April 2, 1502: Prince Arthur Dies

April 2, 1502 - Prince Arthur Tudor dies, leaving Catherine of Aragon a widow...but was she a virgin? Read more on www.janetwertman.com

Catherine of Aragon, Aged Around 16, by Michel Sittow (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Less than a week ago, I posted about the anniversary of the betrothal of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon. Almost exactly thirteen years later, everything changed when Arthur died suddenly, leaving Catherine a sixteen-year-old widow.

The initial plan was to have Catherine marry Henry Tudor, Arthur’s younger brother. That would preserve the important alliance, it would simplify payment of the dowry. The issue of canon law prohibiting a man marrying his brother’s wife was not as formidable as it might have been – the Pope quickly granted a dispensation for the marriage to proceed even if it had “perhaps” been consummated (though Catherine always claimed that it had not been). More important impediments were encountered when Catherine’s mother, Isabella of Castille, died. Her kingdom, a much larger one than her husband Ferdinand’s Aragon, was inherited by their oldest daughter Juana. Spain was now a splintered power, and Catherine’s value as a bride was significantly decreased. For the next seven years she waited for Henry VII to permit the marriage to proceed – but he never did. It was Henry VIII who made the decision to marry her – which he did within two months of acceding to the throne.

That should have settled everything. But twenty years later, the question of her first marriage arose again. Henry claimed that her five month marriage to Arthur must have been consummated, since God had denied them a son and heir. Henry VIII was convinced that the initial papal dispensation must have been invalid, that he must be free to remarry. But by this time the Spanish kingdom had been reunited in Charles V, whose armies surrounded the Pope and effectively controlled him. Catherine endured another seven year stretch of waiting to find out whether she was indeed to be confirmed as Henry’s lawful wife. Although the Pope finally ruled in her favor, Henry ignored him and founded the Church of England to decide the matter locally.

Did she or didn’t she? Right before she died, Catherine swore on the Eucharist that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, in the hope of finally settling the issue once and for all. At that point, though, it’s not like Henry cared…



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March 27, 1489: Catherine of Aragon Betrothed to Prince Arthur Tudor

March 27, 1489 - Catherine of Aragon first betrothed to Prince Arthur Tudor (the betrothal was confirmed in 1497, when the two were 12 and 11, respectively.

Catherine of Aragon, Aged Around 11, by Juan de Flandes

In 1489, Henry VII had reigned for only four years. To solidify his somewhat shaky hold on the throne, he sought to arrange an illustrious marriage for his three year old son, Arthur. And he found one.

The four-year-old Princess Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon, was the perfect choice. The family was one of the most powerful in Europe. Isabella was descended from Edward III of England – some said that she had a better claim to the English throne than Henry VII himself. Indeed, Henry VII was thrilled to secure such a bride for his son.

The betrothal was formally confirmed in 1497, when Arthur was eleven and Catherine was twelve. The couple were married by proxy on May 19, 1499, but it was not until 1501 (when Arthur turned fifteen) that Catherine left Spain to take up residence in England. The two were formally married on November 14, 1501, and for the next five months all was well.

It is such a strange thing to think back to this time, when the world expected a future King Arthur to rule justly over England with his Spanish bride. It is so difficult not to let subsequent events creep into our minds – either to add a sense of wistfulness for what might have been, or simply sadness over what was to happen later. The betrothal of Arthur and Catherine is another occasion that calls us to wonder about an alternative history…

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