The Tudor dynasty makes up a massive part of our national imaginary
It was the time in English history in which the country broke away from the authority of the Papacy in Rome. It was the moment in which English ascendancy in the high seas became a real possibility.
And, of course, it was the time in which kings and queens were the most fascinating, the most dastardly, and the most dramatic – with beguiling private lives, presiding over massive cultural production, and making England the country that it would later become.
Yet, are all these things we think we know about the House of Tudor – and Tudor England in general – actually true? Is there anything left in this period in the history of England – from Henry VII to Elizabeth I – that is still surprising?
Of course there is! And in this article, we’re going to look at some of the things you might not have known about the period – from the illegitimacy of the dynasty to the forgotten other king.
Let’s take a look at some of the more surprising things about the Tudors. And find out more about the Tudor period!
The unified Tudor Rose, using the two roses from the Wars of the Roses. Image from Wikipedia
It’s generally well known that the Tudor era began in 1485, when Henry VII, Henry Tudor, was crowned king. A Lancastrian, his House of Lancaster defeated Richard III of the House of York at the Battle of Bosworth Field to end the thirty-year long Wars of the Roses.
Whilst Henry VII, after his coronation, very successfully cemented his position as a unifying force in English politics – marrying the Yorkist Elizabeth of York to end the War of the Roses – his position was actually really very vulnerable.
His claim to be king was through his descendance from Edward III’s fourth son, John of Gaunt, and his mistress. Henry’s great-grandfather was therefore illegitimate – and Henry’s claim came through his mother’s side. This was something not very well thought of during these times.
Henry was only the Lancastrian candidate to be king because all of those with a better claim had been killed during the war. And so, in many ways, he should never have been king in the first place.
Find out more about the Tudor monarchs!
When talking about the Tudors these days, the phrase ‘British history’ is always at risk of slipping out. Yet, at this point in time – the sixteenth century – there wasn’t really any such thing as ‘Britain’ at all.
Scotland was a different country entirely – and one with which the English were continually at war – whilst Wales was hardly a defined thing at all either. It wasn’t until 1536 that Henry VIII’s Act of Union made Wales a part of the territory of the Tudor monarchs.
Before that, Wales was administrated by the Principality of Wales and by the Marcher Lordships, which protected the border of England and lawless Wales.
The Tudors themselves were actually Welsh, with Henry Tudor descending from the Tudors, a family of the Welsh nobility.
Henry VII’s grandfather was a certain Owen Tudor, who Anglicised his Welsh name, Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur. He was the second husband of Catherine of Valois – whose first husband was Henry V – and his own father participated in the Glyndŵr Rising, the last major demonstration of Welsh independence from England in the early fifteenth century.
Discover more about who the Tudors were!
In our great national fantasy, the primary reason that Henry VIII instigated his massive political upheaval in the 1530s was due to his love – or lust – for Anne Boleyn.
However, this is only really half of the story – if that.
The promise of a marriage to Anne Boleyn – after a divorce from Catherine of Aragon – may well have sweetened the deal, yet this wonderful entwinement of personal life and statecraft is mainly romance.
Rather, the main reasons for Henry’s break from Rome were a bit more political. He’d spent all of the country’s cash on a load of useless wars throughout the first half of his reign – and the promise of plenty more from ecclesiastical property was really quite appealing.
There was massive dissatisfaction with the Catholic church across Europe, and this could be used as a way to facilitate his plans.
One of the monasteries that suffered under Henry VIII
Anne Boleyn, after the whole divorce debacle, was ultimately beheaded – an action apparently legitimated by Henry’s accusation of adultery.
Yet, Henry was one of the most notorious philanderers ever to have sat in the English throne. It’s also thought that he had sexual affairs with Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, and is thought to have had plenty of illegitimate children.
There are few people in the history of the English monarchy who had quite such a bad time as Lady Jane Grey. Sure, George III went mad and Charles I was executed. But no-one was used so cynically – and suffered such a fate so young – as Lady Jane Grey.
Held up by Edward VI and his advisor, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, as the heir to the throne in 1553, Lady Jane didn’t find much support when she was proclaimed queen that year. Rather, the few supporters she did have soon turned against her.
And, when Mary I was proclaimed queen nine days later, Lady Jane was imprisoned and, ultimately, executed. She died at the age of sixteen or seventeen.
Despite this tragedy, she may well have been the first woman to have been queen of England. This depends who you are talking to, because some people say that this was Empress Matilda back in the twelfth century. Others say that Lady Jane was never actually queen at all, but that the first queen of England was actually her successor, Mary I.
Mary Tudor, or Mary I, really has a bad reputation. Such a bad reputation, in fact, that she’s more commonly known by her nickname, ‘Bloody Mary’, than by any other name.
These days, historians are realising that this isn’t exactly fair. Sure, Mary I did indeed have a few people killed during her reign – but not near as many as her fellow Tudors. In fact, the 283 people that she had burned at the stake seems rather dignified and restrained in comparison to the rest of her family.
Henry VIII is said to have executed over seventy thousand people, for example – which we’d surely all agree seems a little excessive. Elizabeth, whilst admittedly ruling for much longer than Mary, had six hundred people executed too.
She wasn’t really that bloody, Bloody Mary. In fact, she had a bit of a tough life, honestly.
From puberty onwards, she was regularly ill – more so than many in her time and position. She was believed to have had something known as ‘strangulation of the womb’ – which ultimately caused her to believe herself pregnant even when she was not.
Maybe she wasn’t such a bad queen after all, as many of the things that Elizabeth has been so praised for – financial stability and naval expansion – were actually Mary’s ideas.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) Queen of England and Ireland from 1558, last Tudor monarch. Version of the Armada portrait attributed to George Gower c1588. (Photo by: Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images)
And just as Mary has developed a bit of a bad rep, maybe Elizabeth wasn’t such a great queen as we like to imagine.
Under her rule, England underwent a whole serious of rebellions and attempted coups. There was the Northern Rising of 1569, the famous attempt to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne; the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, which saw an Italian banker try to arrange a Spanish invasion of England; and the 1583 Throckmorton Plot, again revolving around Mary, Queen of Scots, that aimed to murder the Queen.
Find out more about life under the Tudors!
One of the funniest things about courses on the Tudors in secondary schools is that they all end in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, which was defeated by the English by good luck and some bad British weather.
In fact, in 1589, Elizabeth ordered a ‘counter-Armada’, led by Francis Drake and John Norreys. This, in turn, failed dramatically, and actually ushered in another long period of Spanish dominance in the seas.
In light of this, the episode of the Spanish Armada doesn’t seem like much of a victory at all.
Strangely enough, we usually remember five, or six, Tudor monarchs: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey (maybe), Mary I, and Elizabeth I.
However, there was a further monarch during this period that people generally forget.
This was Philip II of Spain, the husband of Mary I and holder of the title ‘King of England’. In diplomatic despatches, in parliament, and even on English coins, Philip was recognised as King of England – and it was high treason to deny his authority.
However, he couldn’t read a word of English. In fact, all state matters had to be published in Latin or Spanish so that he could understand them!