The Tudor kings and queens of England

King Henry VIII and his Tudor family

The subject of countless books and films, the Tudors are the most iconic royal house whose reign saw the Reformation, defeat of the Spanish Armada and the execution of Anne Boleyn

Tudor dynasty, Tudor succession, Tudors
Credit: World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

The House of Tudor was one of Britain’s most iconic royal legacies; the ‘A-list’ of charismatic kings and queens who included ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary I, Queen Elizabeth I and of course King Henry VIII. Of Welsh origin, the Tudors ruled from 1485 until 1603, a reign which began with King Henry VII (Henry Tudor), a descendant of the English royal House of Lancaster ending the War of the Roses and uniting the royal houses by marrying Elizabeth of York. Read on to discover more about the characters who have left their mark on British royal history forever.

The first Tudor: King Henry VII (r.1485-1509)

King Henry VII is remembered as a shrewd and savvy king. After defeating King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor established himself among the traditional Lancastrian supporters, as well as those from the rival House of York, becoming King Henry VII. Victory in the War of the Roses, reinforced by his marriage to Elizabeth of York, symbolically united the warring houses, and the Tudors built on this by overseeing England’s union with Wales in 1542 and maintaining English rule over Ireland.

Henry continued claims over parts of France and even married off his daughter Margaret to James IV of Scotland securing peace on the northern border. He also arranged a marriage between his son Arthur and the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, although the 15 year-old boy’s death meant that Catherine would eventually marry the future King Henry VIII instead. Henry VII is remembered for restoring the royal finances following a crippling civil war, as well as reforming the judicial system which opened the way for royals to enjoy more power and paved the way for his son’s rule…

King Henry VIII (r.1509-1547)

Famed for having six wives and for his run-ins with the Catholic church, King Henry VIII remains arguably the most iconic monarch in British history. He is also credited with having established the British navy, having built up an armada of around 50 ships including the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545.

Obsessed with having a male heir during his reign and worried that he had only one surviving child, Mary, to show for his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, lady-in-waiting to his first wife. When the Pope refused, Henry VIII broke with the church and married Anne in a secret ceremony and was excommunicated by the Catholic Church.

Believing Anne guilty of adultery, he had her publicly executed in 1536, before marrying Jane Seymour, who produced the son that he craved, Edward, in 1537. Jane Seymour died after childbirth so Henry married Anne of Cleves – a disastrous union that again ended in divorce. In 1540, the ageing king married the teenage Catherine Howard but after it was alleged that she had a previous relationship with Henry’s courtiers she was executed for adultery and treason in 1542. Henry’s final marriage was to Catherine Parr who has the rare honour of having outlived him.

King Edward VI (r.1547-1553)

Edward VI became king at the tender age of nine upon the death of his father, Henry VIII, and a Regency was created. He was intelligent, keeping detailed diaries of his reign but he was physically weak and lacked the gravitas of his powerful father. His short reign was dominated by nobles; Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and soon to be Duke of Somerset, Edward’s eldest uncle, became Protector.

During Edward’s reign, the Church of England became more Protestant introducing The Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and eradicating certain Roman Catholic practices (including statues and stained glass) leading to rebellions in the south of the country. The protector Edward Seymour cut an isolated figure in the Council and the Duke of Northumberland subsequently overthrew him in 1551. Seymour was executed in 1552, an event which was only briefly mentioned by Edward in his diary: “Today, the Duke of Somerset had his head cut off on Tower Hill.”

After the Duke of Northumberland’s son married Lady Jane Grey, one of Henry VIII’s relatives and a claimant to the throne, Edward accepted her as his heir on his death from tuberculosis in 1553. Jane briefly assumed the role, earning her the moniker ‘the nine-day queen’.

Queen Mary I (r. 1553-1558)

Queen Mary I was the first queen to reign in her own right and was known for her obstinate and at times ruthless character which earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.

Mary is credited with having restored Roman Catholicism in England as well as the old heresy laws which saw around 300 Protestant heretics burnt at the stake in three years. Aged 37 at her accession, Mary was desperate to have a Catholic heir to continue her reforms, and to remove her half-sister Elizabeth from succession. In 1554, Mary took the unpopular step of marrying Philip, King of Spain but the marriage was childless. The new alliance with Spain dragged England into a war with France with Calais, the last bastion of England’s territory in France, taken by the French in 1558. Mary died later that year leaving the crown to her half-sister Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603)

The last Tudor monarch was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. When Elizabeth was just two years old, her mother was beheaded for adultery but in later years Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife, took a her under her wing, ensuring that she was educated to the highest standards.

She was a sharp and intelligent woman, fluent in six languages and her 45-year reign coincides with a golden age of English history as explorers like Sir Francis Drake were busy circumnavigating the earth while Shakespeare and Marlowe wowed crowds with their plays and poetry.

In 1568 Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots came to England. A Catholic with a strong claim to the English throne. Mary’s presence was tolerated until 1587 when a plot to overthrow Elizabeth was uncovered and she was executed. The following year Philip II of Spain launched the Spanish Armada to try and defeat Elizabeth and restore Catholicism. However the popular queen rallied her troops against the Spanish giving a rousing speech at Tilbury, saying: “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too.”

James VI of Scotland, Mary Queen of Scot’s son, succeeded Elizabeth becoming King James I and bringing an end to the Tudor dynasty. But the deeds of these most powerful of monarchs would be talked about for centuries thereafter.

Related articles

10 things you didn’t know about the Tudors 
Tudor of the month: Katherine Grey
Edward IV: the first Yorkist king 
Inside Wolf Hall’s Hampton Court Palace

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