Monday, May 23, 2016

The Unexpected Tudors

Allegory of the Tudor Succession, 1572
Though the dynasty is fabulously popular today, nobody before 1485 would have wagered too much on the chances of England hosting a Tudor dynasty. The roots of the Tudors can be traced back far earlier than that, but, for today, I would like to look at the individual Tudors and just how unexpected each of their reigns were.

Henry VII

Henry Tudor was a minor nobleman from a bastard royal line. On top of that, he had been in exile for years before the crown was unexpectedly found upon his head. Before the death of Edward IV, there was little thought of Tudor becoming the last red rose or final hope of the Lancastrians or any other such poetic title. He was simply one of many on the losing side. His father and grandfather, Edmund and Owen Tudor, had both been killed in the Wars of the Roses. Left with his uncle, Jasper Tudor, Henry had little reason to think he would return to England, let alone as it's king.

Even with the shocking death of Edward IV and rise of Richard III, Tudor counted on foreign mercenaries, betrayal, and a lot of luck to secure his victory. His marriage to Princess Elizabeth of York eased the minds of many Englishmen that York and Lancaster were finally united and paved the way for a relatively peaceful reign. This unity may have brought peace, but it also caused the end of a three century long dynasty. The Plantagenets had gone down in familial infighting. The Tudors arose.

Henry VIII

For the first decade of his life, little Henry Tudor, named for his illustrious father, had no inkling of becoming king. His older brother, Arthur, was loudly and widely proclaimed the future king that would bring England unprecedented glory. Sadly, Arthur's future was cut short, and England received the unexpected heir who became one of the most famous (infamous?) monarchs in English history.

Upon his father's death in 1509, Henry VIII welcomed his extended family in a way that Henry VII had never been quite comfortable doing. William Courtenay was released from the Tower and carried Henry's sword at his coronation. Margaret Pole was raised as Countess of Salisbury. Only the de la Poles originally bore Henry's wrath.

Then his first wife Catherine failed to have a son. Suddenly, Henry was suspicious of each person with a drop of royal blood, and his insecurity saw to the death of many whom he had formerly raised up. The birth of Prince Edward to his third wife, Jane Seymour, did little to ease his paranoia.

This unexpected Tudor caused England's break with Rome, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and tyranny that remains fertile ground for historians and fiction writers today.

Edward VI

Edward VI is the only Tudor who was expected from the moment of his birth to rule England. In fact, if there is anything unexpected about poor Edward, it is that his reign was unmercifully short. Only nine years old when he became king and not quite sixteen when he died, Edward's story is a tragic one. He was the most staunchly Protestant of the Tudors and made many reforms in the Church of England in his brief reign. The tragedy did not end with his own death. Due to his hope to disinherit his sisters and place a reformist cousin on his throne, Edward inadvertently caused a revived round of family battles and bloodshed.


Lady Jane Grey is not typically included in lists of England's Kings and Queens. I have seen discussions on why this is, most notably that she did not have a coronation (but neither did Edward V . . . . so that discussion is for another day). I have chosen to include her here because no Tudor ruler was quite as unexpected and controversial as she was.

Despite what you may have read in sensationalist fiction, Edward's decision to disinherit his sisters came long before his death was eminent. Not wishing to leave the future of his country and the reforms that he had made in the hands of sisters who were not only women but were bastards, Edward had begun work on naming a new heir months before his death. His cousin Jane was by all accounts intelligent, devout, and expected to marry a reputable Englishman to assist her in ruling until her future son could do so.

Nobody expected Mary, the middle-aged daughter of Henry VIII to put up much of a fight.

Mary I

Mary had so much working against her when she decided to boldly proclaim herself queen. Jane was in London, already proclaimed and signing documents as 'Jane the Queen.' She had the support of Edward's council and had been named successor in Edward's will. However, Mary was through cowering and accepting the events that had transformed her from princess to bastard. She would be queen, as her mother and governess had always taught her.

As a girl, Mary had been her father's heir and had been raised to be a queen, if not of England than as a consort of another country. Her reality had turned out quite differently. She was content for her brother to reign, despite the religious differences between them. She understood that he outranked her. The same could not be said for the future sons of Jane Grey.

Mary had a surprising amount of support from East Anglian gentry and had little trouble overpowering the sect led by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Jane's nine day queenship was at an end.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth may be the next most famous Tudor after her father, but she had little reason to believe that she would ever become queen. Bastardized before she would have understood the term, Elizabeth was in line behind a brother and sister who would have each been expected to have sons. Not until the death of a childless Mary in 1558 would Elizabeth's way become clear.

The final Tudor made no plans for the continuation of her dynasty. Though she led many men on for several years, she never married any of them. She failed to name a successor and punished her extended family for daring to marry and have children themselves. While her father had obsessively strove for an heir, Elizabeth avoided them. In doing so, she gave England something even more unexpected than the Tudors: the Stuarts.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Christoph! I appreciate you regularly stopping by. :-D

  2. I will add a comment in response to discussion of this article on Facebook: I do not have a definitive answer to why Jane Grey is not remembered as Jane I. The best justification that I've heard is that she was an unsuccessful usurper. Since Henry VIII's Act of Succession had been made law by Parliament, it took precedence over Edward VI's will, making Mary, not Jane, the rightful queen.

    Personally, I believe Jane deserves her place on this list.

  3. Because there never was another Queen Regnant named Jane, there is no need to add the I after her name. The same goes for King Stephen. He is not known as I because there is no other King Stephen.

    1. +Susan Abernathy I never thought about that!! You could be right...

    2. That is true, but when she is included (& she isn't always) she is referred to as Lady Jane Grey rather than Queen.

  4. Nice essay, Samantha! I always felt for Lady Jane Grey...don't like Mary much...

    1. Thanks, Kirsten. I actually think Mary gets the short end of the stick. It's Elizabeth that I am not a fan of.

  5. Actually, I agree there. Elizabeth is overrated. I like and feel for Mary during her childhood...

    1. I'm performing some research on her right now. I am curious about how her name ended up so tarnished. Definitely a future post on this!

  6. As promised, more on our Queen Jane!

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  8. Let's not forget these were the early days of England's sectarian divisiveness. Lady Jane was placed on the throne by the Protestant Lords to keep Catholic Mary off the throne. She did not seek the crown. Mary, as the elder daughter of Henry the VIII had the stronger claim. If you read the history, Mary did not see Jane as an active usurper, and did not execute her until forced to do so by the Spanish.Mary seemed to see Jane as a victim of her parents and the Protestant Lords.
    As far as Mary, as a queen, she was a nightmare. She did not earn the name "Bloody Mary" because she liked her drinks with tomato juice. She burned hundreds of English subjects because of their religion. She was a fanatic. And given her death by what was most likely uterine cancer she was most likely in horrific pain, unable to give birth to an heir, and deserted by her husband Phillip of Spain.
    For those of you who feel Elizabeth is overrated: She modernized England, developed the Navy, defeated the Spanish Armada, led the discovery and settlements in North America, increased the wealth and knowledge of England, fostered religious tolerance, and that is just the beginning.
    I do not think Jane's name is tarnished. I believe she was a victim. She would have never sought the crown if left to her own devices. As far as Edward V, he was Prince of Wales when Edward IV died. His claim to the throne was much stronger and much more of a problem for Henry VII as were all Plantagenets.

    1. You make some great points, Linda. I agree that Mary did not wish to punish Jane but was forced by outside pressures and Jane's father's continued rebellion. However, I would argue that the name Bloody Mary is undeserved. Yes, the Marian regime included religious persecution, but, as horrifying as it is to us, it was not considered fanatical at the time. She certainly was responsible for far fewer deaths than her father, and she was at least consistent on who the enemy was.

      Elizabeth deserves credit for many achievements, but she is rarely accused of travesties that occurred during her reign. Though known for religious tolerance, she also executed Catholics & Jesuits. She executed more people for treason than her sister had, including an anointed queen. Elizabeth also ruined the lives of the remaining Grey sisters out of nothing more than vanity and insecurity. Then there is the fact that she made no plan for succession, leading to the end of her dynasty and leaving the country ripe for civil war. She was clever and knowledgeable, but she was also manipulative and cruel.

    2. Linda, unfortunately our opinion is in the minority today