Henry VIII still dominates Tudor history, casting a long shadow into the twenty-first century that tends to throw shade upon his relatives. His most famous portrait, Holbein's enduring and imposing full-length work of 1537, has become iconic; a larger-than-life figure who stares out defiantly into our eyes. For this is the king who had just put aside his wife of twenty years, who declared the Pope a heretic, who dissolved the centuries-old ways of monastic life and no compunction in sending to the block those whose will opposed his own.
Yet Henry also represents one of history's most spectacular twists of fate. At this distance, taking in Holbein's broad shoulders, it is easy to be dazzled into the misnomer that Henry was born to be king, a regal guarantee from day one, itching to exercise power. For years, though, it was not going to be Henry, never should have been. He was the second son, the spare heir, waiting in line behind his elder brother, Arthur, who received the renaissance humanist education to fit him for the future rule of England. But for the accident of a few germs, in the spring of 1502, history would be recalling the reign of King Arthur I, for better or worse. The subtitle of Sean Cunningham's new book, "The Tudor King who Never Was," nails the sum of Arthur's life in historical terms. It also fleshes out the youth who has been almost forgotten, the lost potential of his life, in accessible and rigorous detail.
Already well-known for his books on Richard III and Henry VII, as well as his role in the National Archives, Dr Sean Cunningham has refused to consign Arthur to the historical side -lines. Instead, he presents a portrait of an educated, important young man with real influence. Setting the boy's life in its political context, he explores details of Arthur's education and training, his relationship with his parents and peers, his importance in the Welsh borders and the extent of his connections. Cunningham's approach is engaging and welcoming; he combines a narrative of academic rigour with an inclusive tone, which will have broad appeal to those who want to separate the facts and fiction when it comes to the life of this elusive Tudor. It is also a sympathetic and human approach, considering the experience of Arthur, the young child, as well as the youth whose wedding-night boasts have long-survived him. Of particular interest is the detailed research Cunningham has undertaken in chapter four, "The Power of the Prince," which offers new insight into Arthur's connections and his involvement in local disputes. This is not just a callous, frail youth who dies too soon; this is a young man of gravitas, shaping up to become a king.
Cunningham also makes the decision to explore Arthur's posthumous influence, creating an historical platform of time by juxtaposing his 1501 wedding with the events of the late 1520s, when Henry VIII was seeking to separate from Catherine of Aragon. And his penultimate chapter heading is correct: in a way, Arthur did haunt Henry VIII, in obvious and subtle ways. In many ways the brothers were opposites. In Henry's exuberance and caprice, we can see the restraint and caution of an elder brother who was raised to follow his father's model of kingship. Where Henry was a robust lover in his youth, he contrasts with Arthur's youth, inexperience and premature death. Yet although h had survived, Henry could not shake off the idea that Arthur had been there first, and he allowed this notion to convince himself of the invalidity of his first marriage, with the resultant seismic changes to England and the Catholic church.
"Prince Arthur: The Tudor King who Never Was" fully presents the "untold story of Henry VIII's elder brother." Cunningham's careful approach is complemented by the inclusion of timeline, family tree and catalogue of the Prince's associates. This might easily have become a sentimental book, descending into maudlin death scenes or lamentations about the loss to England's history but Cunningham's clear, professional tone allows him to sweep through the facts and evaluate Arthur's life in a balanced way. This is not to suggest he is by any means aloof or detached from his subject: Cunningham has successfully animated and appreciated a young man on whom the historical spotlight has finally fallen.
"Prince Arthur: The Tudor King who Never Was" by Sean Cunningham, is available now from Amberley Publishing.