The lost prince of Tudor England

I was very excited to hear that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have had a new baby girl – Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. It’s amazing to think that such a tiny little person has the opportunity to make her mark on history in such a big way!

The birth of Princess Charlotte got me thinking, and I realised just how many Tudor and Stuart monarchs were second children, who weren’t ever expected to rule until an accident of fate thrust them into their older sibling’s place. In days when as many as half of all children didn’t make it to adulthood, the expression ‘heir and spare’ wasn’t just a rather unpleasant figure of speech, it was a political reality – all too often the ‘spare’ would be called upon to assume the heir’s position. Of ten monarchs who reigned between 1500 and 1700, eight were not the intended heir: only James I and Charles II were the eldest sons of sovereigns. Even James I was the son of a Scottish queen, not an English one. In many cases, the child who might have been expected to rule – to take up pride of place in the history books – now occupies only the merest corner of the page, but they nevertheless make their mark in other ways. It’s one of these ‘lost heirs’ that I’m writing about today.

Of the seven children born to Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York, four survived the dangerous early years: Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary. Arthur was the prized heir and Prince of Wales. The girls made prestigious political marriages to the kings of Scotland and France. Henry was expected to marry a foreign princess or heiress to a duchy, make his name at the tiltyard or on the battlefield, and support his brother as companion and political ally.

Around 1500, when Arthur was fourteen years old, the composer Edmund Turges wrote a carol in three parts, ‘From stormy windes’. It’s a prayer for Prince Arthur’s safety, and it refers to him as ‘the ostrich feather’, which is the emblem of the Prince of Wales to this day. Listen to it here.

From stormy windes and grievious weather,                                                                          Good Lord, preserve the Estridge Feather!

O blessed Lord of heaven celestial,                                                                                           Which formed hast of thy most special grace                                                                      Arthur, our prince, to us here terrestrial                                                                                       In honour to reign,                                                                                                                                  Lord, grant him time and space,                                                                                                     Which of alliance                                                                                                                               Our prince of pleasance                                                                                                                     By inheritance of England and France                                                                                               Right heir for to be;                                                                                                              Wherefore now sing we: From stormy windes…

Wherefore, good Lord, sith of thy creation                                                                                     Is this noble prince of royal lineage,                                                                                                In every case be his preservation,                                                                                                     With joy to rejoice his due inheritance,                                                                                               His right to obtain                                                                                                                                In honour to reign,                                                                                                                                 This heir of Britayne,                                                                                                                              Of Castille and Spain,                                                                                                                          Right heir for to be;                                                                                                                          Wherefore now sing we: From stormy windes…

Now, good Lady, among thy saintes all,                                                                                   Pray to thy Son, the second in Trinity,                                                                                               For this young prince which is and daily shall be                                                                     Thy servant with all his heart so free,                                                                                               O celestial,                                                                                                                                                 Mother maternal,                                                                                                                             Empress infernal,                                                                                                                                     To thee we cry and call,                                                                                                                         His safeguard to be;                                                                                                                       Wherefore now sing we: From stormy windes…

Prince Arthur was the ideal royal heir: tall, handsome and clever, and in 1501 he made a prestigious marriage. His bride was Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon, Infanta of Spain, and their marriage would help secure the new Tudor dynasty’s place among the European powers. He would rule under the title of King Arthur, the legendary Celtic King who was said to have united all of Britain under peaceful, prosperous rule, an idea which carried great symbolic power in an age when Scotland was still an independent country. But it was not to be. Arthur died in 1502 when he was just fifteen, a few short months after his wedding. We still don’t know exactly what killed him.

Arthur was buried at Worcester Cathedral. His chantry chapel, where priests would sing Masses for the safety of his soul, still survives as a lasting reminder of his short life. As well as this monument in stone, we also have a musical monument to Arthur, written by the composer John Browne. Browne is a bit of a shadowy figure, partly because there are so many people with this name in the surviving records that it’s almost impossible to identify which one was him. But he survives as one of the best-represented – and perhaps one of the best – composers in the Eton Choirbook, and one of the pieces contained in Eton is this one, Stabat iuxta Christi crucem. The text is loosely based on the much older medieval sequence Stabat mater dolorosa, which is most famous now in a setting by the eighteenth-century Italian composer Pergolesi. It describes the grief experienced by the Virgin Mary as she watched her son Jesus die on the cross. Devotion to the sorrow of the Virgin was common in this period, and images of Mary grieving over Christ’s dead body often appear with indulgenced prayers in contemporary Books of Hours. There was even an Office of the Sorrows of the Virgin, which provided prayers for all seven Office hours of the day. But Browne’s piece is unique, because whenever all six voices of the texture are heard at once, the tenor voice invariably sings a familiar tune: From stormy windes.

What does this tell us? Well, it helps that we can date the piece to around the time of Arthur’s death, which in turn has been used as evidence to date the Eton Choirbook itself and to trace Browne’s career. But it also tells us something about the culture of the early Tudor court. By personalising his piece with a tune associated with Prince Arthur, Browne implies that the petition at the end of the piece, ‘Ask and beg your Son that he may without delay grant joy to us your servants’, might be a plea to speed Arthur through purgatory. It could even have been sung in his chantry chapel.

More tantalisingly, it also offers important evidence of a web of symbolism that may have surrounded the royal family. Browne’s use of the song for Prince Arthur symbolically unites him with Christ, and his grieving mother Elizabeth of York with the Virgin Mary. There’s a huge amount of potential to link English queens symbolically with the Virgin. According to medieval Christian belief, Mary was crowned Queen of Heaven, she was the mother of Christ the King, and she was also his bride as well. Like a queen on earth, then, she was married to a king and gave birth to a king as well. Queens also had an important role as intercessors in this period: when the king was dispensing justice, the queen could intercede with him on behalf of the defendant. This was exactly the role that Mary was said to have in heaven: if a sinner prayed to Mary for protection, she would beg Christ for mercy on their behalf. Stabat iuxta Christi crucem shows that, in Elizabeth of York’s case, this potential for symbolism became a reality, and it opens up the possibility that allegorical references to real women might have been intended in other Marian pieces as well. I’ve already suggested that Ave Dei Patris filia might have been first intended for Elizabeth or maybe for Catherine of Aragon. Knowing that the symbolism existed in one piece means that it’s not unthinkable for it to have existed elsewhere too.

But more touchingly, Stabat iuxta Christi crucem and From stormy windes open a window onto one of England’s lost princes, the honour in which he was held during his short life and the enormous sadness that followed his death. It was said that when Christ died on the cross, a sword pierced the Virgin Mary’s breast with grief; Browne’s piece recognises that Elizabeth of York must have felt exactly the same abject sorrow at the loss of her son. It’s a rare glimpse of the Tudor royal family’s emotion and human feeling. Arthur never got to make his name as King of England. We can only see and hear the monuments to his life that are left behind and wonder: what might have been different had he lived to grow old?

Select Bibliography

Benham, Hugh. ‘Prince Arthur (1486-1502), a Carol and a cantus firmusEarly Music 15 (1987), 463-468.

Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. 2nd edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 256-265; pl. 96.

Hocking, Catherine. ‘Cantus Firmus Procedures in the Eton Choirbook’ (PhD dissertation: University of Cambridge, 1995).

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary Through the Centuries (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996).

Williamson, Magnus. ‘The Eton Choirbook: Its Institutional and Historical Background’ (DPhil dissertation: University of Oxford, 1997).

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