The Death of Arthur Tudor: Did Bubonic plague put Henry VIII on the throne?

When the king by his high policy had completed his alliance with Spain in this way, there suddenly came a lamentable mischance and loss to the king, queen and all the people. For that noble prince Arthur, the king’s first begotten son, after he had been married to the Lady Catherine for five months, departed this transitory life at Ludlow on 2 April 1502.

And in one paragraph, the fate of England is changed and a second son is put on course for the crown. He will reign as Henry VIII – one of the most colourful and controversial monarchs in British history – but this turning point is shrouded in mystery.

What we know is that shortly after the wedding of Arthur, Prince of Wales to Catherine of Aragon on 14 November 1501, the newlyweds headed to the Welsh Marches and established themselves at the impressive ancient fortress of Ludlow in December 1501.

The winter was unusually harsh, and the Spring continued the theme, battering the castle with torrential rain.

A tapestry portraying the wedding of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur
A tapestry portraying the wedding of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur

Accounts differ on the timeline: according to some Arthur began to grow ill on the journey from London, or that he’d begun to falter during Christmas, while others insist that “a malign vapour which proceeded from the air” came upon husband and wife in March.

Catherine’s Spanish entourage indicated that the Prince’s health was already poor, and one of them later testified 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.”

But if this were the case, why was the Prince of Wales dispatched to the remote Welsh marches, far from the expansive retinue of Tudor court physicians?

Regardless of how and when his health began to decline, the Prince of Wales succumbed to the mystery malady and was buried at Worcester Cathedral “with great funeral obsequies,” while his 16-year old widow was left alone, a Spanish princess in a cold, damp land.

According to The Receyt of the Lady Katherine, which purports to be an eyewitness account of Arthur’s illness:

[Arthur suffered from] the most pitiful disease and sickness that with so sore and great violence had battled and driven in the singular parts of him inward; that cruel and fervent enemy of nature, the deadly corruption, did utterly vanquish and overcome the pure and friendful blood, without all manner of physical help and remedy.

How frustrating that so many words say so little about what the ailing Prince of Wales actually experienced?

In general the health of Princes Arthur and Henry are surrounded by a real dearth of information which makes untangling the nature of Arthur’s death – a turning point in English history – a frustrating, if not impossible, task.

Arthur, Prince of Wales painted c. 1490-1500
Arthur, Prince of Wales painted c. 1490-1500

One theory is that Henry VII was hyper-aware of how vulnerable his grip on power was to challengers in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses. Subsequently the ageing tyrant kept a very tight grip on the flow of information about the health of his offspring in case his rivals got a whiff of weak links in the chain of succession.

Compared to the wealth of medical records about Henry VIII’s later life – his seeping leg ulcer is catalogued in gruesome, stomach-turning detail – the Tudor princelings are stubbornly resistant to diagnosis. This is fog is further thickened by the contradictory nature of other sources that variably suggest he became ill suddenly, or manifested the symptoms upon leaving London – widening the list of possible causes to a meaningless degree.

So what are the options?

Sweating Sickness

That most Tudor of lurgies, the sweating sickness or “English sweate” usually came fast and hard, often claiming its victims within 24 hours which is inconsistent with the weeks that Arthur and Catherine spent ill. Arthur’s death doesn’t fit with the known outbreaks of the disease which usually struck in great epidemics and its typical casualty was middle-aged, although it was known to favour the wealthy upper classes.

Unlikely as it was, if it was the Sweating Sickness it would be a fitting end for the Tudor prince: the diseases arrived in England with French mercenaries who fought with Arthur’s father against Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. A bitter irony then, that the means by which the Tudors secured their crown might have cost them a king.

Bubonic Plague

Another great epidemic to frequently blight Tudor England, the Great Plague of 1499-1500 was over, but localised outbreaks were still being recorded – this could well match reports of “a great sickness” in the Ludlow area.

This view was echoed by the Spanish chronicler Andres Bernaldez in his history of Catherine’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella, and church records are evidence of a higher than average mortality rate in the area for 1501 to 1502.

Death and the King by Holbein 1538
Death and the King by Holbein, 1538

Tuberculosis

Fitting the Spanish description of a weak and frail prince is tuberculosis, also known as consumption, which could explain his inability to consumate the marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Night sweats are also a feature of tuberculosis, which could have been confused for the Sweating Sickness by later writers.

If this was the cause there’s more grim irony, as consumption would later claim Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII’s bastard son and possible successor, and has also been cited as a cause of death for Edward VI.

Testicular Cancer

This doesn’t fit with the simultaneous illness of Catherine of Aragon, nor the description of “a malign vapour which proceeded from the air” which suggests a real belief in something contagious, but it could also explain Arthur’s inability to fulfil his martial duties.

Impotence would also explain the differing accounts that later surfaced in Henry VIII’s divorce case (although fear of the monarch would also explain them), with one witness recalling Arthur exclaiming somewhat crassly “Willoughby, bring me a cup of ale, for I have been this night in the midst of Spain.”

Poison

Not in the least a credible, but it’s a claim posited by gossips literally every time a king or prince passes away unexpectedly.

Diabetes

Another possible cause of long-term weakness. It’s worth noting that Henry VIII may have suffered from untreated Type II diabetes (explaining, among other things, his mood swings), which can occur in those who are genetically predisposed it – there’s also some speculation that diabetes could have led to the demise of Henry Fitzroy and not consumption.

Like some of the other theories, this one alone doesn’t account for the simultaneous illness of Catherine.

18th-century depiction of Ludlow Castle by Samuel Scott, painted between 1765 to 1769
18th-century depiction of Ludlow Castle by Samuel Scott, painted between 1765 to 1769

Influenza

What if the “great sickness” wasn’t Bubonic Plague or Sweating Sickness, but influenza? It was prevalent in Tudor England and fits with the description of Arthur’s feverish epidemic, and certainly one that could finish off someone already weakened by diabetes, tuberculosis or cancer, while the healthy Catherine pulled through.

Pneumonia

Like influenza this a strong possibility in conjunction with tuberculosis or diabetes) when you consider the repeated descriptions of the harsh winter, torrential spring and the draughty castle at Ludlow.

It’s worth noting that Edward VI – Arthur’s nephew – died of what is now believed to be a suppurating pulmonary infection, effectively a chest infection grown wildly out of control which began with feverish, cold-like symptoms. Like some reports of Arthur, Edward VI was described as being a sickly youth whose condition deteriorated over weeks.

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Sources:

  • Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Wife by Giles Tremlett
  • Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII by Robert Hutchinson
  • Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir
  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3917436/
  • http://onthetudortrail.com/Blog/2012/09/20/did-arthur-prince-of-wales-consummate-his-marriage-to-catherine-of-aragon/

Special thanks to Derek Wilson, author of Henry VIII: King, Reformer and Tyrant and In The Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, and regular contributor to History of Royals.