The Tudors are one of the most famous English royal families, into which historians have conducted countless amounts of research, with particular focus upon the wives of Henry VIII, as well as the reigns of both himself and his three children, among various significant events which took place during this momentous period of history. It is therefore, interesting to view certain aspects of this particular time from the perspective of counter-factual history, also known as alternative history. The life of Prince Arthur Tudor, for example, is one of the areas overshadowed by the more decisive and influential aspects of Tudor history. The approach of alternative history could be applied to multiple areas of Tudor history, but in this post I hope to explore the alternative of What if Arthur had become King of England?
Well, the first question one would perhaps wish to ask is; would he have been the great legend his parents had hoped for? Indeed, his place of birth being Winchester – the ‘spiritual home of King Arthur’s Round Table’ – implies Henry VII and Elizabeth of Yorke had high hopes for their first born son. Also, would he have been both as famous and infamous as Henry VIII? Considering the view that Henry VIII’s main reason for the Break from Rome was to divorce his first wife – being an incredibly controversial move amongst the English people, it can be argued that Arthur would have been rather different. As, one historian, Gunn argues, that due to his less confrontational nature, Arthur would perhaps not have been so destructive towards the Catholic church as his brother. What is more, any alterations to or replacement of the Catholic Church in England, would, as Gunn suggests, have derived from the grass-roots as a challenge to authority, rather than enforcement by the government or monarchy.
It has also been argued by Kathryn Hadley in her review of Steven Gunn and Linda Monkton’s book Arthur Tudor: Prince of Wales, for the History Today magazine that the English Reformation would have been played out rather differently had Arthur been King of England. This is because it is believed that Arthur was ‘less confrontational’ and therefore would most likely have been more careful like his father. Indeed, when trying to construct an image of Arthur Tudor as king of England, it is helpful to reflect on the attitudes of Henry VII as he would have had a lot of control over his son’s upbringing, such as through choosing his tutors. This point links back to the areas in which the two sons of Henry VII were most educated, in order to prepare them for their duties as English royalty.
Although historians do not have accurate evidence of the nature of the relationship between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, it has been suggested in Gregory’s historical novel that the two were very much in love and therefore, one can assume that little would have broken their marriage, had they had the opportunity to live as King and Queen of England. However, considering their ages at their time of marriage, any form of relationship can really only be speculation. Also, if we are to consider what we do know, in order to construct an alternative story to the actual succession of the Tudor monarchy, Arthur’s weak health would suggest that producing sons, who would live beyond the age of three, would have been a challenge.
On the other hand though, Referring back to Henry VIII’s first divorce, which, the evidence suggests, was primarily due to the lack of a male heir, it could be argued that things may have planned out differently, had Arthur remained Catherine’s husband. As, although it is hard to tell whether the lack of a male heir would have given him reason to find another wife, having been trained to become a king, unlike Henry, who was trained in the church, as the second son, Arthur may not have been as involved or concerned with the workings of the English church. What is more, the investigations into Henry VIII’s illnesses and their links to his inability to have more than four children – of which only one was a legitimate male heir – could lead to the conclusion that if Arthur had become king, England may have had a more stable line-up of sons. Although, returning to the matter of his health, had Arthur survived the illness which killed him as a young man, it would most likely have weakened him.
But if Arthur, as king, had had to face the same succession crisis as Henry VIII, would he have divorced Catherine and if he had, whom would he have married? This is a question which feels far beyond any reasonable speculations, but being the serious boy he was, it seems likely that had it crossed his mind, Arthur would have made some foreign alliance, through a second marriage, with another European power. But again, there is not enough material to speculate with much accuracy.
One last point I would like to consider in this post, is the amount the Tudor court would have travelled, had Arthur fulfilled his parents hopes’, in becoming the next legendary king of England. If he had demonstrated anything like the character of his father, the court would have remained fairly inanimate and stationary, which combined with his upbringing in the Welsh castle of Ludlow, may have produced a seemingly distant and at times, absent king. Although, again, there is little material for speculation in their area.
To conclude, let us consider what is the significance of counter-factual or alternative history and what can we learn from it? Thinking about the what ifs of a subject or event in history can help us to unravel why history happened the way it did and how these things have had an effect on subsequent events.