Tudor Tempest: Where do you stand?
As the discovery of the possible remains of Richard III in Leicester and the renewed debate over the last Yorkist king makes clear, much about the Tudor dynasty is controversial. But that also makes the family that ruled England from 1485 to 1603 pretty fascinating. Novelist Nancy Bilyeau–author of The Crown, a thriller set in 1537—and On The Tudor Trail have joined forces to present a series of questions hotly debated. Since Arthur Tudor, oldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, was born on September 20th, 1486, we will begin with:
Did Arthur, Prince of Wales, consummate his marriage to Catherine of Aragon?
The reason that this deeply personal question has been debated for five centuries is that Catherine’s second husband, Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII, based his history-changing quest for an annulment from Catherine on the “legality” of the first marriage. King Henry had no son to succeed him from his 18-year-long marriage to Catherine and said it was because he had broken God’s law in marrying his brother’s widow. Leviticus 18:16: “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing, they shall be childless.” The pope provided a dispensation for Henry’s marriage in 1509, but later the king claimed that it was wrong to do so, and he sought from a succeeding pope a judgment that the marriage should be annulled, making Henry free to take a second wife. He of course had one in mind: the young Anne Boleyn, one of the queen’s ladies in waiting.
If a marriage is never consummated, it is not legally binding. In some religions, that is grounds for an annulment even today. And that is what Catherine said—her four-month-long marriage to fifteen-year-old Arthur was not consummated. An extremely pious woman she swore on the sacrament to a papal legate that it never happened. Henry VIII claimed differently. When the pope did not side with King Henry and grant him an annulment, he eventually broke from the Catholic Church so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
What are the facts?
Catherine, 16, married Arthur on November 14, 1501. It was a diplomatic alliance, binding the new Tudor regime to the much more prestigious Spanish family of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. The couple were put to bed together on their wedding night. At the time, the courts of England and Spain assumed that they had sexual relations. The recording herald: “And thus these worthy persons concluded and consummated the effect and complement of the sacrament of marriage.” It was decided that when Arthur resumed his residency in Ludlow Castle, in Wales, Catherine would accompany him and they would live as a married couple.
Arthur died on April 2, 1502. The cause is debated, since it has implications on his abilities as a young husband. Was it a wasting disease like tuberculosis, or an infectious one like “sweating sickness”? What supports the second theory is that Catherine was very ill at the same time and took months to recover.
Shortly after it was determined that Catherine was not pregnant, Henry, then 10, was made heir to the throne. To maintain the alliance and also to retain Catherine’s large dowry, Henry VII went forward with plans to someday marry his second son to his first son’s widow. The Spanish lady who headed Catherine’s household, Dona Elvira, came forward to swear that the princess never had sex with Arthur. A papal dispensation was granted. King Ferdinand wrote in 1503: “It is well known in England that the princess is still a virgin.”
More than twenty years later, when Henry VIII was fighting for an annulment, this matter was hotly debated. “Witnesses” were called when the legality of the marriage was tried in court in England.
At the famous Blackfriars trial in 1529, Arthur’s former body servant testified: “I made the said prince ready to bed and with others conducted him clad in his nightgown unto the princess’s bedchamber often and sundry times when he entered and then continued all night.”
Sir Anthony Willoughby testified that the morning after his wedding, Arthur emerged from Catherine’s bedchamber to say, “Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.”
The queen of England had said that Arthur shared her bed only seven nights in their marriage. Instead of a lusty prince, her Spanish entourage described a sickly youth. Arthur is believed to have been born one month premature. Some historians say he was smaller than Catherine, and she was a petite woman.
A tribunal held in 1531 in Spain at the request of the Vatican’s appeal court heard other testimony. A Spanish attendant at the time said that “[Arthur’s] limbs were so weak that he had never seen a man whose legs and other bits of his body were so small.”
Another attendant testified: “Francisca de Caceras, who was in charge of dressing and undressing the queen and who she liked and confided in a lot, was looking sad and telling the other ladies that nothing had passed between Prince Arthur and his wife, which surprised everyone and made them laugh at him.”
And so the evidence goes, each side supporting a king or queen with sharply differing “eyewitness” accounts. Of course, Henry VIII got his divorce, although it was granted by authorities in England. But what was the truth of the marriage of Catherine and Arthur?