Ludlow castle has witnessed many historical events over the centuries. Some were well documented, but many were not so. Some were kept secret – the truth only known by a few people and these stone walls.
To celebrate the wedding of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon in November, I would like to write about one of the mysteries which changed the course of English history.
Catherine of Aragon and her huge entourage landed at Plymouth on 2nd of October 1501 to marry Prince Arthur, the heir to the newly-established Tudor dynasty and the English throne. It took more than a month for them to reach Dogmersfield in Hampshire where they had a surprise visit from King Henry VII and his son, Arthur. That was their first meeting, although the betrothal negotiation started in 1489 and the young couple had been exchanging letters over the years. The king and the prince did not accompany the Spanish party for the rest of their journey to the capital but when they got closer to London, the bride-to-be was met by a group of English noblemen including Arthur’s younger brother; Henry, to escort her thenceforth.
Catherine’s entry to London on 12th November was warmly welcomed with many pageants and celebrations throughout the city. She was accommodated at the Bishop of London’s Palace, situated at the northwest corner of St. Paul’s Cathedral complex, to prepare for her big day. The wedding took place at the cathedral itself. (This was the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was burned down by the Great Fire of London 1666). The wedding was followed by the great banquet at the Bishop’s Palace and the ceremony of the marriage bed took place that night.
The celebrations continued another two weeks. Then when Catherine was about settle down to her new life in the English court, Prince Arthur needed to go back to Ludlow. London was not his home after all. Arthur was created Prince of Wales in November 1489 when he was three years old. In Spring 1493, at the age of six, he was moved from his London nursery in Farnham to Ludlow Castle to establish his own household and learn how to govern a country in the future. Therefore, it was natural for him to go back to Ludlow after the wedding. There was a debate as to whether Catherine should go with Arthur or stay in London. In the end, they agreed to go together to the Welsh Marches. It was sometime in December 1501 and they were planning to celebrate first Christmas there as husband and wife.
However, Arthur and Catherine’s time together did not last long. They attended the Maundy Thursday ceremonies at the end of March 1502, then soon after, Arthur was suddenly taken ill and sadly died on early evening of 2nd April. Catherine also suffered the illness but survived. The cause of Arthur’s death is not certain. Various historians have suggested different theories but it seems sweating sickness is the strongest candidate at present. His body was rested in his chamber until 23rd April (St. George’s Day) and after his ‘heart’ (internal organs) had been removed, his body was carried to Worcester Cathedral via several religious places, calling at Ludlow’s parish church of St. Laurence’s first. There, a plaque was erected for him but it was lost after 1684. Now the church has a new plaque indicating the approximate place where Arthur’s ‘heart’ would have been buried. But no one at that time had imagined that these mere four months of their time together in Ludlow Castle would come back to haunt Catherine and cause a huge uproar across western Europe two decades later…
After Arthur’s death, Catherine was called back to London but placed in a very awkward position because of the politics between her own father and her father-in-law. When Henry VII died in 1509 and Arthur’s younger brother Henry became king, he decided to take Catherine as his wife. They had a very happy marriage for many years.
However, after nearly two decades of marriage, they only had one surviving child, Princess Mary (Mary I). Henry became seriously concerned about lack of male heirs and started wondering that their marriage was not God’s will. He argued that the bible mentioned that ‘if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing…they shall be childless’. More significantly, at that time, he met an attractive young lady; Anne Boleyn, who refused to become his mistress nor nothing less than his wife and queen. Catherine also strongly refused to give in. To annul his marriage to Catherine, Henry had to have the Pope’s grant. He was hoping to get the Pope’s permission straight away and marry Anne so she could produce male heirs. However, the Pope was not in the position to answer his request as he was imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor (who happened to be Catherine’s nephew). Instead, the Pope sent a cardinal from Italy to England to hear the case and decide whether Henry and Katherine’s marriage was illegal or not. So, in June 1529, twenty years after their marriage, the court hearing was arranged at Blackfriars in London. The focus of the argument was whether Catherine’s previous marriage to Henry’s brother Arthur, was valid. Several people were called in as the witnesses of Catherine’s first marriage. They mentioned some comments made by Prince Arthur after the wedding night as the proof of their successful marriage. Catherine counter-attacked by appealing directly to the king himself, saying that ‘when ye had me at the first, I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid without touch of man. And whether it be true or no, I put it to your conscience’.
This is one of the mysteries in English history which we would never be able to solve. Who is telling the truth and who is not? Did Arthur pretend that everything was all right in their marriage? Were the witnesses forced to make up the story? Was Henry fooled by Catherine? Or was Catherine telling the truth? If only these thick walls of Ludlow Castle could tell…
This Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ was settled by splitting England from the Pope’s authority. Many people (even some historians) believe that this means that Henry VIII became a Protestant but that is not true. He believed that kings – not the Pope, should be the head of the Church to follow God’s will. He followed the Catholic faith and heard the mass until he died. Many Protestants in England (including Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell) tried to lead Henry towards their belief, but Henry never allowed them to go too far. For Catherine, the Pope had been always the head of the Church and she did not accept the divorce decision which was not made by the Pope. She composed a loving letter to Henry before she died in exile from the court and signed ‘Catherine the Quene’. For her, she had been the queen of England till the end.
Noriko Horiuchi, Ludlow Castle
If you have enjoyed this story from history, you may also enjoy a CD we have for sale in the Castle’s gift shop, entitled ‘Katherine of Aragon’. This original work by composer Geoff Proudley, has taken inspiration from Catherine’s life. Follow her story from her early life in Spain to her death in 1536, through evocative music. You can also enjoy a stay at Ludlow Castle in the beautiful Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon apartment (just a stones’ throw from the North Range and Prince Arthur’s own royal apartments), find out more on our Accommodation page.