The Spanish Royal Family of England
This is one of those historical ‘what-if’ scenarios. What if England had, through marriages with the Spanish royal family, become a satellite of Spain? In the sixteenth century this situation looked almost a certainty.
About the year 1500, that shifty, scheming king, Henry VII, who, incidentally, had a much greater reason for murdering the princes in the tower than their much-maligned uncle, King Richard III, had his eyes on even greater power than just the throne of England. He wanted an alliance with Spain.
In January 1486, in order to bolster his claim to the throne, Henry married Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of King Edward IV, and exactly eight months later their first son, who would have been another King Arthur, was born. Henry VII and King Ferdinand of Aragon were kindred spirits; they under-stood each other well, so arrangements were made for an advantageous marriage. Arthur was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon, the fourth daughter of Ferdinand. The young couple were married in November 1501 when they were both fifteen. Sadly, Arthur died less than five months later to become only a cipher in the pages of history instead of King of England with a claim to the Spanish throne. King Henry badly wanted to hang on to the alliance with Spain, as well as the large dowry that Catherine had brought with her, and so only two months after her husband’s death Catherine was betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, Prince Henry, who was only a boy of eleven.
King Henry’s wife, Elizabeth, died in 1503 leaving Henry VII at the age of forty-six looking around Europe for a wife. One candidate was Catherine’s older sister, Princess Joanna, heiress to the throne of Aragon and proclaimed queen of Castille, who had recently become a widow. In 1506 the twenty-seven year old spent some months at Henry’s court in England and negotiations began with a view to marriage. The only objection to Joanna was that she was insane, she was known in Spain as Joanna La Loca, Joanna the Mad, which she undoubtedly was. Her stay in England had been one of her lucid periods. This was the end of negotiations, but what a coup it would have been for Henry VII if his plan had succeeded, to become the consort of the queen of the most powerful county in Europe.
Henry died in April 1509 and his son ascended the throne to become Henry VIII. Two months later, in June, he dutifully married his Spanish fiancée, Catherine of Aragon. Henry and Catherine had several children, but only one reached adulthood, Princess Mary. By the standards of his later life, Henry was remarkably faithful to Catherine for the twenty-four years of their marriage. This was before the revelation that their marriage had been “contrary to the law of God”, as conveniently proclaimed in 1533 by Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s appointee as Archbishop of Canterbury (Henry had married his brother Arthur’s widow). Henry was then permitted to marry Anne Boleyn, which in fact he had already done in secret.
Catherine was put into secluded retirement until her death in 1536, King Henry died in 1547, his sickly son, King Edward VI, died in 1553 and the half-Spanish Princess Mary became the first woman to be Queen of England in her own right. She had no fond memories of her father, he had deprived the Catholic Church of its rightful place, he had divorced her mother and shut her away, he had declared Mary herself to be illegitimate and she had been kept away from the royal court. Small wonder that she wanted to return England to its old ways. Then of course, to ensure the succession, Mary needed a husband and who better than the Catholic Prince Philip of Spain?
King Charles V of Spain saw this as a political golden opportunity, to have England as a positive ally to enclose his enemy, France, and to help in the control the Spanish Netherlands. His son, Philip, complied with his father’s wishes. Mary fell almost girlishly in love with Philip and in July 1554, with Mary at the age of thirty-eight to Philip’s twenty-seven, they married. Philip was anxious to please Mary and English society in general when he and his court came over to London, where the comment was that there were more Spaniards on the streets than English. But as the novelty wore off encounters in the street were often hostile. Philip did his best to be agreeable to the English people and as Mary’s excesses in punishing Protestants grew worse, earning her the name of ‘Bloody Mary’, he attempted to curb them, but he failed on both counts. Another point against Philip was the general fear that if Mary died Philip would seize the English throne for himself and for Spain. Nevertheless there was great excitement for months while Mary publicly endured a pregnancy, but by July 1555 to Mary’s great distress it turned out to be a phantom pregnan-cy.
In August 1555 Philip, rather gladly it seems, left England to join his father, Charles V, in the Spanish Netherlands and Queen Mary stayed behind, heartbroken. King Charles abdicated soon afterwards and in 1556 Philip became Philip II of Spain, making Mary nominally Queen of Spain as well as Queen of England. This was little consolation to Mary though, she had hoped that Philip’s absence would only be for a matter of weeks but it was not until March 1557 that he came back. This was for a short stay of three and a half months and only to get England involved in his war with France. Again Mary believed that she was pregnant but again it was only a phantom of her desperate imagination and longing. This broke her spirit and accele-rated her physical decline. Unwillingly, Catholic Queen Mary of England recognised her Protestant sister, Princess Elizabeth, as her successor and so after Mary’s death in November 1558, with Elizabeth on the throne, began an age of hostility and suspicion between England and Spain.
But what if Mary’s preg-nancies had been real and the children had survived to become rulers of England? They would have been three-quarters Spanish, Catho-lics with close ties to the great-est empire in the world, and heirs to the throne of Spain. This is where fancy takes off. So far as England as a nation was concerned, the royal family, Philip, Mary and children, would likely have moved to Spain, England would only have been a Spanish subsidiary, little better than the Spanish colony of the Netherlands, Francis Drake would not have been the scourge of the Spanish treasure ships, there would have been no Spanish Armada, possibly no Civil War in the next century, no Catholic Jacobite rebellion with Bonnie Prince Charlie in the century after that, and nearer to home, no British pirates attacking the Canary islands, the combined empire of England and Spain would have been vast, and the course of history would have been entirely different.