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February 22, 1511 – Death of Henry, Duke of Cornwall

Westminster tournament roll
Detail showing Henry VIII tilting in front of Katherine of Aragon, courtesy College of Arms – Westminster tournament roll (via Wikimedia Commons)

This was a devastating day for Henry VIII. On January 1, after only eighteen months of marriage Catherine of Aragon had given birth to their first child, a son. The boy was named Henry after his father and grandfather, and quickly styled Duke of Cornwall (the first duchy created in England, and a post traditionally held by the son of the reigning monarch). The country went wild with extravagant celebrations – bonfires, banquets, wine flowing in fountains, cannons, bells, and jousts……including one performance in the white hall in Westminster that Londoners were allowed to watch. The scenery included a golden arbor, which was close enough to the crowd that “the foremost began to pluck and pull at its fine ornaments.” And it didn’t stop there: Henry, “in high good humor, bade the ladies come forward and pluck the golden letters and devices from his dress and that of his company. Little did the young king imagine what pickers and stealers were within hearing; for scarcely had he given leave for this courtly scramble, when forward rushed the plebian intruders, and seizing not only on him, but on his noble guests, plucked them of every glittering thing on their dresses with inconceivable celerity; what was worse, the poor ladies were despoiled of their jewels and the king was stripped to his doublet and drawers.”

And then the little boy died with no explanation.

There is a huge temptation to consider alternative histories – personally, I can’t help myself. Imagine if this boy had lived. Henry and Catherine were a blissfully happy couple at this point, he never would have left her. No Anne Boleyn, no Church of England, no crazy-six-wives-murderer, no Bloody Mary, no Gloriana. Such a wild thought, and a sober reminder of how pivotal we might all be.

For further reading, see Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England (that’s where I drew the quoted language from).

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