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Illustration of a Tudor rose. The Tudor rose symbolized unity under the Tudors, merging the white rose of York and red rose of Lancaster.  Source: Cassidy / Adobe Stock

Meet the Tudors - A Brief(ish) History of the Tudor Dynasty

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Lasting from 1485 to 1603 AD, the Tudor period is one of the most important, and fascinating, periods of English history. It’s an era marked by political intrigue, cultural renaissance and major religious shifts. From the first Tudor king, Henry VII, to the tempestuous reign of Henry VIII, and culminating in the golden age of Elizabeth I, the Tudors steered England through a transformative period. Countless books and essays have been written on this important family and it can be a lot to keep track of. This brief summary of the Tudor era has everything you need to know about these intriguing royals.

Anonymous painting of King Henry VII, the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty. (Public domain)

Anonymous painting of King Henry VII, the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty. (Public domain)

Meet the Tudors: Henry VII and the War of the Roses

In history, each ending is usually just a new beginning and that’s true with the Tudor era. From 1455 until 1487 England saw a series of civil wars collectively known as the War of the Roses. Two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet, the House of Lancaster and the House of York were fighting over who should rule England.

Tudor history begins towards the end of this war in 1485 when Lancastrian Henry Tudor (aka Henry VII) beat the Yorks at the Battle of Bosworth, defeating Richard III who died during the battle. On August 22, 1485, Henry ascended to the throne, becoming the first Tudor monarch. 

The war limped on for two more years and ended with the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487. Henry then married Elizabeth of York, thereby not only strengthening his tenuous claim to the throne but bringing peace to a country that had seen over 30 years of near-constant civil war. 

As political marriages go it was an immense success. It solidified an alliance between England’s two biggest families and spawned the Tudor motif – the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster working together. It also spawned plenty of offspring with Henry and Elizabeth having eight children, four surviving past childhood; Arthur, Henry, Margaret and Mary Tudor.

Arthur, the oldest child, should have been the next Tudor on the throne, but he died at the age of 15 on April 2, 1502. He had just married Princess Catherine of Aragon (who we’ll be circling back around to later) in an attempt to forge an alliance between England and Spain. Princess Margaret married James IV, becoming Queen consort of Scotland, and Mary was partnered off to Louis XII of France.

The only child left was Henry, the sole surviving male heir of Henry VII and Elizabeth. He was going to be a remarkably busy boy indeed. 

Catherine of Aragon pleads her case against divorce from Henry VIII, by Henry Nelson O’Neil. (Public domain)

Catherine of Aragon pleads her case against divorce from Henry VIII, by Henry Nelson O’Neil. (Public domain)

Meet the Tudors: The Infamous Henry VIII

As the second son, Henry was originally headed for a career in the Church, but destiny had something else in store for him. After Arthur’s death in 1502 Henry VII’s plans changed and he began grooming his son for the throne. Henry VII died on April 21, 1509, and that same day his son replaced him, becoming Henry VIII

Henry got the ball rolling by marrying his widowed sister-in-law, Catherine of Aragon, on June 11, 1509. The marriage was once again supposed to improve ties between the English and Spanish royal families. In 1516 the two had a daughter, Mary, but Henry was displeased; he needed a male heir. 

After 23 years of marriage, it became clear to Henry that Catherine wasn’t going to produce a son, so he had the marriage annulled. This was not a straightforward process and led to Henry abandoning the Catholic Church and setting up his own, the Church of England. As leader of his own church, he could annul his marriage and start looking for a replacement wife.

Henry’s decision also sparked the English Reformation. His insistence on getting a divorce and starting his own church caused a major rift with the Catholic Church. The Pope excommunicated Henry and in retaliation Henry began dissolving England’s monasteries.

Today Henry VIII has a well-deserved reputation for burning through wives. In 1533 he married Anne Boleyn. The marriage lasted for three years, but on May 19, 1536, he had her executed on charges of adultery and treason.

Anne had made the mistake of giving him another daughter, Elizabeth, and the marriage never really recovered after that. Rather suspiciously, less than two weeks after Anne’s execution Henry married Jane Seymour. Seymour provided Henry his one-and-only male heir, Edward, on October 24, 1537, but sadly died in the process.

Three years later Henry moved on to Anne of Cleves, but the marriage lasted less than a year, ending in another annulment (this may or may not have had something to do with Henry complaining she was ugly, referring to her as Flander’s Mare). Just days after dumping Anne, Henry married Catherine Howard but she was executed on charges of adultery in 1542. His final marriage was to Catherine Parr in 1543. Rather excitingly, she actually outlived Henry and their marriage ended with his death in 1547.

Portrait of Edward VI of England son of one of the most famous Tudors, Henry VIII. (Public domain)

Portrait of Edward VI of England son of one of the most famous Tudors, Henry VIII. (Public domain)

Meet the Tudors: The Short Life of Edward VI

Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547, and just like his father before him his son, Edward VI, sat on the throne the very same day. He was just 9 years old. Obviously too young to rule, Edward was under the influence of his privy council throughout his reign. The real power during this time was his regent and uncle, the Duke of Somerset who held the title of “Protector.”

Sadly, Edward’s time as king was pretty short-lived. He died on July 6, 1553, just six years into his reign. It’s believed he most probably died of tuberculosis, but the historical record is vague here. His unexpected death caused a major crisis for the Tudor dynasty.

Being just a child himself, Edward left no male heirs. The only options were his two sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. Mary was older, so the crown should have been hers for the taking by all rights. The problem was Mary was a devout Catholic and Edward had spent his rule following in his father’s footsteps by converting England to Protestantism. To avoid a religious crisis while he lay dying Edward named his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor.

Mary I, known as Bloody Mary has been remembered as one of the most brutal Tudors. (Public domain)

Mary I, known as Bloody Mary has been remembered as one of the most brutal Tudors. (Public domain)

Meet the Tudors: Queen Mary I’s Bloody Rule

Mary took this about as well as could be expected. She quickly rallied support among England’s nobles and set off for London. Just 9 days later she marched into London, had Jane arrested (her own father had betrayed her), and sat herself down on the throne. Jane and her husband, Guildford Dudley, were later charged with treason and executed (Mary liked executing people). 

Mary then set about earning the moniker “Bloody Mary” by reverting England back to Catholicism. She largely did this by brutally persecuting Protestants, dubbing them heretics and having them killed. The record shows she had at least 300 of them burned at the stake in what is known as the Marian persecutions

Mary’s brutal style of leadership quickly upset not just the common people but many of the nobles who had helped her ascend to the throne. She couldn’t really afford to annoy these nobles; they were already upset about having a queen ruling in the first place. 

The English nobility demanded that Mary not only marry as soon as possible, but that she marry a Protestant man to try and unite the country (no one wanted another 30-year civil war). Instead, in 1554 the bullish Mary married Prince Philip II of Spain, another devout Catholic. This led directly to Wyatt’s Rebellion, a failed attempt led by Protestant Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger to put Elizabeth on the throne. 

This rebellion was quickly put down and Mary’s brutal reign resumed. Amazingly she let Elizabeth live. Over the next few years, Mary fell pregnant several times but never produced a living heir. She died in 1558 after being seriously ill, possibly with either ovarian cancer or influenza. 

Queen Elizabeth I, by George Gower. (Public domain)

Queen Elizabeth I, by George Gower. (Public domain)

Meet the Tudors: Elizabeth I and the Tudor Golden Age

With Mary having no living heirs there were worries that there would be another succession crisis. Thankfully, on her deathbed Mary finally recognized her half-sister Elizabeth, leading to a relatively smooth transition. 

As had by now become Tudor tradition, when Mary died on November 17, 1558, Elizabeth ascended on the same day, becoming Queen Elizabeth I. Her reign would go on to be famously long and prosperous. 

Elizabeth reigned for over 45 years in what is widely regarded as one of England’s most prosperous periods. She initially faced some resistance. People still weren’t happy about having a woman in charge, her mother had been executed for treason, and everyone was terrified she’d start persecuting Catholics in the same way her sister had Protestants.

Despite these initial setbacks Elizabeth proved to be a remarkably skilled ruler. She was devoted to her country and refused to take a husband, preferring her own autonomy. Despite numerous Catholic attempts on her life, she ruled until 1603. Her death at the age of 69 marked the end of the Tudor line once and for all. 

Politics in Tudor Times

Politics was never simple in Tudor period England. In reality, England was ruled over by three bodies; the Monarchy, the Privy Council and Parliament. Although controlled by the monarchs these bodies worked together to make laws, raise money via taxes, and make decisions in regard to religion and national defense. The Privy Council, especially during Edward’s reign, was particularly powerful, being able to pass new laws merely by announcing them. 

Being a predominantly agricultural country, land in England meant power. Tudor monarchs kept the peace by gifting land to their favorite and most loyal nobles, gifting allies plots of land with titles attached to them. These nobles were then expected to look after this land and those who lived on it, listen to tenants’ grievances and generally make sure everything ran smoothly. 

This form of governance is one of the things that made the Tudors so successful. Prior to the Tudors it was much more common for the elite to work against the royals. Someone was always vying for the top position. This was largely what had sparked the War of the Roses.

But after Henry VII ascended to the throne he announced that “the remnant of the old baronage, together with the new baronage, were no longer able to make head against the monarchy.” The meaning was clear: from then on nobles answered to the crown, not the other way around. Apart from the occasional exception (like during Mary’s reign), this meant the nobles spent the Tudor era focused on ingratiating themselves with the Tudors rather than trying to stab them in the back. 

The Tudors were smart enough not to take this for granted and were well aware that someday ambitious nobles may rise up. They kept this threat in check by keeping the nobility on their toes. Even the most favored nobles were one difficult day away from angering a King or Queen and losing everything. 

The power of the English Parliament during the Tudor period was limited. It largely acted as the crown’s piggy bank, allocating the monarchs whatever funds they asked for. The only major change to it came in the 1520s when Henry sparked the English Reformation. This led to the creation of the Reformation Parliament which passed key acts that separated the Church of England from the authority of the Pope. While most Tudor royals had a fairly easy relationship with parliament, especially Elizabeth, Mary was often at loggerheads with the body due to her Catholicism and persecution of the Protestants. 

Procession Portrait of Elizabeth I by unknown artist. (Public domain)

Procession Portrait of Elizabeth I by unknown artist. (Public domain)

Everyday Life in Tudor Times

Life for the common folk during the Tudor period had its difficulties. When Henry VII first came to power most of England’s population (over 90%) lived in rural areas and worked on farms. Times were tough and the average life expectancy was just 35 years. 

The period also had multiple famines including the Great Famine of 1527 to 1528 under Henry VIII and the Famine of 1555 to 1557 under Mary I. Poverty was already widespread and these famines only made things worse for the peasantry. In 1530 Henry tried to make things for the poorest a little easier by relaxing anti-vagrancy laws and passing legislation that allowed licensed beggars into towns. 

This led to a massive increase in beggar numbers and in 1547 one of Edward's first moves as king was to bring in the Vagabonds Act of 1547. This Act made it so that anyone without a fixed home or job could be enslaved for up to two years and be branded on the forehead with a V. Repeat offenders could even be executed. 

It wasn’t just vagrants who suffered. The Tudor criminal system tended to opt for corporal punishment over imprisonment. Peasants found guilty of breaking the law could be flogged, whipped and put in stocks for lesser offenses, or even executed for worse crimes. Peasants were typically hung while the wealthy were beheaded, reflecting the Tudor class system.

Peasants also typically suffered from a lack of education. Literacy levels were low and for much of the Tudor period, only boys got any kind of education while the girls were expected to be taught homemaking by their mothers. By the start of the 16th century, this shifted slightly, and some girls began attending school to learn the basics. 

Peasants not lucky enough to get a school education often received some education from their local Parish churches. During the reformation, this could be more of a hindrance than a help, however, especially when Mary started burning Protestants at the stake. 

It wasn’t all bad though and things did improve over time. Elizabeth’s reign saw massive improvements in the English economy. Exploration and the discovery of the “New World” led to major boons in trade. England's mining industry also flourished and England became a major player in the iron industry. Under Elizabeth, England just got richer and richer.

Elizabeth passed some of this wealth down to the poor. In 1601 she brought in the Poor Law, which provided relief to the needy and introduced tax relief for the poor. As the wealth trickled down, education improved and more and more peasants began learning trades via apprenticeships. 

More wealth also meant more free time. During the Tudor period, sports like tennis, jousting and football all became increasingly popular. The period also saw major innovation in the world of theater with major playwrights like William Shakespeare making their name. The building of theaters like the Globe Theater in 1599 made plays more accessible for the lower classes.

The Tudors: England's Most Famous Royals

The Tudor period stands as a dynamic epoch in English history, marked by the rise and fall of monarchs, religious turbulence and cultural blossoming. From the establishment of the Tudor dynasty by Henry VII to the influential reign of Elizabeth I, the era witnessed profound transformations in governance, religion, and society. 

The Wars of the Roses, the Reformation and the flourishing of literature, exemplified by William Shakespeare, shaped the Tudor landscape. This period, defined by political intrigue and cultural renaissance, left an enduring imprint on England, paving the way for the subsequent chapters in its rich historical narrative.

Top image: Illustration of a Tudor rose. The Tudor rose symbolized unity under the Tudors, merging the white rose of York and red rose of Lancaster.  Source: Cassidy / Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

References

Cartwright, M. 07 April 2020. “Henry VII of England” in World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Henry_VII_of_England/

Cartwright, M. 09 April 2020. “Henry VIII of England” in World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Henry_VIII_of_England/

Soaft, L. 02 March 2022. “Tudor History: The Complete Overview” in The Collector. Available at: https://www.thecollector.com/tudor-history-overview/

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. 07 December 2023. “House of Tudor” in Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/House-of-Tudor

 
Robbie Mitchell's picture

Robbie

I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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