Women in the Tudor Dynasty

Tudor Women Ancestors, Sisters, Wives, Heirs

Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn, with Catherine of Aragon (in painting) and Cardinal Wolsey, from a painting by Marcus Stone (detail)
Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn, with Catherine of Aragon (in painting) and Cardinal Wolsey, from a painting by Marcus Stone (detail). Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Would Henry VIII's life be nearly as interesting to historians, writers, screenwriters, and television producers—and to readers and viewers—without the female ancestors, heirs, sisters, and wives that surrounded him?

While Henry VIII is the epitome of the Tudor dynasty, and is himself a fascinating figure of history, women play a very important part in the history of the Tudors of England. The simple fact that women gave birth to heirs to the throne gave them a pivotal role; some Tudor women were more active in shaping their role in history than others.

Henry VIII's Heir Problem

Henry VIII's marital history holds the interest of historians and historical fiction writers alike. At the root of this marital history is a very real concern of Henry's: begetting a male heir for the throne. He was acutely aware of the vulnerability of having only daughters or only one son. He was certainly keenly aware of the often troubled history of female heirs that preceded him.

  • Henry VIII was himself the second son of his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. His older brother, Arthur, died before their father did, thus leaving Henry as his father's heir. When Arthur died, Elizabeth of York was still in her 30s, and in the grand tradition of producing an "heir and a spare," she got pregnant again—and died of complications of childbirth.
  • The last time there'd been only a female heir left for the throne, years of civil war had ensued, and that female heir—the Empress Matilda or Maud—was never herself crowned. Her son, Henry Plantagenet (also called Henry Fitzempress, because his mother had been a consort of the Holy Roman Emperor), ended that civil war. Married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, he began a new dynasty—the Plantagenets.
  • When Henry VIII's own father, Henry VII, established the new Tudor dynasty, he ended decades of nasty dynastic infighting among the York and Lancaster heirs of Edward III.
  • The Salic Law didn't apply in England—thus, if Henry left daughters or a son who then died early (as did his son, Edward VI), those daughters would inherit the throne. This inheritance entailed many potential troubles and complications for the daughters, such as marrying foreign kings (as did his daughter Mary I) or remaining unmarried and leaving succession in doubt (as did his daughter Elizabeth I).

Women in Tudor Ancestry

The dynasty of the Tudors was itself bound up in the histories of some very politically adroit women who came before Henry VIII.

  • Catherine of Valois, who was the wife of Henry V of England and mother of his son, Henry VI, committed the scandalous act of secretly marrying after her husband's death. She married a Welsh squire, Owen Tudor, and through this marriage gave the Tudor dynasty its name. Catherine of Valois was the grandmother of Henry VII and great-grandmother of Henry VIII.
  • Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother, married the eldest son of Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor: Edmund, Earl of Richmond. Henry VII wisely claimed his right to the throne through conquest but also had a claim to the throne through his mother Margaret's descent from John of Gaunt and Katherine Roët, known as Katherine Swynford (her earlier married name), whom John married after his children's births. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was the son of Edward III of England, and it is from John of Gaunt that the Lancasters in the Wars of the Roses are descended. Margaret Beaufort worked throughout Henry VII's life to protect him and keep his heritage safe, and as it became clear that he was a candidate for king, she also worked to organize armies to bring him to power.
  • Margaret of Anjou took a very active role in the Wars of the Roses, defending the interests of the Lancastrian party.
  • Henry VIII's mother was Elizabeth of York. She married Henry VII, the first Tudor king, in a dynastic match: She was the last Yorkist heir (assuming that her brothers, known as the Princes in the Tower, were either dead or imprisoned securely) and Henry VII was the Lancastrian claimant to the throne. Their marriage thus brought together the two houses that had fought the Wars of the Roses. As mentioned above, she died of complications of childbirth at age 37, presumably trying to have another son as a "spare" after her oldest son, Arthur, died, leaving her younger son, later Henry VIII, the only living son of Henry VII.

Henry VIII's Sisters

Henry VIII had two sisters who are important to history.

  • Margaret Tudor was the queen of James IV of Scotland, the grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the great-grandmother of James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England. Margaret Tudor's second marriage, to Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, made her the mother of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, who was the mother of Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, one of the husbands of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the father of their son and heir, James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. Thus, through Henry VIII's sister's marriage comes the name of the dynasty that succeeded the Tudors, the Stuarts (the English spelling of Stewart).
  • Henry VIII's younger sister, Mary Tudor, was married at 18 to the 52-year-old King of France, Louis XII. When Louis died, Mary secretly married Henry VIII's friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. After surviving Henry's angry reaction, they had three children. One, Lady Frances Brandon, married Henry Grey, 3rd Marquess of Dorset, and their child, Lady Jane Grey, was briefly Queen of England in the dynastic squabbles when Henry VIII's only male heir, Edward VI, died young—thus fulfilling Henry VIII's dynastic nightmares. Lady Catherine Grey, sister of Lady Jane Grey, had her own problems and briefly ended up in the Tower of London.

The Wives of Henry VIII

Henry VIII's six wives met various fates (summarised by the old rhyme, "divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived"), as Henry VIII sought a wife who would bear him sons.

  • Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and Aragon. Catherine was first married to Henry's older brother, Arthur, and married Henry after Arthur died. Catherine gave birth several times, but her only surviving child was the future Mary I of England.
  • Anne Boleyn, for whom Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, gave birth first to the future Queen Elizabeth I and then to a still-born son. Anne's older sister, Mary Boleyn, had been Henry VIII's mistress before he pursued Anne Boleyn. Anne was accused of adultery, incest, and conspiracy against the king. She was beheaded in 1536.
  • Jane Seymour gave birth to the somewhat-frail future Edward VI, and then died of complications of childbirth. Her relatives, the Seymours, continued to play important roles in Henry VIII's life and reign and in that of his heirs.
  • Anne of Cleves briefly married to Henry in an attempt to have more sons—but he was already attracted to his next wife, and he found Anne unattractive, so he divorced her. She remained in England on relatively good terms with Henry and his children after the divorce, even being part of the coronations of both Mary I and Elizabeth I.
  • Catherine Howard was executed by Henry fairly quickly when he realized she had misrepresented her past—and possibly present—affairs, and thus was not a reliable mother of an heir.
  • Catherine Parr, by most accounts a patient, loving wife in Henry's older age, was well-educated and a proponent of the new Protestant religion. After Henry's death, she married Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry's late wife, Jane Seymour, and died of complications of childbirth amid rumors that her husband poisoned her in order to be free to marry Princess Elizabeth.

An interesting side note on the wives of Henry VIII: All could claim descent as well through Edward I, from whom Henry VIII was also descended.

Heirs of Henry VIII

Henry's fears about male heirs didn't come true just in his own lifetime. None of Henry's three heirs who ruled England in their turns—Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I—had children (nor did Lady Jane Grey, the "nine-day queen"). So the crown passed after the death of the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, to James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England.

The Tudor roots of the first Stuart king, James VI of England, were through Henry VIII's sister, Margaret Tudor. James was descended from Margaret (and thus Henry VII) through his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been executed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, for Mary's alleged role in plots to take the throne.

James VI was also descended from Margaret (and Henry VII) through his father, Lord Darnley, grandson of Margaret Tudor through a daughter of her second marriage, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox.