Saturday, 2 April 2011

April 2nd, 1502: The Death of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales

Plague and sickness had lingered in the air around Ludlow Castle for weeks before it catastrophically claimed the life of the heir to the throne. Fifteen year-old Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales had been living in the imposing castle since shortly before Christmas, along with his sixteen year-old Spanish wife, Katherine of Aragon. Although the castle was technically in the English county of Shropshire, it was the administrative centre of the government of Wales and it was for this reason that Arthur had been sent there shortly after his marriage. The prince's father, King Henry VII, was himself a native of Wales and he took the government of the principality seriously. He did not intend for the Prince of Wales to be an empty title bestowed by custom on the heir-presumptive, as it had been in the past. However, Henry VII's patriotic diligence may have indirectly and unintentionally contributed to his favourite son's death when Ludlow Castle became one of the areas affected by an outbreak of the plague in the early spring of 1502.

The disease, which seems to have been a form of the dreaded Sweat which nearly killed Anne Boleyn in 1528, had struck with little or no warning. There had not been time to evacuate the royals; even if there had been, any flight back to London or westward towards Cardiff or Caernarfon would have necessitated taking them through areas also afflicted by the epidemic. At first, as distant rumours of plague raging in Wales had reached the Prince's Council, the establishment at Ludlow had continued on with life as usual. Arthur, his household and entourage had continued to fulfil the King's instructions that they administer justice and good government to both Wales and the Marches, whilst his wife Katherine had undertaken various religious rituals to mark Holy Week, including the Maundy Thursday washing of the poor, and chafed with irritation when her Spanish entourage were made subordinate to her husband's chamberlain, comptroller and steward - Sir Richard Pole, Sir William Ovedall and Sir Richard Croft. And then, all of a sudden, the petty squabbles and daily routines associated with life in a great castle at the twilight of the Middle Ages, came to an abrupt end. Katherine and then Arthur, along with several of the castle staff, were struck down by the disease and confined to their chambers.

In the days immediately following their infection, Arthur and Katherine's surviving servants were finally united with a common purpose as they crowded into the castle's small but beautiful chapel, dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene, petitioning Heaven to spare the life of the Prince and Princess. Meanwhile, the separated young couple suffered the full agonies of "the Sweat," which seems to have vanished from existence later in the century. A heat so terrible infested the sufferer's body, to the extent that in their delirium they felt as if their blood was actually boiling through pain, whilst they sweated so profusely that it soaked through any bedclothes placed over them. Princess Katherine was still in quarantine when, on April 2nd, her husband of only six months lost his short but awful battle with the disease.

Messengers were immediately dispatched to London to break the news to his parents. Knowing how deeply the King had loved his eldest son and how much care he had taken over the boy's education and future, Henry VII's councillors could not bring themselves to break the news to their sovereign when the message arrived at the Palace of Greenwich in the middle of the night. Eventually, it was the King's confessor who agreed to the mission. Waking the King from his sleep, the priest quoted from the second chapter of the Book of Job: 'Si bona du manu Dei suscipimus mala autem quare non sustineamus?' ('If we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil?') After a moment, the King understood the terrible news and sent word asking his wife the Queen to come to his apartments at once.

Awoken so abruptly from her rest, Elizabeth of York can have been under no illusions that she was about to receive some very bad news. The thirty-six year-old queen, still showing some of the famous blonde beauty she had inherited from her late mother, entered her husband's bedchamber, where he told her that Arthur was dead. Faced with the sight of her usually iron-willed husband in such a state of distress, Elizabeth hid her own shock and initially attempted to comfort him. It was not a political disaster, she reminded him lamely, since they had another son, Henry, to take Arthur's place in the succession; perhaps Katherine would prove to be pregnant with Arthur's posthumous child? Eventually, the King recovered his calm and Elizabeth returned to her own apartments, walking through the still-dark corridors of the vast palace, as news no doubt seeped quietly through the rooms of courtiers and servants that the Prince of Wales was dead. Reaching her audience chamber, the Queen collapsed into a dead faint as 'that great loss smote her.' When she recovered consciousness, Elizabeth began screaming hysterically and it was now her servants' turn to send word asking for the King. When he arrived, Henry VII cradled Elizabeth trying to comfort her as she had done to him.

Back at Ludlow, as torrential rain lashed the castle's fearsome walls, the body of the boy who would one day have become the new King Arthur was disembowelled and embalmed, whilst news was taken into the sickroom of his feverish widow that her husband had passed from this life. The walls of Saint Mary Magdalene's were hung entirely in black, as the priests began to celebrate the first of hundreds of Requiem Masses for the departed prince. The body was removed with great pomp in the midst of a torrential downpour, whilst inhabitants from the local village lined the roadside, lighting up the night-time sky with burning torches. They crossed themselves as the coffin went by, praying to Blessed Mary and Holy Saint Michael the Archangel that the soul of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales would pass through the travails of Purgatory and dwell forever in the tents of the righteous. These scenes were repeated elsewhere as the plague-ravaged body was moved forty miles across the countryside to the Cathedral of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin in Worcester. There, in the great cathedral first built in the reign of William the Conqueror and recently expanded by his father the King, Arthur Tudor was laid to rest, with his servants breaking their staffs and hurling them into the grave above the coffin to signify obedience unto death. The tomb was then sealed up and, on Henry VII's order, a magnificent mausoleum was eventually placed above it. Years later, when other cathedrals fared less kindly, Worcester was spared the worst excesses of the Dissolution, because the body of Henry VIII's brother lay within its walls.

Back in Ludlow, when she had finally recovered from her brush with the disease that had taken her husband's life, Katherine of Aragon, now Dowager Princess of Wales, was heavily swathed in mourning and carried down to a black-clad litter to begin her long and sad journey back to London, where she was to be welcomed into the household of her mother-in-law and there wait and see what would become of her future in the English Royal Family now that the man she had been betrothed to since infancy had died so suddenly and so unexpectedly.

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