What Made the Tudor Dynasty Unique?

Royal Badge of England, including the Tudor Rose.
Royal Badge of England, including the Tudor Rose.

The Tudor dynasty was unique in several ways, not least that two of our most remembered monarchs were Tudors – Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Furthermore, the dynasty was unique in issues of marriage, succession, political unity, religion, and love. Read on to find out more.

Henry VIII is the only reigning monarch to have married more than twice. He was also only the second to have a wife who had already been married (the first was Edward IV whose Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, already had two sons when they married). He is also only the second King to have married a commoner (Edward IV was, again, the first). He is also the only monarch to have had one of his wives (let alone two!) executed. Even more shocking that the two executed were in fact cousins.[1]

Edward VI was the third reigning English monarch not to marry, the first two being William II and Edward V, the second of whom was too young to be married when he died, and the former appeared to have been too busy with wars and dissenters to think about a family. As the third son as well, he probably thought he would never inherit the throne so didn’t see the need to marry and produce heirs. Elizabeth I, therefore, was the first English monarch to make a conscious decision not to marry and secure the succession. Although Elizabeth had a lot of suitors for her hand, she was possibly influenced in her decision by the fate of her mother, Anne Boleyn, who was executed by her husband Henry VIII falsely accused of adultery and incest. There was also the similar fate of her stepmother Katherine Howard, and of course the tragic fate of Jane Seymour, who died just after giving birth to a male heir. Elizabeth had made it clear that she wanted to remain unwed, but her councillors kept pressing her to marry. However, the council couldn’t agree on a candidate. Elizabeth favoured Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The next favoured suitor was the Duke of Anjou, but there were also petitions from various relatives of Mary I’s widower, Philip II of Spain.[2]

James VI & I by Daniel Mytens 1621.
James VI & I by Daniel Mytens 1621.

It was because of the Tudors that the union of England, Wales and Scotland came about. England and Wales were already joined, but Scotland had always been an independent country, fighting with the English and competing with them. The marriage of James IV of Scotland and Henry VIII’s elder sister, Margaret, paved the way for the union in 1603 under James VI of Scotland and I of England, and then the legal union under Queen Anne in 1707. Margaret Tudor gave birth in 1512 to the future James V who became King the next year on the death of his father. He, in turn, married Mary of Guise who gave birth to Mary Queen of Scots in 1542. Mary’s second marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, then produced James VI of Scotland and I of England. He reigned Scotland from Mary’s imprisonment in 1567, and gained England on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. This was enshrined in law to become Great Britain in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) and the United Kingdom in the reign of George III (1760-1820).[3]

Marrying for love also seems to have been a precedent in the Tudor family. Edward IV was the first monarch to marry for love (he seems to be pretty revolutionary!) but the Tudors definitely set a precedent for later marriages. Henry VIII married at least three of the six times for love – Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard – and even his last marriage was based on more than necessity, if not love. Henry appears to have been in love with the idea of Anne of Cleves, but not the physical person when he eventually met her. Katherine of Aragon is more complicated. Henry would have known her for around a decade before they were married, courtesy of her marriage to his brother, Arthur. It definitely seems as if Henry grew to love Katherine, even if their relationship had not started out like that, but there was definitely affection for Henry to go against his father’s deathbed wish and marry her.

Other Tudor relatives who married for love include Katherine Parr and her fourth husband Thomas Seymour, Katherine Grey and Mary Grey (sisters of Lady Jane Grey) who married Edward Seymour the Younger and Thomas Keyes respectively, Mary I who fell irrevocably in love with Philip II of Spain so much so that she risked her crown, and Mary Tudor (sister of Henry VIII) who secretly married the King’s best friend Charles Brandon. I’m not entirely sure what this suggests, no doubt some believe that the red hair symbolic of the Tudors denotes passion, which could be a part of it. However, I believe that Henry VII did instil in his children, and they to theirs and so on, the idea that duty doesn’t have to be a hardship, and I think that in spoiling his younger son and daughter (Henry VIII and Mary) he led them to believe that they could have whatever they wanted when they wanted.[4]

The Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York, alter combined to create the iconic Tudor Rose.
The Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York, alter combined to create the iconic Tudor Rose.

At no time was the succession such an issue as it was in the sixteenth century. Henry VII won the crown on the battlefield at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. He solidified his weak claim to the throne by marrying the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth of York (daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville) and uniting the two warring houses. So ended the Wars of the Roses, the civil war that had been fought over the crown for nearly half a decade. Henry VIII had it drummed into his head by his father that women couldn’t rule, and there wasn’t a good English example to contradict this thought. After Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, died, it became obvious why ‘an heir and a spare’ was needed. This drove much of Henry VIII’s matrimonial career, in particular with respect to the fates of his first and second wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, as both failed to produce a son. The problem was less urgent once Jane Seymour produced a son in 1537.

The succession issue flared again once it became obvious that Edward VI was seriously ill. But, this time, religion came into the equation. Both of the possible heirs were girls – Henry VIII’s eldest daughter the Catholic Mary I, or Edward’s cousin the Protestant Lady Jane Grey. I think most people know what happened next – Jane Grey was Queen for only nine days until overthrown by Mary I. She was executed less than a year later. Mary I then had the same qualms about handing her crown on to her half-sister, Elizabeth I, but realised she didn’t have a choice. The main issue throughout the reign of Elizabeth I was the succession, because she didn’t marry, so produced no son, and there wasn’t an obvious successor, as Elizabeth was the last Tudor. There were several contenders – the remaining Grey sisters were forerunners until they predeceased Elizabeth, and the alternative was the Scottish line descended, as seen, through Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret.[5]

As has been demonstrated, religion played a key part in domestic politics, like marriages and the succession. However, it played a larger role in international politics. It didn’t just affect the Tudor dynasty, but all dynasties that were around at the time across Europe, notably in France, Spain and the Empire. In France it culminated in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. Spain had the Inquisition to keep heresy under control. However, the Empire was so wide-spread and included so many countries, faiths, and languages, that it was impossible to keep order and make everyone believe the same. Spain itself, the centre of the Empire for much of the sixteenth century, was Catholic. The Netherlands were divided, half Catholic and half Protestant, and much of Germany was also Protestant, as was Switzerland. Areas like Germany and Switzerland were the heartland of the Reformation, the home of Zwingli and Luther.  Within England itself, there was constant debate over foreign alliances. With the divorce in the late 1520s and early 1530s England naturally allied itself with France, as Katherine of Aragon was the Holy Roman Emperor’s aunt. When England needed protection against the combined forces of the Empire and France, it turned to Protestant Cleves. This conflict of religion is almost unique to the sixteenth century, and appeared to have caused the most problems in England, due to the nature of religion, politics and love being intertwined.[6]

[1] The information in this paragraph comes from my own knowledge, as does a lot of the information in the piece. Some dates have been taken from Wikipedia.

[2] The names of Elizabeth’s suitors are taken from David Starkey, Elizabeth (London: Vintage, 2001) pp. 315-8

[3] A lot of the background information in this paragraph comes from Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (London: George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1994)

[4] The information in this paragraph comes from Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: the Family Story (London: Chatto & Windus, 2013)

[5] The information from this paragraph and the one before comes from my own knowledge.

[6] The information in this paragraph, aside from being my own knowledge, comes from Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 ( London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2004)

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