As dynasties go the reign of the Tudors was relatively short (1485-1603) but it holds its own in terms of infamous characters, nefarious schemes, and bloody events. It began in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, and reached its peak with the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The first English colony in North America occurred during the Tudor period, though it failed, vanishing into the woods of North Carolina. It produced some of the most famous monarchs in British history, including Queen Elizabeth I and her notorious father, Henry VIII. The latter, fed up with the lack of Papal co-operation regarding his marital status, separated the Church of England from Roman influence and control.
When one considers “Merrie Olde England” it is usually the Tudor period which comes to mind, with lavish banquets, court jesters and troubadours, festivals, Kings and Queens, courtiers and ladies-in-waiting. In truth it was a time of peril for all. Each of the Tudor monarchs faced schemes and plots to remove them from their thrones, through assassination, revolution, or the actions of foreign enemies such as France and Spain. Even Elizabeth, today honored as one of England’s greatest monarchs, spent her entire reign threatened by perceived enemies, some real, some not. Here are ten facts you might not know about the Tudors.
10. Queen Elizabeth was not universally loved
The Queen known as Good Queen Bess ascended to the throne upon the death of her half-sister, Mary, a Catholic. Elizabeth, a Protestant, spent nearly a year in prison under her sister’s orders during the latter’s short reign, an indignity she long remembered. She spent much of her reign resisting pressures to marry, using her availability as a suitable bride as a diplomatic tool in negotiations with foreign entities. Believed today to have been a popular, even idolized Queen, she in fact had enemies across her reign who desired her removal, some for religious reasons, some for political reasons, and some for revenge. At least nine known plots to assassinate her are documented. There were likely others.
Several revolved over the placement of Mary, Queen of Scots, another Catholic and Elizabeth’s cousin, on the throne of England. Good Queen Bess responded by keeping Mary imprisoned under house arrest for 19 years. Eventually Elizabeth had her beheaded, after Mary was convicted using evidence likely planted by Elizabeth’s supporters. The Ridolfi Plot, another assassination scheme, involved Elizabeth’s cousin, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. He paid for his plotting with his head. After several Papal Bulls excommunicated Elizabeth, Pope Gregory XIII announced assassinating the Queen would not constitute a cardinal sin, all but encouraging English Catholics to kill their Queen.
9. Henry VIII executed far more than ex-wives
Henry VIII is arguably most famous for the beheading of his wives after they lost favor. In truth, only two were executed, both for treason. Anne Boleyn (mother of Elizabeth I) and Catherine Howard lost their heads. Jane Seymour died in childbirth, and his other divorced wives received generous settlements from the King. Anne of Cleves received title as the “Sister of the King” as part of her divorce. His Majesty’s beneficence to his ex-wives was decidedly out of character. During his reign more the 72,000 executions were carried out, which does not include the executions of criminals convicted at the dock. Merrie Olde England was quite the dangerous place.
Counselors and courtiers who fell out of favor, and who lacked the good sense to exile themselves, often found themselves kneeling before an executioner wielding an axe. Among them were Sir Thomas More, at least four gentlemen of the court accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, who arranged Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, and two others for adultery with Catherine Howard. The executions for adultery were necessary to cover the charges of adultery under which Henry executed his two ex-wives. After all, they had to have had someone to commit adultery with. Although beheading was common, Henry’s minions also executed prisoners by hanging, burning at the stake, and in one case via starvation.
8. Henry VIII created the Royal Navy
When Henry VIII wasn’t concerned with his line of succession and suppression of his enemies, he spent considerable time and money building a navy. Considered the “Father of the Royal Navy,” Henry built a fleet which gained considerable prowess, with powerful ships of modern design. When Henry ascended to the throne in 1509, he inherited the Tudor fleet, consisting of just seven ships. Just five years later the fleet had 31 ships. Henry created the Navy Board, hired the best naval architects he could find, and used tax revenues to fund the vessels. While his Navy Board concentrated on acquiring and maintaining the fleet, Henry turned his personal attention to a permanent shore-based establishment.
Henry set aside lands for Royal Dockyards, created a school to teach navigation, and designated woodlands as the “King’s Trees,” to provide timber for ships. He was the first English monarch to maintain a portion of the navy as active during peacetime, with a fleet of 30 ships at sea. The others were placed “in ordinary,” idled, but available for quick activation should the French or Spanish commit some indiscretion demanding their return to service. In 1545 Henry created a council of marine, with seven officers, each in charge of a specific branch of the service. A “Lieutenant of the Admiralty” presided over the board, the direct ancestor of today’s Admiralty. By then, his fleet exceeded 80 ships. The navy did not receive the appellation Royal Navy until the restoration, but Henry VIII certainly gave it royal attention.
7. Henry VIII was not short and obese for most of his life
A commonly held perception of Henry VIII is of a short, obese glutton, a turkey leg in one hand, a wine chalice in the other, enjoying an immense feast. It’s a false image, at least for most of his life. Henry stood over six feet in height, with a large chest, broad shoulders, and strongly developed legs. An athletic man in his youth, he enjoyed hunting, falconry, and jousting. His contemporaries considered him an attractive man, though in some cases that may have been deference to a temperamental King. He was well educated, to the point he became the first British monarch to write and publish a book. Ironically, it was a defense of the Papacy in opposition to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The Pope like the book so much he bestowed the title “Defender of the Faith” on the King.
When Henry later broke with the Catholic Church he decided to retain the title, which remains part of the style of the British Monarch to this day. As he grew older, infirmities of age and an old jousting wound which never completely healed plagued the King. His ability to exercise waned, his appetites did not. Late in life Henry grew morbidly obese, unable to move without assistance. Historians have long speculated over his various illnesses and their causes, though most now agree that syphilis was not among them, as many once believed.
6. By legal definition, Anne Boleyn could not have committed adultery
Henry VIII went to extraordinary lengths to establish a legal authority for the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn. Her crime was adultery, which against the King made it not only immoral, but treasonous. Several men were accused of participating in adulterous conduct with Anne. Among them was George Boleyn, Anne’s brother, which added the charge of incest to the growing list of capital crimes. The five men were all tried, convicted and executed. On May 19, 1536, Anne was similarly convicted and her marriage to Henry VIII declared invalid and annulled.
By definition, if there had been no marriage, as invalid and annulled establishes, there could have been no adultery. By that time, enemies of the Boleyn family had developed a momentum which could not be checked. Anne was executed the same day at Tower Green, by a French executioner who used a sword, rather than an axe. In truth there was little evidence of her engaging in extramarital relationships, she simply fell out of favor with the King, who was enamored with Jane Seymour. Henry simply looked the other way as her enemies took their vengeance upon the Queen.
5. Their family surname was a variation of Meredith, rather than Tudor
The family name of the Tudors descended from a Welsh family, whose patronymic name was Maredudd, from which the name Meredith later derived. Some believe the name Tudor to have been derived from the Welsh Tewdwr, a form of Theodore. At any rate it was Owen Tudor who established Tudor as the surname for the dynasty. Had he not, the architectural style of beam and plaster houses might be known as the Meredith, rather than the Tudor style.
At any rate, the Tudor monarchs and their relations seldom, if ever, used the name in any manner. One reason they ignored it was its relationship to a Welsh adventurer from which it descended. The Tudors considered their status as a Royal Family outweighed the need for a family name. They did not consider themselves to be connected as Tudors, but rather as being of England. They ensured their subjects regarded them in the same manner, with, for example, Queen Elizabeth being Queen Elizabeth of England, rather than Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England. During their dynasty the name did not appear in any official correspondence or document.
4. The Catholic St. Thomas More ruthlessly persecuted Protestants during the Tudor reign
Thomas More was not of the Tudor family, though he served its monarch Henry VIII. He remains one of the most famous people of the Tudor age, and is a saint and martyr of the Roman Catholic Church. During the earlier years of the reign of Henry VIII, More and the King were in agreement regarding opposition to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. More actively persecuted Protestants in Henry’s realms. As Henry’s Lord Chancellor, More actively interrogated and tortured “heretics,” including, according to contemporaneous sources, through use of the rack and burning.
Apologists for More deny such accusations, as did More himself during his lifetime. Yet the evidence persists. The standard punishment for heresy at the time, burning at the stake, was widespread throughout England, and as Lord Chancellor More was certainly aware of its use. His own writings contain several references to those burned for heresy, in which he always notes his approval of the action, even if he did not order it personally. Thomas More eventually fell out with Henry VIII, which led to his own execution by beheading. Over the centuries his detractors and supporters continued to fiercely debate the sanctity of Thomas More, and in 1980 he was included in the calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church by the Church of England.
3. There was an heir in line following the death of Elizabeth
The death of Elizabeth I, unmarried and childless, left the Tudor line without an heir to the throne, according to widely held belief. Prior to her death, and with her knowledge, some arrangements were made for King James VI of Scotland to ascend to the throne of England, ending the Tudor Dynasty, and replacing it with the Stuarts. As noted earlier, the Tudors did not consider themselves to be of the family dynasty, but rather of England. Nonetheless, there was another branch of the Tudor line with a claim, some believe legitimate, to be rightful heir to the throne.
They descended from Mary, daughter of Henry VII and sister of Henry VIII. Split into two branches via marriage, several members traced themselves in a direct line to Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. As it became evident Elizabeth would die childless, members of the line of succession which became known as the Suffolk claimants. Political maneuvering and schemes prior to Elizabeth’s death ensured that none of their claims could be established as valid, and that James VI held the most viable claim to the English throne. As in all things political during the age, support of Catholics and Protestants was essential to a continued monarchy in England, and James VI claimed the most of both.
2. A total of six Tudor monarchs reigned during the dynasty
There were six Tudor monarchs during the period of their reign, beginning with Henry VII following the Wars of the Roses. Henry VIII, his son, succeeded him. In turn, Henry’s son succeeded him as Edward VI, just nine years old when his father died. The real power behind his throne fell to his uncle, Jane Seymour’s brother, the Duke of Somerset. Under Edward VI the first version of the Book of Common Prayer appeared, alienating both Catholics and Protestant reformers. Edward’s reign was short, just under six years, and as he was dying in 1553, he named Lady Jane Grey, a cousin, as his heir. With his death the male line of descent came to an end.
Queen Jane held her throne for all of nine days before Mary Tudor deposed her, becoming Queen Mary. Lady Jane spent the remaining few months of her life in the Tower, before she was executed for treason. Queen Mary earned the sobriquet Bloody Mary for her vigorous persecution of Protestants and restoration of Catholicism in England. During her reign Thomas Cranmer, who authored the Liturgy for the Protestant Church of England, The Book of Common Prayer, was denounced as a heretic and burned at the stake. He was but one of many. Mary also imprisoned her sister, and remained suspicious of her throughout her reign. Upon her death in 1558, the Protestant Elizabeth ascended to throne. She was the last Tudor monarch.
1. It was ecclesiastical property which enticed Henry VIII to break from Rome
When Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church he had far more than a marriage in mind. Across England Catholic Churches and Monasteries controlled large estates and derived great wealth from them. Between 1536 and 1542, Henry exercised his authority under the Act of Supremacy, in which Parliament established him as Supreme Head of the Church of England, to systematically loot the Catholic properties. Henry shut down convents, monasteries, priories, and abbeys. He transferred their income, lands, and other sources of wealth to the crown, an influx of cash at a time in which it was badly needed.
Henry used the money allocated to the Crown to help fund his pet project, his Royal Navy, as well as in other less successful military ventures. While suppressing the monasteries and other church lands and institutions he continued to style himself as Defender of the Faith, though he had been excommunicated by the Papacy, which had bestowed upon him the title. Floods of beggars and poor, formerly supported through alms from the convents and monasteries, appeared in English towns, and upon the roads. The House of Lords was disrupted as bishops and the leaders of various religious orders lost their seats, having lost the properties which controlled them. It was possibly the single largest disruption in English life in the whole of the reign of the House of Tudor.