The Tudor social calendar was in many ways surprisingly similar to that of society today. Given the opportunity, Tudor citizens would line the streets to cheer on royal processions, to mourn the passing of iconic individuals, to celebrate victory at war and to gather for large public displays.
And perhaps more so than today, Tudor citizens acted in and witnessed huge moments in history first hand as they played out on the streets of Britain. From the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth I to the marriage of Queen Mary I and Prince Philip of Spain, significant moments in Tudor history played out, and were celebrated, publicly across the country.
Here are 9 of the biggest events in Tudor history, featuring descriptions of exactly how they would have been experienced on the ground.
1. Prince Henry being awarded the Dukedom of York (1494)
In 1494, a 3-year-old Prince Henry, astride a warhorse, rode through cheering London crowds as he made his way to Westminster. It was All Hallows Day, and King Henry VII, wearing his crown and royal robes, stood in the Parliament Chamber attended by nobles and prelates. A great press of citizens crowded in to see him grant his young son the Dukedom of York.
After the ceremony, the carnival air continued as people flocked into the jousting courtyard and crowded onto the walls, all smiles and stares at the king and queen and nobles in the stands, while happily cheering on their favourite jousters.
2. The funeral of Queen Elizabeth (1503)
11 days later, mother and baby were carried from the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Their coffin, covered with white and black velvet and a cross of white damask, was placed in a chariot drawn by seven horses for the short journey to Westminster Abbey.
Ahead of the coffin walked lords, knights and prominent citizens, followed by 6 black chariots, between them the queen’s ladies riding small horses. Lining one side of the streets from Whitechapel to Temple Bar thousands of silent, mourning citizens held burning torches. At Fenchurch Street, 37 maidens dressed in white each held a burning wax taper, one for each year of the queen’s life.
3. Anne Boleyn’s entry to London before her coronation (1533)
Anne Boleyn, sailing in her barge from Greenwich to the Tower on Thursday 29 May 1533, was escorted by hundreds of sailing ships and smaller boats. The vessels made the Thames a shining river of silk and beaten gold as banners and pennants shimmered in the sun.
From the bank, over a thousand guns shot a salute while royal performers and citizens played musical instruments and sang songs. At the front of the procession was a ship bearing the queen’s crowned white falcon emblem.
Landing at the Tower, the people waiting there created a ‘lane’ for the pregnant queen to walk through to the King’s Bridge where the king, Henry VIII, awaited her. To their great delight, he kissed her.
4. The birth of Prince Edward (1537)
Bonfires were lit and tables set up laden with food in every street. All day and night the pop of guns was heard across the city as citizens celebrated.
5. The coronation eve of King Edward VI (1547)
On 19 February 1547, 9-year-old Edward left the Tower of London for Westminster. Upon the route, for his honour and pleasure, Londoners had erected pageants.
Along the route, suns, stars and clouds filled the top of a two-tier stage, out of which a phoenix descended before settling by an elderly lion.
Later, Edward’s attention was snagged by a man laid face downwards on a rope. It was fixed from St Paul’s steeple to a ship’s anchor below. And as Edward stopped, the man spread out his arms and legs and slid down the rope “as swift as an arrow out of a bow”.
Landing lightly, the man went to the king and kissed his foot. Walking back up the rope, his ensuing acrobatic display held up the king’s train “a good space of time”.
6. The marriage of Queen Mary I and Prince Philip of Spain (1554)
On 25 July 1554, Queen Mary married Prince Philip of Spain at Winchester Cathedral. To cheers and shouts for God to send the couple joy, the queen was given away in the name of the whole realm. Once the ceremony was over, bride and groom walked hand-in-hand under a canopy to the bishop’s palace for the banquet.
By custom, they were served by citizens of London and Winchester acting as servers and butlers. One London citizen, Mr. Underhill, said he had carried a great venison pasty, which remained untouched. After he returned the gold dish to the kitchen, he was allowed to send the pasty to his wife which she shared with friends.
7. The fireworks at Warwick Castle (1572)
On 18 August 1572 at Warwick Castle, Queen Elizabeth was first entertained after dinner by country people dancing in the courtyard and in the evening by a fireworks display. From a timber fortress, fireworks and balls of fire were ejected in mock battle to the noise of cannons being fired.
Both bands fought valiantly, shooting guns and casting balls of wildfire into the River Avon which flashed and flamed, making the queen laugh.
At the grand finale, a fire dragon flew overhead, its flames setting the fort alight while explosives thrown at it went so high, they flew over the castle onto the houses of the town. Nobles and townsfolk rushed together to save all the houses that had been set alight.
8. Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Tilbury (1588)
To encourage her troops at Tilbury, gathered to prevent the Spanish landing troops at Gravesend, Queen Elizabeth sailed down the Thames to visit them.
On 9 August 1588 she walked through the camp, command-staff in hand, and mounted a stand to watch them march past. She later gave her ‘loving subjects’ a speech which ended with her resolution to ‘live or die amongst them’. She stated that, though she had the body of a weak and feeble woman, she had ‘the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England too. And think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.’
9. The victory parade (1588)
On 15 September 1588, 600 banners taken from the Spanish Armada were paraded throughout London. People cheered until they were hoarse. As Queen Elizabeth rode through the delighted crowds, they applauded her.
Medals of commemoration were minted for the occasion. One with pictures of Spanish ships referred to their admiral with the words, ‘he came. He saw. He fled.’
Jan-Marie Knights is an ex- editor and journalist who has worked on many newspapers and magazines and is a keen researcher of local and Tudor history. Her new book, The Tudor Socialite: A Social Calendar of Tudor Life, will be published by Amberley Books in November 2021.