You could be forgiven for thinking that Henry VIII had only one child: Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth is one of the most famous women in British history, her smarts, ruthlessness and heavily made-up face still making her a well-known fixture of films, television shows and books today.
But before Queen Elizabeth there were King Edward VI and Queen Mary I of England, her younger brother and older sister. And the three monarchs were only Henry VIII’s legitimate children who survived beyond a few weeks. The Tudor king also had one illegitimate child who he acknowledged, Henry Fitzroy, and is suspected of having fathered several other illegitimate children too.
Mary, the oldest of Henry VIII’s legitimate children, was born to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in February 1516. Henry was affectionate towards his daughter but increasingly less so towards her mother who had not born him a male heir.
Henry sought for the marriage to be annulled — a pursuit that ultimately led to the Church of England breaking away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church which had denied him an annulment. The king finally got his wish in May 1533 when Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine void.
Five days later, Cranmer also declared Henry’s marriage to another woman valid. That woman’s name was Anne Boleyn and, adding insult to injury, she was Catherine’s lady in waiting.
In September of that year, Anne gave birth to Henry’s second legitimate child, Elizabeth.
Mary, whose place in the line of succession was replaced by her new half-sister, refused to acknowledge that Anne had superseded her mother as queen or that Elizabeth was a princess. But both girls soon found themselves in similar positions when, in May 1536, Queen Anne was beheaded.
Henry then married Jane Seymour, regarded by many as the favourite of his six wives and the only one to bear him a son who survived: Edward. Jane gave birth to Edward in October 1537, dying of postnatal complications shortly after.
When Henry died in January 1547 it was Edward who succeeded him, aged just nine. The king was England’s first monarch to be raised Protestant and, despite his young age, he took a great interest in religious matters, overseeing the establishment of Protestantism in the country.
Edward’s reign, which was plagued by economic problems and social unrest, came to an abrupt end in July 1553 when he died following months of illness.
The unmarried king left no children as heirs. In an effort to prevent Mary, a Catholic, from succeeding him and reversing his religious reformation, Edward named his first cousin once removed Lady Jane Grey as his heir. But Jane only lasted nine days as the de facto queen before most of her supporters abandoned her and she was deposed in favour of Mary.
During her five-year reign, Queen Mary gained a reputation for ruthlessness and violence, ordering hundreds of religious dissenters burnt at the stake in her pursuit of the restoration of Roman Catholicism in England. This reputation was so great that her Protestant opponents denounced her “Bloody Mary”, a name by which she is still commonly referred today.
Mary married Prince Philip of Spain in July 1554 but bore no children, ultimately failing in her quest to prevent her Protestant sister, Elizabeth, from becoming her successor. After Mary fell ill and died in November 1558, aged 42, Elizabeth was named queen.
Elizabeth, who ruled for nearly 50 years and died in March 1603, was the last monarch of the House of Tudor. Like her brother and sister, she too bore no children. Even more surprisingly for the time, she never married (though stories of her many suitors are well documented).
Elizabeth’s long reign is remembered for many things, not least England’s historic defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, seen as one of the country’s greatest military victories.
Drama also flourished under the queen’s rule and she successfully reversed her sister’s own reversal of the establishment of Protestantism in England. Indeed, Elizabeth’s legacy is so great that her reign has a name all of its own — the “Elizabethan era”.