Prince Arthur was the living symbol of reconciliation between the rival houses of Lancaster and York. His arrival on 20 September 1486, only 35 weeks after his parents’ marriage, has given rise to the suggestion that Henry VII and Elizabeth of York cohabited before the wedding ceremony, although it seems unlikely that Henry would have risked having an illegitimate child. The fact King Henry himself was still in London, and that the man selected to be the forthcoming child’s godfather, the Earl of Oxford, had not reached Winchester by the time of the birth is perhaps better evidence that Arthur arrived sooner than expected.
Winchester had been chosen as the location for the anticipated heir’s birth to emphasise Henry’s claim to descent from King Arthur, whose actual existence was undisputed at the time – Winchester was thought to have been his city of Camelot. It has been supposed that Arthur was named with this in mind, but his mother may also have been honouring her half-brother, Arthur Plantagenet, an illegitimate son of Edward IV, with whom she was on good terms.
The christening took place on 24th October, in the church of the Benedictine Priory of St Swithun, now Winchester Cathedral. Arthur’s godmother was his grandmother, the Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and the other participants were a judicious mix of Lancastrians and Yorkists.
By the end of October, Arthur had been parted from his parents – they had returned to London - whilst he was to remain in the healthier atmosphere of Farnham Castle, a property owned by the Bishop of Winchester. There, he was cared for by his nurses and a complete household, presided over by Elizabeth Darcy, who had been Lady Governess to the children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The annual allowance for the household was 1,000 marks (£666 13s 4d).
When Arthur was three, in November 1489, he was knighted and invested as Prince of Wales, in a grand ceremony at Westminster, on the same day as his sister, Margaret, was christened. Shortly after, his formal academic education began, under John Rede, once headmaster of Winchester School.
Later, his education was undertaken by the humanist scholar, Bernard André, who supervised a curriculum in the most up-to-date fashion, with a heavy concentration on recently discovered Classical Latin texts, as well as modern languages. In parallel, he would have learnt military and practical skills of riding, hunting and warfare.
At the age of seven, Arthur was deemed old enough to leave the nursery environment of Farnham, and travel to Ludlow, in the Marches of Wales, where he was to be brought up as befitted a future king – much as his uncle, Edward V had been. His Council included his great-uncle, Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, as Justiciar for South Wales, and Henry VII’s other great Welsh ally, Sir Rhys ap Thomas, as Chamberlain of South Wales. Another key member of his entourage was Sir Richard Pole. Sir Richard was the King’s cousin, and his wife, Lady Margaret, was the niece of Edward IV, and hence the Queen’s cousin.
There is limited evidence to indicate whether, or how often, Arthur saw his family. There are records of him travelling in the Marches and Midlands, certainly as far as Oxford, but little to suggest he visited London, although he was there in October 1498.
In 1489, the Treaty of Medina del Campo was agreed between Henry VII, and the sovereigns of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. Under its terms, Arthur was to marry their youngest daughter, Katharine, as soon as the pair were of marriageable age. They were formally betrothed in August 1497, in a ceremony at Woodstock – the royal hunting lodge north of Oxford, and a proxy wedding took place at Arthur’s seat of Tickenhill, near Bewdley, on 19th May 1499.
Despite these prior ceremonies. the earliest date for a physical marriage was September 1500, when Arthur reached his fourteenth birthday. It was some months later, however, that his bride set sail. During the period immediately prior to her arrival in England, the young couple corresponded in Latin. In accordance with the etiquette of the time, they professed love for each other, although they had never met.
After a particularly unpleasant voyage, Katharine made landfall at Plymouth on 27th August 1501 and slowly headed towards London. Arthur first laid eyes on her at Dogmersfield in Hampshire. Although she had gone to bed, the King, who had met Arthur en route, insisted that she get up to greet them. Katharine danced with her ladies, and conversed with Arthur – still in Latin.
Arthur, whether from genuine feeling, or to conform with the courtesy expected of him, wrote to his parents-in-law, expressing his delight in his beautiful bride.
Sunday, 14th November 1501, was Arthur’s wedding day. On the Friday day before, Katharine had processed through London, to the accompaniment of elaborate pageants and allegorical shows emphasising the importance of the match, and the royal and heroic qualities of both bride and groom. On the wedding day itself, Arthur entered St Paul’s Cathedral by the south door, and awaited his bride, who was brought in on the arm of Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, her train carried by Arthur’s aunt, Princess Cicely of York.
The ceremony was conducted by numerous clergy, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Deane. Following the marriage, the couple walked up a raised platform to the high altar, where the nuptial mass was celebrated. Afterward, the whole court returned to Westminster palace for feasting which lasted until 5 pm.
Arthur was then ceremonially put to bed with his new bride, a public event, that involved both priestly blessings and more down-to-earth humour. The events of that night, and the subsequent nights, were hotly disputed some twenty-five years later. Katharine swore that the marriage was unconsummated, whilst some of Arthur’s household said they remembered that Arthur had made remarks suggesting that he had had sexual relations with his wife, and that they slept together regularly.
The truth can, of course, never be known. It was the duty of the young people to provide an heir, but there were concerns about having sex too young – the death of Katharine’s brother had been attributed to over indulgence with his wife. Arthur was also only just fifteen – not all boys are physically mature at that age. That the couple could barely communicate may also be something to consider. The formal Latin of the schoolroom is not conducive to romance.
There were various jousts and tournaments to mark the marriage, but Arthur did not take part. Although this might be an indication that he was not physically robust, it may also be just the consequence of Henry VII’s concern for the safety of his son – he was later to prevent Arthur’s brother, who was extremely athletic, from taking part in these dangerous pastimes.
Within days of his marriage, it was time for Arthur to return to the Marches, and take up his duties again. Consideration was given as to whether his wife should travel with him, or whether they should be separated until he, at least, was older. So far as is known, Arthur was not consulted. Katharine was, but replied only that she would adhere to whatever King Henry wished. Whatever might have been his reservations, Henry eventually decided that Arthur should be accompanied by his wife, and they set out for Ludlow.
The business of the Council for Wales and the Marches continued, and Arthur attended the usual ceremonies on Maundy Thursday. The next news to reach the court was from a letter despatched by Sir Richard Pole to the King’s Council, announcing that Arthur had died on 2nd April 1502.
The cause of the prince’s death is unknown. There is no evidence that he was sickly as a youth, and there is some evidence (as identified by his biographer, Dr Sean Cunningham) that there was high rate of mortality that year in the Marches, hinting at an epidemic, possibly of sweating sickness. Katharine, too, was ill, lending weight to this theory.
Arthur’s heart was buried in the chapel at Ludlow, and his body was interred in Worcester Abbey (now Cathedral), on 25th April, with Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey as Chief Mourner. The day was one as wet, cold, miserable and muddy as the Welsh Marches can provide.