Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was is a newly released biography on the elder brother of Henry VIII and is written by Sean Cunningham (you can read his article on it which was part of the book tour here). Prince Arthur has often only been mentioned in regards to Henry VIII’s Great Matter, in which he argued that Katherine of Aragon and Arthur had consummated their marriage, making her subsequent marriage to Henry void. Cunningham is the first person to write a biography solely on Prince Arthur, a daunting task which he manages with remarkable ease.
Cunningham starts by discussing why the birth of Arthur was so important to the new king and queen, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, and putting it into the context of the time. He discusses the Wars of the Roses and Henry VII’s need to secure his new found dynasty. The birth of Arthur so soon after acquiring the throne was seen as a sign that God approved of the Tudor dynasty and favoured it, especially by providing a boy so early on.
The author then moves to compare Prince Arthur and his younger brother, Henry (the future Henry VIII). He shows how very different their lives were, due to the fact that Henry was essentially the ‘spare heir’ and not expected to be king. This can be seen in the differences in their households and upbringing:
‘Arthur was so important to the continuation of the Tudor dynasty that he had a power base created for him which was staffed by some of the king’s most loyal servants. Henry, on the other hand, remained in the royal nursery at Eltham Palace with his sisters Margaret and Mary and his infant brother Edmund. By the end of the 1490s it was obvious to Henry that he was the regime’s ‘spare prince’.’
After these two topics have been discussed, the book turns into a traditional biography, documenting Arthur’s life from birth to death. Cunningham’s attention to detail is superb and made me question why there has not been any other biographies on the young prince, especially with all this information to hand. He meticulously describes Henry VII’s plans for Arthur’s upbringing, giving many facts and figures:
‘In the first parliament of the reign that met from 7 November 1485, the Lords and Commons had voted £14,000 to the king for the annual expenses of his household. On 1 February 1487 the king ordered that 1,000 marks of this sum (£666 13s 4d) should be assigned for the expenses of Prince Arthur’s household. This was a staggering sum for an infant’s upbringing.’
Cunningham puts this into perspective by explaining how much this sum really was:
‘Even as an infant, Arthur’s income was equivalent to that of a middle-ranking lord, but without the responsibilities of land management, a wide network of followers and crown representation.’
Despite all this information, the author still manages to make his work readable and interesting, which isn’t always easy to do with non-fiction.
Cunningham’s views on Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon are arguably what most readers would be interested in, a detailed account of their marriage and whether they did or did not consummate the marriage. I will not spoil the details for anyone, but the author makes some sound and interesting arguments regarding their marriage. He, of course, has to mention Henry VIII’s later Great Matter, due to the fact they are debating that exact topic, and goes over the accounts by Arthur’s friends and servants over 20 years later:
‘When Arthur came out from his chamber he called Willoughby over with the words, “Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain”; then to all of the others present, “masters, it is good pastime to have a wife”. Willoughby assumed that Arthur was telling the truth of the previous night’s intimacies.’
The author does the same with Arthur’s death, evaluating the evidence and even proposing some new theories as to what he died of. Once again, I will not spoil this, although one of the new theories is particularly interesting.
‘The prince died on Saturday 2 April 1502 at Ludlow, between six and seven o’clock in the evening. His chamberlain, Sir Richard Pole, assembled Arthur’s council and drafted letters to the king and court, then at Greenwich Palace. A rider managed to reach the king within two days – as impressive a feat as the transmission of the news of Catherine’s landfall from Plymouth to Richmond in October 1501.’
Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was is a detailed yet readable account of the prince whose marriage caused much controversy in his younger brother’s reign. He was brought up to be king, yet never had the opportunity. He finally has a biography of his own, which I would recommend to anyone interested in Arthur’s life, Katherine of Aragon’s marriages and Henry VIII’s Great Matter. I look forward to reading more from Sean Cunningham.