With some of the most charismatic characters in the history of the English monarchy, the Tudor dynasty is one of the most studied – and most adored – royal houses in the history of England.
With buckets of charisma, yes, but with tragedy, intrigue, and farce too, there is so much to be fascinated by in the sixteenth-century House of Tudor. Political and religious overhauls, wars and victories, rebellions, coups, and culture, Tudor history has it all.
From Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell to the Duke of Northumberland, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Anne Boleyn, it has some incredible characters too.
Here, we are going to do a survey of the Tudor times through the figures sat on the English throne, from good old Henry VII, founder of Tudor England, right through to the formidable Queen of England, Elizabeth I.
Whether you want it as just a general overview of the Tudor period, or a guide for your studies, this insight into the lives of the Tudor monarchs will be useful for anyone. We hope you enjoy it!
The first king in the Tudor dynasty, Henry VII came to the crown through his victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the final battle in the thirty-year-long Wars of the Roses.
Although historiography has generally seen him as a bit of a boring bloke, there wouldn’t have been any Tudors at all if it wasn’t for him. He united the two parties that had been in conflict during the War of the Roses – the House of Lancaster and the House of York – after he had come to power by marrying Elizabeth of York, he himself being a Lancastrian.
His reign was characterised by peace and stability – which is why historians tend to see him as a little boring – yet his concern with state finances, diplomatic alliances, and supporting English industry gave the dynasty the means with which to gain prosperity, despite the turmoil of the mid-Tudor period.
Whilst helping the country to recover after the Wars of the Roses, Henry VII also enabled a move away from the feudal practices of power that had characterised the country throughout Middle Ages. By appointing Justices of the Peace – officials who would ensure that laws were upheld in all the provinces of the country – and limiting the power of the regional nobility through taxation, he brought much more of England under central control.
Check out our piece on the background to the Tudors for more!
Where his father is known for being someone a little too fond of money and of the administrative tasks of state, Henry VIII is remembered for being one of the most charismatic, hedonistic, and headstrong monarchs in the history of England.
With his early appetite for war – styling himself on Henry V – and heaps of cash piled up by his father, Henry VIII immediately went to war with France, hoping to lay claim – as the English had done for centuries – to the French throne.
This didn’t go so well at all, and the emptiness of the English state treasury after numerous campaigns in France was one of the reasons for Henry’s determination to break with the papacy and the Catholic Church in Rome.
That’s precisely what he did, declaring himself head of the Church of England, incidentally divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – which he was now allowed to do – and diverting all the money to the state that would have traditionally have gone to Rome. This – including the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 – would become his most famous governmental policy and his biggest legacy.
Despite this massive religious upheaval, it is said that he died a Catholic.
All you need to know about the Tudors!
We can’t talk about Henry VIII without mentioning his wives. ‘Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived’, as the rhyme now so famously goes.
Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. These were the women who tried to bear the king’s heirs – and to bear Henry himself, although in a slightly different way.
Check out our fun facts on the Tudor period!
When Henry VIII in 1547, his son, Edward VI, was only ten years old – not a great age to become king, and not a great recipe for monarchical stability. He was Jane Seymour’s son, the most-loved wife of Henry, and the only one that died naturally whilst Henry was still alive.
Edward VI was a committed Protestant, very interested in religion and dedicated to reforming the Church of England. However, being nonetheless ten, not all of the things that were achieved during his very brief life and reign can be attributed to him.
He is known for having two very powerful advisors, Edward Seymour – his mother’s brother – who became Duke of Somerset, and then John Dudley, or Duke of Northumberland. The protectorship of Somerset ended in disaster, with financial ineptitude, endless wars, and a number of rebellions that rocked the country. He was overthrown and ultimately executed.
Whilst conventionally seen as a schemer seeking to enrich himself, Northumberland – who was central in the plot to remove Somerset – brought stability back to England. He cracked down on tax collection and, in a similar move to Henry VII, ensured that representatives of central government were present in the localities to maintain order.
However, stability was never going to last long, as Edward VI had always been a sickly child. At the age of sixteen, he died – and with his death came a new desperate struggle for the crown.
Lady Jane Grey is perhaps one of the most tragic figures in the whole of English royal history, being used merely as a pawn in a game of power.
Before Edward VI died, he wrote a will that ordered a change to the succession. Rather than his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, becoming queens – as they were both recognised as ‘bastards’ by Henry VIII – Edward instructed that his first cousin, once removed, Lady Jane Grey – Henry VII’s great-granddaughter – would be queen instead.
Lady Jane was a committed Protestant too – whereas Mary was known for being a very pious Catholic – and Edward hoped that Lady Jane would continue his reformation. Conveniently enough, Northumberland, Edward’s advisor, supported this decision too – having her engaged to his younger brother, Lord Guildford Dudley.
After Edward’s death, and with the declaration of Lady Jane’s ascent to the throne, many of her supporters lost their nerve – as support for Mary grew meanwhile. Nine days later, Mary was announced queen by the Privy Council and Parliament.
Lady Jane was only sixteen or seventeen when she was executed in the Tower of London – alongside Northumberland and her husband.
The tragic life of Lady Jane Grey. Image from 1843Magazine
And so, despite Edward’s best efforts, Mary Tudor, Mary I – or Bloody Mary, as she came to be known – ascended to the throne. And, for the Protestants in England at the time, her reign was not a very happy five years.
A devout Catholic, she immediately started to overturn the reformation measures that had been implemented by Edward and by her father, Henry. Being the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, she was also the cousin of Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and king of Spain.
Mary soon married his son, who became Philip II of Spain – a character known throughout history as a deeply religious man. There was all sorts of trouble – including the famous Wyatt’s Rebellion – when he was to be known as the King of England.
The new queen, whilst immediately professing that no-one would be forced to follow her religion, soon had many notable protestants imprisoned, and ultimately executed. This is how she came to be given the nickname, Bloody Mary – because of the apparent ferocity of her persecution of Protestants.
She reversed all of Edward’s religious laws – and many of Henry’s too – and legally returned England to the religious jurisdiction of the Pope.
Despite her marriage to Philip, she did not bear any children – and her reign ended when she died in 1558.
Find out about life in Tudor England!
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)
According to the law passed by Henry VIII, Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, was to be queen if Mary did not have any heirs – and this is precisely what happened.
Yet, being the daughter of Boleyn, her religious concerns leant towards Protestantism. And so, after the reaction of Mary’s reign, Elizabeth re-installed many of the reforms passed by Edward. She became Supreme Governor of the Church of England – a church which now mixed Edward’s church with elements of Catholicism – and made it obligatory to attend.
Elizabeth is known for never choosing a husband, instead dedicating herself to her reign. With a group of trusted advisors and a strong navy – including many piratical elements – she slowly developed English power in Europe and on the high seas.
As one of the longest serving monarchs in English history, she presided over a period of great stability. Her reign produced some of the greatest artistic achievements in British history, with figures like William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and John Dee all producing masterpieces during her reign.