The five Tudor monarchs, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, ruled for 118 eventful years. While Henry VII laid the foundations for a flourishing English monarchy, it was his line that would make history. His son, Henry VIII, fathered three legitimate children. His only son, Edward VI, would be the first to take the throne after his father’s death. Following closely behind was Mary I and finally Elizabeth I.
1. King Henry VII’s Reign: First of the Tudor Monarchs
Henry Tudor, the first Tudor monarch, ruled England from 1457 until 1509. During his reign, Henry was responsible for rebuilding and restructuring the fundamentals of his kingdom. This involved taking a different stance when considering the country’s destitute economy, prominent civil unrest, and political, social, and religious affairs. Amid his various duties, he also inherited an unstable crown. The long conflict from the Wars of the Roses had left the common people weary of the nobility and the nobility weary of each other.
Whereas foreign policy has always been a popular theme in Tudor history, Henry VII’s policy was decidedly limited compared to his descendants. Henry preferred diplomacy over violence as it protected and enriched his country.
A significant threat to England was France. For centuries, both countries had disputed each other’s claim to the French throne, originating from the Plantagenet and Valois families. In order to protect his crown, Henry made peace with France in 1492, which not only brought “recognition of his dynasty” but also “a handsome pension’’ (Alexander Reginald Myers, 2006).
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Henry made a number of strategic marriages for his children. His eldest son, Arthur, was betrothed to Spanish Princess Catherine of Aragon. A superpower on a global stage, Spain’s acceptance of this proposal did much to bolster England’s international social standing and ward off potential foreign threats. Even after Arthur’s untimely death, Catherine was then married to the next Tudor heir to the throne, Henry VIII. Solidifying the relationship with Spain, he went further to betrothe his daughter Mary to the future Emperor Charles V of Spain and his second daughter, Margaret, to King James IV of Scotland.
Henry’s chief goal was to obtain economic stability. The King successfully revitalized the country’s finances by preventing war and encouraging trade. Henry’s method ensured that all funds owed to the Crown were managed by the king and trusted servants. This ended the long tradition of these funds going to the Exchequer, and were instead collected and used in the royal household.
A key aspect of life that continuously changed throughout the history of Tudor monarchs was religion. England before the Tudors was a Catholic nation, and throughout the reign of Henry VII, the Catholic Church remained an integral part of the fabric of every community. Henry VII had no interest in restructuring or challenging existing traditions to suit his own agenda. While it has been noted that Henry was not personally interested in religion nor its theological or devotional aspects, still less in its spiritual depth, he was a regular attendee at mass and observed religious celebrations and practices methodically (Anthony Goodman, 2016).
Henry was taught from boyhood to be distrusting of others. His childhood and subsequent journey to the throne were fraught with “adversity, danger of betrayal and death” (Alexander Reginald Myers, 2006). Combined with frequent contenders challenging his legitimacy, Henry grew to be a private and suspicious man and king.
As a product of the Wars of the Roses, Henry’s wife-to-be, Elizabeth of York, gave her future husband much-needed support from the Yorkist enemies of Richard III. They were married in Westminster Abbey on January 18th, 1486. Over the course of their marriage, Elizabeth gave birth to four surviving children: Arthur, Margaret, Henry, and Mary. While the latter three would become Queen of Scotland, King of England, and Queen of France, respectively, Arthur would not live long enough to be King. By April of his 15th year, Arthur died, causing both the King and Queen to spiral into grief.
Shortly after Arthur’s death, Elizabeth died due to complications in childbirth. Born on February 2nd, Catherine, as she was named, lived for only one day. Elizabeth followed only one week after, on February 11th, 1503. She was 37 years old.
Henry continued to reign for six years with Elizabeth, when he became reclusive and depressed, plagued with periodic illnesses. Despite having only one living son and heir and entering into hollow negotiations with Spain, Henry did not remarry when widowed.
Henry’s health continued to deteriorate rapidly in the weeks until his death on April 21st, 1509. He was laid to rest beside Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey.
2. The King Who Changed It All: The English Monarchy Under Henry VIII
Born at Greenwich Palace on June 28th, 1491, Henry was one of four children. After his brother’s death left him the sole heir, Henry inherited the crown at 17 years old upon his father’s death in 1509. This peaceful transfer of power hadn’t been seen for almost 100 years, and Henry’s ties to both the House of York and Lancaster signaled a new era.
Henry is arguably best known for his religious policies. Perhaps the most famous was the King’s Great Matter. This was his interminable effort to get a legal divorce from his original Queen heir, leaving him free to remarry.
Henry had convinced himself that his marriage to Catherine had never been real because it contradicted a biblical passage, Leviticus 20:21, which forbids a man to marry his brother’s widow. This belief was strengthened when he thought it was Catherine who failed to produce a male heir. After months of back and forth, it became clear that the Pope would not support his decision and grant him the required dispensation. Enraged, Henry decided to take matters into his own hands. Declaring himself The Supreme Head of the Church of England, the king was finally able to take control.
Over the course of his reign, Henry passed the 1534 Act of Supremacy and the Oath of Succession, which forced all to recognize him as Supreme Head of the Church, as well as legitimize Elizabeth as Henry’s heir and disinherit Mary. In 1536, he ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Chapels were stripped of anything of value before the land was sold or rewarded to loyal subjects.
It may be fair to assume that due to the dissolution of the monasteries, the English coffers would have been bursting to the brim. However, Henry preferred a lavish lifestyle that only increased once he became king. In this way, he differed largely from his parsimonious father. He splurged on clothing, entertainment, gifts, and aggressive foreign campaigns. By the end of his reign, England was reduced to bankruptcy, and he resorted to debasing the gold coin with copper.
Henry’s aggressive foreign policy was fueled by his “royal duty” in leading his nation to glory in war against traditional enemies, especially the French. Despite leading an army to capture Tournai and Thérouanne successfully, the young King attempted peace with the most extravagant and expensive European royal festivals in Tudor History, the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Yet, despite the grandeur, the political implications of the summit were insignificant. Just over two weeks after, Henry met the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on July 10th, and each agreed to make no fresh alliance with France for two years. The relationship with France continued in an inconsistent manner, oscillating between peace and conflict until Henry’s death.
Henry’s government also differed from that of his father’s. Whereas Henry VII adopted a very hands-on approach to managing his government, Henry VIII was confident that trusted advisors would become learned of his feelings on certain matters and would act accordingly. “Therefore, he did not need to involve himself in government as his trusted and loyal ministers would do it for him” (C.N. Trueman, 2022).
Henry’s reign was largely characterized by his love life. After 27 years of marriage to Catherine and only one child who had lived to adulthood (and a girl nonetheless), Henry’s list of wives began to grow.
Anne Boleyn, a noblewoman from the Howard family, was the next Queen. His marriage to Anne in October 1532 had an unprecedented impact on Tudor history, as it resulted in breaking with Rome and establishing the Church of England. Anne’s popularity declined steadily when she too produced a daughter instead of a son. Not wanting to be seen divorcing a second wife, Anne was instead charged with high treason, adultery, and incest, and consequently beheaded in May 1536.
Two weeks after Anne’s execution, Henry married Jane Seymour. Different from Anne in every way, she is said to be Henry’s one true love. After only a year of marriage, Jane gave birth to Edward, Henry’s heir. Unfortunately, Jane died shortly after the birth due to complications. Henry’s love for his wife was beautifully demonstrated by the fact that she was the only one of Henry VIII’s wives to receive an official queen’s funeral (Mieke Leender, 2021) and on his death, they were buried together.
After Jane, Henry began a number of short-lived marriages to Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr, whose fates are demonstrated in the well-known rhyme: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.” After his almost 38-year reign, Henry died in Whitehall, aged 55, leaving the crown to his son and heir, Edward VI.
3. The Reign of Edward VI
Born on October 12th, 1537, Edward was Henry’s sole surviving male heir and, interestingly, would be the last royal Tudor baby to be born. His childhood was devoted to learning the lessons of a Tudor prince. He quickly became proficient in Latin, Greek and French. Like all the Tudors, he was fond of music and played well.
Edward became King of England at age nine. The England he inherited was not one of stability like his father had inherited, but one ripped apart by religious reformation, factional dispute, and near bankruptcy.
Edward was notably intelligent; however, being underage, a mandatory regency was established. Henry VIII had feared the idea of one Lord Protector obtaining too much power, and his fears were justified. It didn’t take long for the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, to establish himself as sole ruler and seized control of the young king as Lord Protector.
Edward’s reign would hence be characterized by the powerful men in charge. During Edward VI’s reign, the Act of Uniformity, approved by Parliament in 1549, took the Reformation forward. These acts included removing superstitious imagery from churches, all masses were conducted in English, and those who refused to attend were fined. The year 1552 saw minor revisions in that it replaced the Book of Common Prayer authorized by the Act of Uniformity 1549 with a revised and more Protestant Book of Common Prayer and imposed a prison sentence for those who refused to attend the services.
Despite the brevity of Edward’s reign, factional rivalry was continuous. While Edward Seymour was the sole Lord Protector, he was not without adversaries. Somerset’s program of religious reformation was accompanied by bold measures of political, social, and agrarian reform. This incurred anger from many of the common people and lower nobility, who saw the end of Henry’s reign as a chance to return to the original faith.
Edward’s downfall came in 1549 after the Kett Rebellion. Nobles were quick to place blame, noting his leniency towards the rebels, while inwardly jealous of his popularity among the common people. The Duke of Somerset was removed from his position and replaced with John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland. After being tried and found guilty of treason and felony, the Duke of Somerset was executed on January 22nd , 1552.
Dudley, now in favor, sought to dominate the Crown. Perhaps Dudley’s most famous achievement was persuading the King to alter the line of succession. The threat that his eldest sister Mary, a devout Catholic, could take the throne was enough for Dudley to convince Edward that neither princess was legitimate. Influenced by the Duke of Northumberland, Edward chose Lady Jane Grey as his heir. Coincidentally, Jane was shortly married to Guildford Dudley, Northumberland’s son. On July 6th, 1553, King Edward died at the age of fifteen. Four days later, on July 10th, Dudley proclaimed Jane Queen of England.
4. Mary Tudor: The English Monarchy’s First Queen
Despite being ousted from the line of succession, Mary I would soon become Queen. This would be the first time a Queen had ruled in her own right in the history of the English Monarchy.
With Lady Jane named as heir, Mary had fled to Norfolk to gather supporters. In arguing for her throne, Mary also ensured the future legitimacy of Elizabeth, who stood behind her sister and supported her claim. Northumberland had gathered forces to counterattack Mary’s advances from Norfolk. Yet,, in a staggeringly bold course of action undertaken with little chance of success, Mary arrived in London on August 3rd, 1553. Mary was crowned in Westminster Abbey two months later on Sunday, October 1st, 1553. Lady Jane Grey was queen for only nine days.
Becoming the first recognized Queen regent, Mary redefined royal ritual and law with her 1554 Act of Parliament. This gave queens equal power to kings regardless of marital status. In addition, she reinforced the Act of Succession of 1543 by declaring the validity of the marriage of her mother, Catherine of Aragon. This ensured that Mary’s rights remained intact regardless of her future marriage arrangements or any shift away from royal supremacy.
Mary desired the restoration of papal authority in England, reversing the efforts of her brother. After entering into negotiations with Spain, Mary married Prince Philip of Spain, who became King Consort of England on July 25th, 1554. Much to Mary’s dismay, this match would not produce the Catholic heir she craved to secure her place. Plagued by gynecological illnesses and heartbroken after suffering at least one phantom pregnancy, the Queen was beginning to be questioned about the legitimacy of her claim to the throne. Philip soon traveled to Spain once the news of Mary’s condition was announced, and the people began to look to the younger and arguably more charismatic Elizabeth.
Mary would become notorious for the prosecution of Protestants during her reign, earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.”
In total, 227 men and 56 women were burned during Mary’s reign. This number may have been higher had many Protestants not fled the country upon Mary’s ascent. What is important to note is that thousands were also killed under her father’s rule, an estimated 72,000 people.
After only five years on the throne, Queen Mary’s health began to decline, and on November 17th, 1558, Mary officially declared her half-sister Elizabeth as her heir and died. She was laid to rest in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey.
5. The Final Monarch of Tudor History: Elizabeth I
Flame-haired, white-faced, and always lavishly dressed, Elizabeth possessed the natural charisma of her father, Henry VIII, and was the darling of her people. Many saw her coronation as an end to religious persecution and a distinctive move towards reformation. On January 15th, 1559, just under two months after the death of Queen Mary, Elizabeth was crowned in Westminster Abbey.
The Elizabethan era has been characterized throughout history as one of great change and reform. During it, a secure Church of England was established, trade boomed as expeditions were funded, and the arts thrived, seeing the emergence of individuals such as William Shakespeare.
Immediately, Elizabeth showed an affiliation with Protestantism. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, was a strong supporter of reform, and Elizabeth had spent a portion of her childhood in the care of Catherine Parr. In the same year of her coronation, she passed the Act of Supremacy which “declared the queen supreme governor of the Church” (Stephen Greenblatt, 2000). Furthermore, Edward’s Act of Uniformity was reenabled, and a revised Prayer Book was released. Conversely, Elizabeth did not have a purely dogmatic view of religion. While her closest advisors and key political, religious, and social positions were held by Protestants, many still practiced Catholicism.
However, tensions with Spain were mounting. Elizabeth had encouraged international expeditions, sentiments shared with Spain. Her chief expeditionist, Sir Francis Drake, often tampered with Spanish fleets and supplies. Alongside these frustrations, Spain was eager to see a Catholic queen on the throne.
Eventually, Elizabeth provided a catalyst in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, who lost her head after her involvement in the Babington Plot was discovered. By 1588, the Spanish Armada had set sail to England. However, the costly Armada would return to Spain humiliated. Due to advanced planning from England and the underestimation of the English waters by the Spanish, Sir Francis Drake was able to lead the English to victory. The failure of the Spanish Armada meant that England was secure for some time. Now economically debilitated, Spain would prove no threat to Elizabeth and her expeditionary endeavors.
Elizabeth ruled for 44 years before her death at Richmond Palace on March 24th, 1603. Elizabeth had no heir to succeed her, in her last days, ended the continuous conflict between England and Scotland by naming James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, her heir.
Overall, England was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic under the Tudors than at any time since the Roman occupation. Tudor history was an era of great change and gave us some of history’s most well-remembered kings and queens in the English monarchy.