Dear readers, I am so excited to introduce you to Karen Heenan. She shares my love for the Tudor era and the historical figures of the time who are often overlooked. I have had the pleasure of working with Karen on the latest Historical Writers Forum anthology, Alternate Endings. While I imagined a brighter future for Queen Mary in my story, Karen went back a little further and looked at Catherine's story if Prince Arthur had lived. I know you're going to love it!
A Personal History with the Tudors . . . and how Henry VIII doesn't improve with age
A Guest Post by Karen Heenan
My first introduction to the story of Henry VIII was the 1970 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which we got in the US in 1972. I was eight. My mom was a big reader and had some knowledge of (and sympathy for) Anne Boleyn, so she wanted to watch the first two episodes covering Catherine of Aragon and Anne. After one episode, I was hooked and insisted on watching the rest of the series, even though Mom lost interest once Anne was executed.
Throughout my teens and early twenties, I devoured every bit of Tudor-related historical fiction I could get my hands on. I loved stories of Henry and the queens, but it didn’t occur to me at that point to wonder “what if” about any of it. History was what it was, and I accepted it.
As I got older, and read more non-fiction, threads began to present themselves, offering clues to different ways the story of Tudor England could have gone, if only one tiny thing had happened differently.
Arthur Tudor’s death in 1501 was no tiny thing. He was Henry VII’s firstborn son, the heir to the newly-created Tudor dynasty, trained and educated from birth to take on the role of his father’s successor and lead the Tudors into a new age.
Henry, on the other hand, was the younger brother, educated separately, and intended for the church. It was a failing on the part of Henry VII that he didn’t prepare the “spare” as thoroughly as he educated the heir, and I sometimes like to imagine the panic he felt when Arthur died and he realized that he had a limited amount of time to reshape his son into an eventual monarch.
Which is not to say Henry VIII did a bad job as a young king. He kept on Thomas Wolsey as an advisor, and promoted him. Wolsey was a master of detail and excelled at the day-to-day drudgery of ruling, and Henry relied heavily on him in the early years. He also got rid of Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley (via execution). Empson and Dudley had been his father’s “hatchet men,” two lawyers who headed up the king’s council Learned in the Law and who enriched Henry VII (and themselves) by collecting taxes, dues, selling wardships, pardons, and licenses, and generally extorting from the nobility with the king’s full permission.
He also married Catherine of Aragon. This was a fiscally sound idea, since her Spanish dowry had already been paid and Henry, like his father, was of no mind to return it. It had been widely proclaimed that Arthur and Catherine’s marriage had not been consummated, but a dispensation was obtained from the pope anyway because canon law forbade a man – even a king – from marrying his brother’s widow.
Henry and Catherine fully expected to have children during the course of their marriage. And they did, but only one, the future Mary I, survived childhood.
Thus began Henry’s frantic quest for a son, changing the course of English history and ending or turning upside down the lives of many people.
I chose to write Princess of Spain in Catherine’s voice, allowing Arthur to live until their eldest son was sixteen, and questioning what would happen to an over-ambitious Archbishop named Henry if he tried to put himself forward as regent for the young king, rather than allowing his sister-in-law and the council to act as regent for two years. Catherine will have a fight on her hands, but at her side she also has two of Arthur’s most trusted advisors – Edmund Dudley and Thomas Wolsey.
As a lover of history – and a stickler for accuracy in fiction - It was strangely cathartic to imagine what might have happened had Arthur Tudor survived and Henry had been left in the secondary spot history intended for him, and if Catherine had been given the wife, mother, and queen she could have been. Want to know more?