Dying at such a young age he appears quite an insignificant figure, so why was the book written and what are the main arguments of its contributing authors?

According to Steven Gunn, Arthur was largely forgotten by his contemporaries and became increasingly forgotten as time moved on. Two aspects related to the commemoration, or rather to this lack of commemoration, of Arthur Tudor in the aftermath of his death are particularly interesting.

First of all, the fact that Arthur Prince of Wales was so quickly forgotten stands in marked contrast to the celebration of the young prince during his lifetime. Arthur Tudor was celebrated, from the day of his birth, as the first heir to the throne and ‘the visible token of a new age’, which marked the end of decades of intermittent civil war between the Lancastrians and Yorkists, and numerous poems were notably written in his honour. His marriage to Katherine of Aragon was a further cause for celebration. The marriage had been arranged when Arthur was two years old with the signature of the Treaty of Medina del Campo in March 1489. When the day finally came twelve years later, lavish celebrations were organised in London and many books were printed commemorating the event. Arthur also left a significant imprint on art and architecture with many churches carved with the emblems of the newly-wed couple. The importance of his heraldry is highlighted in the introduction of the book:
‘[it] summed up what mattered most about him, his Tudor and Yorkist blood, his
marriage to the well-connected Katherine and his link to the great princes of
Wales of earlier generations’.

In the aftermath of his death, however, Arthur appears to have been almost deliberately forgotten. The reasons why he was forgotten by contemporaries provide valuable insights into Henry VIII’s rule. Arthur’s death, shortly after that of his younger brother Edmund Tudor, threatened the dynastic position of the Tudors. Indeed, why had two of Henry VII’s sons died if it was the destiny of the Tudors to govern? According to the book, the desire to push aside this threat to the Tudor dynasty may have been one of the reasons why Arthur was buried at Worcester rather than at Westminster.

Moreover, Arthur’s death was significant in terms of the effects that it had on the reign of Henry VIII. Steven Gunn argued that his brother’s death may explain the overconfidence of Henry VIII forged by a strong view of divine providence. The idea of Henry VIII’s divine right to rule was reiterated by the propagandist Sir Richard Morison in his Remedy for Sedition in 1536. He is quoted in the introduction of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales:
'God took away Prince Arthur and would Henry VIII to be our head and governor. Will we be wiser than God? ... Let us content ourselves, that he rule whom God made our king, whom God preferred in taking away Prince Arthur, his Grace's elder brother.'
Henry's overconfidence may have been a direct consequence of his brother's death. In what other ways may Arthur Tudor's death have directly impacted English rule at the time and changed the course of English history?
Gunn argued that the specificities of Henry VIII’s rule were twofold. Firstly, Henry VIII directly shaped the relations between the English crown and the papacy. Although the English Reformation might have happened anyway, it would have been different under Arthur Tudor, bearing greater resemblance to the Dutch or French reformations which were more driven from below. Arthur would also have been less confrontational and may thus not have launched the same large-scale money-raising enterprises, which included the dissolution of the monasteries and debasing the coinage in the 1540s.

However, just how useful is this ‘what if’ counterfactual writing of history? According to Steven Gunn, counterfactual history is useful because it forces historians to identify the important factors in shaping the reign of Henry VIII and those that could be directly attributed to Henry’s personality. How much was Henry’s reign about his own personality and how much was about the dynastic situation at the time? Steven Gunn ended, however, with a word of warning: it is key to carefully define the questions posed in order to avoid attributing too much importance to certain factors.

For further information about the reign of Arthur’s father Henry VII, read our article Henry VII: Miracle King

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