The pivot of medieval and modern history, the Tudor period saw England transformed from a Catholic to a Protestant nation, and the growth of a distinctively English culture. Strong central government was the aim and hallmark of the Tudor monarchs.
Henry VII (r.1485–1509) ended the upheavals of the Wars of the Roses by curtailing aristocratic power. Cautious and calculating, he kept the peace and built up a firm financial base, albeit at his subjects’ expense.
Tall, handsome and cultured, the extravagant Henry VIII (r.1509–47) was a striking contrast to his father. Renaissance-influenced art and also commerce flourished during his reign. The cloth trade enriched many, though it impoverished victims of the resulting agricultural changes, as peasant farmers were turned off the land to make way for sheep.
NO HEIRS AND A REFORMATION
From the mid-1520s Henry’s reign was overshadowed by his need for a legitimate male heir, which his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (despite the birth of a daughter, Mary) failed to produce. When long negotiations to obtain papal consent to a divorce also failed, Henry made the fateful decision to break with Rome. In 1533 he declared himself, not the Pope, to be head of the Church in England.
His decision initiated the Reformation of English religion. The most crucial event of the Tudor period, it would shape English history for centuries to come.
Henry’s next step was the Suppression (or Dissolution) of the Monasteries (1536–40), managed by his minister Thomas Cromwell. Protest such as the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536–7) in northern England was swiftly and savagely put down. The wealth of the monasteries greatly enriched the king and many of his favoured subjects.
While the break with Rome brought the danger of invasion from Catholic Europe, monastic plunder helped to finance Henry’s response: a system of coastal artillery forts (1538–47). Designed for heavy cannon, these reflected the triumph of firearms in warfare.
A suspicious and increasingly tyrannical Henry still sought to secure his dynasty’s future. His marriage to Anne Boleyn produced a girl, Elizabeth, but ended in Anne’s execution.
Jane Seymour died bearing the longed-for boy, Edward. Then Anne of Cleves was rejected and Katherine Howard beheaded. Henry’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, helped to establish his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, in the line of succession, and narrowly escaped condemnation for supporting the Protestants whom Henry – still a Catholic at heart – continued to burn for alleged heresy.
REFORM AND COUNTER-REFORMATION
Radical Protestant reform began only with the accession of the bookish boy-king Edward VI (r.1547–53), himself an enthusiastic Protestant. Despite a West Country rising against the new Protestant Book of Common Prayer (1549), reform intensified under Edward’s Lord Protector, the ambitious Duke of Northumberland.
A mortally ill Edward bequeathed the Crown to Northumberland’s teenage daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, a great-granddaughter of Henry VII. But she ‘reigned’ for only nine days before being ousted by a tide of enthusiasm for the legitimate heir, Mary I (r.1553–8).
A convinced Catholic, Mary immediately set about reversing the Reformation. But her initial popularity quickly waned. She burned many Protestants and her marriage to Philip II of Spain, whom she made joint ruler of England, was unpopular. Failing to conceive a much-desired child with him, ‘Bloody Mary’ died largely unmourned. Her subjects welcomed with relief her sister, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603) was among the most astute and successful of all English monarchs. Resisting demands to marry – even her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester – she assiduously cultivated her image as Gloriana, a ‘Virgin Queen’ wedded to an increasingly prosperous England.
For most people the quality of daily life improved steadily throughout the 16th century. But not for all, and late in Elizabeth’s reign a series of Poor Laws addressed the long-standing problem of beggary.
Elizabeth was not universally loved, however. Although her establishment of a moderately Protestant Church of England satisfied most of her subjects, it further alienated Catholics, prompting plots to replace her with her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.
SPANISH ARMADA, ENGLISH CULTURE
Elizabeth’s reluctant execution of Mary in 1587 hastened a showdown with Spain. England had long challenged Spain in the New World, where Francis Drake and other adventurers opened new routes for commerce.
The ‘Invincible Armada’ which Philip II finally launched against England in 1588 was utterly defeated by English seamanship, fireships, good luck and bad weather.
The Armada’s defeat set the seal on growing self-confidence and national pride, epitomised by Shakespeare’s plays and the flowering of country-house architecture. It was under the Tudors that a distinctively English culture first burgeoned.