House of Tudor: an overview

Family tree

Showing the Monarchs and the subsequent descent to the House of Stuart.

              Margaret Beaufort m. Edmund Tudor
              d. 1509           |  E. of Richmond
                                |  d. 1456
                            HENRY VII m. ELIZABETH OF YORK
                            d. 1509   |  d. 1503
              |                      |                                             |
              |                      |                                             |
            Arthur m. Catherine    HENRY VIII                                    Margaret
            d. 1502   of Aragon    d. 1547                                       Tudor
              O       d. 1536          m.                                        d. 1541
                                       |                                           m.
                                       |                                           |
         ---------------------------------------------------------                 |
         |          |            |         |             |       |               James IV
     Catherine     Anne         Jane      Anne       Catherine   Catherine       (Stuart)
     of Aragon    Boleyn       Seymour    of Cleves  Howard      Parr            d. 1513
     d. 1536     d. 1536       d. 1537    d. 1557    d. 1542     d. 1548           |
         |          |            |          O           O          O               |
       MARY I   ELIZABETH I   EDWARD IV                                          James V
       d. 1558    d. 1603     d. 1553                                            d. 1542
         O          O             O                                                m.
         m.                                                                        |
     Philip II                                                                     |
     of Habsburg                                                              Mary of Guise
                                                                              d. 1560
                                                                              Queen of Scots
                                                                              d. 1578
                                                                              Henry Stuart
                                                                              d. 1567
                                                                              JAMES VI. and I
                                                                              d. 1625
                                                                           HOUSE OF STUART

m. = married
O = died without issue
d. = year of death
CAPITALS denotes a King or Queen of England
Italics denotes a King or Queen of Scotland

The advent of the Tudors

When Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and took the throne, he was relatively unknown. He established the status of his dynasty by marrying his son to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who were the powerful Monarchs of the Spains. By naming his first child Arthur he hoped to tap into the Arthurian Legend (he even published propaganda tracing his line back to this mythical King), but the death of his son left the dynasty to the (sickly) Henry VIII. After Henry's wife Elizabeth of York died in 1503 Henry faced a very real problem, as he had no wife and only one male child. He searched around Europe for another wife but was unsuccessful, but luckily when he died in 1509 Henry VIII was old enough to take over the Kingdom.

Henry VII's achievements were to tighten his control of the nobility after the turbulence of the War of the Roses. By marrying Elizabeth of York he united the white rose of Lancaster with the red rose of York and put an end to court disputes over the Crown. He ruled strongly and prudently and re-endowed the Crown, being the first English King to die solvent since the Norman Conquest. His strengths were realism and a quiet competence which bred stability.

The powerful monarch: Henry VIII

Henry VIII quickly squandered his father's hard-earned money on foreign adventures. He had frequent wars with France and Scotland, and dreamed of a new European empire for England. He tried to attain this in France in 1513 with the most threatening army sent there since the Battle of Agincourt (some 30,000 men), and he won Tournai from the French and had reason to celebrate a substantial victory. More significantly, in the same year a generation of Scottish nobility was killed at the Battle of Flodden, including the King James IV. The Scottish Crown passed to a minor and the threat from the North was diminished.

Henry is perhaps most famous for his wives, of which he had six. The first queen consort was Catherine of Aragon, who failed to produce him a male heir. Henry began to fear that God was against the union because Catherine had previously been married to his brother, and he had his eyes on a young woman at court, Anne Boleyn. His efforts to get a divorce from Catherine (which needed to be sanctioned by the Church) led to the English Reformation, of which more below. After Anne Boleyn also failed to produce him a male heir (although she did give him Elizabeth I, who would prove to be as strong as any man) he had her executed on pretense of witchcraft and adultery. He had his eye on Jane Seymour, who produced him the young man he wanted so much as a son: Edward VI. Sadly, she died in childbirth. His next brief liaison was with Anne of Cleves, whom he nicknamed "the Flanders' mare" upon meeting her and quickly divorced. His next, Catherine Howard, was indeed guilty of adultery and executed for high treason, and his last, Catherine Parr, outlived him, although she reconciled Henry to his two daughters (both of whom were previously disinherited) before he died.

The achivements of Henry's reign can mostly be credited to his chief ministers, and is notable that after the last of these men died Henrican government achieved little and squandered much. The men of note were Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, the last of which has been credited with a veritable "revolution" in government, known as the Tudor Revolution. Cromwell was the architect of the English Reformation (see below) and made great steps towards making the Crown financially viable, putting into effect the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Wolsey restructured the way taxes were collected, although not without trouble when he tried to collect the Amicable Grant.

After the death of Cromwell faction dominated the court, especially over matters of religion. There was a fairly disastrous war in France which Henry insisted on joining, his diseased body being put on its horse by crane. 40,000 men managed to capture Boulogne but achieve little else, and these seemed to be the deluded Imperial ambitions of a sick old man. He died having achieved much, but his last decade - when he sought no replacement for Cromwell - did not say much for his abilities. He had, however, been the strong, fatherly King the nation craved.

The Mid-Tudor crisis

The reigns of Edward VI and Mary I are often described as the Mid-Tudor crisis, being a period of instability and little acomplishment between the great edifications of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. When Henry died, his son Edward was the youngest of his children, but first in line for the throne because he was male. He was only ten years old, and the two immediate examples of recent minorities did not bode well (Henry VI and Edward V). Faction looked likely, perhaps even civil war would loom. The boy himself is credited with a high intellect but a haughtiness and arrogance which all the Tudors seemed to have. As a young man he seemed pious and intelligent, but positively precocious. He was easily swayed by powerful men and two such men essentially were Kings by proxy - Protector Somerset until 1549 and Lord President Northumberland until 1553, when the boy King died.

Somerset and Northumberland followed a strictly Protestant theology, and as Edward VI languished in poor health in 1553 Northumberland knew he could not let the next in line for the throne, Mary I, take it. She would undo his religious changes and destroy his personal ascendency. So he schemed to place Lady Jane Gray on the throne, and simultaneously to marry her to his son, Lord Guildford Dudley, so that he could continue to be the power behind the throne. Mary moved quickly, drove Northumberland away, and was proclaimed Queen amidst a mass demonstration. As if a violent transfer of power wasn't enough, the worst was really only just starting.

Mary Tudor did much to develop a sense of 'Englishness' in the country by driving people to hate foreigners so much. She was married to the Catholic Philip II of Spain (soon to be the most powerful man in Europe following the death of his father, the Emperor) and she sought to violently impose her and her husband's religion on the country, burning hundreds of heretics. A Spanish party came to court, where it was much hated, and the Spanish were seen as overly numerous and arrogant by the English nobility. Mary emphasised with them more, as Spanish Catholics had been a constant source of support for her when her father and his Protestantism had not. This sparked a rebellion, known as Wyatt's Rebellion. Mary managed to lose Calais, the last English stronghold on the Continent, and she has generally received a bad press by historians.

Mary might have turned out a strong Queen, but she was trying to effect a massive reversal in foreign and religious policy which it was hard to impose on the country. She was constantly forlorn over her inability to produce a child to carry on her legacy and over Philip's indifference to her. She died in 1558 having achieved some things which often aren't noticed (finding new trade routes, reforming the navy) but she had stressed internal divisions so much her course of action looked necessarily self-destructive. Her sister Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558.


Elizabeth is much-loved by historians and was much-loved by contemporaries. She had a formidable personality cult and much propaganda was printed in her favor during her reign. This is not to belittle what she accomplished, which was significant. When she came to the throne she effectively solved the religious difficulties which were wracking the kingdom with the religious settlement and England was relatively peaceful for a few decades. Her foreign policy eventually led England into a war with Spain that lasted until after her death, and during which the Spanish Armada was famously repelled.

Elizabeth gave the realm strong government and greatly increased the central government's power over the counties. Although her system of government collapsed after her death and under the early Stuarts, it was most effective whilst she was alive. Her policy of elevating court favorites into positions of power led to some trouble with the old nobility, such as in the Revolt of the Northern Earls. There were a number of assassination attempts made on her by people wishing to put a Catholic into the succession, and in 1578 she was compelled to finally execute Mary, Queen of Scots for fear of the plots circled around her.

Elizabeth never married, but she used the possibility of doing so as a diplomatic tool. She was courted by men as diverse as the King of Spain to the King of Sweden, but she always said she was married to her dominions. She seemed to have a soft spot for her Master of Horse, Robert Dudley, and when she was a young woman she received the affections of Thomas Seymour, who was executed by Protector Somerset for his troubles. The achivements of her reign were huge, as she continued to consolidate the work of Thomas Cromwell. She was undoubtedly a strong monarch and she ruled by the consent of her Council, people, and Parliament.

The English Reformation

The English Reformation was a massive theological change in a time when religion was the dominant influence on people's lives. It all began when Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon. To do this he needed the consent of the Pope, who was currently in a rather compromising position after the Sack of Rome. Charles V, Catherine's brother, had him in his custody and would not allow him to annul the marriage. Henry decided to take matters into his own hands (for the legal and theological justification, see Dissolution of the English Monasteries). He declared England an 'Empire' which was subordinate to no foreign power, and made himself head of the Church of England. Although doctrinally he was fairly Catholic, this lay the foundation for a Protestant change to sweep over the Church, in key with the Protestant Reformation going on on the Continent.

Henry was fairly tolerant of different religious practices, but a wave of extremism swept the nation during the reigns of Edward VI (Protestant) and Mary I (Catholic). Elizabeth I put an end to the extreme policy with her tolerance, although with the threat from Spain towards the end of her reign she became a little less tolerant.

Economy and society

There was high inflation in Tudor England and the Golden Age of the English Peasant was at an end. The inflation is blamed on various factors, such as increased output from the silver mines of Bohemia, bullion coming from the New World, debasement of the coinage and a more fluid land market. It caused big problems for people and the government alike, and they sought various things to blame, such as the enclosure movement. There were a fair number of rebellions against the Tudor dynasty, but such was the respect for Kingship in those days that they rarely dared challenged the Monarch directly. Rather they blamed the 'evil councillors' of the various Monarchs, although in reality many sought to change the succession. A list of Tudor rebellions is provided below.

There was increased social mobility as the feudal system decayed further and bastard feudalism was more and more the name of the game. Towns and cities grew, although the idea of the emergence of capitalism in this era has been overstated. Internal trade was strengthened and England gradually began to seek further foreign markets beyond its traditional single one, which was the cloth market of Antwerp. The Tudors employed many men of great ability but low rank, although such positions in the dizzying heights of Court politics were few and far between. The gentry class certainly became more prominent, and unpaid Justices of the Peace were charged with keeping law and order in the localities.

Index of Tudor nodes



The Reformation


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