On 26th March, thousands came together to say goodbye to the last Plantagenet King, Richard III. The King’s much-publicised reburial marks the first time since 1485 that the two opposing sides in the Wars of the Roses, the Yorks and the Lancasters have met at Bosworth.
However in 1486, the year after the famed battle, the two families met in a very different place. On 18th January, Elizabeth of York and the newly crowned Henry VII were married at Westminster Abbey, ending the feud between the two factions and forming a new dynasty, the House of Tudor.
With this in mind, we have taken a brief look at each of the five monarchs known as the infamous Tudors.
The first of the House of Tudor and the last English king to claim his crown through battle, Henry VII ascended to the throne following his victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485. Despite taking advantage of instability in order to press his claim as King of England, Henry is known for restoring political stability to the land after a long period marked by power struggles and bloodshed.
In a first move to unite England under his leadership and heal animosity between his family and the House of York, who he defeated to claim the throne, the new King agreed to marry Elizabeth of York, fusing the two rival houses and forming an alliance that would create lasting peace.
Following his coronation on the 30th October, Henry VII issued an edict protecting the property of all those who would swear loyalty to him – an act which both ensured his security as well as put the population at ease. Due to years of unrest however, nobles had been allowed to build sizeable private armies, a practise that the new King saw as a threat to his power and took many measures to curtail. His adversaries neutralized, Henry was able to focus on the goal of stabilising the country and returning it to prosperity.
With England’s treasury depleted by years of war, Henry knew that replenishing the coffers would have to be a priority. Despite having no formal experience in money management, the King succeeded by improving on systems already in place. By renting royal land Henry VII was able to increase his annual income by £13,000 a year, a huge sum in those days. Among other revenue streams were court fines and customs duties that also generated significant amounts of money. Bonds, taxes and various grants made up the rest of the income and left England in excellent financial shape. It’s worth noting that in the days of Henry VII, tax collection through parliament was not a regular occurrence and only took place at the request of the King. Henry himself only levied tax three times in 1487, 1489 and 1496.
Now that the coffers had been replenished, Henry could focus on ensuring domestic security. Notably, he appointed Justices of the Peace for every shire whose role it was to uphold acts of Parliament. Their power was greatly expanded during Henry’s reign and helped to ensure lasting domestic peace. While tough on his enemies, the King knew when to stop pushing and was content to allow nobles to exert regional influence as long as they were loyal to the Crown.
In order to supervise the enforcement of the law, Henry created the Star Chamber as a separate body to oversee the lower courts and to hear direct appeals in 1487, although it had previously existed under the Plantagenets as part of the Privy Council. The Chamber supposedly being so efficient and esteemed, it was Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench under James I that called it, “The most honourable court (Our Parliament excepted) that is in the Christian world. Both in respect of the judges in the court and its honourable proceeding.”
Peace restored, Henry could now afford to devote more time to diplomacy in Europe. With a focus on betterment for England rather than the continuance of bitter rivalry, the King concluded the Treaty of Etaples with France with the French promising that the would not support any claimants to the English throne. On the continent again, Henry pledged his son Arthur Tudor to the Spanish princess Catherine of Argon recognising the importance of the Spanish Kingdom through the Treaty of Medina del Campo.
Henry VIII (1509 – 1547)
Henry VIII was never expected to become King, but following the shocking death of his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales at the age of just 15, Henry became King on his father’s death in 1509. In order to cement an alliance with Spain, as had been the goal of his father, Henry married his late brother’s wife Catherine of Aragon. The wedding and coronation was the perfect showcase of the flamboyant opulence which characterised Henry’s reign.
The new couple had trouble conceiving, their first three children were either stillborn or died, but in 1516 Catherine finally gave birth to Princess Mary, who would eventually succeed as the first Queen Regnant of England. Because of the distress that Henry and Catherine had endured while trying to have a child, their relationship became strained and the King became infatuated with another lady at court, Anne Boleyn. Seeking an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, Henry sent his secretary to the Vatican to negotiate with the pope. These talks failed, and the King took his plan elsewhere, gaining support from the King of France and banishing Catherine from court. Years after their romance first began, Anne and Henry secretly married in 1533.
Discontent with the treatment he had received from Rome, Henry broke off with the Roman Catholic Church declaring himself the Supreme Head of the newly formed Church of England. Opposition to the move was met with overwhelming force. Many were executed, including the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher and Thomas More. These executions would not be the last of the King’s reign. Following a new wave of religious reforms in 1536, a rebellion called the Pilgrimage of Grace ended when Henry put 200 rebels to death. During the same year, after a series of failed pregnancies, Henry’s patience was running thin with Anne. After the unconvincing arrests of five men accused of adulterous relationships with the Queen, Anne was finally executed at the Tower Green on 19th May 1536.
The day following Anne Boleyn’s execution the king became engaged to Jane Seymour. However, this romance was short-lived, and on 12th October 1537 Henry’s new wife died shortly after giving birth to the much-needed and desired male heir, Prince Edward.
Despite Henry’s ongoing marital sagas, he made some key decisions that would change England forever. His creation of the Church of England was a result of unhappiness with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and frustrations with the running of the Church, and represents an English transition to Protestantism that lasts to this day. The split would be the motivation behind many of his other decisions, such as the founding of the Royal Navy to ward off the threat of an invasion by the Catholic powerhouses of Spain or France. After breaking with Rome, Henry was able to assert his authority over Ireland, which was previously seen as a papal land granted as a fiefdom to the English monarch. Henry was the first King of England to also be King of Ireland. However, there were also downsides to Henry’s reign the most important of which was that his lavish lifestyle drove England close to financial ruin and certainly erased any benefit of his father’s financial policy.
Edward VI (1547 – 1553)
As a result of Henry VIII’s death, his son Edward ascended to the throne at just nine years old. During his short life the king showed an aptitude for knowledge and received an excellent education. In particular, Edward enjoyed classics as well as reading Solomon’s Proverbs. At thirteen the King had read Aristotle’s Ethics, and was busy translating De philosophia.
Legally unable to exercise his powers, a council of regency was appointed to rule in his place. Edward’s reign can be split in to two periods, each one where a different person acted as head of the Council and ruled in the king’s place.
First to become the Edward’s regent was Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, the King’s uncle. Even though Henry VIII had called for shared power and majority rule on his death, the Council unanimously voted to vest almost all of its powers in Seymour, allowing the Duke to virtually rule on his own. He was a military man and he operated his autocratic machine with similar efficiency. Evidently, the use of force was a key component of most plans during his time as regent. Somerset had in fact originally planned to invade Scotland, but the idea proved to costly after initial preparations had been taken. A series of rebellions in 1548 and 1549 proved to be the end of Somerset’s tenure and demonstrated his mismanagement of the realm.
Left with a failed and ineffective government the Regency Council chose John Dudley, later Duke of Northumberland, to lead the recovery effort. Learning from the mistakes of his predecessor, Dudley increased central government presence at the local level as a means of keeping order. He installed Lord-Lieutenants who would maintain small units in case of insurrection. Socially, the Council pushed hard to eradicate the plight of the poor. Harsh laws that punished them were repealed and mandatory weekly collections were taken to benefit those less well off. The poor had to be registered and kept track of so that there would be enough to go around when collections were taken and those who refused to give faced the wrath of their local bishop.
The Council also debased currency and is responsible for eliminating England’s foreign debt, as well as beginning the process of centralising Crown revenue management allowing for more effective economic control.
Under Dudley the Reformation continued and the Book of Common Prayer became law in 1549. Dudley himself became something of a leading light in the Reformation among the clergy, appointing two protestants to bishoprics.
Yet, Northumberland’s tenure as Protector soon came to an end when Edward became ill in 1553. Many have suggested that the young King was suffering from tuberculosis, and his health began to deteriorate. With this, the fear of a Catholic succession led to Edward creating his ‘device for the succession’, which outlined that his teenage Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, would be his heir, rather than his Catholic half-sister, Mary. However, after Edward’s death in July 1553, support for Mary was so overwhelming that Northumberland and Lady Jane Grey were overthrown after just nine days on the throne.
Mary I (1553 – 1558)
Known for years as ‘Bloody Mary’, many historians have begun to reexamine the record of England’s most ruthless queen. Born in 1516 to Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Mary had a troubled childhood. Although doted on by her father and playing a key role in royal representation in the Welsh Marches in her early childhood, Mary had to face her father’s continuous attempts to annul her mother for many years of her youth. After her father’s annulment of marriage to her mother, Mary became illegitimate. Horrified by the country’s conversion to Protestantism, she became even more dedicated than before to her Catholic faith.
Mary finally ascended to the throne as England’s first Queen Regnant after staging a successful coup against Edward’s successor, Lady Jane Grey, in 1553. She was popular at the outset because many people, Catholics and some Protestants alike, wanted a monarch who descended directly from Henry. The Queen appointed many more Catholics to her Privy Council and married Phillip II of Spain, a move that made her deeply unpopular so much so that it sparked Wyatt’s Rebellion in 1554, yet this was crushed quickly.
In an effort to further purge the country of Protestantism, Mary began her infamous burnings. These would continue until early 1557 and, in total, 283 were executed, while another 800 fled the country. One of the most famous executions was that of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury who had annulled Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was put on trial for two years, recanted six times and was executed in 1556.
Whilst the burnings have continued to dominate representations of Mary up to the present day, recent research has shown that despite this, the Counter-Reformation could have made a significant change to England’s landscape if Mary had lived longer or had an heir to consolidate her plans for England. Many people accepted the return of Catholicism, as the visual spectacle that they had enjoyed about the Church prior to Edward VI’s iconoclasm returned. Stained glass windows were reinstated, incense was used again and hymns, music and bells returned to people’s church services. With this, new plans were put in place to educate the clergy to a greater standard than before, which in turn was seen as a way to reeducate and enlighten the congregations across England.
However, plans such as these were short-lived as after a phantom pregnancy in 1557, Mary’s health deteriorated and she died in November 1558, having lost Calais to the French and leaving the succession to her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603)
Given that Mary had lost much of her support after the loss of Calais, her subjects greeted Elizabeth’s ascension with pomp and delight. Protestantism was to be returned and the country was poised to enter a new, brighter era with a young and unmarried Queen. The Queen was never a radical reformer, she wanted a solution, which would please Protestants but not provoke anger in Catholic bishops or the likes of the Spanish or French. In this vein, she often refused pressure from the use of heresy acts, which Mary had used to persecute Protestants. These acts were repealed and the Act of Uniformity was passed to make church attendance compulsory, as well as the use of the standard Book of Common Prayer in the vernacular.
Despite having a quite content relationship with Catholic Spain during the beginning of her reign – Philip II even offered his hand in marriage to Elizabeth – tensions grew between the two countries as Elizabeth’s reign continued. One of the most direct manifestations of the tensions between the two countries was the Anglo-Spanish war that lasted from 1585 to 1604, and was the result of Elizabeth offering aid to the Protestant Dutch who had declared their independence from Philip. One of the most famous encounters of the conflict was the legendary defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in which the fleet was separated by a storm and sustained heavy losses. The news of this English victory was momentous and met with great celebrations. Protestants took it to be a sign that God supported the Reformation.
Victories were short-lived however ,and many of the later campaigns aimed at aiding Protestants were disorganised and ill-fated, such as Lord Willoughby’s expedition in which 4,000 troops roamed aimlessly around France in the name of helping Henry IV.
Elizabeth’s England had more success with a different kind of campaign – exploration. The period in which she ruled saw many of the greatest English explorers go farther than anyone had gone before, laying the groundwork for what would later become the British Empire. Perhaps the most legendary of Elizabeth’s explorers was Sir Francis Drake, who was celebrated as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.
Other famous explorers included Sir Walter Raleigh who we have to thank for paving the way for English colonisation in America. While his personal attempts at settling the area that is now the U.S. state of Virginia (named after Elizabeth) were largely unsuccessful, the lessons learned from these ventures helped future expeditions to fare much better.
Besides extending her reach to the New World, Elizabeth also took advantage of her position as a female monarch to greatly influence fashion and the arts. She is rumored to have had a collection of 2,000 pairs of gloves and is suspected to have worn the first ever wristwatch in England. Many of her portraits feature her in extravagant clothing which were often used to demonstrate her power and influence. This was also the time in which great writers of the age first made their appearances on the stage, with the likes of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, whilst the number of theatres in England during this time increased greatly.
Whilst these monarchs have become, arguably, the most famous dynasty that has ruled England, one can be sure that if Henry Tudor had not battled for his claim to the throne, history could have been written somewhat differently in regards to the last Plantagenet King. Maybe we wouldn’t have found him under a car park over 500 years later after all…