Tudor History: The Complete Overview

Tudor History is observed through the years 1485 to 1603, beginning with the reign of Henry VII and ending with Queen Elizabeth I.

Mar 2, 2022By Lucy Soaft, BA History w/ Medical Ethics and Military History concentration
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The Tudor history era was significant in the shaping and reshaping of the English monarchy, religious views, political factions, and the ordinary lives of the common people. The Tudor period came into being on the back of the victory of Henry VII. Despite a tenuous claim to the throne, Richard III’s Yorkist army was defeated on 22 August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. By defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII was crowned King of England, thus beginning the dynasty of the Tudors and Tudor history.


Tudor History: The Beginning of Tudor Reign

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The Monarchs of the Tudor Period, via The History of England


In total, through 5 monarchs, the Tudors ruled England and Wales for a total of 118 years, presenting us with a dynasty that contains arguably the most well-known figures in royal history. This rule contributed heavily to the shaping of England, and even Great Britain, that we all know today. Through religious reformation, socio-economic changes, and even the role of women, the English monarchy drastically shaped what we now know as the United Kingdom. The English monarchy is possibly the most critical aspect that defined Tudor history. The first monarch of the Tudor era was Henry VII.


The War of the Roses, estimated to occur from 1455 – 1487, and more recently known as the War of the Cousins, was a battle between two influential households, both with claims to the throne: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. In an attempt to both strengthen his claim to the throne and bring peace to the country, Lancastrian Henry VII made a strategic marriage to Yorkist Elizabeth of York.


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Portrait of Queen Elizabeth Tudor, via The Royal Collection; with The Tudor Rose, via Totally Timelines


This marriage proved to be monumental in ending the fighting between the cousins, and it solidified a union between two of the most powerful families of this period. This union is also represented in the Tudor motif: the collaboration of the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster were combined after the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth, demonstrating their unity to the English monarchy and England. The couple also went on to have eight children together. However, only four would survive into adulthood: Arthur, Henry, Margaret, and Mary Tudor.

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While Arthur died very young after his marriage to Princess Catherine of Aragon, all three other children embarked on promising futures. Princess Margaret married James IV and became Queen consort of Scotland. Similarly, Princess Mary was promised to Louis XII of France. Lastly, and perhaps one of the most influential figures of Tudor history, was Henry VIII, the sole surviving son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.


The English Monarchy: Henry VIII & His Heirs

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A young Henry VIII at the time of his wedding


Although he was initially steered towards a career in the Church, as was typical for the second son in a royal family, Henry VIII ended up taking the throne in 1509, after the deaths of his brother in 1502 and his father in 1509. Henry quickly went on to marry his brother’s widow, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, with whom he had a daughter, Mary, in 1516. However, Henry’s story does not end here. He went on to have five other wives during his reign and two other legitimate children, Edward VI and Elizabeth I.


Henry’s reign was unprecedented. In the 36 years of his rule, he made several profound changes. His opinion towards Catherine of Aragon changed significantly once a male heir failed to arrive after 23 years of marriage. His desperation for a son who would preserve his legacy led Henry to reject the Catholic Church in favor of his own – the Church of England. In this Church, where Henry possessed all supremacy, he was able to annul his marriage and remarry in order to have a son.


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King Edward VI as a child painted in the Workshop of a Master John, c. 1547, via The National Portrait Gallery, London


After six marriages, Henry did indeed produce heirs to his throne; however, only one offspring was a boy. Edward VI reigned from 1547, directly after Henry’s death, until 1553. Edward’s rule was short-lived as he died only six years after his coronation, after a brief yet rapid battle with tuberculosis. During his brief reign, Edward was under the influence of his privy council, more specifically his regent and uncle, the Duke of Somerset. The latter wielded almost supreme power as regent, with the title of protector.


After Edward’s untimely death, the factions of the Tudor government were in disarray. With no male heir to succeed Edward, the decision lay between his two sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. The idea of a woman succeeding the throne was not ideal, but the decision was nevertheless made based on the religious affiliation of each woman. Edward had spent his six-year rule implementing what his father did halfheartedly: converting Catholicism to Protestantism. However, due to the line of Succession, the crown would have passed onto Edward’s half-sister and devout Catholic Mary. To avoid reverting to the past, Edward, on his death bed, installed Lady Jane Grey as Queen, a fervent Protestant woman.


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A portrait of Queen Mary I, via English Monarchs


However, Mary fought for her place as Henry VIII’s firstborn, and as a result, Lady Jane was only Queen for a total of 9 days before she was executed. Assuming her role as Queen, Mary threw the lives of the Tudor people again into disarray, making her first act reverting England to Catholicism.


Mary’s reign proved highly problematic for Tudor history. Aside from her devout Catholic views, her persecution of Protestants, or ‘heretics,’ resulted in her becoming widely unpopular with much of the gentry and public. Throughout her rule, Mary had over 300 religious dissenters burned at the stake in what is known as the Marian persecutions.


Queen Mary’s gender was a huge problem to the Tudor nobles at the time. Being the first woman in not only Tudor history but also English history to rule in her own right, the issue of her marriage was paramount. Many nobles insisted that Mary should wed a Protestant man to unite the currently fractured civilian population. However, refusing to be bullied into submission by the gentry, Mary elected to marry Prince Philip II of Spain in 1554.


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The persecution of protestants by Queen Mary I, via History.com


However, the marriage to Philip did not produce any heirs. Despite many attempts and false pregnancies, Mary failed to conceive a child. In 1558, four years after her marriage, Mary’s health was failing due to suspected ovarian cancer or influenza. She finally recognized her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth on her deathbed, who would become the second Queen of England.


Elizabeth I reigned from 1558 until 1603 for 45 years. Her rule is generally considered one of the most glorious in English history. The daughter of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth faced much discrimination due to her heritage from birth. However, her character, education, and “inherited intelligence, determination and shrewdness from both parents” proved her an exceptional ruler, one who craved autonomy.


However, her reign was not without its troubles. Catholic enemies made numerous attempts on her life, as well as an outright attack from Rome itself in the form of a Papal bull. Additionally, her private life was scrutinized mercilessly. Her resistance to taking a husband meant that it was the first time that a woman in the English monarchy had ever ruled alone. However, regardless of the problems Elizabeth faced during her rule, she was a pivotal character in Tudor history. Elizabeth I was often named, even today, as ”Gloriana,” “Good Queen Bess,” and “The Virgin Queen.” Her death in 1603 marked the end of the Tudor monarchy.


The Reformation: Tudor History & Religion

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King Henry the VIII receiving the Bible


At first, Tudor history went hand in hand with Catholicism. Upon Henry VII’s rise to the throne, Catholicism remained the dominant religion in England, unchallenged and much unchanged. As ever, England was under the heavy influence of Rome, and Catholic rites were observed by all. However, in 1527, to the surprise of all, Henry VIII petitioned to divorce his wife of 24 years, Catherine of Aragon. This was because Catherine had only provided Henry with a daughter, Mary, and not the male heir so desperately coveted. When met with refusal from the pope, Henry then made his second drastic decision and broke away from the Catholic Church. Thus, the Reformation had begun. Notable changes during this era include the dissolution of monasteries and the 1534 Act of Supremacy which states “that the king would be ‘accepted and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England.”


Henry’s radical act did not go unnoticed, and as a result, he was excommunicated. After Henry’s death, Tudor England remained a predominantly Protestant country. The continuation of Protestantism went on into Edward’s reign until Mary I became Queen. Mary radically switched England back to Catholicism, first by passing the First Statute of Repeal in 1553. This ensured that “the Church in England was to be restored to the same position it had in the last year of Henry VIII’s reign.” However, Mary’s devotion to Catholicism soon led to more radical acts such as burning Protestants at the stake for their faith. The end to Catholic rule in England came with the ascension of Elizabeth I, who, while Protestant, took a more inclusive approach to religion in Tudor England.


Politics & Factions of Tudor History

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The Tudor Family, via owlcation.com


In the Tudor era, politics was dominated by three bodies: the Monarchy, the Privy Council, and Parliament. “These three bodies would work together to rule the country, make laws, raise money, and decide upon matters of religion and national defense.” The council was a predominant feature throughout the English monarchy. One of its key features was that it allowed laws to come into being simply through announcements.


Nevertheless, politics in Tudor history relied very heavily on the current monarch. With England being a predominantly agricultural country, land was power, and therefore most of the sovereign’s favorites were gifted with titles and accompanying land. However, noble titles came with political responsibilities, such as listening to tenants’ grievances, educational matters, ecclesiastical matters, and so on.


One significant change which impacted the whole of the Tudor era happened upon Henry VII’s emergence to the throne, wherein he proclaimed, “the remnant of the old baronage, together with the new baronage, were no longer able to make head against the monarchy.” The apparent “subversion of the baronial power” was evident throughout the entire Tudor monarchy, as the nobility were always fighting to be in the monarch’s favor and quick to remove support from the few brave others.


Even into the Elizabethan era, “the Court was the center of political power…and wealthy people went to court to try and win the favor.” All Tudor monarchs took the threat of the nobility seriously. While all gentry craved royal favor, many also experienced sudden and rapid falls in power and position, sometimes simply due to a monarch’s bad mood. Consequently, disagreements could arise as a result of political, economic, religious, or personal changes. The gentry and nobility controlled various parts of England, and tenants were expected to answer all calls from their lords, including war.


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Queen Elizabeth I, via Royal.uk


Henry’s wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon was a pivotal moment in both religion and politics as it gave rise to the Reformation Parliament. This took place from 1529-36 and was created to address this great matter. The Reformation Parliament thus represented a true shift to a modernized structure. However, the monarch’s far-reaching status made it common to seem like there was no need for a parliament.


Tudor History: The Lives of the Common People


Prior to the Tudor monarchy, England was a country dominated by agriculture. Most of the population (over 90 %) lived in small villages and made their living from farming. With life expectancy stretching to 35 years, conditions were not ideal. Subsequently, the expansion of the navy and exploration of “new worlds” in the Elizabethan era led to an increase in trade. Mining of coal, tin, and lead flourished, as well as the iron industry. During this period, England became richer and richer.


While poverty and famine were commonplace during this era, the Tudors broke away from the norm of previous monarchies and enshrined it into law. Laws against vagrants were in place before the Tudor era; however, in 1530, a law was passed to allow beggars in towns, providing they had a license. The number of beggars increased rapidly, and as a result, a new law in 1547 declared that vagabonds could be enslaved for two years. This terrible law was abolished in 1550, and once again, flogging was made the punishment for vagrancy. The lives of the poor did take a turn when Elizabeth came to power. Elizabeth I introduced the Poor Law in 1601, which not only provided indoor and outdoor relief to the common poor but also introduced tax relief.


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Poverty in Tudor England, via spartacus-educational.com


Additionally, the criminal system tended more toward corporal justice. Punishments for crimes tended to veer more towards the physical rather than imprisonment. Tudor punishments were simple but harsh and included flogging, whipping, and being put in the stocks. Serious crimes such as murder meant the death sentence. Interestingly, the Tudor class system can even be recognized in how the Tudors carried out capital punishment. Common people were usually hung, whereas the wealthy were beheaded.


Education was a male-dominant sphere of Tudor life. The educationalist Richard Mulcaster, addressing the issue in the 1580s, was quick to assure his readers that he would speak of boys’ education first since “naturally the male is more worthy.” Boys were sent from nursery to grammar school. The choices after school were either university or to select a trade.


Young girls were expected to train at home with their mothers in needlepoint, cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. However, people began to think that women should be given the right to education, even if just in reading and writing. As a result, by the start of the 16th century, girls attended local schools along with their male peers.


Regarding entertainment, tennis, jousting, and football were popular sports. All classes gambled in 16th century England. Poor people gambled with dice, and it was not uncommon for the gentry to use chess and cards. Tudor history also saw the rise of the theater.


To sum up, the monarch was central to Tudor history. The crown had the ability to reach all aspects of life, from politics, religions, and even to popular entertainment. On the other hand, there is clear evidence that the Tudor era was pivotal in shaping the society we live in today.

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By Lucy SoaftBA History w/ Medical Ethics and Military History concentrationLucy is pursuing an MSc in Military and Medical history with the aspiration of becoming a museum curator. She holds a BA in History with a focus on medical ethics and Military history from the University of Kent (UKC). Topics of interest also include Tudor History, Human Experimentation, and Gothic Architecture. Lucy volunteers at various museums including the Huntarian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in England.