Interview with Sean Cunningham

Dr Sean Cunningham has worked for The National Archives for over fifteen years and is currently Head of Medieval Records. His other books include ‘Henry VII’, ‘Richard III: A Royal Enigma’ and his forthcoming ‘Henry VII’ a short biography with Penguin Monarchs Series. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and lives in London.

I am honoured to be able to interview Dr Cunningham and to be able to ask him a few questions about his latest book on Prince Arthur Tudor.

What inspired you to write a book about Arthur Tudor?

Studying Henry VII’s reign for a long time raises as many questions as it answers. For quite a while I have felt that something important had been overlooked by historians trying to explain why things happened during the reign and how it took on the colour and character that it did. I now think that the key to explaining Henry VII’s time as king, and perhaps the early Tudor period more broadly, starts with the life and death of Prince Arthur.

The period 1485-1509 is fascinating, and not just because we now know that it forms a boundary between the medieval and early modern periods. There was something genuinely different about the way Henry VII tried to rule England and Wales. Whether this was a revolutionary new government or a clever adaptation of what kings like Edward IV had done, is still open to question.

What does seem clear is that Henry VII had an amazing focus, drive and determination. That much is obvious from the tenacity he showed in living through a fourteen-year exile after 1471 and in launching an almost suicidal invasion of England with a few thousand men in August 1485.

Historians have concluded that having won the crown, all of Henry VII’s energies were employed towards keeping it; and not unreasonably. Henry had struggled for his entire life. He had seen the fortunes of his mother’s Beaufort family fluctuate with the cycle of fifteenth century politics. He was a victim of events and the decisions of other people; but once he was king, he wanted to build stability from a position of direct control.

Becoming king by conquest invited a backlash based on dynastic counterclaims that was seen in the plots of Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck and Edmund de la Pole. These conspiracies lasted for over twenty of his twenty-three years on the throne, between 1486 and 1506. The reign can be seen justifiably as a continual firefight to keep power. Against this narrative, Prince Arthur was being developed as a unifying royal figure. Henry VII would have been desperate to reign long enough for his son’s training to reach a level where he could become king in his own right and keep the throne without having to face recurring challengers. The lack of a parallel strategy for Prince Henry’s development indicates that the king trusted that God would continue to back the Tudor family.

This plan had already started to unravel when Henry’s stable circle of family, friends and experienced officials began to die after 1500. The subtleties normally associated with a king’s personal rule were gradually replaced by day-to-day government in the hands of ministers working inflexibly to a set policy and schedule on Henry’s behalf. The deaths of Arthur in April 1502 and Queen Elizabeth in February 1503 destroyed a fifteen-year plan to shape Arthur as the next king. Rule by bureaucrats and their legalistic sharp-practice expanded. Prince Henry was not then ready to take his brother’s place. Until he was, the decaying regime had to try to squash opposition. It did so through harsh measures that sought to control freedom of action within the aristocracy by targeting their income.

Arthur’s death was therefore the catalyst for the change of direction forced upon the Tudor regime in the period 1502-03. If we can understand the nature of Arthur’s education and training plan and what it sought to achieve, we should have a clearer picture of the ruling philosophy of the early Tudors. The expansion of Prince Henry’s role before 1509, and the impact upon him of the deaths of Arthur and Queen Elizabeth also becomes a fascinating way of seeing how Henry VII reacted and adapted on the brink of disaster.

How did you go about researching the life of Arthur Tudor?

The basic story is well known, but I knew that there was more to discover and more to say. I spent the best part of a year reading what has been published already, extracting text and references from published transcripts or summaries of documents, and searching in archives. Published material always points to the most fertile collections. Even if it looks like these sources have been heavily used, it is unlikely that someone else has been searching for exactly the same nuggets. Nor were they likely to have researched them in the same way. Editors of printed texts always make summary decisions about what to exclude or translate, so if there was time and a good reason, I always felt it worthwhile to check manuscripts.

Westminster Abbey archive seemed like a good place to begin a hunt for unseen documents. The collections relating to Henry VII’s prime minister, Reginald Bray, and others linked to Margaret Beaufort’s network contained many things relating to Arthur’s estates and income. Much is detailed and dry (and might now appear in other studies), but it was very useful in contributing to the bigger picture of Arthur’s life.

The British Library and National Archives also have poorly catalogued collections that have always revealed amazing detail when bundles, rolls and files are trawled through systematically. I have a lot of notes and photographs from that period of research. Much of it will be re-used, and it has been important in balancing the wider story of Tudor regime’s power. I will now return to this information for a bit of work of the Grey family and Arthur’s network of friends and servants.

Prince Arthur did not seem like a promising topic when I first started. A boy who died aged fifteen and who lived beyond the crown’s Westminster paper trail was not the easiest subject to contemplate. But so much of Arthur’s position and status within the first Tudor regime was reflected in his father’s policies that it became easier to see what a strong presence he actually was before 1502.

Arthur’s training and education reflected Henry VII’s long-term plans for his heir. The king’s involvement in encouraging Prince Henry to step into his brother’s shoes extended that. That gave me a good angle to think about how I would tell the story.

What is one common misconception that people may have about Arthur Tudor?

That he was sickly, weak and somehow unsuited to be a king. Arthur travelled around a great deal. He appeared regularly at towns along the Welsh Marches and many medieval houses and castles in the region have some traditional association with a visit from him. Observations and commentaries on his character and appearance present an intelligent, quick-witted and diligent boy; slightly serious perhaps (he did bear the heavy expectation of his father), but well-liked and strongly supported. After the polarised politics of the Wars of the Roses, he appears to have been on course to become an ideal ruler to unite previously hostile parts of the political community.

What is the most interesting thing about Arthur that you discovered through your research?

Arthur made a deep impression on people. He was not a shady figure that people could not warm to. We think of Henry VIII as charismatic, boisterous and larger than life. But Henry had a far longer life than his brother and the detail in which it is recorded gives us a very close view of his transformation from the charming prince into domineering king. Our fascination with that process has obscured Prince Arthur’s independent status and the influence he had over Henry.

Arthur was also charming, learned, subtle and deeply loved by the people he lived and worked with on the March. The emotional reaction to his death among his friends and household officials reveals a connection that went far beyond service and the expectation of top roles when Arthur became king. Trying to understand why the residents of Ludlow or Leominster felt like that has been one of the most interesting parts of the research for this book.

 Could you describe the relationship between Arthur and his younger brother Henry?

Distant, but not difficult. The most important aspect was just how long Arthur’s posthumous influence over Henry lasted

There was an overlap of only eleven years when both were alive together. The age gap of almost five years also meant that when they were in the same place, Arthur was probably much further down the road towards adult responsibility and unlikely to be as interested in the same things as his younger brother.

It is probable that they came together only at major events – although Arthur did not attend Henry’s investiture as a knight of the Bath in 1494 and he was kept in the Welsh Marches during the crisis of the Western Rising of 1497.  The first time we see them interacting is at Arthur’s wedding in November 1501. As duke of York, Henry was one of the realm’s senior nobles. He was prominent in the ceremonial greeting of Catherine of Aragon at St George’s Fields, south of London Bridge. As Arthur’s cheeky younger brother, however, he tried to steal the limelight at the wedding reception when dancing enthusiastically with his new sister.

There was quite a difference in responsibility and outlook between Henry’s nursery-based education into the mid-late 1490s and Arthur’s training to be king in a region that required him to exercise power. The few weeks that both were present at court in November 1501 might have been the only period when the brothers were in each other’s company for several days. If that was so, then it must have left a lasting impression on the younger boy.

Henry certainly seems to have been devoted to his brother. He kept many of his personal items after Arthur died in April 1502. Arthur’s clothes, books and portraits are known to have been in Henry’s possession after 1509. Henry’s view of his brother must also have been heavily influenced by what Catherine of Aragon remembered from her intense life of five months with her first husband.

Arthur’s death changed what was expected from Prince Henry. He had to begin to learn to replace his brother as the regime’s heir. That fact might have reset Henry’s opinion of Arthur since it required him to give up a fairly carefree life for a period of intensive training and heightened responsibility.

We might wonder if, when Henry got older, his recollection of his brother merged into a slightly abstract image of a virtuous, ideal prince. Since Arthur and Henry can have spent so little time together in Henry’s childhood, real memories would quickly have become distorted.

Any misty-eyed nostalgia for his youthful life might have been broken by Henry VIII’s analysis of Arthur’s private life as part of the investigation of the validity of his marriage at the end of the 1520s. This must have been a troubling and uncomfortable experience for King Henry. In very negative circumstances it created new impressions of what his brother might truly have been like in his most private moments -something only Queen Catherine could have known but which was then exposed widely.

Arthur could not respond, of course. It was a symptom of the king’s determination to secure the verdict he needed for an annulment of his marriage that he was willing to rake over his long-dead brother’s reputation in order to discredit Queen Catherine’s memory of her life with Arthur.

The overlapping relationship of the Tudor brothers was fleeting and has left little behind in documents. By outliving his brother for forty-five years, Henry could manipulate knowledge of their relationship as he wanted. For that reason, it is very difficult for us to see what it was really like without specific new evidence from the key period of 1491-1502.

If you could ask Arthur Tudor one question what would it be?

I think he might be offended if I asked him if he did consummate his marriage. He certainly wanted everyone to think that he had slept with Princess Catherine in 1501, so there is probably little point in raising that again (although a wholly truthful answer would probably be one of the most important in English history, even if it is a little late to unwind the consequences).

I think I would be most interested to know how he felt about his relationship with the rest of his family. Evidence of the contact between Arthur at Ludlow or Tickenhill Place and the king at Westminster or Richmond is scanty. Arthur’s role appears at first glance to be contradictory. Preparing Arthur to rule in his own right over a stable nation was probably Henry VII’s overriding goal as king. Yet to achieve it, Arthur had to learn to be a leader on his own terms without being overawed or distracted by life at court and in the palaces of the Thames valley. To rule effectively, the prince had to acquire the self-reliance to deal with the consequences of the decisions he made. Running the government of the marches between Gloucestershire and Cheshire gave him that independence but probably limited the horizons of his social life.

Since Arthur was brought up from birth in a geographically distant location from his parents and siblings, it would be fascinating to know the extent to which he felt himself to be part of the royal family. Did his physical dislocation also build a psychological separation from his relatives? Did he understand that he was being trained to be the second Tudor king and that it was therefore necessary for him to have an indistinct national public role during the lifetime of his father? Did Arthur therefore feel involved in the regime, or was he established in the Welsh Marches as a semi-independent lord who was already ruling as king in his own kingdom by the end of 1501?

So my (two-part) question to Arthur would be:

‘how has your education and training in the Welsh Marches made you ready to rule the whole kingdom; and do you feel yourself to be fully part of your father’s family or does your dynastic position as the heir of both York and Lancaster mean that you should be considered, in your own person, to be a separate and unifying king-in-waiting?’

What’s next for Sean Cunningham?

I have some really exciting research coming up on the private spending of Henry VII and Henry VIII, 1485-1521. I am part of a project with Winchester University and the Humanities Research Institute at Sheffield University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, to create a digital edition of the account books of John Heron, treasurer of the chamber to the first two Tudor kings. The project team will be researching and writing articles on state finance, material culture in the royal household, bonds and recognisances, the rhythms of court life, the royal family at church and their daily spending. I will be co-author of a book arising from the project and will contribute to the website and end-of-project conference. Work starts in September and runs for two years. I’ll be firing off lots of tweets and posts when the discoveries start to emerge.

In other research, the most urgent task is to put the finishing touches to a detailed research guide on Tudor government for the Institute of Historical Research in London. My little book on Henry VII for Penguin is also horribly behind schedule. I also have to write up a presentation on the independent power of the princes of Wales in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, which was delivered earlier this summer in Bourges, France, as part of events commemorating the death of Jean de Berry in 1416.

A study of Thomas Stanley, 1st earl of Derby has been taking shape for a while, and a long-lost recognisance roll of Henry VII’s reign has been stalled for even longer, as I have struggled to keep the introduction under control. I should be able to complete the latter work as part of the Chamber Books project; which will be a great relief. This is an area of Henry VII’s government that is notorious but not yet fully understood, so I’m trying to get a bit closer to the full picture. I’m also doing evidence-gathering and sketching for something on the mid-Tudor embezzler and dabbler in treason Sir William Sharrington – another great story boosted by new archival discoveries – but that one will be in hold for a while yet. I think there is already enough going on to see me through the rest of my career. I’m sure that Prince Arthur will now spur me on!


I would like to say a very big THANK YOU to Dr Sean Cunningham for taking the time to participate in this interview and to share some of his thoughts on the life of Arthur Tudor. His book on Arthur Tudor is simply brilliant and I would strongly recommend adding it to your book shelf! If you’d like to find out more about Dr Cunningham or purchase his book please follow the links below:

Contact Sean on Twitter

You can purchase Sean’s book on Amazon


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