Alternate history: what if Henry VIII’s first son had lived?

Henry VIII's quest for a legitimate male heir led him through six wives, presaging a spiritual break with Rome and the English Reformation. Jonny Wilkes talks to Tracy Borman about the seismic changes in English history that may not have happened had his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had given Henry what he most wanted – a living prince to succeed him

Scene from the the Westminster Tournament Roll, commissioned by Henry VIII to document the lavish jousting tournament held to celebrate the birth of his son with Catherine of Aragon

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes asks Tracy Borman what if… Catherine of Aragon had given Henry VIII what he most wanted – a living male heir

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Within two months of coming to the throne in 1509, the young King Henry VIII had married Catherine of Aragon, and within two years he had a son and heir. Catherine – the beautiful, intelligent and accomplished princess from Spain, and widow of Henry’s older brother, Arthur – had lost her first child, a daughter delivered stillborn, in 1510. But she quickly fell pregnant again, and on New Year’s Day 1511 she gave birth to a boy at Richmond Palace.

There were bonfires in the capital, free-flowing wine, banquets, and Henry held a jousting tournament as England rejoiced over the news. The child, christened Henry, served to secure the Tudor dynasty, and Catherine of Aragon had earned her choice of image for her heraldic badge: the pomegranate, a symbol of fertility. Alas, the joy was not to last, and the little prince died just seven weeks later. Yet had he survived, then history would have turned out very differently.

Instead of seizing the wealth of the church by dissolving the monasteries, Henry would likely have risked exhausting the royal treasury

“There wouldn’t have been six wives for a start,” says author and historian Tracy Borman. Henry would have had no cause to seek a separation from Catherine, and while he may still have tired of his wife over the years and had his head turned by other women, Borman believes his relationship with Anne Boleyn was unlikely to have started at all.

“I don’t think Anne would have had the same appeal for Henry,” she says. “He only became obsessed with her when she refused to sleep with him and, crucially, held out the promise of a son if he set aside Catherine.”

No divorce, no problem

Far more significantly, there would have been no conflict between Henry and the papacy over his desire to have his marriage to Catherine annulled. That would have meant no split from Rome, no establishment of the Church of England with Henry as its Supreme Head, and perhaps no English Reformation at all.

While reformist thinking was still emerging in England, which Henry or his advisers may have embraced, Borman stresses that any change would not have been as sudden or all-encompassing without the king’s fixation on Anne and having a son. “England would probably have remained loyal to Rome,” says Borman, and the monasteries wouldn’t have been dissolved.

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_

Even if Thomas Cromwell had still risen to be Henry’s chief minister, he would have had no sweeping reformation in England’s religious and political life to oversee. “Cromwell was a genuine reformer,” says Borman, “but he simply didn’t have the power to persuade Henry to go down that path unless there was something in it for the king.”

Instead, Henry might have spent his reign focusing on his true ambitions: battle and conquest. “Henry saw himself as a warrior king in the mould of his medieval ancestors. He would probably have spent most of his reign waging war on France, Scotland and elsewhere.”

So, instead of seizing the wealth of the church by dissolving the monasteries, Henry would likely have risked exhausting the royal treasury – and “to little effect”, as Borman puts it. His endless military campaigns might have risked England’s position in Europe, too. Borman says: “England would still have been under threat from the might of France and Spain, but less so given that they remained ideologically aligned.”

Marriage alliances might have strengthened relations with the rest of Catholic Europe. All the while, Catherine would have ruled as regent, proving a capable leader if the rousing speech she is said to have given before the Battle of Flodden in 1513 – after the Scots invaded England as Henry fought in France – was anything to go by.

Princely pursuits

As for the young son, Prince Henry, Catherine would have ensured he had a Catholic upbringing and that his preparation to sit on the throne began at an early age. Made the Duke of Cornwall while still a baby, his childhood would have been spent in a separate, luxurious household receiving an exemplary education. Young Henry – not subjected to the paranoia about his safety that later surrounded Edward VI – could have had knightly training, too, as his parents would have had reason to be confident of more boys being born.

Each male child would have added to Henry’s sense of ease concerning the future of his dynasty as they made useful “spares”, says Borman. “It’s likely one of them would have been destined for a career in the church, as Henry himself was believed to have been when he was the spare heir.” And any girls that Henry and Catherine had – including Mary in 1516, no longer destined to rule – would have been married off to help build foreign alliances.

The House of Tudor would have been safe, in Henry’s eyes. But by securing an heir early in his reign, Henry might have, paradoxically, hurt his dynasty’s historical legacy. “Two of the things that make the Tudors so famous and compelling are the king who married six times and his daughter Elizabeth I who reigned as the ‘Virgin Queen’,” says Borman. Without the seismic events of Henry’s rule, the religious upheaval and the reigns of his children, the Tudors may not be as well remembered today.

As for Henry himself, it is intriguing to ask whether he would have become the overweight, foul-tempered king of the history books if he had sired a living boy earlier. “He might have remained the pleasure-loving prince he was when he ascended the throne,” says Borman. “If he had still had his jousting accident in 1536, then he would have still gained weight and been in pain, but he wouldn’t have been plagued by the deep-seated insecurity that sprang from almost 30 years of trying – and failing – to father a living, legitimate son.”

Tracy Borman’s books include Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018)

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This content first appeared in the July 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed

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