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Becoming a Prince: Prince Arthur’s early life and his training to be king

prince arthurPrince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was

By Sean Cunningham

Amberley Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781445647661

Within a month of his birth on 20 September 1486, Prince Arthur was separated from his family and living in a nursery at Farnham Palace in Surrey. His care was given over to the team that had brought up the babies of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville, headed by Elizabeth Darcy. She was supported initially by four cradle rocker, nurses and a small number of grooms and yeomen to secure the household. In a time of great uncertainty for Henry VII these specialist servants were well rewarded and well watched, but it still seems staggering that the infant heir to a new and inexperienced regime should so quickly have been placed beyond direct contact with his family. Professional carers they might have been, but Farnham was the best-part of a day’s ride away from Sheen Palace. Arthur’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, countess of Richmond, was a little nearer at Woking, but she and her officers were still too far away to react quickly enough to safeguard the baby prince should any disaster strike at Farnham.

Arthur had been delivered, named and christened in a fanfare of pageantry and propaganda at Winchester. Henry VII had gambled his future on Queen Elizabeth’s child being a healthy boy. So Arthur’s safe arrival can only have confirmed to King Henry that God truly favoured him. That absolute belief in divine protection might have convinced the king to take the risk of establishing an independent life for his son almost as soon as he had been christened. In 1485, Henry VII knew, from the nature of his accession through conquest, that he would face an uncomfortable period of conspiracy and rebellion as opponents sought to topple him before he became confident and his regime fully established. Arthur’s residence at Farnham removed the regime’s heir from the dangers present in a royal household that was itself a melting pot of former loyalties. King Henry was trying to find a balance among his servants as he was forced to integrate and re-appoint people whose allegiance to him could not be guaranteed. Creating a second centre of power that could expand as Arthur grew and absorbed more responsibility helped to reduce the chances of the royal family being wiped out in any palace coup or military uprising.

This extract from Prince Arthur: The Tudor king who never was offers a glimpse of how the prince’s household was organised before he reached the age of six. As soon as he was weaned, the roles of Arthur’s servants began to duplicate those found in the king’s household. Loss of detailed evidence does mask what appears to have been a sophisticated relationship between the households of the king and prince. The training and transfer of officials between these two parts of the same royal network does seem to have occurred regularly, as the extract and the image of the warrant for John Chanceler indicates. This period between 1486 and 1493 marked the start of a process of education and training that continued at Ludlow as Arthur’s role acquired direct lordship over land and people in the spring of 1493. Even as a child, Arthur was already being given all the opportunities to learn how to become a king in ways that his father had never enjoyed in his own dislocated childhood.

In the first parliament of the reign that met from 7 November 1485, the Lords and Commons had voted £14,000 to the king for the annual expenses of his household. On 1 February 1487 the king ordered that 1,000 marks of this sum (£666 13s 4d) should be assigned for the expenses of Prince Arthur’s household. This was a staggering sum for an infant’s upbringing. It shows the extent of Henry VII’s investment in Arthur’s future at the very start of his life. £500 of it was to come from the profits of the Duke of Buckingham’s lands in east Yorkshire and the remainder from his estates in Staffordshire. The duke was under age and was a ward of the king’s mother Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Even as an infant, Arthur’s income was equivalent to that of a middle-ranking lord, but without the responsibilities of land management, a wide network of followers and crown representation. Without knowing it, the nine-year-old duke was making a strong commitment to the future of the Tudor crown. Buckingham might have harboured some resentment at this. After the prince’s death, he refused to take into his service two of Arthur’s gentry servants, even though they were recommended by the president of the prince’s council, William Smith, Bishop of Lincoln.

Queen Elizabeth’s signed warrant for payment of travelling expenses at Arthur’s christening at Winchester, September 1486. Exchequer warrant, TNA E 404/79/205.

Queen Elizabeth’s signed warrant for payment of travelling expenses at Arthur’s christening at Winchester, September 1486. Exchequer warrant, TNA E 404/79/205.

After that first period of infancy we know that the prince had a feather bed with a bolster of down. One mattress was stuffed with wool and was two yards long, with four short pillows and various long sheets, one pair of cloth of scarlet furred with ermine and embroidered. The coverture of Arthur’s bed was made of fine lawn (linen) with sperners (supporters) of crimson satin embroidered with the queen’s arms and other heraldic badges. By the time he was three years old, Arthur’s wardrobe had become more diverse. The king’s household officers were ordering and delivering robes, tunics and other ornaments to Farnham. Peter Curteys was the keeper of the king’s Great Wardrobe. His account for the period 1486–89 contains some evidence of provision for the prince. Arthur’s nurses received cloth from which to make new gowns for themselves and the prince as he grew up.11 The quality was again of the very best – white velvet, damask (multicoloured silk), satin, sarcenet (fine soft silk), fustian (a coarser flax cloth), fur of ermine, black bogi (budge, or dark lambskin), with sheets of Holland cloth (fine plain woven linen), brushes, crochettes, tapettes (figured cloth used as a hanging), and iron hammers to nail them up in the prince’s chamber.

Two of Arthur’s male servants were named in this grant: William Wangham and John Hoo. They had nine other companions who together seem to have formed the service part of the prince’s household. Their livery uniform was a cloth of russet – the same as that of the yeomen of the crown and garcons of the king’s chamber. They probably were on loan from the king’s personal retinue, since that was a way that he could be assured of their loyalty and devotion to Prince Arthur. Without further evidence, however, it is difficult to say if otherwise obscure servants like William and John were kept on from the household of the Bishop of Winchester, or if they were vetted and selected from elsewhere in Henry VII’s service for the specialist skills they could offer to the prince. Around this time, the identities of some of Arthur’s other servants and the posts they occupied begin to emerge from the records. Importantly, the prince’s wet nurse, Katherine Gibbs, was paid off in April 1490 with a generous annuity of £20 to come directly from the first monies received at the start of the exchequer year – a notable recognition of how Arthur had been safeguarded in his first thirty months of life. By the time the arrangement of this payment had made its way through the convoluted exchequer system it is likely that Arthur’s household had taken on a different appearance. This was the period of transition from nursery to education and service.

In March 1488, Thomas Poyntz, esquire for the king’s body, was rewarded with 40 marks per year partly for services to the prince. Poyntz later received a gift of French books of hours from Arthur, suggesting that the relationships forged in that early stage of his life were lasting and would have continued had Arthur become king.13 These services were likely to have been related to the tightening of security around Arthur in response to the Household Act passed by Parliament before 18 December the  previous year. Poyntz’s specific role is not recorded but he is the first of the king’s more senior officers to be personally attached to the prince. Henry VII’s concern for his son’s health is apparent from another grant, made with the king’s ‘cordial affection’ a few months after Poyntz received his reward. Arthur’s doctor was Stephen Bereworth and the medical attention he had already given to Arthur was enough to earn him £40 each year for the rest of his life. By May 1488, when this grant was made, Arthur would have been a toddler, fully weaned and becoming exposed to the childhood ailments, bumps and bruises that all youngsters experience. He was still too young to have much licence to explore the rooms and grounds of Farnham Palace, and although it has been changed and developed since his brief period of residency there it is still possible to imagine the whole imposing building and the staff in it that became fully devoted to protecting and nurturing the sole heir of the crown. At least one of those newly appointed servants was unable to move from the king’s household to that of the prince because of problems with paperwork. In December 1488 Robert Knollys, one of the king’s henchmen, was instructed to join Arthur’s household with a payment of 100s. He could not be admitted to the name roll of servants because the king had placed his sign manual at the head and foot of the roll and left no space for additions. The check-roll might have been small enough to fit on a single sheet at this stage of Arthur’s life (it has not survived), but it would soon expand in parallel to the prince’s role.

Farnham Palace, Arthur’s home between the autumn of 1486 and spring 1493. Image - Pjposullivan/ Wikimedia Commons.

Farnham Palace, Arthur’s home between the autumn of 1486 and spring 1493. Image – Pjposullivan/ Wikimedia Commons.

Once Arthur was considered to have grown and matured sufficiently to cope with the endurance test of the ceremonies of his knighthood and creation as Prince of Wales at the end of November 1489, his household also developed a more formal structure in preparation for this changing role. The age of six or seven seems to have been one at which many royal children moved out of the nursery and into a junior version of the royal household. In Prince Arthur’s case, this seems to have happened when he was about three years old. During the late summer of 1489 the impending change in Arthur’s status required a step-change in his education and also in the way that he was served and guarded.

John Whytyng was described as Arthur’s sewer in grants of annuities in November 1489 and January 1490. The naming of  Whytyng in a specific appointment indicates that an element of structure and more formal ritual was entering his household. An important first stage in his development was how the prince began to learn his social role. Mastering the first formal steps of the art of household ritual, etiquette and the hierarchy of social status would lead to a smoother transition into the refined world of court politics and diplomacy. In January 1490 there is first mention of Richard Howell as marshal of the prince’s household. Howell’s role was to ensure Arthur’s security and to monitor the discipline of the other men and women who served him at Farnham. The greater prominence given to household policing might also indicate that the king’s heir was developing a less closeted role within his small community. Once his wet nurse and rockers were no longer required physically, the services provided for Arthur had to begin to mirror that of any other senior noble. Within a few weeks of Howell’s appointment, King Henry’s servant Thomas Fissher was awarded an annuity of 40 marks on 20 April 1490 as yeoman of the cellar to the prince. His appearance points to a greater sophistication in the way that the prince’s meals were prepared and served. He was soon followed by John Almor, appointed to Arthur’s household on 29 October 1490. Almor was a veteran of the king’s hall, one of the main military resources of the royal household. He became Arthur’s first sergeant-at-arms; a post that would have incorporated the role of a personal bodyguard with broader responsibility for the security of the household such as the vetting of visitors and servants, guarding doors and access, and setting the watch. Despite these valuable details, a full picture of Arthur’s household remains elusive and we may only speculate about its full structure and functions.

Eleven yeomen and grooms of the chamber were recorded in Arthur’s service when the king paid their fees at the end of 1491. A decade later four of them were still serving in valuable posts across the estates controlled by the prince. Some men would have died in service, while others moved between the king’s household and that of his son. More were able to make the transition from general service to a child-prince to specific roles for a royal heir on the cusp of being able to rule in his own right. These four remaining men took roles as Arthur’s foresters, bailiffs, receivers and stewards across the estates of the duchy of Cornwall and earldom of Chester and still held them at the end of the 1490s.15 Retaining servants in this way was the mark of a good lord. It allowed connections to develop and facilitated the projection of Arthur’s influence in areas that he could not regularly visit but in which his presence, even through a deputy, was key to good government. For much of his life, patronage in this regard would have been controlled by his advisors, under the scrutiny of men like the controller of his household, Sir  Henry Vernon, and the President of the Council of the Marches, Bishop William Smith. Any continuity in their power to act as the prince’s mentors, advisors or guardians stemmed entirely from King Henry’s assessment of their effectiveness in mediating and delivering his requirements for Arthur’s development.

Click here to learn more about Sean Cunningham’s book Prince Arthur: The Tudor King Who Never Was 

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