British monarchy: The Tudors, 1485–1603

    Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of King Henry VIII, made by the artist's studio
    Detail from a copy of Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of King Henry VIII, made by the artist's studio. Credit: National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty
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    The Tudor era covers the Renaissance and Henry VIII to the Golden Age and Elizabeth I – via Shakespeare and the Spanish Armada

    A much-copied (yet lost) portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger showed the king in swaggering pose: fists clenched, feet spread, shoulders padded within majestically bejewelled robes. Abetted by newly arrived court painters, the Tudors ruthlessly exploited the power of image, and to this day we are in their thrall. “All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare, another icon of the age, and as the 117-year reign of the Tudors unfolded, some of history’s most memorable characters made their dramatic entrances and exits.

    Having snatched England’s crown from Richard III, Henry VII (r 1485– 1509) shrewdly united warring dynastic factions, restored order and refilled the nation’s coffers. Thus his son, Henry VIII (r 1509–1547), could succeed to a kingdom of “milk and honey”, as one lord rejoiced.

    Henry VIII – and his six wives

    Handsome, artistic and athletic, Henry VIII appears the very embodiment of the Renaissance culture he welcomed into his glamorous court. Paintings he amassed became the core of today’s Royal Collection and his maritime activities earned him the title of “Father of the English Navy”. Yet despite what Holbein’s portrait shows, “Bluff King Hal” would transform into a fat, bad-tempered ogre; his 38-year reign defined by romantic and religious dramas.

    Getting through six wives in pursuit of a male heir and happiness – “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived”, as the ditty recalls them – Henry broke with Rome in order to divorce Catholic Catherine of Aragon and marry second wife Anne Boleyn. In tune with the spirit of the Reformation, the Church of England was established with Henry as Supreme Head.

    More generally, the Tudor era saw the rise of a prosperous middle class. Thomas Wolsey, son of an Ipswich butcher, soared to become cardinal and lord chancellor; Thomas Cromwell, son of a Surrey blacksmith, rode high as Henry’s chief minister. Each, in turn, fell from favour but Henry kept Wolsey’s magnificent Hampton Court Palace.

    Protestants and Catholics at war

    Religious turmoil continued through the reigns of the Protestant boy King Edward VI (r 1547–1553), Henry’s sole surviving son, by third wife Jane Seymour, and Mary I (r 1553–1558), the devout Catholic daughter of Catherine of Aragon whose rule saw some 300 Protestants burned at the stake and led to the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. Dragged into war with France by Mary’s Spanish husband Philip, England lost Calais, its last continental possession.

    Golden Age of Elizabeth I

    By contrast, the 45-year reign of Elizabeth I (r 1558-1603), the Protestant daughter of Anne Boleyn, was a Golden Age. Religious unrest settled; Shakespeare and theatre flourished; ‘prodigy’ (meaning exceptional’) houses such as Derbyshire’s Hardwick Hall sprang up; adventurers such as Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh pursued mastery of the seas. The Virgin Queen, never marrying, combined ‘feminine’ wiles and ‘masculine’ strength to keep control, her regal authority dazzlingly captured in 1588’s Armada Portrait following the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

    The Tudor era will be remembered above all for engendering a new spirit of nationalism and power: Wales was annexed to England in 1536, Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland six years later, and Scotland would provide childless Elizabeth’s successor.

    Words: Diana Wright

    Read more in our British monarchy series

    The Normans, 1066-1154

    The Middle Ages, 1154-1485

    The Stuarts, 1603-1714

    The Hanoverians, 1714-1901

    The Modern Era, 1901-today

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