Between 1485 and 1603, England was ruled by members of the Tudor family: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
Despite most women being relegated to serve their husband or father, there were many who wrote humanist texts, built enormous houses, ran vast estates and even ruled as Queen.
Here are 12 of the most important.
1. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury
Margaret Pole was the niece of Richard III – who Henry VII had slain at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Until her dying day, Margaret asserted her Yorkist allegiance and become a focus for rebellion. She was considered such as threat that Henry VIII ordered her execution in 1541.
2. Elizabeth of York
Elizabeth was the daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, who were leaders of the Yorkist cause. Her brothers were the ‘Princes in the Tower’.
The marriage between Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor marked a union between the Houses of York and Lancaster, and the red and white Tudor rose was born. Elizabeth and Henry had eight children, who, through marriage, became monarchs of England, Scotland and France.
3. Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots
The eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Margaret was the sister of Henry VIII. She was married to James IV of Scotland from 1503-1513, which united the royal houses of England and Scotland. After her husband’s death, Margaret acted as regent for her son James V, from 1513-1515.
4. Catherine of Aragon
Catherine ruled as Queen of England from June 1509 until May 1533. She was the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.
At three years old she was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, who was heir apparent to the English throne. After Arthur’s death, Catherine was married to his younger brother Henry, who grew increasingly frustrated after she failed to deliver a male heir.
For six months in 1513, she served as regent of England as Henry was abroad in France. Her rousing speech about emotional courage seemed to be an important factor in the English victory at the Battle of Flodden. She was also a prominent humanist, and counted scholars such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More as her friends.
5. Elizabeth Blount
‘Bessie’ Blount was a mistress of Henry VIII. On 15 June 1519, Blount bore the king what he had always craved – a son. Henry Fitzroy, the only illegitimate son of Henry VIII, was later Duke of Richmond and Somerset and Earl of Nottingham.
6. Anne Boleyn
The second and perhaps most infamous wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536, when she was executed.
Henry first caught eyes on her when she served Catherine of Aragon as a maid of honour. To accommodate a marriage to Anne and divorce Catherine, Henry had no choice but to leave the Catholic Church and establish the Church of England.
Anne was the mother of Elizabeth I.
7. Catherine Parr
Catherine had four husbands, the third of which was Henry VIII who she outlived by a year. She enjoyed a close relationship with Henry’s three children, taking personal interest in their education and playing an important role in the Third Succession Act, which restored Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession.
After Henry’s death, Catherine acted as queen dowager and was allowed to keep royal jewels and dresses.
8. Lady Jane Grey
Jane was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, through their daughter Mary, who became Queen of France.
She was exceptionally well educated in humanist studies, and as a committed Protestant, Edward VI saw her as an ally. In 1553, Edward’s will placed Jane in line to inherit the throne, effectively removing his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth from the line of succession and ignoring the Third Succession Act.
Jane was proclaimed queen on 10 July 1553 but support quickly waned and the Privy Council abandoned her. Lasting just over a week, she became known as the ‘Nine Days Queen’. Although Mary initially spared her life, she became viewed as a threat to the Crown, and was executed the following year.
9. Mary I
Mary was the eldest child of Henry VIII to survive to adulthood. As the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, she was a staunch Catholic. After expelling Lady Jane Grey to regain her place on the throne, Mary attempted to reverse the English Reformation begun by her father and restore Roman Catholicism.
The executions of Protestants earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. She was married to Phillip of Spain.
10. Elizabeth I
Elizabeth was the final monarch of the Tudor dynasty, ruling from 1558-1603. She depended heavily on a group of advisers led by William Cecil. Together they established a middle way in the religious debates, as Elizabeth became the Supreme Governor of the English Protestant church, but insisted on greater tolerance of English Catholics.
Elizabeth never married and she became referred to as the ‘Virgin Queen’. Her 44 year reign was marked by England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and a flowering of English drama, led by playwrights Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.
11. Bess of Hardwick
Born into a modest background, Bess married four times and acquired an enormous fortune to become the second most important woman in England, after the queen. She is famed for building Hardwick Hall, which gave rise to the rhyme ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.
12. Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary reigned over Scotland from 1542 to 1567. She was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland, who died when Mary was six days old. She married Francis, the Dauphin of France, and later her half-cousin, Lord Darnley.
Their son, James, would become James I of England, uniting the two kingdoms. She was executed by her cousin, Elizabeth I, in 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle.