Claiming King Arthur lived in one’s postal code is a frequent pursuit. But claiming descent from Arthur has always been a trickier issue, because he is not said to have any surviving children. Or did he?
Even in the fifteenth century, lawyers were mucking things up. The three decade-long War of the Roses had depleted the male lines of both families claiming the Throne of England, and was finally ended by the victory of Henry VII, formerly Henry Tudor, over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne came through his maternal great-grandfather, John Beaufort, who was born illegitimate, though later legitimized. Dodgy legal papers filed by Beaufort’s older half-brother, Henry IV, declared the Beaufort line ineligible for the throne, so Henry needed some additional weight to his claim.
That extra weight came from his paternal grandfather, Owen Tudor, who claimed direct descent from Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd in north-west Wales in the mid to late seventh century. Cadwaladr was considered the last of the Ancient Kings of Britain, and, some claimed, a descendant of King Arthur. There might have been some haziness at the time about Arthur being Welsh rather than English, but stories of Arthur were extremely popular since Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, released three and a half centuries earlier. In fact, the same year that Henry won the field at Bosworth, Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory was published, unleashing a frenzy of renewed Arthurian excitement.
When Henry crossed the English Channel and landed in Wales with his army of English and Welsh exiles and French mercenaries, he was heralded by the Welsh bards as “The Son of Prophecy”, and Henry flew the Red Dragon of Arthur and Cadwaladr. These came from the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote that Cadwaladr had relinquished his throne when a prophetic voice promised his sacrifice would mean that a great leader would one day return to free the Britons from their English oppressors. The Red Dragon banner, long a symbol among the Welsh, was from another of Geoffrey’s writings, in which he described the prophecy of Merlin explaining the Red Dragon of the Britons eventually conquering the White Dragon of the Saxons.
Following Henry VII’s ascension to the English throne, he married Elizabeth of York, uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster. Their first child, a son, was born at Winchester, thought by many to be the mythical Camelot. They named their son Arthur. But another King Arthur was not to be. The prince fell ill and died when he was only 16, devastating the king and queen.
King Arthur fandom continued for many years in England, with Arthurian themed festivals, tournaments and pageants. Today you can visit Winchester and see a large round table hanging on the wall, bearing the names of various knights of the Arthurian Romances. But this table is from the thirteenth century, not the fifth or sixth century, when Arthur would have lived.
So, was Henry VII descended from Arthur? It’s doubtful. Certainly the Welsh would love to have been able to claim Arthur’s line lived on, but their early legends were quite clear. All of Arthur’s sons pre-deceased him. And, no, Modred was not Arthur’s son in the early legends.
However, it is possible that Henry was distantly related to Arthur through the family of Arthur’s father, Uther. There are clues that Uther was from the north-west of Wales, and that Arthur had many uncles and cousins. It is quite possible that one of these was the ancestor of Cadwaladr, and possible that the Tudors were descended from the ancient king.