The Tudors

Henry VII, enamel by Bone/Henry Pierce Bone, mid-19th century
Dickie Arbiter, © Royal Collection

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The Tudors

Henry VII

Although supported by Lancastrians and Yorkists alienated by Richard III's usurpation, Henry VII's first task was to secure his position. In 1486 he married Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV, thus uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster. Henry's reign (1485-1509) was troubled by revolts, sometimes involving pretenders (such as Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel) who impersonated Edward V or his brother. In 1485, Henry formed a personal bodyguard from his followers known as the 'Yeomen of the Guard' (the oldest military corps in existence today).

Henry strengthened the power of the monarchy by using traditional methods of government to tighten royal administration and increase revenues (reportedly including a daily examination of accounts). Royal income rose from an annual average of £52,000 to £142,000 by the end of Henry's reign. Little co-operation between King and Parliament was required; during Henry's reign of 24 years, seven Parliaments sat for some ten and a half months.

Henry used dynastic royal marriages to establish his dynasty in England, and help maintain peace. One daughter, Margaret, was married to James IV of Scotland (from whom Mary, Queen of Scots and her son, James VI of Scotland and James I of England, were descended); the other daughter married Louis XII of France. Henry spent money shrewdly and left a full treasury on his death in 1509.

 

Henry VIII - portrait after Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)
© Royal Collection

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Henry VIII

Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) was 17 when he became king. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, provided him with a daughter, Mary, but no male heir. In order to divorce her, he broke with the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. Five subsequent marriages produced two children, Elizabeth and Edward.

The break with Rome led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries (in which monastic lands and buildings were sold or disposed of, and the monks disbanded or imprisoned) and the beginnings of the English Reformation. Henry's involvement in European politics brought him into conflict with the Scots who were defeated at Solway Moss in 1542 (the Scots had been defeated before at the Battle of Flodden in 1513). Control of Wales was strengthened by the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542 which united England and Wales administratively and legally, and gave Wales representation in Parliament. Henry died in 1547, leaving his sickly 10-year-old son to inherit the throne as Edward VI.

 

Edward VI (artist unknown)
© Royal Collection

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Edward VI, Jane Grey

Edward VI (reigned 1547-53) was intellectually precocious (fluent in Greek and Latin, he kept a full journal of his reign) but not physically robust. His short reign was dominated by nobles using the Regency to strengthen their own positions. The King's Council, previously dominated by Henry, succumbed to existing factionalism. On Henry's death, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and soon to be Duke of Somerset, the new King's eldest uncle, became Protector. Seymour was an able soldier; he led a punitive expedition against the Scots, for their failure to fulfil their promise to betroth Mary, Queen of Scots to Edward, which led to Seymour's victory at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547 - although he failed to follow this up with satisfactory peace terms.

During Edward's reign, the Church of England became more explicitly Protestant - Edward himself was fiercely Protestant. The Book of Common Prayer was introduced in 1549, aspects of Roman Catholic practices (including statues and stained glass) were eradicated and the marriage of clergy allowed. The imposition of the Prayer Book (which replaced Latin services with English) led to rebellions in Cornwall and Devon. Despite his military ability, Seymour was too liberal to deal effectively with Kett's rebellion against land enclosures in Norfolk. Seymour was left isolated in the Council and the Duke of Northumberland subsequently overthrew him in 1551. Seymour was executed in 1552, an event which was briefly mentioned by Edward in his diary: 'Today, the Duke of Somerset had his head cut off on Tower Hill.'

Northumberland took greater trouble to charm and influence Edward; his powerful position as Lord President of the Council was based on his personal ascendancy over the King. However, the young King was ailing. Northumberland hurriedly married his son Lord Guilford Dudley to Lady Jane Grey, one of Henry VIII's great-nieces and a claimant to the throne. Edward accepted Jane as his heir and, on his death from tuberculosis in 1553, Jane assumed the throne. Despite the Council recognising her claim, the country rallied to Mary, Catherine of Aragon's daughter and a devout Roman Catholic. Jane reigned for only nine days and was later executed (as was her husband) in 1554.

 

Mary I - portrait after Anthonis Mor (1519-75)
© Royal Collection

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Mary I

Mary I (reigned 1553-58) was the first Queen Regnant (that is, a queen reigning in her own right rather than a queen through marriage to a king). Courageous and stubborn, her character was moulded by her earlier years: an Act of Parliament in 1533 had declared her illegitimate and removed her from the succession to the throne (she was reinstated in 1544, but her half-brother Edward removed her from the succession once more shortly before his death), whilst she was pressurised to give up the Mass and acknowledge the English Protestant Church.

Mary restored papal supremacy in England, abandoned the title of Supreme Head of the Church, reintroduced Roman Catholic bishops and began the slow reintroduction of monastic orders. Mary also revived the old heresy laws to secure the religious conversion of the country; heresy was regarded as a religious and civil offence amounting to treason (to believe in a different religion from the Sovereign was an act of defiance and disloyalty). As a result, around 300 Protestant heretics were burnt in three years - apart from eminent Protestant clergy such as Cranmer (a former archbishop and author of two Books of Common Prayer), Latimer and Ridley, these heretics were mostly poor and self-taught people. Apart from making Mary deeply unpopular, such treatment demonstrated that people were prepared to die for the Protestant settlement established in Henry's reign. The progress of Mary's conversion of the country was also limited by the vested interests of the aristocracy and gentry who had bought the monastic lands sold off after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and who refused to return these possessions voluntarily as Mary invited them to do.

Aged 37 at her accession, Mary wished to marry and have children, thus leaving a Catholic heir to consolidate her religious reforms, and removing her half-sister Elizabeth (a focus for Protestant opposition) from direct succession. Mary's decision to marry Philip, King of Spain from 1556, in 1554 was very unpopular; the protest from the Commons prompted Mary's reply that Parliament was 'not accustomed to use such language to the Kings of England' and that in her marriage 'she would choose as God inspired her'. The marriage was childless, Philip spent most of it on the continent, England obtained no share in the Spanish monopolies in New World trade and the alliance with Spain dragged England into a war with France. Popular discontent grew when Calais, the last vestige of England's possessions in France dating from William the Conqueror's time, was captured by the French in 1558. Dogged by ill health, Mary died later that year possibly from cancer, leaving the crown to her half-sister Elizabeth.

 

Elizabeth I holding the badge of the Order of the Garter, by an unknown artist
© Royal Collection

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Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, returned England to Protestantism while still managing to secure order. She refused to marry or name her successor as marriage could have created foreign alliance difficulties or encouraged factionalism at home. Her rightful heir was her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who, threatened by rebellion in Scotland, fled to England. Imprisoned by Elizabeth in 1567, Mary plotted with English Roman Catholics and with Spain, France and the Pope. The threat to the English throne which this posed resulted in Mary's execution in 1587 and led to outright war with Spain. In 1588 Philip of Spain's invasion fleet, the 'Armada', was defeated. There were two further Armadas in the 1590s, and an Irish revolt in 1595, assisted by Spain, which was eventually put down in 1601.

The financial strains caused by the war against Spain (made worse by poor harvests) meant that Elizabeth did not try to put the Crown on a permanently solvent basis. In addition to sharp debates over revenue-raising measures such as monopolies, Parliament continued its pressure on the Queen to deal with the question of the succession. However, Elizabeth died in 1603 still refusing to name her successor.

 
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