The Tudor dynasty makes up a massive part of our national imagery.
It was the time in English history in which the country broke away from the Papacy in Rome. It was the moment English supremacy on the high seas became a real possibility.
And, of course, it was the time in which kings and queens were the most fascinating, the most dastardly, and the most dramatic – with beguiling private lives, presiding over massive cultural production, and making England the country that it would later become.
Yet, is all we think we know about the House of Tudor – and Tudor England in general – actually true? Is there anything left in this period in the history of England – from Henry VII to Elizabeth I – that still has the power to astound?
Of course there is! And in this article, we’re going to look at some of the things you might not have known about the Tudor period.
Fundamental Facts About the Tudors
For all that the country enjoyed a robust economy, an expansive outlook and an optimistic future, the Tudor era was a turbulent time. There were wars, uprisings and egregious raiding of states' coffers to placate Tudor monarchs' insatiable greed for the best of everything.
Tudor excesses aside, the still-persistent myth that the Tudor era was one of light, progress, peace and prosperity - in short, a Golden Era of English reign, is a bit far from the truth.
Perhaps the biggest untruth is about the House of Tudor itself.
The Tudors Probably Shouldn’t Have Been Monarchs at All
It’s generally well known that the Tudor era began in 1485, when Henry VII, Henry Tudor, was crowned king. A Lancastrian, his House of Lancaster defeated Richard III of the House of York at the Battle of Bosworth Field to end the thirty-year long Wars of the Roses.
Whilst Henry VII, after his coronation, very successfully cemented his position as a unifying force in English politics – marrying Elizabeth of York to end the War of the Roses – his position was actually really very vulnerable.
His claim to be king was through his descendance from Edward III’s fourth son, John of Gaunt, and his mistress. Henry’s great-grandfather was therefore illegitimate – and Henry’s claim to the throne came through his mother’s side. This was something not very well thought of during these times.
Henry was only the Lancastrian candidate to be king because all of those with a better claim had been killed during the war. And so, in many ways, he should never have been king in the first place.
Find out more about the Tudor monarchs!
The Scots and Welsh Might Not be Very Happy if You Called the Tudor Monarchs ‘British’
When talking about the Tudors these days, the phrase ‘British history’ is always at risk of slipping out. Yet, at this point in time – the sixteenth century – there wasn’t really any such thing as ‘Britain’ at all.
Scotland was a different country entirely – and one with which the English were continually at war – whilst Wales was hardly a defined thing either. It wasn’t until 1536 that Henry VIII’s Act of Union made Wales a part of the territory of the Tudor monarchs.
Before that, Wales was administrated by the Principality of Wales and by the Marcher Lordships, which protected the border of England and lawless Wales.
The Tudors themselves were actually Welsh, with Henry Tudor descending from the Tudors, a family of the Welsh nobility.
Henry VII’s grandfather was a certain Owen Tudor, who Anglicised his Welsh name, Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur. He was the second husband of Catherine of Valois – whose first husband was Henry V – and his own father participated in the Glyndŵr Rising, the last major demonstration of Welsh independence from England in the early fifteenth century.
Discover more about who the Tudors were!
Facts about the Tudor Kings
As so often happens - even in politics today, the figurehead is blamed or credited with everything that happens on his watch. Usually, though, the behind-the-scenes actors are the ones bringing about changes and/or creating a stir.
Thomas Cromwell is a perfect example of such.
Henry VIII had far more... shall we say "interesting" matters to pursue - he's best remembered as the king who had 6 wives, after all, and his lustful conquests are the stuff of legend! As such, he felt fully confident that his chief minister could manage state affairs on his own.
Cromwell did just that. He engineered a preliminary separation of the monarchy from state affairs - an idea that the king thought was smashing. He boosted Parliament's role in governing and pushed the power of Tudor into the furthest of the kingdom's realms.
When Henry VIII tasked Thomas Cromwell with finding him another wife - his fourth, Mr Cromwell erred in his choice. For all of the good that he did for the kingdom, proposing his union to Anne of Cleves saw him charged with treason and beheaded.
One of England's greatest architects of reform died ignobly and the king, with all of his excesses, lived on.
King Henry VIII Didn’t Break from Rome Just because of Anne Boleyn
In our great national fantasy, the primary reason that Henry VIII instigated his massive religious upheaval in the 1530s was due to his love – or lust – for Anne Boleyn.
That is only half of the story, if that much.
The promise of a marriage to Anne Boleyn – after a divorce from Catherine of Aragon – may well have sweetened the deal, yet this wonderful entwining of personal life and statecraft is pure fiction. The main reasons for Henry’s break from Rome were a bit more political.
He’d spent all of the country’s cash on a load of useless wars throughout the first half of his reign. The prospect of ownership over all of the ecclesiastical property - property that enriched Rome, was really quite appealing.
The timing for his divorce from Roman Catholicism was perfect. Massive dissatisfaction with the Catholic church across Europe paved the way for him - well, for Thomas Cromwell, to execute those his plans.
Boleyn was Killed for Adultery but It Was Really Henry that was Naughty
Anne Boleyn, after the whole divorce debacle, was beheaded – an action apparently legitimated by Henry’s accusation of her adultery.
Yet, Henry was one of the most notorious philanderers ever to have sat in the English throne.
Besides having marital relations with at least five of his wives - his marriage to Anne of Cleves was reportedly unconsummated, historians believe that he had sexual relations with a number of other women. One of them was likely Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary. Furthermore, he is thought to have fathered plenty of illegitimate children.
Proof of his many conquests exists in the most famous portrait of him, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger.
This painting shows him standing, legs spread and sporting a protruding codpiece. For now, historians and scientists seem to agree that his genitals, most likely swollen from disease, demanded the extra room that piece provided.
There’s Another Monarch in Tudor History that We All Forget
Strangely enough, we usually remember five (or six) Tudor monarchs: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey (maybe), Mary I, and Elizabeth I.
There is one more Tudor king that people usually forget about.
Philip II of Spain was the husband of Mary I and holder of the title ‘King of England’. In diplomatic dispatches, in Parliament, and even on English coins, Philip was recognised as King of England. It was considered high treason to deny his authority.
The irony of legitimacy: he couldn’t read a word of English. Regarding all matters of state, everything had to be published in Latin or Spanish so that he could understand and act on them.
Edward VI's Dog
Edward VI was just nine years old when he ascended to the throne. Incapable of handling affairs of state at that young age, his uncle was appointed his Lord Protector. Edward Seymour, the uncle in question, took his duties seriously.
His brother, Thomas Seymour, was a bit too greedy and ambitious to be party to a nursemaid operation.
He entered the king's privy garden, pistol in hand, intending to enter the chambers via the window and kidnap the young monarch. while en route, Edward's dog leapt at him, teeth bared, in full attack mode.
It was a relatively small dog - a spaniel, but Thomas apparently felt an attack was imminent and wasted no time pulling the trigger. He shot the dog dead.
Royal palace guards thought an assassin was on palace grounds. Platoons of guards combed every inch of Westminster Palace's grounds, soon flushing Thomas Seymour out. He was taken to the Tower of London, found guilty of treason and beheaded.
How difficult must it have been for Edward Seymour, acting on behalf of the King and state, to sign his brother's death warrant?
Facts About the Tudor Queens
The Tudor era was known, among other remarkable aspects, for its women.
The first two queens of England were Tudor and one of our country's most influential Tudor figures is Anne Boleyn, of whom countless films have been made and stories written.
Incidentally, Anne Boleyn is "credited" with kicking off the English Reformation through her so-called treason; the reason she was beheaded. We all know that it was Thomas Cromwell, manoeuvring in the shadows, that initiated those reforms.
The public had a great affinity for Anne Boleyn, a woman who went to her death with her head held high. What a queen she would have made!
Still, the Tudor era did not lack for queens; let's examine their legacies.
Poor Lady Jane Grey was Perhaps the First Queen of England – Depending on Who You Ask
There are few people in the history of the English monarchy who had quite such a bad time as Lady Jane Grey. Sure, George III went mad and Charles I was executed. But no-one was used so cynically – and suffered such a fate so young – as Lady Jane Grey.
Held up by Edward VI and his adviser, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, as the heir to the throne in 1553, Lady Jane didn’t find much support when she was proclaimed queen that year. Rather, the few supporters she did have soon turned against her.
And, when Mary I was proclaimed queen nine days later, Lady Jane was imprisoned and, ultimately, executed. She died at the age of sixteen or seventeen.
Despite this tragedy, she may well have been the first woman to have been queen of England. This depends who you are talking to, because some people say that this was Empress Matilda back in the twelfth century. Others say that Lady Jane was never actually queen at all, but that the first queen of England was actually her successor, Mary I.
Mary I Doesn’t Really Deserve the Name ‘Bloody Mary’
Mary Tudor, or Mary I, really has a bad reputation. Such a bad reputation, in fact, that she’s more commonly known by her nickname, ‘Bloody Mary’. These days, historians are realising that this isn’t exactly fair.
Sure, Mary I did indeed have a few people killed during her reign – but not near as many as her fellow Tudors. In fact, the 283 people that she had burned at the stake seems rather dignified and restrained in comparison to the rest of her family.
Henry VIII is said to have executed over seventy thousand people, for example – which we’d surely all agree is excessive. Elizabeth, whilst admittedly ruling for much longer than Mary, had six hundred people executed.
We Should Really Stop Being So Mean about Mary Tudor
Bloody Mary wasn’t really that bloody. She had a bit of a tough life, honestly.
From puberty onward, she was regularly ill – more so than many in her time and position. She was believed to have had something known as ‘strangulation of the womb’, a condition that caused her to believe herself pregnant even when she was not.
Maybe she wasn’t such a bad queen after all, as many of the things that Elizabeth I is routinely praised for – financial stability and naval expansion – were actually Mary’s ideas.
Queen Elizabeth I of England Wasn’t as Universally Popular as We Might Now Believe
And just as Mary has developed a bit of a bad rep, maybe Elizabeth wasn’t such a great queen as we like to imagine.
Under her rule, England underwent a whole series of rebellions and attempted coups.
- There was the Northern Rising of 1569, the famous attempt to put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne.
- The Ridolfi Plot of 1571, involving an Italian banker who tried to arrange a Spanish invasion of England.
- The Throckmorton Plot (1583), again revolving around Mary, Queen of Scots, that aimed to see Queen Eliszbeth I murdered.
It's not surprising that Elizabeth's reign saw such turmoil. Even though her father engineered England's divorce from the Roman Catholic church, Catholicism maintained a foothold in recessed niches of the country.
When Pope Pius V issued a decree declaring her an illegitimate monarch, Catholic 'armies' were ready to rise up and remove her from the throne. Fortunately, her ministers' secret service thwarted them before any harm could come to her.
Elizabeth I Had a Stunning Wardrobe
Her father, avidly amorous and a profligate spender, cared little for his daughters. In his dual quests for a male heir and a good time, Elizabeth lived in virtual penury after her mother's death, even though she was of royal blood.
So dire were the circumstances of her daily life that, as she outgrew her clothes, she (well, her servant) had to write letters, begging for money to dress herself.
Any ordinary person would feel crushed under such humiliation. For Elizabeth, her royal blood boiled at the ignominy. Is that why her closets contained more than 2,000 dresses, each one more elaborate, colourful and rich than the one before?
One apocryphal tale describes a certain Lady Mary Howard appearing in court, dressed in a gown more resplendent an ostentatious than perhaps the occasion required. Elizabeth, consumed with envy (and rage, no doubt), appropriated it and paraded around court with it on.
Find out more about life under the Tudors!
Other Surprising Facts About the Tudor Era
The remains of Tudor England today - the architecture and the art, plays by Shakespeare and the workings of government, give the illusion that this period was one of wealth and prosperity for all.
As it is often portrayed, it must have been a Golden Age... right?
Not quite. These few titbits give a better look at what it was like, living in the Tudor era, if you weren't a royal.
The English Didn’t Really Defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588
One of the funniest things about courses on the Tudors in secondary schools is that they all end in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, which was defeated by the English by good luck and some bad British weather.
In fact, in 1589, Elizabeth ordered a ‘counter-Armada’, led by Francis Drake and John Norris. This, in turn, failed dramatically, and actually ushered in another long period of Spanish dominance on the seas.
Historians estimate that up to 15,000 lives were lost during the counter-Armada; some to disease and others through wounds of battle - or outright killed in battle. You can be sure that it wasn't the aristocracy that suffered most of those losses.
Furthermore, the mighty English navy lost 40 ships. Some were sunk and others were captured.
In light of this, the episode of the Spanish Armada doesn’t seem like much of a victory at all.
Education for the Privileged Few
Despite Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, both playwrights of the Elizabethan Era being world-renown still today, education was not considered important in Tudor times. Indeed, scientists were often proclaimed to be heretics, charged with witchcraft and mutiny.
Neither the King nor government encouraged any scientific discovery, even though some of the keenest scientific minds lived and worked during that time.
In a similar vein, basic education was considered unnecessary, especially for the masses. Wealthy families might send their kids to school - such as it was. Poor in resources and even more so in qualified instructors, students might have only "hornbooks" to learn from.
A hornbook consists of a passage of text - usually religious in nature, affixed to a board and covered in transparent material from a cow's horn.
Discipline was tough. Any student infraction could result in 50 lashes or more with a cane. Some parents preferred to pay for a 'whipping boy', someone to take the beating for their child.
King Edward VI's whipping boy was Barnaby Fitzpatrick. Oddly enough, they became friends later in life.
Tudor London was a Filthy Mess
Tudor architecture was and still is magnificent but the ground it was built on was usually covered with a thick, oozing mass for most of the year. A thick, oozing, smelly mass of mud that stuck around almost all year, created by the splashes from water carts are they drew down narrow lanes.
To clean their shoes off before entering their homes. Londoners spread rushes on the floor and wiped their feet.
The great scholar Desiderius Erasmus noted in his journal that, while occasionally new rushes were spread around, the old, soiled ones were not first swept out, leaving a layer of filth that may endure for 20 years or more. He was understandably disgusted.
Another Italian visitor to London, Andreas Franciscius also remarked on the mud and was quite vocal about how bad the city smelt. He also complained that English people had wicked tempers and fierce dispositions.
Wouldn't you, too, if you had to live in a super-smelly city?
Today, we can thank the Tudors for outlining how our government works and for leaving behind some magnificent structures. They also left us some fairly good tales and legends but the more science discovers about Tudor life...
Most likely, the more fun facts we'll have to bandy about.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the more surprising things about the Tudors. And find out more about the Tudor period!