The marriage of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales to Catherine, daughter of their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile was a dynastic coup for King Henry VII. The Tudor dynasty was new after his victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August of 1485. Henry’s Lancastrian claim was weak and he needed to shore up his position as King of England. A marriage between his son and a daughter of Spain would help to bolster his dynasty, gain him entrée into the great ruling houses of Europe, diffuse any Yorkist plotting against his regime, secure allies and make an impression on his subjects.
The nuptials were a long time in the making. The idea of a Spanish marriage was first discussed in 1488. Ambassadors were sent to Spain in 1489 and the match was agreed upon. A betrothal was celebrated in 1497 and a proxy rite was performed in 1499. Finally, Catherine arrived in England in early November of 1501 and settled in at Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
On November 12, Catherine made her official entry into the City of London. She emerged from Lambeth riding a mule trapped in the Spanish manner. Beside her was Prince Henry, Arthur’s brother and the future King Henry VIII and on her other side rode a papal legate. She was wearing Spanish apparel. Her auburn hair hung loose with a coif the color of carnations. On top of the coif she wore a little hat that looked like a cardinal’s hat, made of braid with lace of gold holding it on her head.
Heralds led them to London Bridge where they were met by the Mayor. The bells were ringing and banners were hanging from windows. Great crowds gathered in the streets, music sounded and wine flowed from conduits. Stands were built by the London companies for their members to watch. The King, Queen and Prince Arthur, the king’s mother Lady Margaret Beaufort and many other notables watched the procession from the windows of the home of a haberdasher.
Six extravagant pageants were performed before Catherine in the Burgundian style at various stops along the way, the first of which took place in the middle of London Bridge with its centerpiece being a Catherine Wheel. Led by the Mayor, the party paused before each pageant to hear poems, speeches and songs of allegory, mythology and iconography. Addressing her were characters named Honor, Policy, Boethius, Job and King Alfonso the Wise of Castile. Their messages were full of historical, heraldic, moral and political meaning and significance. Catherine may not have understood everything that was being said but the magnitude of the celebrations was unmistakable.
The climax of the procession ended with Catherine being presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury who took her to the door of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A pageant was held in the churchyard and gifts were given to Catherine by the mayor and other notables. A choir sang and then Catherine dismounted and entered the church. There she said her prayers and gave a gift at the shrine of St. Erkenwald. She then retired to the archbishop’s palace for the night. The following afternoon, Catherine was taken to Baynard’s castle to meet with Queen Elizabeth. They spent the day talking and getting to know each other. There was dancing late into the night before Catherine returned to Lambeth.
Mid-morning on November 14, Catherine emerged from the Bishop’s Palace, walking along a wide blue carpet, making her way past various English and Spanish nobility who were lavishly dressed for the occasion. Prince Henry was by her side escorting her. Catherine was wearing a dress of white satin embroidered with pearls and gold thread which was pleated in the Spanish style. Underneath the dress were hoops, called farthingales, the first ever seen in England. She wore a white silk veil that fell to her waist which had a border of gold and precious stones. Her hair was hanging loose over her shoulders, a symbol of virginity.
The King and Queen had spent the night at the house of Lord Abergavenny which was close to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Because of this there was no need for them to process through the streets to the church and divert attention from the bride and groom. They observed the wedding ceremony from a small closet inside the cathedral behind lattice windows so as not to detract from the proceedings. The walls of St. Paul’s were covered in costly tapestries. Under the rose window, surrounding the high altar, was a display of gold plate, ornaments and relics encrusted with precious stones.
Catherine and Prince Henry, dressed in silver tissue embroidered with gold roses, arrived at the west door of the cathedral as trumpets sounded. An elevated walkway had been constructed from the door to the altar, six hundred feet long so everyone could see the proceedings. The walkway was covered with red carpet that had been tacked down with gilded nails. Catherine and Henry processed slowly down the walkway. At the high altar where the ceremony was to take place, a round stage had been built that gave the effect of looking like a mountain. Arthur appeared on the stage, also dressed in white satin. He was surrounded by the Archbishop of Canterbury, eighteen bishops and attendants dressed in colored silks and cloth of gold. Henry turned the bride over to his brother.
The bishops celebrated the nuptial mass which lasted for three hours. After mass, the newlyweds knelt to receive the blessing of the King and Queen. They turned in every direction toward the crowd holding hands. After a celebratory mass and refreshments, Arthur left as he had come in by a side entrance.
Catherine and Henry returned to the west door along the raised walkway. As they came out, they were greeted by a green mountain covered in precious metals. This was meant to signify King Henry VII’s kingship, his Rich Mount (Richmond). At the top of the mountain there were three trees and in front of the trees stood three kings dressed in armor. In the middle was King Arthur flanked by the kings of Spain and France. From Arthur’s tree, which was covered in red roses, a wild dragon emerged. From the mountain’s core a spring of wine flowed. Catherine and Henry watched as the crowd filed through a gate to the fountain to drink. Trumpets blared and the crowd shouted King Henry and Prince Arthur’s names. The entire wedding party made their way to Lambeth Palace where there was a grand, sumptuous feast and a formal bedding of the newlyweds.
The next day, a flotilla of forty barges or more, carrying the wedding party, made their way upriver to Westminster, music playing as they went. A week of jousting and banqueting ensued. Lady Margaret Beaufort put on a banquet for the Spaniards at her castle of Coldharbour. The same night her husband, the Earl of Derby gave a supper. A splendid tournament was staged at Westminster. Catherine sat and watched with the Queen, Lady Margaret and her two new sisters-in-law, the Princesses Margaret and Mary Tudor. Prince Arthur sat across from the ladies with the King, his brother Henry, the Earl of Oxford and the Earl of Derby.
The next day a tournament was held, followed by “disguisings” and pageant after pageant. Then the dancing began. Arthur danced with his aunt, Lady Cecily of York and Catherine performed a Spanish dance with one of her ladies. Prince Henry danced with his sister Margaret and found himself burdened by having on too much clothing. He cast off his gown and danced in his jacket, to the delight of his parents and the crowd. There were two more days of fantastical pageantry and banqueting, each day grander than the previous one.
By the end of the year, Arthur and Catherine were sent to Ludlow to live. In early April, both Catherine and Arthur were ill with what was described as the “sweating sickness”. Arthur didn’t survive. He was buried in Worcester Cathedral. Catherine would spend the next seven years in diplomatic and marital limbo, at the mercy of her father-in-law and her father. Eventually, her gallant escort at her wedding, Prince Henry, would marry her in June of 1509 after he became king.
Further reading: “Arthur Tudor Prince of Wales: Life, Death and Commemoration” edited by Steven Gunn and Linda Monckton, “Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England” by Thomas Penn, “The Sisters of Henry VIII” by Maria Perry, “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World” by Alison Weir, “Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen” by Amy Licence