Heir and Spare

What did it mean to be the heir to a royal house and know your future was to be King? Well Prince Arthur had some experience in this area.

He was the firstborn son of King Henry VII of England and his Queen Elizabeth of York. Born in 1486, only a year after his father’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth, Arthur was the much needed heir that secured the fledgling Tudor dynasty. He was a symbolic end to the bloody War of the Roses, the heir of both the Lancastrians and Yorkists. His future was deemed bright, as in good time he would learn from his father and eventually succeed him as King of England. Yet a King could never be satisfied with one male heir*. The infancy mortality rate was very high, so it was usual for monarchs to try and have a second son a ‘spare’. This came to fruition in 1491 with the birth of a second son Prince Henry. Henry and Elizabeth had other children but only Arthur, Henry and two daughters Margaret and Mary survived until adulthood.

prince arthur wikipedia
Prince Arthur courtesy of Wikipedia.

The dynamic between Arthur and Henry growing up is an interesting one. As heir Arthur would have been subject to immense pressure, as he was to be the second ruler of a new dynasty. His education would of being paramount importance to his parents, and he began his learning aged 5 with his first tutor John Rede who had been Headmaster of the renowned Winchester College (which is still running today). To succeed in his future role he was taught grammar, history, ethics, Greek & Latin among other subjects. Upon his marriage to Catherine of Aragon when he was 15 he moved with his new wife to Ludlow Castle to set up his own court, this would have been a huge step to allow Arthur the independence and responsibility to practice for the role he was due to recieve.

In comparison the younger Henry did not grow up with the same pressure. An issue that could arise with having a spare is that they could get jealous and want power for themselves. As was the case with Arthur and Henry’s maternal grandfather Edward IV and his brothers. Edward’s brother George Duke of Clarence was a constant threat to Edward’s rule and in the end he was put to death by his brother (the Plantagenets were a dysfunctional family to say the least!). It was therefore important to support good brotherly relations, so Henry could be of use to Arthur and not another enemy, for a King of England would have enough of those. Henry’s education, although important, didn’t necessarily receive the same attention to detail. He was allowed to stay with his mother and sisters and have a more informal upbringing at Eltham Palace.

We’ll never know if Henry would have stayed a good ‘spare’ and supported his brother’s reign because it wasn’t to be. Arthur died on the 2nd April 1502. It is not definitively known what killed him but it is generally thought to have been a sweating sickness. He was just 15, whilst his younger brother was only 11. This changed everything – suddenly the spare was heir. Who knows how this must have felt like for Henry? To suddenly be catapulted to a position he wasn’t expected to ever take. The duties, responsibilities and stress of being heir were now on his shoulders. He certainly wasn’t as prepared as Arthur had been, as his education and experience weren’t aimed at rulership.

Only a few years later in 1509 he had to use what he had as he succeeded to the throne on the death of his father. King Henry VIII, as he was now known, was 18 and had the reigns of England in his hands. He made some quick decisions, firstly in marrying his brother’s widow Catherine of Aragon. An interesting choice that was not without political insight as it secured the Spanish alliance that had been teetering on the edge since Arthur’s premature death. Interestingly Henry never visited Ludlow, maybe because it had been the seat of Arthur’s growing power and marriage with Henry’s now wife Catherine.

Catherine of Aragon
Catherine of Aragon courtesy of Wikimedia Commons There is still some debate about whether this portrait is of her or her sister-in-law Mary Tudor.

As Henry’s reign progressed, especially in the early years, it wouldn’t be surprising if the ghost of Arthur loomed over him. Whenever a decision went wrong or whenever he failed would Henry have wondered – what would Arthur have done? Purely conjecture of course, Henry may have never given it a thought. Yet Arthur’s ghost was to return with the breakdown of Henry and Catherine’s marriage. Sadly they struggled to conceive a healthy child, with only Princess Mary surviving to adulthood. Henry who had once been spare himself now only had one female heir. His early experiences as spare must have taught him that life was fragile and to secure his dynasty he needed another child, preferably a son. He had one illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, but he needed a legitimate child to succeed him.

Katherine’s prior marriage to his brother meant he had a ready made excuse to annul his marriage, as according to the Leviticus 20:21 passage from the Bible “if a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless“. Whether Henry truly believed this or used it as an excuse to get what he wanted is another question entirely. Regardless though, Arthur’s marriage to Catherine played a huge role in the king’s ‘great matter’. Ultimately the Catholic Church would not grant the annulment (as Catherine until the day she died said her marriage to Arthur was never consummated), which led Henry to break with Rome and create the Church of England which we can still see the effects of today.

Family of Henry VIII courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Central figures L-R Princess Mary, Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and Princess Elizabeth.

Henry VIII did eventually produce a living male child (the future Edward VI) but no ‘spare’ to secure the Tudor dynasty. Edward died without issue and for the first time in British history a woman became Queen of England in her own right. Mary I died without issue and was succeeded by Henry’s last surviving child Elizabeth I who also died without issue. Thus came the end of the Tudor dynasty. Only Henry VII succeeded in producing an heir and spare, probably at the time the dynasty needed it most. His son Henry VIII’s experience as a spare and ultimately heir arguably shaped the course of his colourful matrimonial relations.

What are your thoughts on the heir and spare dynamic? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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The Tudors courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. From L-R Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.

*In England during this period it was a legal possibility for a female to inherit the throne but due to gender attitudes of the time this was seen as an eventuality to be avoided. You can find out more about these issues in a previous post Origins of the Anarchy.


Tudor Nation: https://www.tudornation.com/arthur-tudor-1486-1502/

Tudor Society: https://www.tudorsociety.com/arthur-tudor-sarah-bryson/

Worcester Cathedral: https://www.worcestercathedral.co.uk/Prince_Arthur.php

Anne Boleyn Files: https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/arthur-prince-of-wales/

‘Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was’ by Sean Cunningham

History Extra: https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/henry-viii-places-shaped-his-life-ludlow-castle-mary-rose-waltham-abbey/

15 thoughts on “Heir and Spare

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