The Tudors monarchs were a very important part of English history for over 100 years. The Tudor kings and queens ruled from 1485 to 1603. Here, Anthony Ruggiero follows his article on Tudor Queen Mary I (here), and considers how the Tudors took power in England and the importance of the reigns of King Henry VII and King Henry VIII. The article includes a consideration of England’s relationship with France and Spain.

Portrait of King Henry VIII of England,

Portrait of King Henry VIII of England,

Throughout the sixteenth century, the monarchs of the Tudor dynasty each left a mark on England. For example, King Henry VII reorganized a country that was in disarray after years of civil war, while his son, King Henry VIII, established precedence through forming the Church of England. The Protestant Reformation also greatly affected the country. The Reformation challenged the practices of the Catholic Church, as well as the Pope’s authority in Rome. Many English people were critical of the Roman Catholic Church and embraced the Reformation. While religion was one of the most important and persistent issues, the Tudor monarchs also handled foreign relations with two prominent Catholic and Western European nations at the time, Spain and France. These two countries engaged in an on-and-off rivalry during the sixteenth century, with Tudor England being placed in the middle. England’s involvement with Spain and France would have both negative and positive impacts on the country, such as war, marriage, and trade.


The Tudor Rise – King Henry VII

Prior to the Tudors, the political and social state of England during the fifteenth century was in disarray. The country was divided in a civil war between multiple noble families who were all vying for the English crown. Fifteenth century England was a “prison-house,” where any progression seemed impossible to achieve due to the country’s political issues.[1]Church officials, nobles, and knights controlled a majority of the aggregate land. For example, between 60 and 170 barons, earls, and dukes controlled the land.[2]These nobles produced two-thirds of revenue in the country.  Additionally, there were between 9,000 and 10,000 Church parishes in England.[3]Resources produced on these manors were primarily being sold in local markets. Additionally, foreign advances in trade and alliances were scarce, despite England controlling lands such as Calais in France.[4]

The year 1485 was a pivotal year in England’s history as it resulted in the rise of one of England’s most significant dynasties, the Tudors. Throughout the fifteenth century, the English crown was primarily divided between the ruling houses of Lancaster and York, which fought in a civil war known as “The War of the Roses.” By 1485 the York house had been restored, and King Richard III ruled over England. Despite the restoration, the country was still engaged in a civil war, now between King Richard III and Henry Tudor. Henry’s claim to the throne came through his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was a descendant of King Edward III. Although his claim was questionable, Henry staunchly fought for his right to the throne.[5]The two engaged in battle at Bosworth Field, where on August 22nd, 1485, Richard III was slain, and Henry, later styled King Henry VII, emerged as the new king of England, effectively ending the War of the Roses.[6]During his reign, Henry VII managed to have multiple positive impacts on the country that helped move England from a decentralized, medieval state towards a stable nation. For example, Henry managed to unite the feuding houses in England through his popular marriage to Elizabeth of York, who was viewed as having a strong claim to the throne in her own right. Henry VII was also responsible for printing books, building more chapels and monasteries, helping reorganize Parliament, and establishing trading relations with the Netherlands and Spain. The latter two resulted in more revenue for England, such as obtaining more trade products in cloth and access to fisheries to increase English food supply and trade circulation.[7]The Spanish treaty also resulted in the marriage of Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, to Henry’s son Arthur, and after Arthur’s death in 1502, to Henry’s younger son, Henry. [8]England under Henry VII experienced political stability, economic expansion and a royal marriage that addressed decades of animosity with Spain.


King Henry VIII

Following Henry VII’s death in 1509, his then seventeen-year-old son, who would ultimately become one of England’s most famous and notorious monarchs, Henry VIII, inherited the throne. Henry VIII would ultimately be remembered for breaking away from the Catholic Church; however, prior to these events Henry was a devout Catholic, raised with a strong knowledge of theology. Earlier in his reign, when German priest Martin Luther spoke out against the practices of the Catholic Church that sparked the Protestant Reformation, Henry defended Catholic traditions and was declared “Defender of the Faith,” by Pope Leo X in 1521.[9]However, after the papacy refused to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to remarry to produce a male heir to the throne, Henry sought autonomy from the Catholic Church and decided to break from the Church in what would be known as the English Reformation between 1532 and 1534. During this time, Henry and Parliament devised a series of acts that ultimately fashioned Henry as the Supreme Head of the newly-created Church of England.[10]The Act of Restraint Annates, devised in 1532, forced the clergy in England to stop paying taxes to the church in Rome and required them to pay taxes to the Church of England, which ultimately meant the crown.[11]That same year Parliament would also pass the Submission of the Clergy Actthat would force them to deny the authority of the Pope or face confiscation of their landholdings.[12]Finally, the Act of Royal Supremacy in 1534 officially recognized Henry as the head of the Church of England.[13]Although many of these changes shared similarities with Protestantism, Henry’s new church possessed many Catholic traditions. For example, under the publication of his Six Articlesin 1539, the clergy were recommended to take vows of chastity, which contradicted the Protestant views that the clergy should be allowed to marry. This publication also declared private mass and Holy Communion valid, and any denial of these decrees was subject to excommunication and execution.[14]Henry VIII had a lasting legacy and effect on England through his establishment of the Church of England. Despite these reforms religion would remain a controversial and divisive issue through the reigns of Henry’s three children: Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. 


Foreign Policy – France & Spain

England’s involvement with two of the major European powers, Spain and France, would have significant impacts throughout the Tudor period. During the 1490s and early 1500s, Spain prospered from multiple explorations and the accumulation of resources from the New World. During this time, King Charles ruled over the Catholic Spain and would later be created Emperor Charles V.[15]Despite both countries maintaining the Catholic faith, Spain would often clash with France. Ruled by the Valois family, particularly under King Francis I, France plunged itself into war with Spain over claimed lands in Italy, known as the Italian Wars, throughout the sixteenth century.[16]During this time both countries made attempts to rally England behind them; these alliances would alter throughout the fifteenth century and inevitably lead to conflicts between each country. Under both Henry VII and Henry VIII’s regimes England’s relationship with both countries regularly shifted. England’s treaty with Spain earned the country revenue and resulted in the marriage between Catherine of Aragon and the later King Henry VIII. England and France would engage in battle 1513 and would attempt to negotiate a treaty in the years that followed, including at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, which resulted in the betrothal of Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary, to the dauphin of France.[17]However, Henry’s pro-French policies quickly soured, the betrothal of Mary to the dauphin was canceled, and Henry once again turned his attentions towards Spain. This new alliance also resulted in the betrothal of Mary to Charles V who was sixteen years her senior. However, the age gap was an issue for Charles, who ultimately called off the betrothal in favor of a matured bride. This angered Henry who again looked to France for an alliance.[18]This back and forth would ultimately continue through Henry’s reign, but would also occur throughout the reign of his three children.


In Conclusion

The Tudors had significant impact on England during their reign over England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Henry VII brought stability to England following years of warfare. Although Henry VIII may be remembered by some due to his six marriages, his religious changes ushered in the English Reformation, impacting England for years to come. Furthermore, through Henry VIII’s three children: Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Edward VI, England would continue to experience various changes that would ultimately result in the country emerging as a world power.


What do you think of the importance of King Henry VII and King Henry VII in the rise of England as a global power? Let us know below.

[1]Feiling, England Under The Tudors and Stuarts,8.

[2]Peter Turchin and S. A. Nefedov, Secular Cycles(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 83.

[3]Turchin and Nefedov, Secular Cycles, 84.

[4]Feiling, Keith. England under the Tudors and Stuarts. New York: H. Holt and, 1927, 7-8.

[5]Feiling, England Under The Tudors and Stuarts, 19.

[6]Sharpe, Kevin. Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-century England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, 61-62.

[7]Feiling, England Under The Tudors and Stuarts, 27.

[8]Sharpe, Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-century England, 62-64.

[9]Jones, Whitney R. D. The Mid-Tudor Crisis: 1539-1563. London: Macmillan, 1973, 75.

[10]Jones, The Mid-Tudor Crisis: 15.

[11]Conrad Russell, The Crisis of Parliaments: English History, 1509-1660(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 94.

[12]Russell, The Crisis of Parliaments: English History, 1509-1660, 98-99.

[13]Russell, The Crisis of Parliaments: English History, 1509-1660, 100-101.

[14]Jones, The Mid-Tudor Crisis: 1539-1563, 77.

[15]Thomas, Hugh. The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America. New York: Random House, 2010, 2-4.

[16]Titler, The Reign of Mary I, 77.

[17]D. M. Loades, The Reign of Mary Tudor: Politics, Government, and Religion in England, 1553-1558(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979), 6, 8.

[18]Loades, The Reign of Mary Tudor: Politics, Government, and Religion in England, 1553-1558, 8-9.

The life of women in Tudor society was scrupulously controlled – from the way they dressed, their education and what they did in their spare time. Even under the two female rulers of the Tudor era, not much changed, but perhaps Queen Elizabeth I of England’s reign (1558-1603) can be assessed as the birth of the first British feminist icon. Kaiya Rai explains.


The  Ermine Portrait  of Elizabeth I of England.

The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England.


Though very few boys received proper formal education, virtually no girls did either. Those who were poor learnt skills from their mothers and grandmothers, and girls from rich families received an education in things such as managing a household, needlework and meal preparation. Moreover, domestic skills were essential for a woman in her future married life, as one contemporary writer commented that a woman who could not cook had essentially broken her marriage vows - “she may love and obey, but she cannot serve and keep him with that true duty which is ever expected.”

At the beginning of the 16th century it became more common for girls to attend schools alongside their male peers, and by the 1560s even the very poorest girls underwent some form of education. Most of this education, however, was dominated by Christian dogma and doctrinal teaching, such as William Barber’s school in London, who taught ‘further learning’ of the Bible. Since the Bible was used by the Church and the patriarchs in society to justify the inferiority of women, this almost added to their lack of independence, no matter the fact that they were being educated. The exceptions in education began emerging during the Reformation, when humanists, such as Thomas More, actively sought to give their daughters an excellent education. Humanists paved the way for the Enlightenment era of the 17th and 18th century, as they believed in self-understanding of the Bible, and drawing conclusions for oneself as opposed to passively listening to and believing everything the Church taught. Thus, their emergence in the education stage of Tudor England was of a similar nature - to try and reform stereotypical attitudes towards knowledge.


Marriage and patriarchy

There was no legal age for a woman to be married and so for many families, it was a matter of urgency to try and find a husband for their daughters, who would have no choice in the matter. Many believed that if a girl passed the age of 14 unmarried, she would become a burden to the family as it was an extra mouth to feed with no extra income, and many first met their spouse on the wedding day, much like Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII did. For some, such as Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Surrey, marriage was an opportunity to further her social position. Most women were expected to enter service before they were married, and for upper-class women this would usually be with a woman of higher social standing who would also aide her in finding a husband, and for lower-class women, the agreement of a year’s service in exchange for wages and housing was usual. Others entered into the more abstruse institution of prostitution, where disease was rife and was the cause of many premature deaths. However, this was still seen as dishonorable, though it was common, as is evident in the case of Mother Bowden’s brothel which was declared ‘immoral’ by the parish officials in 1567. Furthermore, women were taught that God had commanded them to be obedient to men, whether that be father or husband, and so the patriarchy in a woman’s life in Tudor England was constantly upheld and strengthened by all sources of power.

Since they had been told from childhood that they were inferior, women subsequently acted in an inferior manner. The Reformation actually did little to thwart this, despite the more modern tendencies and attitudes of the humanists, as is evident in the beliefs of Protestant leader John Knox, who wrote “women in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man.” The law gave men full rights over their wives, to the extent that they could have their wife burned at the stake for adultery, and that if a man beat his wife, it was justified on the grounds that she must have done something to provoke him, by not being a ‘good’ wife. Another important aspect of a woman’s married life was childbirth; they were expected to produce sons to carry on the family line, and this was true for royalty and peasants alike. However, childbirth was dangerous, and resulted in many deaths during it, or even after the baby was born, as puerperal fever and post-birth infections were common. One job of the ‘midwife’ was even to make arrangements for the baby in case the mother should die, indicating just how often women did die during childbirth.


Tudor women under Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I did not ever get married, and to this day retains the somewhat misleading title of ‘the Virgin Queen.’ She was the most powerful woman of her time, and refused to relinquish or share that power, when women were considered property, and so perhaps it could be seen that she was a feminist in some sense. She was strong, intelligent and refused to be constrained by a political marriage. This is apparent in her hidden relationship with Robert Dudley, who she could never marry because of his status, but yet still refused to marry another who she did not love. She once stated “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too,” thus again indicating just how brusquely independent she was determined to be.

There is speculation among historians as to why Elizabeth I never got married, such as a psychological explanation owing to what happened to her mother and stepmother in marriage (they were beheaded). Perhaps she saw the damage of what Mary’s marriage to Philip II did to the country, and to Mary’s heart, or perhaps she held a fear of childbirth as two of her stepmothers, Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr had died just after childbirth. It is clear that her love for Robert Dudley did play some importance, and her constant appearance of an available woman to foreign ambassadors meant that she could enter marriage negotiations and use them to her advantage by influencing other countries and playing them off against one another.

Despite the fierce independence of Elizabeth, she did not do much to actually improve the lives of women in society, and so perhaps cannot be a ‘feminist,’ as we see them. As Carrick asserted that “she was the monarch and [felt she’d been] appointed by God…. that set her apart from the rest of humanity.” However, we must also place her in context, and Carrick also recognises this, by stating, “The idea of women’s rights…just wouldn’t occur to her yet and yet as an individual she was that; she lived that. She was brilliant at sport and horse riding, really active, a massive intellect.”

Therefore, whilst women in the Elizabethan era had primarily similar lives to those living under the reign of the previous Tudor monarchs, the roots of feminine individuality can clearly be seen in the era, and so perhaps helped to set up a platform which would aid the suffrage movement many centuries later.


What do you think of the life of women in Tudor England? Is Elizabeth I the first British feminist? Let us know below.