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?
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.'
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