The Tudors: Introduction to a Royal Dynasty

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger
King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Walker Art Gallery/Google Art Project)

The Tudors are the most famous English royal dynasty, their name remaining at the forefront of European history thanks to films and television. Of course, the Tudors wouldn’t feature in the media without something to grab people’s attention, and the Tudors—Henry VII, his son Henry VIII and his three children Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth, only broken by the nine-day rule of Lady Jane Grey—comprise two of England’s most famous monarchs, and three of the most highly regarded, each with plenty of fascinating, sometimes inscrutable, personality.

The Tudors are also important for their actions as much as their reputations. They ruled England during the era when Western Europe moved from the medieval to the early modern, and they instituted changes in government administration, the relationship between crown and people, the image of the monarchy and the way people worshiped. They also oversaw a golden age of English writing and exploration. They represent both a golden age (a term still in use as a recent film about Elizabeth I showed) and an era of infamy, one of the most divisive families in Europe.

Origins of the Tudors

The history of the Tudors can be traced back to the thirteenth century, but their rise to prominence began in the fifteenth. Owen Tudor, a Welsh landowner, fought in the armies of King Henry V of England. When Henry died, Owen married the widow, Catherine of Valois, and then fought in the service of her son, Henry VI.

At this time, England became divided by a struggle for the English throne between two dynasties, Lancastrian and York, called The Wars of the Roses. Owen was one of Henry VI’s Lancastrians; after the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, a Yorkist victory, Owen was executed.

Taking the Throne

Owen’s son, Edmund, was rewarded for his family’s service by being raised to the Earl of Richmond by Henry VI.

Crucially for his later family, Edmund married Margaret Beaufort, great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III, a tenuous but vital claim to the throne. Edmund’s only child Henry Tudor led a rebellion against King Richard III and defeated him at Bosworth Field, taking the throne himself as a descendant of Edward III. Henry, now Henry VII, married the heir to the House of York, effectively ending the Wars of the Roses. There would be other rebels, but Henry stayed secure.

Henry VII

Having defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, gained parliamentary approval and married a member of his rival family, Henry was crowned king. He took part in diplomatic negotiations to secure his position, making agreements at both home and abroad, before instituting a reform of government, increasing royal administrative control and improving the royal finances. On his death, he left a stable kingdom and a wealthy monarchy. He had fought hard politically to establish himself and his family against the doubters and bring England together behind him. He has to go down as a major success but one totally overshadowed by his son and grandchildren.

Henry VIII

The most famous English monarch of all, Henry VIII is best known for his six wives, the result of a desperate drive to produce healthy male heirs to carry the Tudor dynasty forward.

Another consequence of this need was the English Reformation, as Henry split the English Church away from the Pope and Catholicism in order to divorce. Henry’s reign also saw the emergence of the Royal Navy as a powerful force, changes in government which bound the monarch tighter to parliament, and perhaps the apogee of personal rule in England. He was succeeded by his only surviving son, Edward VI. It's the wives that capture the headlines, particularly as two were executed and the religious developments divided England for centuries, leading to a question that just cannot be agreed upon: was Henry VIII a tyrant, a great leader, or somehow both?

Edward VI

The son which Henry VI much desired, Edward inherited the throne as a boy and died only six years later, his reign having been dominated by two ruling councilors, Edward Seymour, and then John Dudley.

They carried on the Protestant Reformation, but Edward’s strong Protestant faith has led to speculation he’d have carried things further if he had lived. He is the great unknown in English history and could have changed the future of the nation in remarkable ways, such was the era.

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey is the great tragic figure of the Tudor era. Thanks to the machinations of John Dudley, Edward VI was initially succeeded by Lady Jane Grey, fifteen-year-old great-granddaughter of Henry VII and devout Protestant. However, Mary, although Catholic, had far greater support, and Lady Jane’s supporters swiftly changed their allegiances. She was executed in 1554, having done little personally beyond being used by others as a figurehead.

Mary I

Mary was the first queen to rule England in her own right. A pawn of potential marriage alliances in her youth, although none came to fruition, she was also declared illegitimate when her father, Henry VIII, divorced her mother Catherine, and was only later brought back into the succession. On taking the throne, Mary took part in an unpopular marriage to Philip II of Spain and returned England to the Catholic faith. Her actions in bringing back the heresy laws and executing 300 Protestants earned her the nickname Bloody Mary. But Mary's life isn't just a tale of religious killing. She was desperate for an heir, resulting in a false but very advanced pregnancy, and as a woman fighting to rule a nation, broke the barriers Elizabeth later walked through.

Historians are now assessing Mary in a new light.

Elizabeth I

Henry VIII’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth survived the plotting which threatened Mary, and which, in turn, cast doubt on the young princess, to become Queen of England when she might have been executed. One of the nation’s most highly regarded monarchs, Elizabeth returned the country to the Protestant faith, fought wars against Spain and Spanish-backed forces to protect England and other Protestant nations, and cultivated a powerful image of herself as a virgin queen wedded to her nation. She remains masked to historians, her true feelings and thoughts hidden away. Her reputation as a great ruler is faulty, as she relied far more on dithering and her inbuilt difficulty in making decisions than canny judgment.​

End of the Tudor Dynasty

None of Henry VIII’s children had any lasting offspring of their own, and when Elizabeth I died, she was the last of the Tudor monarchs; she was followed by James Stuart from Scotland, the first of the Stuart dynasty and a descendant of Henry VIII’s eldest sister, Margaret. The Tudors passed into history. And yet they have enjoyed a considerable afterlife, and remain among the most famous monarchs in the world.