Wedding of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon

Published in History Today

L.W. Cowie describes the wedding of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon on November 14th, 1501.

Arthur around the time of his marriage c.1501On Sunday 14th November 1501 the wedding of Prince Arthur, Henry VII's eldest son, and Princess Catherine of Aragon was celebrated splendidly in old St Paul's Cathedral. Stands had been erected in the nave for the most important guests; and for the marriage itself there was a timber platform twelve feet wide and four feet high with steps on every side and covered with red baize. This was, a chronicler declared, 'like unto the haut-place of the christening of the King's children,' and it stood against the consistory court over the north portion of the cloisters adjacent to the choir and north transept so that the King and Queen could privately go there through a door made for the occasion 'to hear and see the ceremonies of the marriage at their pleasure.'

The Princess was received at the Galilee porch at the west end by a fanfare of trumpeters and processed down the long nave between the great Norman pillars hung with tapestry to be married to the waiting Prince by the Archbishop of Canterbury assisted by the Spanish Legate and nineteen bishops and mitred abbots. After this they went from the platform through the rood screen and along the choir with its tall windows to the square east end for high mass at the altar. Then, after Arthur had separately left by the west door to go to the Bishop of London's palace at the north side of the cathedral to make ready to receive his bride, 'as the custom of England is,' the young Prince Henry led her for a banquet there; where a conduit 'pompously devised to run diverse sorts of good wine' began to spout as did several others in the capital that day, and dancing and jousting, archery and play-acting and other amusements were organised during the next ten days.

The marriage of these fifteen-year-olds was a diplomatic triumph for Henry VII. He had united the house of Tudor with an old and powerful European dynasty which could promote peace and security for his kingdom. But it was to be short-lived and became the occasion of a different, momentous historical development. Five months after the marriage, Arthur died, and by April 1509 Henry VII too was dead. Prince Henry became Henry VIII and a month later fulfilled his father's dying wish by marrying Catherine. This wedding took place quietly in the chapel of the Franciscan Observants at Greenwich. This time the elaborate ceremony in the Cathedral was to be their coronation on Midsummer Day.

Of Catherine's many children, the only one to live was Mary, born in 1516, and by 1525 her childbearing days were over. Henry wanted a male heir and to marry Anne Boleyn. His marriage to his brother's widow was contrary to canon law. It had been allowed by a papal dispensation, but this very sort of marriage was forbidden by the book of Leviticus. Henry believed that his marriage had failed because it was unlawful. Papal refusal to recognise this and grant his divorce from Catherine initiated his ecclesiastical revolution spread over seven years, for which the royal wedding in 1501 was the seed-plot.

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