Red and White it flows: The Birth of Prince Arthur

Arthur Tudor rose

On the 20th of September 1486, Queen Elizabeth of York gave birth to the first prince of the Tudor dynasty, a baby boy named Arthur at St. Swithun’s Priory next to Winchester Cathedral. This was no coincidence as Henry wanted his crown heir to be born in the place where it was believed Camelot once stood.

Henry was proud of his Welsh roots and he wanted to exalt them, by naming his crown heir, Arthur after the legendary king who unified all Britain. From the start, Henry VII, was doing his best to solidify his place in English history and the rest of Europe. When he married Elizabeth of York that same year, their union was widely celebrated. A new emblem was a created.

“Henry had been born at Pembroke Castle in Wales and spent his early years at Raglan in Monmouthsire. His paternal grandfather, Owen Tudor claimed descent from Arthur and he had marched under the banner of a red dragon, the Pen Draig, or Pendragon, at Bosworth. Breton minstrels and early Welsh texts had been drawing on the legend long before the Tudors …The present round table in Winchester’s Great Hall has been carbon dated to 1250-90 … Even Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, had been drawn to Arthurian ideals and produced genealogies to justify his wresting the throne from Henry VI.” (Licence)

Tudor banner

Not surprisingly then, Henry VII felt even more drawn because of his Welsh roots. On the road to Bosworth, he chose for his main standard the dragon of Cadwalldr and thanks to his uncle Jasper’s popularity in that area, the bards sang songs about him being their prophesized savior.

Arthur was the embodiment of these myths, being born at the place where many believed Arthur’s fabled city of Camelot once stood, and where a replica of the round table was held at the ceiling of Winchester Cathedral, and of his father’s ambitions. He was a prince of both Lancaster and York.

For her part, Elizabeth had been preparing for the birth since Easter with the help of her mother-in-law, the indomitable Margaret Beaufort [Countess of Richmond]. Besides her, Elizabeth had the company of her mother and other female relatives. Birth in this period was exclusively a female thing and although doctors were present, they were not normally involved in childbirth. They were just there to act as consultants. It was up to Elizabeth’s women and the midwives to assist her during the birth.
When her labor began on the 19th, natural creams would be applied on her abdomen. These would mostly consist of a mixture of distilled marjoram and saffron and brandy to “aid the contractions and help lessen the intensity” of these.

Although medical knowledge was limited, Alison Weir writes that the “practices employed by midwives” were fairly modern.

“Documentary evidence suggests that women were encouraged to give birth in a sitting or squatting position. They were encouraged to do breathing exercises for labor, much as they are today, but there was no pain relief beyond opiates and herbs.”

Weir adds that it is possible that Elizabeth of York might have had the protection of the Virgin Mary via her girdle which was held at Westminster Abbey and it “was sometimes lent to queens and high-ranking women, so that they could tie it around themselves in labor.”

Tudor Rose Prince Arthur of Wales

When his birth was announced, the country rejoiced and many poems such as the following, illustrate this:
“I love the red rose
but red and white it flows
is that your pure appetite?
To hear talk of them
is my delight
loved may we be
our prince to see
and roses three.”

Arthur was christened four days later at Winchester Cathedral. His godparents were John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, his grandmother the Queen Dowager, Elizabeth Woodville, and his step-grandfather, Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby. After the ceremonies were over, the Queen’s sister, lady Cecily returned the baby to his mother. Less than a year later, Elizabeth would be crowned.
Margaret Beaufort was not present at this event, but she was very present in the child’s life.

“She had ordered, for example, that a physician supervise the nurse breastfeeding Elizabeth’s baby, and a yeoman test the king’s mattress daily … She was furthermore always there, her tiny frame an almost inescapable presence.” (Lisle)

While the proud parents would boast of more children, only three would survive them. Margaret, Mary and Henry Tudor would go on to become Queens and King, while their crown heir would die before his time.

Sources:

  • Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen & her World by Alison Weir
  • Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen by Amy Licence
  • In bed with the Tudors by Amy Licence
  • Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood
  • Tudor by Leanda de Lisle
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