The Lasting Legacy of the Tudor Dynasty: Why are they still so fascinating?


Henry VII

Henry VII 1505 at the National Portrait Gallery.
Henry VII 1505 at the National Portrait Gallery.

Henry VII is a rather obscure figure, and is probably the Tudor I know the least about. In my opinion, Henry VII is most remembered for ending the Wars of the Roses and birthing the Tudor dynasty. However, he was quite a remarkable man; he put down countless rebellions (Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck and the White Rose to name a few) and held the throne for twenty-four years. What isn’t so admirable about Henry VII is that he didn’t give much fatherly attention to his children, Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary, but suffocated them with rules. I know this was almost usual but even by monarchs’ standards, Henry VII was cold. Henry VII’s actions regarding Arthur Tudor and Katherine of Aragon led directly to Henry VIII’s Great Matter and the Break with Rome. If Henry VII had allowed Katherine to return home after Arthur’s death, Henry VIII might never have married her, and it’s possible that England would have remained faithful to Rome. That is the main interest of Henry VII’s reign – the what ifs.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

When you ask someone to tell you about Henry VIII, it’s always six wives; divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. I suppose that makes Henry VIII quite extraordinary as even by modern standards six wives is an awful lot. But Henry VIII did so much more than executing and divorcing wives. Henry was desperate for an heir and so because of Henry VIII, England ended its obedience to Rome and embraced the new religion. He also left behind a massive architectural legacy in the renovations at Whitehall, Greenwich and the palace he built at Nonsuch (of which unfortunately only ruins remain in Nonsuch Park). Henry’s wives each made an impact on England in their own way; from the diplomatic pawns (Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves), to the fallen women (Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard), to the carer (Katherine Parr), to the mother of the heir (Jane Seymour). His three children, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, changed the history of England forever. Henry VIII’s reign was the foundation for the remainder of the sixteenth century.

Edward VI

Edward VI as Prince of Wales 1546.
Edward VI as Prince of Wales 1546.

Edward VI was the longed-for son of Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour and the reason for Henry VIII’s Great Matter, the Break with Rome and the execution of second wife Anne Boleyn. Historical sources tell us that Edward was cold, and was manipulated by his uncle, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and Duke of Somerset, and then John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward VI approved the executions of both of his uncles, Edward and Thomas Seymour, for treason. The main factor of Edward’s reign was manipulation, and he was manipulated into changing his will in favour of his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, in order to avoid the Catholic succession of his half-sister, Mary. He couldn’t cut Mary out of the will without cutting Elizabeth out, too, hence the succession of Jane Grey. It’s this manipulation that makes Edward’s reign unique as every other Tudor monarch was old enough to make their own decisions. Edward’s short reign was the culmination of Henry VIII’s reign, and it was a disappointment.

Lady Jane Grey

The Streatham portrait of Lady Jane Grey, copy of a lost original.
The Streatham portrait of Lady Jane Grey, copy of a lost original.

Jane Grey’s reign is the shortest in English history – it lasted just nine days. Jane was the daughter of Francis Brandon and Henry Grey Marquess of Dorset. Francis Brandon was the daughter of Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk and best friend of Henry VIII, and Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister and the Dowager Queen of France. Therefore, Lady Jane Grey was a great-niece of Henry VIII. Jane’s reign is unique because she was forced into it; it wasn’t her choice – she was manipulated into it by her parents and her father-in-law, John Dudley Duke of Buckingham, Edward VI’s Protector who persuaded him to change his will in favour of Jane Grey. Jane’s Protestant leanings were so important in the succession after Edward’s death and it was the main reason why she was pushed onto the throne. Partly what is so interesting about Jane’s story is the lenient treatment of Mary I once she gained the throne, only executing her when it stood in the way of the marriage she was so desperate for.

Mary I

Mary I 1544 by Master John.
Mary I 1544 by Master John.

Mary I (aka Bloody Mary) was the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. She became embittered due to her treatment at the hands of her father and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and the treatment of her mother during the Great Matter. Mary was Catholic and renewed England’s faith with Rome – hence the burnings of Protestants and other heretics. Mary got the nickname Bloody Mary because she executed thousands during her reign. But Henry VIII executed more people in his thirty-eight year reign than Mary did in her eight year reign, but Mary’s was a larger ratio on average per year. Mary I’s reign was the end of the Tudor religious confusion as Elizabeth made it stable. Mary was committed to Catholicism and killed her cousin, and considered killing her half-sister. Also, her obsession with her husband, Philip II of Spain, is interesting, as Mary was determined to rule England, but nearly threw it all away in her desperation to have a child. She was more like her father than she thought.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

Elizabeth, alongside Henry VIII, is the most famous Tudor monarch and the most famous female monarch ever. What excites historians about Elizabeth’s reign is that it was a Golden Age, so what changed from the first half of the sixteenth-century? England was finally stable after years of confusion and this allowed the arts and politics to flourish. Elizabeth’s views against marriage also interest historians greatly. The fate of her mother, Anne Boleyn, obviously influenced her opinions, as did the fate of her second cousin and Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, and the death in childbirth of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. Elizabeth was married to England, and wasn’t willing to risk it for anything, even at the risk of civil war after her death. This was a real chance without an heir to succeed her, as childbirth was exceedingly dangerous. Elizabeth is the only monarch ever to not attempt to beget an heir, the complete opposite of her father, and this is what is so fascinating, and remains so to this day.

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14 thoughts on “The Lasting Legacy of the Tudor Dynasty: Why are they still so fascinating?

  1. Sorry, I just read your added comment that Henry didn’t show the love to his children that we would expect today. That’s because he lived 500 years ago, in a very different era to our own. We simply cannot judge people of this era by our own standards. Doing so merely presents a highly distorted picture of them as individuals. If you must pass judgement, perhaps you could do so on your subject’s own terms?

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  2. Regarding Henry VII section, his reign isn’t that obscure. It is well documented and recently there is a good book that has come out for the general public as well. There is no evidence whatsoever that Henry VII was anything less than a devoted father by any standards. He may not have been able to devote a whole lot of time to his children, but that hardly was unique to him in that era.

    Henry VII did not send Catherine back to Spain because Ferdinand still owed him dowry settlement. Starkey explains the complex negotiations very well in his Six Wives book.

    This is like telling the mother of a murdered child that she must not have had the baby in the first place, else s/he would not be murdered today. Henry VII was hardly responsible for the Break from Rome in anyway.

    In addition, in my opinion, the main interest of Henry 7’s reign was the stability it brought to the country and his internal policies that prevented any revolt against him. Elizabeth indirectly adopted this policy of suppressing her nobility later.

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    1. To be honest, I don’t really know an awful lot about Henry VII’s reign. I have done a module on Tudor rebellions so I know quite a lot about that aspect, but I do think that Henry VII’s reign was quite unusual – he had to make a very war-torn country secure while providing for the succession, and I think in his worries about that, he did neglect his children a little because he was so focused on everything else. I also think that he felt a little unsure of how to deal with his children because he didn’t spend much time with them and saw them simply as political pawns rather than children he has to raise and influence.

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      1. Thanks for the reply. Au contraire, Henry VII kept his children closer to him and kept a close eye on their education and training. In fact, after Arthur’s death, he kept little Henry very close to him, which was quite unusual for the times. There really is no evidence stating that he neglected the kids. Do you have a source, please? Thanks!

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      2. I don’t see how Henry VII can be said to have neglected his children. Their day-to-day care would have been left to others, but that was typical for the period, at least in royal and noble families. He married his children for political advantage, of course, but so had his predecessors. No one would have expected him to do otherwise.

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      3. I don’t believe he really neglected them, but he didn’t show the love that we would expect today. I don’t know much about Henry VII in general but I have read a lot and I know at least the basics, specifically the court and public sphere.

        I’m not suggesting that monarchs had time for tea or anything else, but Henry VIII did spend a lot of time on sport, particularly in his younger years, and certainly gave enough love to his daughters, at least at first, before their mothers fell out of favour. Mary in particular was her father’s darling daughter. Henry VII definitely kept an eye on their education and training because that was what he could use to his advantage later on; his daughters being well-educated would make them more desirable in the international marriage market, and his son would be the heir.

        Derek Wilson, author of ‘Henry VIII: King and Tyrant’ says that the dominant figure in the lives of Henry VIII and his siblings was their grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. She had been very influential over her son, almost overbearing. Henry VII exhibited some of the same over his children. Wilson says that his autocratic rule was felt most especially in his household, and by his son, and Henry VII was prone to sudden rages. Autocracy definitely doesn’t go hand in hand with love and affection; and so, it’s safe to say that there is no evidence of Henry VII’s love towards his children, except in the case of their use to him.

        Henry VII didn’t neglect his children, he obviously did love his son, but there is no evidence of any loving or affectionate gestures on his part. These came from Henry VIII’s mother Elizabeth of York.

        Even by the standards of the day, Henry VII was cold – Henry VIII loved his children very much. Even when he only had one daughter, he doted on her, and always loved her, even when she went against him.

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      4. I have a blog dedicated to Henry VII and I have to take issue with the claim that he “neglected” his children. In actual fact, he kept them very close to him and he was very family minded. Henry never truly recovered from the death of Arthur, and it’s my honest finding that he was the best father he could be.

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      5. Thanks for the clarification. It’s true none of them had relationships we would see today. I also agree with ellie that we can’t expect the same kind of relationships, but the Tudors were a close knit family. They had to be.

        And the Derek Wilson book is a load of crap. I tore it apart in a review. He made so many mistakes, some of them deliberate with the intention of making Henry VIII look bad, that I really wouldn’t advise you to base anything on that book. He also told some lies in it.

        Have you tried reading Winter King by Thomas Penn?

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    2. Thanks for the book recommendation! I’m always looking to improve my knowledge so if there are any texts you can recommend for me to improve my knowledge of Henry VII, it would be much appreciated, and maybe then I can improve myself. I know I have some different opinions, but it’s useful when writing at university to go against the grain; I guess it’s kind of ingrained in me.

      Ellie666 what’s your blog and I’ll go take a look?

      I think we need to judge people from the past in both a modern perspective and a contemporary perspective. That’s what I’m doing in my thesis – judging Anne Boleyn based on modern interpretations and contemporary interpretations.

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      1. Thanks, my blogs are The Henry Tudor Experience and the Thomas Cromwell Experience.

        If you judge medieval personalities by modern day standards, then it presents a highly distorted picture of them. By our (21st century) standards, they were all psychotic, religious fanatic, killing machines. It’s so very unfair to do that to them. In order to get the best, and not to mention fairest, picture of them as individuals then surely they can only be “judged” by the standards of the times they lived in.

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  3. I think many modern academic historians, the late Eric Ives among them, would take issue with your statement that Edward VI was “manipulated” into changing the succession–he had very strong Protestant beliefs and made it clear to his councilors that he wanted his “devise for the succession” upheld. Incidentally, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (not Duke of Buckingham) never held the position of Protector, which was abolished after the downfall of Edward Seymour. Northumberland was known as the President of the Council.

    Mary did not kill thousands of people; about 280-290 Protestants were burned during her reign. That doesn’t make their deaths any less horrible, of course, As for her executing Jane Grey in order to guarantee her marriage to Philip, there’s no evidence that Philip conditioned his marriage on Jane’s execution. Mary might well have eventually pardoned her had her father not involved himself in Wyatt’s rebellion.

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    1. Thanks for your opinions. That was a small error in Northumberland / Buckingham. I did mean Northumberland but was thinking about Buckingham’s execution in 1521. I meant that Northumberland acted almost like a Protector, he fulfilled the same duties as Edward Seymour did before him. Mary killed probably more people proportionally in her eight year reign than Henry VIII did in his 38 year reign.

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