On 24 March 1603 Queen Elizabeth I breathed her last and – left with no legitimate heir – the House of Tudor came to an end after more than 100 years on the English throne.
The House of Tudor was founded in 1485 when Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III in battle, ending the War of the Roses and capturing the throne as King Henry VII. His claim was then reinforced when he united the formerly warring factions through his marriage to Elizabeth of York, daughter of King Edward IV. The union was symbolised by the emblem of the Tudor rose, which combined the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York.
King Henry VII
Only four of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York’s children survived infancy – Arthur, Prince of Wales, Henry, Duke of York, Margaret and Mary. Dynastic security was of utmost importance to the relatively young House of Tudor, and so Margaret was married to James IV of Scotland and Mary was married to Louis XII of France to secure peace with both kingdoms.
To secure an alliance with Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, Henry VII arranged a marriage between his heir, Arthur, and their daughter, Catherine. However, four months after the young couple’s marriage, Arthur died, leaving his younger brother, Henry, as the heir apparent. Determined not to lose the important alliance with Spain, King Henry VII was quick to seek a papal dispensation to allow Prince Henry to marry Arthur’s young widow though they were not wed until 1509.
Henry VII’s reign was focused on reinforcing the legitimacy of his House’s claim on the crown, securing powerful alliances through the strategic marriages of his children and utilising a strict monetary strategy to build up the Treasury, which the War of the Roses had significantly depleted.
Henry VII died at Richmond Palace in 1509.
Arguably one of the most infamous kings in history, Henry VIII came to the throne at the age of 17. He had little interest in ruling in the early years after he was crowned and instead focused on indulging in luxuries and sporting pursuits. It was only once he became interested in military strategy that he took more control of his royal affairs.
The most important thing to Henry VIII from the start was producing a male heir to secure the line of succession. Henry VIII and Catherine had a daughter, Mary, but after a number of stillborn children and a son who died at only 52-days-old Henry became obsessed with the idea that God was punishing the unholy union between himself and Catherine.
Henry sought an annulment, but the church was reluctant to void the papal dispensation which had been secured to allow the marriage in the first place. A lengthy court battle followed which saw the English parliament enact laws to break ties with Rome, declaring Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. A new Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed, and he declared Henry and Catherine’s marriage annulled. Catherine was banished from court and Henry continued on his quest for a son, marrying Anne Boleyn in 1533.
Henry and Anne welcomed their first child – a daughter named Elizabeth – in 1533 but subsequent pregnancies didn’t result in the longed-for son, and it wasn’t long before Anne fell from grace. After being married for only three years, Anne was tried for high treason, incest and witchcraft and was executed in May 1536.
Eleven days after Anne lost her head Henry lost his heart and married Jane Seymour. A year later, in 1537, Jane gave birth to His Royal Highness Prince Edward. The event was bittersweet as Henry gained a son but lost the woman he called his greatest love when Jane died of puerperal fever just a few days later.
Following Jane’s death, Henry VIII sought a new strategic marriage alliance and wed Anne of Cleves to ally with the Protestant German states. The marriage was over before it began, however – various reasons as to why have been explored but it seems likely that a lack of attraction on the part of the King played a significant role – and Anne agreed to an annulment.
Henry’s next marriage was to Catherine Howard whose advisers thought could persuade Henry to restore Catholicism in England. A former member of Anne Boleyn’s court, Henry had long admired the young, vivacious Catherine but the 30 years age gap between them caused difficulties from the start. Catherine soon embarked on an affair with Thomas Culpeper, the king’s favourite. When the illicit liaison was discovered Catherine was tried for treason and she was executed.
Henry was married a sixth and final time to Catherine Parr in 1543. Catherine’s peace-making brought Henry back together with his estranged daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and though he did not legitimise them, he did reinstate them in the line of succession – a move that would forever alter the history of the House of Tudor.
Henry died on 28 January 1547.
Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey
Edward VI came to the throne at the age of nine and, though young, he had his mind set on religious reform. The release of the Book of Common Prayer caused the Prayer Book Rebellion, which hardened Edward VI’s attitude towards Catholic non-conformists, including his sister, Mary. When he became sick in 1553, he wrote a new will that repudiated the one written by his father and gave the throne to his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor.
When Edward VI died in July 1553, Jane was proclaimed Queen. She ruled for only nine days before popular support for the rightful successor – Edward’s sister Mary – put the crown back in its rightful hands.
Following her accession, Mary married Prince Philip of Spain. It was a very unpopular match with the English people who had no wish to be pulled into wars or be used as a satellite for Spanish plans.
Mary’s five-year reign produced two false pregnancies, but no heirs and her growing desperation to restore England to the Catholic faith saw The Queen have Protestants burned at the stake – the origin of the name ‘Bloody Mary’ – which only served to spur the protestant cause. Though she lost Calais – the last English claim on French soil – Mary and her government did good work to reverse inflation and improve the trade crisis.
Mary died without heirs in November 1558.
Elizabeth was crowned at the age of 25, and from the start she never allowed anyone to challenge her authority as queen and the ‘handmaiden of the Lord’. Though a popular ruler Elizabeth faced unceasing pressure to marry – both to secure the Tudor line and to allow a husband to ‘relieve’ her of the ‘burdens’ of ruling. She faced an impossible task. She could not marry an Englishmen as they were all beneath her station and she could only marry a European prince if he would be willing to accept a title and responsibility less than that of his wife. Though there were several offers of marriage, the Virgin Queen never married.
The Tudor line faced one of its greatest threats during Elizabeth’s reign with the Spanish Armada in 1588. Ultimately poor planning combined with bad weather in the English Channel and the Spaniards were defeated despite outnumbering the English Fleet 4 to 1.
Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603 without naming a successor and leaving only her legacy behind.
King James VI of Scotland, son of Mary, Queen of Scots and distant cousin to Elizabeth, succeeded unopposed to the English throne, ending the reign of the House of Tudor and ushering in the age of the House of Stuart.