The Forgotten Heir

Our post today is by fellow blogger Charlotte, better known as A Peace of London! Charlotte is a blogger and history nerd on a mission to find quiet, cultured and unusual corners of London. Find her on Instagram @apeaceoflondon.

The cemeteries and burial grounds of Britain are filled with ‘what-if?’s. Each headstone, tomb and unmarked grave is a reminder of lost potential, of chain reactions cut short and countless questions about what might have been.

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A portrait of Arthur Tudor, circa 1501. 

This is an idea that is difficult to escape when you visit the tomb of Prince Arthur Tudor, first husband of Catherine of Aragon and now best known as the ill-fated older brother of Henry VIII.

Arthur’s body now rests in Worcester Cathedral, a few feet away from the elaborate tomb and chantry chapel that bears his name. Standing at the entrance to the chantry chapel — on the steps worn down over centuries of use — it’s hard not to think about what might have been.

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If Arthur had lived long enough to take the throne from his father Henry VII, we wouldn’t have had Queen Mary I, Queen Elizabeth I or King Edward VI. Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard might have lived to relative old age, having been married to men with no convenient access to a team of executioners.

Indeed — assuming Catherine had given Arthur the heirs that she couldn’t give his brother — Henry Tudor would have gone down in history as King Arthur’s handsome younger brother rather than the tyrant we know now.

Similarly, the reformation in England might have taken a different course, possibly never even catching on under the rule of King Arthur. The fate of this Tudor heir had a profound impact on millions of lives.

But that’s enough of the backward-prophesying. Let’s focus on what actually happened for a moment…

After his sudden and untimely death at Ludlow Castle, Arthur’s body lay in state for three weeks before being moved to the church of St Laurence in Ludlow for mass. Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey — restored to favour after supporting Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth — acted as chief mourner. The coffin then proceeded through Bewdley to Worcester, where it could be laid to rest.

Arthur’s widow Catherine was not present at the funeral, possible because she was also taken ill at the same time as her husband. However, no members of his close family were in attendance either, suggesting that the threat of contagious disease in Worcester was too great to risk any more royal blood. Instead, it was up to over 1,000 others to mourn the loss of this precious heir in person.

The funeral was an incredibly emotional affair. The bishop of Lincoln, William Smith, could apparently barely speak for crying and ‘he had hard heart that wept not’.

But the loss of an heir to the Tudor succession cannot have been the only thing causing the heightened emotion. For many of Arthur’s closest companions, his death signalled an end to their own careers in the court; those who had forged professional links with the prince in anticipation of his taking the throne found their efforts wasted.

Not that Henry VII would let anyone forget that he had produced two male heirs and married one of them to another descendant of Edward III. An inscription on the tomb reads that Arthur was the first begotten son of the ‘right reknowned’ King Henry VII. More explicit are the emblems on the two-storey chantry chapel (thought to be built two years after the funeral) which demonstrate the Tudor propaganda machine in full swing:

  • The white rose for Arthur’s mother Elizabeth of York.
  • The red rose of Lancaster to mark Henry VII’s claim to the throne (through Henry VI, the half brother of his father Edmund Tudor).
  • The Tudor rose — a symbol of the union between Lancaster and York.
  • A pomegranate for Catherine of Aragon and a sheath of arrows for her mother Isabella of Castille — both women were descendents of Edward III with a stronger claim to the English throne than the Tudors.
  • The white greyhound of Richmond for Arthur’s grandfather Edmund Tudor, who was the earl of Richmond.
  • The Beaufort portcullis for Arthur’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII and wife of Edmund Tudor).
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© Bob Embleton 2016

Arthur’s tomb continued to hold significance further into the Tudor dynasty; his niece Queen Elizabeth I visited Worcester Cathedral among great fanfare 17 years into her reign. Although we might wonder whether Elizabeth was secretly considering what else might have been as she climbed the steps to her uncle’s memorial, since — had he lived to take the throne from her grandfather — Elizabeth would never have lived to take it herself.

Sources and further reading:

Prince Arthur’s Funeral: Ceremony, Despair and Shifting Politics in 1502 (On The Tudor Trail)
Guest post: The Death of Prince Arthur (Tudor History)
Prince Arthur’s tomb (The History Jar)
Royal Visitors (Worcester Cathedral)
Discovery of Grave May Solve Mystery Death of Henry VIII’s Brother (Telegraph)
Prince Arthur: 1486-1502 (Worcester Cathedral Library blog)
https://tudorstuff.wordpress.com/2009/11/29/prince-arthur/

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About SheldonKGoodman

I'm Sheldon, a City of Westminster guide who has a love of all things Cemetery! Co-founding the Cemetery Club in May 2014, it's my ambition to challenge the perception of Cemeteries are mournful places but to champion them as museums of people and libraries of the dead. I also co-lead the official Pride in London tour and do guided walks for Open Garden Square Weekend.
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