This Day Came the King of Castile


Power and prestige in early modern Europe could turn with a rapidity that almost required belief in the divine for it all to make any sense. Titles, fortunes and crowns could be won or lost on the outcome of a single day’s fighting. The right marriage, the untimely death of an heir or the election of a new Pope could shift the balance of European power as quickly and devastatingly as the slip of tectonic plates. Political earthquakes ensued and no event seemed as unlikely, as miraculous or calamitous (depending on which side you stood) as the gilded capture of the King of Castile by the English in 1506.

The New Year celebrations in the court of Henry VII were especially sombre as 1505 gave way to 1506. It was barely three years since his beloved wife Elizabeth of York had died at the tragically young age of 37 and in childbirth. His wife’s death came less than a year after the death of his eldest son Arthur, Prince of Wales. The death of the teenage heir apparent had shaken the Tudor court and weakened their already tentative grip on power. With the Queen also departed, the Tudor dynasty was more precarious than ever.

Philip the Handsome of Burgundy, King of Castile By Anonymous (Southern Netherlands)  Formerly attributed to Jacob van Lathem Formerly attributed to the Master of the Legend of Mary Magdalen (Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The King and his courtiers thus exchanged their customary New Year gifts in an atmosphere permeated by an unusually solemn gloom. They couldn’t know that just days later they would receive the most unexpected but astonishing of gifts: Philip the Handsome – King of Castile, Duke of Burgundy and the richest flower of European chivalry.

Just five days earlier, on 10 January 1506, the elaborate pomp of the Burgundian court was put in motion as the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy prepared to set sail for Spain. Philip and Juana were to swap their duchy for a kingdom and rule as King and Queen of Castile. A land journey was out of the question – between Burgundy and Spain lay a hostile and jealous France. Their only route was by sea and no one in the sixteenth century would undertake a lengthy sea crossing for anything other than absolute necessity.

And so the court of Burgundy gathered on the quayside at the Dutch port of Arnemuiden. Some had come to see off their duke, but many more crowded onto the flotilla of ships to travel with their lord. The Duke could not place his safety exclusively in the hands of his nobles, however chivalrous they might be. The other ships were loaded with 2,000 German mercenaries – a large number that betrayed the paymaster’s fears of what would await him in Castile.

At several key moments of British history the English Channel has lived up to this name by delivering conditions that favoured the island nation. Who could doubt divine providence of the Protestant Wind when the Spanish Armada was scattered? Or when the notoriously turbulent waters were unusually calm for the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk under Operation Dynamo whilst fierce storm clouds helped keep the Luftwaffe away from the beachheads.

Storm clouds over the English Channel By Arriva436 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Events that winter in 1506 would make the notion of divine intervention seem very real to a Tudor regime facing unprecedented instability. Just when Henry VII was pondering the nadir of his fortunes, a storm would wreck the Burgundian fleet and drive one of Europe’s most powerful rulers onto his shores.

On 15 January a south-westerly gale developed into a hurricane, scattering the ships of the flotilla and wrecking the Duke’s flagship. Fires erupted on the deck and the mainsail, snapped and collapsing into the sea, almost dragged the vessel under the waves. By the time the storm abated and the dawn broke, the royal ship found itself close to the port of Melcombe Regis in Dorset. The bedraggled Burgundians came ashore and would, in short order, be welcomed and secured by Sir Thomas Trenchard. Fortunately for Henry VII, Trenchard realised the importance of his visitors.

Just two days later, a messenger reached Hampton Court Palace with the news that would change the course of Henry’s foreign policy. Henry VII soon grasped the importance of this unexpected course of events and moved quickly to secure his royal guests. The result was an unplanned English stay that would extend into an unbearably long delay for Philip, Henry’s unwilling visitor.

Weymouth Harbour looking north to Melcombe Regis Ian1000 [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Burgundians were treated to the most elaborate pageantry and hospitality that their Tudor hosts could muster. Burgundy was the epicentre of the European cult of chivalry, and Henry was keen to show off English traditions, history and chivalric achievements. His visitor would be treated as the most honoured of guests; Philip would become a prisoner in the most gilded and ornate of cages

Philip would be entertained at Winchester and Windsor, the former central to England’s rich Arthurian legends and the latter the home of the Order of the Garter and the repository of royal chivalric tradition. Days would pass with the royal parties indulging in feasting, hunting, dancing and even tennis.

King Henry VII

Henry VII paid handsomely to treat his visitors in so majestic a style. This was a monarch who understood the value of money and the power it brought, and he would realise a healthy profit on his investment in the form of the Treaty of Windsor. This treaty would bring favourable terms for the lucrative English cloth trade and, perhaps more importantly to Henry VII, would deliver into his hands Edmund de la Pole, the Earl of Suffolk and the most dangerous rebel to the Tudor regime.

Philip was only free to resume his journey after spending three months in England. He would die just months later, in September 1506. We can never know if Philip the Handsome was hurried into his grave by his storm-tossed marine adventures or from being overindulged in lavish Tudor hospitality. But it is undeniable that Philip proved a much-needed fillip to Henry VII.

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