Henry VIII’s infamously cold-hearted treatment of his wives and close advisors has instilled him as the epitome of Tudor tyranny.
He was not the only in his family to employ intimidation tactics, torture and execution to wield their power however. In a time of uncertain lineage and great religious upheaval, severity was key to managing absolute rule – a fact the Tudors knew all too well. Here are 4 tyrannies that took place during their various reigns.
1. Eliminating enemies
England’s Tudor dynasty began with the reign of Henry VII, who seized the crown in 1485 after the death of Richard III on the battlefield at Bosworth. With a new and fragile royal house now on the throne, Henry VII’s reign was characterised by a series of dynasty-building moves that saw the wealth of the family slowly increase.
In order to protect his new Tudor line however, Henry VII was required to stamp out any sign of treason, and began purging the English nobility to surround himself with trusted allies. With many still secretly loyal to the previous House of York, and even members of the royal house still alive, the king could not afford to be too merciful.
Over the course of his reign, he quelled many rebellions and had a number of ‘pretenders’ executed for treason. Famous of these was Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the younger of the Princes in the Tower. After being captured and attempting escape, he was executed in 1499, while his accomplice Edward Plantagenet, a real blood-relative of Richard III, suffered the same fate.
Edward and his sister Margaret were the children of George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III’s brother and thus held a close link to the throne. Margaret would be spared by Henry VII however, and live to be 67 years old before being executed by his son Henry VIII.
The Tudor’s patriarch’s focus on strengthening his new dynasty not only shrunk the nobility in favour at court and thus the potential opposition to his rule, subsequently paved the way for his son’s even greater descent into tyranny.
2. Eliminating allies
Now surrounded by wealth and a host of nobles loyal to his rule, Henry VIII was in prime position to exert power. While holding much promise as a strapping, golden-haired young man in possession of excellent riding and jousting skills, something soon turned more sinister.
Infamously marrying six times, a process in which two queens were divorced and another two executed, Henry VIII developed a taste for manoeuvring people into giving him his way, and when they displeased him he had them removed.
This is reflected manifestly in his break from Rome in 1633, a move orchestrated in order to marry Anne Boleyn and divorce Catherine of Aragon, goals that centred on an obsession with having a son and heir.
Over the course of the messy ordeal, he had a number of his closest allies executed or imprisoned. When trusted advisor and friend Cardinal Thomas Wolsey failed to get the Pope’s dispensation in 1529, he was accused of treason and arrested, falling ill and dying on the journey to London.
Similarly, when the devoutly Catholic Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, refused to accept his marriage to Anne Boleyn or his religious supremacy, he had him executed. Boleyn herself would too be executed a mere three years later on probable false charges of adultery and incest in 1536, while her cousin Catherine Howard and fifth wife to the king would share the same fate in 1541, aged only 19.
While his father had a keen eye for eliminating his enemies, Henry VIII had a penchant for eliminating his allies due to the sheer power his authority now mustered.
3. Gaining religious control
As Head of the Church, Henry VIII now held power unbeknownst to England’s previous monarchs, and exercised it with no restraint.
Though the Reformation was moving throughout Europe and likely would have reached England in due course, Henry’s arguably hurried decision unleashed a torrent of pain and misery for many in the coming years. Particularly with the warring religious ideologies of his children, many suffered under the changing rules laid down upon their personal devotions.
The cleansing of Catholicism from England began with the dissolution of the monasteries, stripping them of their ornamental furnishings and leaving many to crumble into ruins that still stand hollow today. As one in fifty men in Tudor England belonged to religious orders, this was the ruin of many livelihoods. These religious houses were also refuges for the poor and ill, and many such people suffered from their loss.
Following Mary I’s attempts at reinstalling the old religion into the country, Elizabeth I followed suit with her attempts to violently drive it back out.
‘To erase all taint of Catholicism, windows were smashed, statues pulled down and broken, paintings defaced and whitewashed, plate melted, jewels taken, books burned’
– Historian Mathew Lyons
A large part of English society had been ripped out by force.
4. The burning of heretics
While Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both sought to remove Catholic iconography, Mary I’s reign saw the burning of hundreds of Protestant heretics, perhaps one of the most visceral images of Tudor rule. Widely known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her sanctioning of such executions, Mary I sought to incite a Counter-Reformation and revert the actions of her father and half-brother Edward VI. 280 heretics were burned at the stake over the course of her relatively short 5-year reign.
This method of execution held deep-rooted symbolism, and had been employed by a previous Catholic player at court. Thomas More viewed such punishment as a cleansing and just method of extinguishing heretic behaviour.
While no more than 30 burnings had taken place in the entire century before More’s Chancellorship, he oversaw 6 burnings of Protestants at the stake and reportedly had a large hand in the burning of well-known reformer William Tyndale.
‘His Dialogue Concerning Heresies tells us that heresy is an infection in the community, and infections must be purged with fire. Burning a heretic also simulates the effects of hellfire, a fit punishment for anyone who led others to hell through teaching religious error.’
—Kate Maltby, journalist and academic
As aforementioned however, More himself would face execution for treason when the tides of religion turned against him. His fervour for burning heretics found a home in Mary however, whose mother’s queenship he supported to the very end.
5. Elizabeth I’s scorched-earth policy
Burning Protestants stopped as a Tudor policy when Mary died, as the Protestant Elizabeth I took the throne. Yet the atrocities surrounding religion did not cease, as sights were set on the colonisation of the Emerald Isle.
In 1569, at the start of the rule of Elizabeth I, a force of 500 English men rampaged through some of Ireland’s villages, burning them to the ground and killing every man woman and child they saw. A trail of the victims’ heads was then laid on the ground each night; a grizzly path that led to the commander, Humphrey Gilbert’s tent, so their families could see.
This was not some isolated shameful incident. According to the Tudors, killing Catholic children was a heroic thing to do. And it continued: 400 women and children were slaughtered by the Earl of Essex 5 years later, and in 1580 Elizabeth I praised Lord Grey and his captain — the Queen’s future darling Sir Walter Raleigh — for executing 600 Spanish soldiers who had already surrendered in Ireland. They were also said to have hanged local pregnant women and tortured others.
As England’s naval and exploration powers grew, so did its exploitation and colonising acts of violence.
Over 120 years of Tudor rule, a rapid growth in the power of the monarch enabled tyranny to flourish, whether over their enemies, spouses, or subjects.
Focused on building his dynasty, Henry VII ensured to form only the strongest foundations for his children and grandchildren, while Henry VIII’s split with Rome gave English monarchs unprecedented powers as Head of the Church. This in turn made room for Mary and Elizabeth’s differing policies on religion that punished the English and Irish people harshly for beliefs that the previous year may have been encouraged.
Stark realities would soon become clear in their successors, the Stuarts, however. The limits of absolute rule would be pushed to the brink, and ultimately break under the changing political sphere of the 17th century. The impending civil war would change everything.