The rather less than romantic Tudor dynasty had its roots in a most romantic liaison, the marriage in 1428 of an unknown young Welsh servant, Owen Tudor, to his mistress Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V . This was a most unsettled era, and Owen was to be executed shortly after the battle of Mortimer's Cross for his part in the struggle against the future Edward IV , but his sons, half-brothers to Henry VI , were established as figures of some prominence: the elder of them, Edmund, died shortly before the birth of his son Henry, the future Henry VII ; the second, Jasper, rescued the 13-year-old Henry from the bloody recriminations after Tewkesbury in 1471 by fleeing with him to Brittany.
Henry Tudor would spend the next 14 years in exile, in 1484 nearly given up by the Bretons to Richard III who dearly wished to rid himself of another rival, as he had (probably personally) rid the field of Henry VI and his son, plus his own brother the Duke of Clarence, and possibly the Princes in the Tower , (the child-king Edward V and his younger brother).
Henry escaped Brittany for France, where he was given some support in his preparations for an attempt on the English throne, firstly in 1483 in an ill-judged rising that foundered when Henry's lieutenant Buckingham was caught and executed and Henry's fleet was beaten by the weather.
A new attempt was mounted in 1485 with Richard increasingly unpopular in the kingdom he had seized just two years previously. But Henry had only 2,000 men when he landed at Milford Haven , playing on his Welsh lineage, and the chances of success were doubtful.
Bosworth , where the two sides met on August 22 1485, was a close fought battle, but with the death there of Richard III Henry was given a breathing space to establish himself as monarch, which he did with energy and brilliance. A marriage to Elizabeth of York which had been discussed and agreed in principle two years before Bosworth was hastily arranged, taking place in 1486. Thus the Houses of York and Lancaster were united, and Henry's claim to the throne improved enormously.
The first half of Henry's reign was far from easy. A rising in 1486 led by Yorkist diehard Lord Lovel may have been halted without alarms, but it demonstrated that hopes remained for another change of monarch. After all, since Henry VI ascended the throne in 1422 he had been murdered, as had his son; the usurper Edward IV had lost his grip on the crown for a period in the middle of his reign; his son Edward V died in the Tower; and Richard III had been killed at Bosworth. The English were used to brutal changes of rule, and Henry's survival was by no means guaranteed.
Concern for the security of his throne - a concern every Tudor was to share - was lessened somewhat perversely by the Lambert Simnel uprising in 1487. Lord Lincoln , the strongest Yorkist claimant, died at the battle of Stoke , near Newark , as did many other senior figures on his side. Henry judged his reaction after Stoke very cleverly: nobles were relieved of their lands and gold but not executed, filling his coffers and creating some gratitude rather than hatred; but common soldiers were hanged in droves, a warning to the general populace not to become involved in such affairs again. He even let the dupe Simnel live and work in his household in the kitchen then as a hawk trainer. Perkin Warbeck, the more dangerous pretender who troubled Henry for several years, was not so lucky, executed in 1499 after a failed rising in the West Country two years previously. The Cornish who had risen against taxes imposed on them in 1497 were slaughtered at Blackheath , uncomfortably close to London , significantly outnumbered, outgunned, and out-thought by Henry.
Henry recognised the threat of the nobility to settled rule, and took measures to reduce that threat: while some acts such as that which limited the use of liveried retainers were effective and visible signs, the new king used finance above all else to cement his rule: bonds for significant sums were guarantors of good behaviour hanging over noble families. And contrary to the view of him as a grey miser, his court was lively and distinguished, attracting and distracting the young nobles drawn to it.
The first Tudor King strengthened his own finances, by taxing those same nobles, and by the careful monitoring and control of state expenditure and income by the king himself. He also roped in the merchant and gentry to his cause, his most effective administrators Empson and Dudley coming from the middle ranks and below. By largely avoiding expensive foreign adventures he created a period of settled prosperity during which trade prospered, so taxes though not high were healthy. Henry was the only Tudor to leave his successor a surplus rather than debts.
John Cabot was financed to make in 1496 a voyage of discovery, finding and claiming what would become Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and Henry began major development of the Navy, something his son Henry VIII continued after him.
The death of Prince Arthur, heir to the throne, in 1502, was a terrible blow to Henry, followed shortly by the death of his wife Elizabeth. It is wrong to think of him as broken by this, however, as he even considered a crusade against the Turks, and marrying Catherine of Aragon , Arthur's widow, before he died (probably of TB) in 1509. On his death he handed his second son, Henry, a kingdom at peace, with a prosperous economy, and royal coffers filled, his legacy included a vast fortune of £1.5 million to his 17-year-old son.
The reign of Henry VIII began with a symbolic gesture to the nobility, an almost adolescent piece of petulant foolishness: Empson and Dudley were arrested in days, tried and executed on trumped up charges. Henry would continue to use minor gentry and even humbler men as his civil servants and administrators, most notably Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell , but he wished his reign to be more glorious and glamorous, becoming involved rapidly in the foreign adventures his father had shunned. It is telling that Henry was the first English monarch to be called His Majesty - he saw himself as above the common herd - and his view of himself was as the greatest athlete, thinker, scholar and lover of his age, and god help any who went against him and that view. Previous rulers had been addressed as Your Grace.
Cardinal Wolsey, supposedly the son of a butcher from Ipswich , was to prove an exceptional servant, taking the burdens of government from Henry's shoulders, allowing him to shine at court and to enjoy some forays onto the European stage: in 1520 Wolsey organised the Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting with Francis I, held near Calais, and limited but successful foreign adventures, including gaining victories in France. Happily for Henry the Scots chose to honour their alliance with France when he was on such an adventure, and at the battle of Flodden Field in 1513 their king and a generation of their nobility were wiped from the earth by Henry's generals. Scotland was no threat for the rest of his reign, and in its latter stages Henry was able to order the "Rough Wooing", the devastation of swathes of Scotland in the attempt to force the betrothal of Mary Queen of Scots to his son Edward, though this suffered a setback at Ancrum Moor in 1545.
Henry VIII was never a religious radical, disliking Martin Luther and even winning the title Defender of the Faith from the Pope for his stance against Protestantism. But when it served him he moved away from Rome, the occasion being the need to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a marriage that had only produced one surviving daughter, and about the legitimacy of which Henry probably had sincere concerns. Wolsey died in Leicester in 1530, having failed to secure an end to the marriage accepted by the Papacy; disgraced, arrested and facing almost certain death as a traitor had his health not failed before he was returned to the capital. The Cardinal had also annoyed Henry by his extravagant life - founding Cardinal College (now Christ Church ) in Oxford ; building the magnificent Hampton Court - and by the peculation which funded it.
The overarching concern of Henry's reign (as so often with the Tudors) was his successor. The Wars of the Roses were by no means a distant memory, and as well as the risk of leaving a daughter as heir it must have been embarrassing and painful for his self-image not to have sons in his own image to follow him.
Marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533 failed to give him a son, just another daughter, Elizabeth. Anne and her supporters were brushed aside in 1536 when she was tried and executed for supposed infidelity and other crimes - this from a king whose mistresses (including Anne's sister) were without number. Jane Seymour followed, and finally he had his son and heir, Edward, though Jane tragically died in childbirth.
The break with Rome that had been convenient for marital purposes became stronger in 1536 when he began to dissolve the monasteries: firstly those which had become morally and financially corrupt, then the rest: these potential enemies of Henry and allies of the Pope within the English state were wiped away. It helped his own finances too, the wealth from the likes of Fountains and Furness Abbeys allowing him to continue his fabulously expensive court life, and to buy the loyalty of the great families who were granted monastic lands. Throughout his reign Henry felt the need to shine, to be a glorious figure in a glorious court, comparing himself first with Francis I of France, then with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V too.
The Pilgrimage of Grace, the northern rebellion which began in Louth in 1536 in reaction to the Dissolution, and ended the following year, was halted with diplomacy then brutality, a reminder if he needed one that Henry's kingdom was still not immune from the turbulence of the previous century. When in 1538 the Pope, after Thomas a-Becket 's shrine had been despoiled, finally accepted that he had no option but to excommunicate the English King and any chance of reconciliation in Henry's lifetime had gone. In spite of his at best ambivalence towards Protestantism - Tyndale was executed on Henry's orders for his Protestant writings - some reforming clergymen had climbed the English hierarchy by the end of his reign, and by his order a copy of the bible was in every church in the land, an act seen as a threat to Rome's supremacy. The ground had been prepared for later changes.
Thomas Cromwell met his end when he promoted the marriage with Anne of Cleaves, not to Henry's taste when she arrived, and he was executed after being found guilty by act of attainder, enemies including the Duke of Norfolk having persuaded the King he was a traitor.
When Catherine Howard was genuinely unfaithful to the ageing king within two years of their marriage she too was executed, and in his declining years he married Catherine Parr. His court was increasingly factional, the power of Catholics and Protestants waxing and waning with little logic sometimes discernible.
Henry's reign brought pride to his country, in spite of his monstrous egotism, his moral bankruptcy and his hypocrisy - but he is not unique in British royal history in holding such vices. He is still regarded by some as the epitome of "Merry England". Not so merry if you vexed him: one cook whose food upset the King's stomach was boiled in oil for his error. Among the higher ranks many lived in fear of the King turning against them: in 1513 the Duke of Suffolk , Edmund de la Pole, was executed after years in prison, his death contrary to Henry VII's vows when he had him brought to England ruthlessly ridding Henry VIII of a potential Yorkist rival. He was the first of many to die for political expediency in Henry's long reign.
He did, to give the other side of the coin, continue to develop the Navy, establishing the royal dockyard at Portsmouth , and building the 1000 ton plus Royal Harry, a giant symbol of Britain's newfound sea power. And in spite of his egotism and ambition he was a skilled statesman in foreign affairs.
Strangely, though he was riddled with all sorts of ailments, from gout to (it is thought) diabetes, some believe malnutrition was a contributing factor in his death, as his diet was almost exclusively meat. By his end he had become a bloated and pustulous mockery of the athlete who had ascended the throne 38 years previously. When he died at the Palace of Whitehall it is said his waist measured 54". He was buried at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle , next to the only wife - Jane Seymour - who gave him a surviving son, his successor Edward VI .
In spite of the Tudors having reigned for 62 years by the time Henry VIII died, the continuation of their rule was not completely assured: the new King Edward VI was a child of just nine. His Yorkist namesake Edward V had been 12 when he ascended the throne in 1483, but was easily swept aside by Richard III, and probably murdered on his orders too. News of the King's death was not given until careful arrangement had been made to get Edward from Hertford to Enfield and then the safety of the royal accommodation in The Tower of London .
Edward's uncle, The Duke of Somerset, ruled for him as Protector for the first two years, with the reforming Archbishop Cranmer as spiritual guide and church head. Henry VIII had at times edged towards Protestantism for political ends; Edward though an adolescent was to be a zealot in that cause, his court preachers including Knox, Latimer and Ridley, and his personal studies concentrating above all else on matters of religion.
Somerset, initially successful, winning against the Scots at Pinkie Cleugh during the continuation of the (eventually unsuccessful) "Rough Wooing", was clumsy in his internal politicking and hasty in his religious reforms. In 1549 the Act of Unity abolished mass; and a new prayer book was introduced. The ensuing Cornish and Devonian uprising was quelled by Somerset , but the later Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk was put down not by Somerset but by Northumberland , who became the new de facto ruler. Somerset was sent to the Tower, and in spite of being released with a pardon in 1550 in 1552 he was not so lucky, executed after his re-arrest the previous year.
The boy-king's reign would be brief. The "Rough Wooing" of Mary Queen of Scots only resulted in her flight to France, and no other marriage candidate was to meet the nation's needs. Determined the country should not revert to Catholicism were he to succumb to the illnesses already wracking his young body, Edward was persuaded to take drastic action over the succession. His fervently Catholic sister Mary, next-in-line, was cut out, as was Elizabeth. In their place Lady Jane Grey , Edward's cousin, Henry VII's great-granddaughter and Henry VIII's grand-niece, was selected, hastily married to Northumberland's son (against her better judgement) just six weeks before Edward died. The measles and smallpox that had weakened him in 1552 were followed by lung problems. He died at Greenwich Palace on July 6 1553.
Lady Jane was attractive as an heir to Edward because of her known Protestant convictions. To Northumberland she meant continuation of the power and wealth gained as Edward's Lord President of the Council. The succession created by Henry did indeed place Jane as fourth in line, after Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, and legally both Mary and Elizabeth were considered illegitimate, the marriages of their mothers both having been annulled (Anne Boleyn suffering this indignity just before her execution). But Edward's 'Devise of the Crown' which sidelined Mary and Elizabeth was highly dubious, and Jane's accession can best be seen as a coup by Northumberland.
It was a coup that might well have succeeded, had Mary not escaped to Kenninghall in Norfolk and then safety at Framlingham Castle 20 miles distant in Suffolk . Northumberland had built up a strong power-base during the previous four years, and his faction had the sympathies if not the outright support of many Protestant figures. And it should not be forgotten that many noble families had gained, like Northumberland, from the lands and wealth transferred to them during the Dissolution.
Elizabeth's role in the situation is unclear; she remained at Hatfield during the crisis. A conveniently diplomatic illness prevented her taking any action for either side.
Though Parliament proclaimed Jane Queen, Mary acted swiftly, and benefiting from public wishes to see the true Tudor line continue she was able to enter London to popular acclaim and imprison Jane on July 19 1553. Northumberland's execution followed quickly, but Jane and her husband may have been forgiven or at least allowed to live on in comfort in the Tower had Wyatt's Rebellion not forced Mary's hand in 1554. Wyatt - like many Englishmen - was outraged at Mary's marriage to Philip II of Spain. Although only Kent rose under his urgings, his army made it as far as Ludgate before being repulsed. Elizabeth was lucky not to have been executed with Jane Grey, many had expected her to be killed to rid Mary of a further Protestant rival.
If Edward VI's reign is characterised by a zealous push towards Protestantism, Mary's can be summarised as a rabid return to Catholicism. Her marriage to Philip of Spain had his support in that task at its heart. Mary rapidly resorted to a bloodbath as the means to rebuild Catholicism in England. In 1555 John Rogers was the first to go to the stake, his grisly end met at Smithfield in London. In her five year reign more than 300 Protestants suffered the same horrible death, most famously Cranmer , Ridley and Latimer burned in Oxford.
In keeping with her father's and grandfather's tradition Mary expanded the Navy. She also showed her kinship to Henry VII in her attention to economic matters: customs dues and their collection were reformed, and the currency strengthened. But it is for her religion that she is remembered.
Mary's marriage to Philip was doubly tragic. In spite of seemingly imagined pregnancies no heir resulted from the 14 months of his first stay in England and the mere three of his second. And support for Spain against France (expressly contrary to the agreement made with Parliament regarding her marriage) in their war allowed the French to seize Calais in 1558. It had been in English hands since 1347, and as a trading port and military base on the continent was of inestimable value to the country.
Like her brother before her Mary's health was bad when she came to the throne, and she died at Lambeth Palace aged just 42. Her violent assault on Protestantism was to haunt the English collective mind for centuries, ensuring Catholics would be treated with at best concern, at worst similar violence and discrimination, until relatively modern times.
Mary's successor was her sister Elizabeth , destined to be the last of the Tudors. Though she had many suitors and was obviously an attractive catch for both European royalty and English nobility, Elizabeth never married.
But if her reign saw the end of a dynasty it also witnessed the birth of our modern artistic culture. In music William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and John Dowland rose to prominence. In literature this was the age of Shakespeare , Kit Marlowe , Bacon , Ben Jonson , Sidney , Spenser and the most easily read poet of the day Raleigh . And that latter figure stands also in the list of those who flourished in the voyages that eventually changed England from a European backwater to a world power: Drake , Hawkins , Raleigh and Davis opened the nation's collective mind geographically as the artists did culturally.
The delicate balancing act that Elizabeth was forced to maintain though her reign was demonstrated well at her coronation: both reformist and Catholic bishops presided; both English and Latin were used. The procession before that coronation was used to communicate vital messages to her people: her English lineage (Mary of course was half Spanish); her desire for prosperity; the wish to enjoy colour and music after a period of near terror.
After the bloody years under Mary the country needed to return to more settled times. Elizabeth stamped down on ultra-Catholic sermons by some bishops early in her reign, not from Protestant zeal but in line with the moderate course she had chosen. That course in part resulted from her lack of funds: she even stooped to selling muskets at inflated prices to her own soldiers to rake in some extra cash at one point. The same needs meant that, though the West Country pirates and privateers were never given free rein, their predations on the Spanish (among others) were a useful source of funds for the crown - Raleigh at one point was freed from prison to secure her share of one juicy windfall.
This preying on the Spanish was not just for funds - there were undoubted religious undertones to the raids too, with Elizabeth's excommunication by the Pope in 1570 in the background. This clash of religions was behind the constant plotting to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Sheffield and elsewhere in England until Elizabeth finally lost patience and had her executed. The list of those threats to her life and crown, from the Ridolfi plot in 1572 to Throckmorton in 1584, Parry 1585; and Babington in 1586, shows her need for constant vigilance. Religion was of course also largely behind the attempt by Philip II of Spain, her brother-in-law, to invade England with his mighty Armada in 1588, the year after Mary Stewart's death at Fotheringhay, Elizabeth for once having thrown her weight behind the Dutch Protestant rebels causing Philip great difficulties.
When the Armada was decisively defeated by a combination of English seamanship, incompetent Spanish planning and leadership, terrible weather, and Spanish vessels poorly suited to those storms, Elizabeth was at last in a position of strength. Mary Queen of Scots, her greatest rival, was dead; and Spain forced to divert attention from England to Ireland where there was greater prospect of success, Tyrone indeed forcing the Queen to send her favourite, Essex, to try to subdue the rising in 1599.
Essex had taken Cadiz in the daring raid of 1596, but neither that nor Elizabeth's affection for him prevented his execution in 1601 after a foolish attempted coup. Thus it is seen that even in the last few years of the Tudor dynasty it was under threat, as it had been since Henry VII deposed Richard III at Bosworth.
Elizabeth died in 1603, at Richmond Palace. She had become increasingly world-weary, depressed by the deaths of her friends and contemporaries, still saddened by the loss of Essex. In her last days she refused to eat, hastening her own end. As throughout the Tudor epoch the question of succession loomed large. The ageing Queen had refused to name a successor, or accept the obvious candidate James VI of Scotland. It is unclear if she ever did truly acknowledge him as the man to follow her, though conveniently - the dangers to the country had the question been left open at her death were too horrible to contemplate - she was supposed by a gesture to have done so. Thus with her death on March 24 1603 the Tudor dynasty and era ended.
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