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Henry, Duke of Cornwall (January 1, 1511 – February 22, 1511) was the first child of King Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and though his birth was celebrated as that of the heir apparent, he died within weeks. His death and Henry VIII’s failure to produce another surviving male heir with Catherine led to succession and marriage crises that affected the relationship between the English church and Roman Catholicism, giving rise to the English Reformation.

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Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of England used from 1504 to 1554 for the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI.

Birth and christening

Henry was born on January 1, 1511 at Richmond Palace, the first live-born child of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, born eighteen months after their wedding and coronation. Catherine had previously given birth to a stillborn daughter, on January 31, 1510. He was christened on January 5 in a lavish ceremony where beacons were lit in his honour. The christening gifts included a fine gold salt holder and cup weighing a total 99 ounces, given by Louis XII of France, his godfather. His other godparents were William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy * At the christening, the baby prince’s great-aunt Lady Anne Howard stood proxy for Margaret, and Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester, stood proxy for the French king.

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Young King Henry VIII of England

Celebrations and death

Henry VIII and his queen planned extravagant celebrations rivalling that of their joint coronation for the birth of his son, who automatically became Duke of Cornwall and heir apparent to the English throne, and was expected to become Prince of Wales, King of England, and third king of the House of Tudor, as King Henry IX. The tournament at Westminster was the most lavish of Henry’s reign, and is recorded via a long illuminated vellum roll, known as The Westminster Tournament Roll to be found in the College of Arms collection. Known as “Little Prince Hal” and “the New Year’s Boy”, the prince was fondly regarded by Henry’s court.

However, on February 22, 1511, the young prince died suddenly. The cause of his death was not recorded. He received a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. It was another two years until the Queen again became pregnant. There is no known portrait of Prince Henry. Contemporary reports state that both parents were distraught at the loss of their child. The deeply religious Catherine spent many hours kneeling on cold stone floors praying, to the worry of courtiers. Henry distracted himself from his grief by waging war against Louis XII of France with his father-in-law, Fernando II of Aragon.

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Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England

Impact of Henry, Duke of Cornwall’s death on history

Historians have speculated what course English history might have taken had Henry, Duke of Cornwall, or any other legitimate son by Catherine survived. With the couple’s failure to provide a live son, Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir was the cited reason that led him to have their marriage annulled. A living son by Catherine might have forestalled or even prevented the marriage to Anne Boleyn and placed England in a different relationship with Roman Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation, thereby affecting, and perhaps even preventing, the English Reformation that grew out of the succession crisis prior to the birth of the future Edward VI to Henry VIII and Jane Seymour in 1537. This theme has also been explored in some alternative history fiction.

* Archduchess Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy, (January 10, 1480 – December 1, 1530), the second child and only daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Austria and Mary of Burgundy, co-sovereigns of the Low Countries. She was named after her stepgrandmother, Margaret of York, (May 3, 1446 – November 23, 1503) the third wife of Charles the Bold Duke of Burgundy a daughter of Richard, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville.