The Tudors (1485-1603)

The three main Tudor monarchs (Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) played an important part in turning England from a European backwater still immersed in the Middle Ages into a powerful Renaissance state that in the coming centuries would dominate much of the world.

Elizabeth I

Henry VII (1485 – 1509)

Having defeated Richard III at Bosworth, Henry Tudor went on to found the dynasty that contains arguably the most well-known figures in royal history. By undermining the nobility and marrying Elizabeth of York, Henry united the warring houses and soon secured his position on the throne.

Throughout his reign Henry did his best to strengthen tense relations at home and abroad. He arranged his daughter Margaret to marry James IV, King of Scots, while peace with Spain was sought when his eldest son Arthur married Catherine Of Aragon. However, mistrust between Henry and the King of Spain remained right up until Henry’s death. Following Arthur’s premature death, it was up to the dead king’s younger son Henry to take the throne.

Henry VIII (1509–1547)

To historians, Henry remains one of the most important monarchs to have ruled the English and Welsh. During his four decades of sovereignty, he presided over the foundation of the Church of England, a remodelling of government, a major growth in the importance of Parliament, the incorporation of Wales into English administration, the establishment of the Kingdom of Ireland and oversaw the construction of many colleges, palaces and fortresses.

Of course, he is also notorious for having married six times, the first being his dead brother’s widow Catherine of Aragon. After a divorce that permanently altered the relationship between the church and the monarchy in England, he wed Anne Boleyn, only to have her executed for treason and adultery.

Next up was Jane Seymour who died after giving birth to Henry’s only male heir. He then wed Anne of Cleves, but a second divorce later he got hitched to Catherine Howard, who was also beheaded for treason. Henry’s last wife was Catherine Parr, who outlived the mighty monarch and who herself married more times than any other queen – taking four husbands in total!

Edward VI (1547–1553)

Edward was another boy king, having ascended the throne at the age of nine. Fiercely intelligent, Edward excelled at various academic disciplines while England was ruled by an ever-quarrelling series of Lord Protectors until he came of age. During this time the country was divided by religion; although his father had initially broken the link between the English church and Rome, it was during Edward's reign that the decisive move was made from Catholicism to a form of Protestantism - later known as Anglicanism.

Due to his ardent beliefs, Edward disapproved of his elder sister Mary's Catholicism and even when his health was visibly failing, remained adamant that he did not want the throne succeeded by his elder sister. It is believed that had he survived into old age, Edward would have been a great King, but it was not to be. He died aged fifteen, from either tuberculosis, measles or even syphilis and his brief reign did little to secure peace in the kingdom.

Lady Jane Grey (1553)

Just before his death and under the guidance of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, Edward VI devised the Crown to the Lady Jane Grey, a descendant of Henry VIII's younger sister.

This accession was met with popular disapproval, with many wanting the true heir, Edward’s half sister Mary to take the throne. Nine days later, Jane and her closest allies were imprisoned and executed in the Tower. She was sixteen.

Mary I (1553 – 1558)

Known as Mary Tudor, this queen is best remembered for trying to undo the works of her half-brother and attempt to return England from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. To this end, she had almost three hundred religious dissenters executed, often by being burned at the stake. As a result, she became known as Bloody Mary.

The daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Mary was proud of her Spanish heritage and she married a Spaniard, namely Phillip, the son of Emperor Charles V. However, he apparently found her deeply unattractive and fourteen months later he returned to Spain!

During her life she suffered from phantom pregnancies and produced no heir. Unloved by her subjects, Bloody Mary died of cancer and reluctantly named her sister Elizabeth as her successor.

Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603)

Sometimes referred to as The Virgin Queen - since she never married - Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess was the fifth and final monarch of the Tudor dynasty (not counting Jane Grey). So long and influential was her reign that this period in history became known as the Elizabethan era. When she ascended the throne England was at war with France, the exchequer was bankrupt, the coinage debased and inflation was soaring, Elizabeth managed to overturn the fortunes of her country.

Under her reign, England grew strong in terms of global discovery and international diplomacy while literature and the arts flourished; a Spanish invasion was crippled and her excellent political and diplomatic skills meant that she was able to prevent the outbreak of a religious or civil war on English soil – no mean feat given the history of her country!

The demise of the Tudor Dynasty came to an end when Elizabeth died aged sixty-nine, at that point the oldest English sovereign ever to have reigned. Her lasting legacy ensured that she recently came seventh in the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons poll, outranking all other British monarchs.