The House of Tudor is one of the most infamous royal families in British history. Originally of Welsh descent, the ascension of the Tudors to the throne in 1485 ushered in a new era of prosperity to England, and brought to a close decades of turmoil under Plantagenet rule during the Wars of the Roses.
Tales of Tudor politics, bloodshed, and romance have long found a home in the intrigue of Britain’s past, but who exactly were the family that ruled over it all?
1. Henry VII
Henry VII is often considered the founding father of the Tudor dynasty, and through an astute business head and pragmatic removal of opponents, helped to establish the future of the eminent family. With a somewhat shaky claim to the throne – his mother Margaret Beaufort was a great-great-granddaughter of King Edward III – he challenged the rule of Richard III, defeating him in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485.
Following his coronation he married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and heiress of the York legacy, uniting the two warring houses as one. The red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York were symbolically combined, forming the Tudor rose that remains a striking part of British iconography today.
Henry VII’s uncertain path to the throne made him a patient and vigilant character, prone to rely on policy and calculation over passion and affection. He had a pragmatic approach to government and focused heavily on growing the royal finances by avoiding costly wars, promoting efficient administration, and increasing revenue from British industry.
Henry’s reign was far from secure however, and was often faced with uprisings and pretenders to the throne. Most famous of these was Perkin Warbeck, whose claim to be the younger of the Princes in the Tower found him executed in 1499.
Though seemingly brutal, Henry VII’s elimination of his enemies and purging of powerful Yorkist nobles built a loyal power base around the Tudor dynasty, so that by the time his son Henry inherited the throne, not a single opponent remained.
2. Henry VIII
Perhaps the most infamous member of the Tudor family, Henry VIII inherited the throne from his father in 1509 aged 18. Surrounded by wealth and loyal supporters, the new king begun his rule full of promise. Standing 6 feet tall, Henry was powerfully built with a talent for both scholarly and athletic pursuits, excelling in riding, dancing, and fencing.
Soon after he was king, he married Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the most powerful royal couple in Europe – Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castille.
Henry did not have his father’s strong business head however, and preferred to live a life guided by passion and hedonistic pursuits. Obsessed with legacy, he disadvantageously joined wars with Spain and France, costing the Crown dearly both financially and in popularity.
Marrying 6 times, Henry VIII’s wives are amongst the most famous consorts in history and are another indicator of his pursuit of passion.
After 24 years of marriage he divorced Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, whom he had fallen deeply in love with and hoped would provide him with a son – Catherine had suffered a number of miscarriages and ‘only’ given him a daughter in Mary I. In order to achieve this however Henry was forced to break with the Roman Catholic Church, forming the Church of England and setting forth the English Reformation.
Boleyn would give him the future Elizabeth I – but no boy. She was executed for supposed treason in 1536, following which he married Jane Seymour 10 days later, who died giving birth to Edward VI. He swiftly divorced his fourth wife Anne of Cleves and executed his fifth wife, the teenage Catherine Howard, for adultery in 1542. Catherine Parr, his sixth and final wife, outlived him when he at last died in 1547 aged 55, after suffering complications from an old jousting wound.
3. Edward VI
Edward VI came to the throne in 1547 at the age of 9, ushering in a period known as the Mid-Tudor Crisis that spanned he and his sister Mary I’s short and turbulent reigns. Due to his age, his father had appointed a council of 16 to assist him before he died, however Henry VIII’s plan was not directly followed.
The young prince’s uncle Edward Seymour, Earl of Somerset was named Lord Protector until he came of age, effectively making him ruler in all but name and opening the door to some vicious power plays. Somerset and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer were determined to install England as a truly Protestant state, and in 1549 an English Prayer Book was issued, followed by an Act of Uniformity to enforce its use.
What followed was a period of significant unrest in England. The Prayer Book Rebellion in Devon and Cornwall and Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk saw thousands dead for protesting the religious and social injustices they suffered. This prompted Somerset’s removal from power and his replacement by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who facilitated his predecessor’s execution.
By June 1553 it became apparent that Edward was dying of tuberculosis however, and a plan for his succession was set in motion. Not wishing to undo all of the work towards Protestantism, Edward’s advisors encouraged him remove his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth from the line of succession, and instead name his 16-year-old cousin Lady Jane Grey as his heir.
Grey’s husband was Lord Guildford Dudley – the Duke of Northumberland’s son – and her position on the throne would clearly be used to strengthen his position. This plot would not come to fruition however, and when Edward died in 1553 aged 15, Jane would be queen for just 9 days.
4. Mary I
Enter Mary I, Henry VIII’s eldest daughter by Catherine of Aragon. She had been a staunch Catholic all her life, and had thousands of followers seeking to see her on the throne, both for her Catholic faith and as the rightful Tudor heir. She raised a large army at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, and the Privy Council soon realised the grave error they had made in attempting to oust her from the succession.
She was named Queen in 1553 and Lady Jane Grey and her husband were both executed, along with Northumberland who had attempted to stage another rebellion against Mary soon after. As Lady Jane Grey’s short reign is widely disputed, Mary is largely considered the first queen regnant of England. She is best known for her furious attempts at reversing the English Reformation however, burning hundreds of Protestants in the process, and earning her the damning nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.
In 1554 she married the Catholic Philip II of Spain, despite the match being hugely unpopular in England, and with him waged an unsuccessful war on France, losing Calais in the process – England’s last possession on the continent. That same year she suffered a false pregnancy, perhaps exacerbated by her intense desire to have a child and prevent her Protestant sister Elizabeth from succeeding her.
Though the entire court believed Mary was due to give birth, a baby never materialised and the queen was left distraught. Soon after, Philip abandoned her to return to Spain, causing her further misery. She died in 1558 aged 42, possibly of uterine cancer, and her dream of returning England to Catholicism died with her.
5. Elizabeth I
Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558 aged 25, and presided over what has been termed a ‘Golden Age’ of English prosperity for 44 years. Her reign brought welcome stability after the short and uneasy rules of her siblings, and her religious tolerance helped to pave over what had been years of uncertainty.
She successfully repelled foreign threats such as the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the plots made against her by supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots, and fostered the era of Shakespeare and Marlowe – all while ruling alone.
Elizabeth famously refused to marry and instead adopted the image of the ‘Virgin Queen’. She knew that as a woman, to marry was to forfeit one’s power as her sister Mary I had been forced to during her reign. A politically astute figure, Elizabeth also knew that both a foreign or domestic match would stir up unwelcome hostilities amongst her nobles, and through her knowledge of what it meant to be a royal wife – she was the daughter of Henry VIII after all – opted to steer clear of it altogether.
Her strong character and intelligence meant that she refused to bow to the pressures of her advisors, declaring that:
‘If I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar-woman and single, far rather than queen and married’
As such, when Elizabeth died in 1603, so did the Tudor line. She reluctantly named her cousin James VI of Scotland as her heir, and so began the Stuart dynasty in England, ushering in a new era of political upheaval, flourishing court culture, and events that would alter the shape of the monarchy for good.