Updated: Dec 30, 2021
As a new King to a small island nation, in 1485 Henry Tudor had to make alliances, and fast. So he turned to marriage to secure the throne for himself and his successors.
by Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald
With few adherents and no legitimate claim to the throne, in 1485 Henry Tudor managed to overwhelm the forces of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, thereby becoming king of the small, unimposing country of England. Many larger, more powerful nations, such as France and Spain, considered England an upstart and Henry Tudor a usurper, as Henry’s claim to the throne of England was based on little more than a bastard connection to royal blood. For the future of his new dynasty, Henry VII needed an eligible alliance between one of his children and a winning player on the world stage.
The War of the Roses Ends
Henry himself had taken as wife the niece of his enemy Richard: the lovely Elizabeth of York. Through this marriage he ended the dynastic wars that had plagued England, uniting the houses of the White Rose and the Red.
The marriage had brought the couple four living children: the heir, Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1486; Margaret in 1489; Henry, Duke of York, in 1491; and Mary, known as the Tudor Rose, in 1495. The main role of royal children was to secure money, power, and prestige to their families by making profitable alliances and acting as the “token” that would seal peace between two nations.
The wedding that was most likely to place England on the map of European influence took place in 1501 between Prince Arthur, who was barely 15 at the time, and Catherine of Aragon, daughter of one of the most sought-after royal houses: the combined kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, or collectively Spain.
A Royal Alliance
Catharine and the sickly Prince Arthur were wed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1501 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Henry VII’s triumph had succeeded in laying the foundation of a dynasty that might rule England for generations and gain the protection of a mighty nation. Arthur and Catharine would raise sturdy sons to carry on the Tudor reign; Catharine’s massive dowry would replenish the coffers and the young couple could take their places in the succession with the blessing of both England and Spain. Alas, Henry’s triumph was short lived.
As Prince of Wales, Arthur’s proper place was thought to be in Wales, growing to know his people there and the ways of their society, and representing his father while he learned the craft of government. So as soon as the wedding festivities ended, Arthur and Catharine proceeded to Ludlow Castle in Wales.
Arthur was thought to have a weak chest, and historians speculate that Henry might actually have hastened his son’s death by sending him to the marshy Welsh Marches. It is more likely that Arthur had tuberculosis so would not have lived long, no matter where he resided. At any rate, the teenage Prince of Wales died just months later. The future of the dynasty now rested on the youthful but sturdy shoulders of Henry VII’s second son, 11-year-old Henry, the new Prince of Wales.
A Useless Player
Added to his grief was Catharine’s parents’ demand that she be returned to Spain, along with her widow’s jointure and the first 100,000 gold crown installment of her dowry. Henry now saw Catharine of Aragon as a useless player, and damaged goods at that. It had been widely assumed that her marriage to Arthur had been consummated so she was required to wait out three months to ensure she was not carrying Arthur’s child, despite her and her waiting women’s insistence that she and Arthur had never consummated their marriage.
By the end of that time, her status in England had become problematical. Henry VII, stricken by his son’s death and angry at Ferdinand for his parsimony, saw Catherine as a burden. Henry’s grief was exacerbated in 1503 by the unexpected death of his wife, Elizabeth of York.
But to Henry’s good fortune, Spain’s policy of containing France rested on keeping France isolated from other nations. Ferdinand of Aragon feared that if Henry VII should make a marriage alliance with the French, Spain would be in danger of being overwhelmed by their combined strengths. It had now become imperative that the good relations between England and Spain be maintained.
Henry VII had pinned much of Tudor legitimacy and power on this Spanish alliance. With Arthur’s death, he was faced with the dilemma of starting from the beginning and seeking another alliance. But the answer to his dynastic difficulties might once again lie in Catharine.
Henry first considered marrying his daughter-in-law himself, but before this outrageous suggestion could be pursued, a more acceptable one occurred to him. Henry suggested to Ferdinand that Catharine instead wed the young heir to England’s throne: Prince Henry.
It was not an entirely preposterous scheme—and not without precedent—but there were obstacles to be overcome.
The marriage between Arthur and Catharine rendered her too close a relation to Henry to become his wife. The thought that her marriage might have been consummated made that relationship even closer. But King Henry was determined that his widowed daughter-in-law should become betrothed to young son and Ferdinand, out of fear of France, agreed. He soon became Henry’s willing partner in the scheme to receive a special dispensation from the Pope, allowing the brother and sister-in-law to marry. Such a dispensation set aside the weight of Biblical admonitions, such as the warning in Leviticus that if a man should marry his brother’s wife they would remain childless, as it was an offense against God.
The grand triumph of Henry VII’s plan was achieved in 1503 at the Bishop of Salisbury’s house, when the betrothal between Catharine, the Dowager Princess of Wales, and Henry, Prince of Wales, was finalized. With the blessing of the Pope in the form of the necessary dispensation, and the acquiescence of King Ferdinand in the form of further installments on Catharine’s dowry, the way was cleared for Henry and Catharine to become engaged.
It was expected that the wedding would follow when the young prince should have reached a suitable point of maturity, but upon the death of Isabella of Castile in 1504, relations between Spain and England began to deteriorate.
Isabella’s daughter Juana, Duchess of Burgundy, inherited the throne of Castile and while Isabella’s will had stipulated that Ferdinand should retain his throne of Aragon, Juana’s husband Philip, of the powerful House of Hapsburg, thought otherwise.
A struggle for ascendancy in Spain began and Henry VII, who had never liked or trusted Ferdinand, began to lean in favor of Juana and Philip. As a result, the wedding of Prince Henry and Princess Catharine was repeatedly postponed while Henry VII awaited the outcome of the situation in Spain.
Finally, in 1509, after Henry VII’s death, Henry VIII came to the throne. One of his first acts was to complete his father’s original plan to marry Catharine of Aragon.
Though Henry VII, by his own machinations, did not live to see the culmination of his schemes, his efforts resulted in the wedding of the English and Spanish royal houses. It was probably fortunate that he also did not live to see the final chapter of the saga, for his insistence on a marriage between brother and sister-in-law would end in a cataclysm that would rend the fabric of the Roman Catholic church and change the face of English government forever.
Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald (Ellen McDaniel-Weissler) is a writer, actress, singer, teacher, and activist who lives on a mountainside with her husband, their two sons, and their dopey dog Bella. (Actually, the sons are dopey, too.) The family enjoys medieval re-enactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine, and was reworked for Mystorical.