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Historical Hot Messes: The Tudors

Infatuated with the Tudors since reading about Elizabeth I in second grade. She also finds dysfunctional dynasties fascinating.

Presumably, the most famous Tudor of all: King Henry VIII.

Presumably, the most famous Tudor of all: King Henry VIII.

Owain Tudor: Kind of a Schmuck

Owain Tudur (or Tudors, Anglicized) was born in 1392 in Wales. He came from a family of influential nobles that lost most of their land by fighting English repression during the Glyndŵr Rising. As a young man, he moved to London to serve as a page in King Henry V's court. In 1422, King Henry V died and his wife was widowed.

At court, rumor had it that Owain was dancing one night and became so drunk that he stumbled into Queen Catherine's lap. They became lovers and secretly married around 1429. Their union of royalty and a commoner was frowned upon, so they moved away from court. They had three sons: Edward, Jasper and Edmund; the latter would be the father of Henry Tudor. Most didn't know about Owain and Catherine's marriage until she died in 1437.

When the War of the Roses broke out in 1455, Owain Tudor fought on the Lancasterian side. At the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461, Owain Tudor was captured and executed. Before he was beheaded, he reportedly joked: "The head that shall lie on the stock was won't to lie on Queen Catherine's lap".

A Spotty Claim At Best

In 1455, Edmund Tudor married Margaret Beaufort, then went off to fight in the War of the Roses. He died of the plague while she was seven months pregnant, leaving her to take care of their only child. She was thirteen years old.

In 1483, the crown was in chaos and up for grabs. King Edward IV died and his twelve-year-old son Edward took the throne. He ruled for just under three months before Parliament declared him illegitimate and removed him from the throne. Edward's brother Richard of York became King Richard III, as well as guardian of the boys, who mysteriously disappeared.

Henry, seeing an opportunity to seize the crown, sought to use his mother's Plantagenet blood on her great-grandpa's side. It wasn't much of a claim, but somehow, he and his uncle raised an army and met King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth.

At one point, King Richard III rode across the battlefield toward Henry to kill him. Unfortunately, he turned his back to Henry's men, and that's when he was struck, reportedly by Tudor ally Sir Rhys ap Thomas. King Richard III died on the battlefield. Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII, the first Tudor king.

A bust of Henry VII. I bet he's wondering: "are you going to take my crown or how can I tax you?

A bust of Henry VII. I bet he's wondering: "are you going to take my crown or how can I tax you?

Henry VII: The Paranoid One

King Henry VII wanted to make sure that no one questioned his legitimacy, even though it would have been fair to do so. He replaced previously held art pieces with art and statues of his family. The coins now had the Yorkist white rose (from his wife's side) atop the Lancasterian white rose to symbolize his family. Everything was Tudor and he made sure that everyone knew it.

This insecurity of legitimacy would influence much of what he did. After his wife died, he worried about losing the crown. As such, he forced people into docility by imposing heavy fees. He had spies all over London that would report to him and his council of enforcers, called the "Council Learned in the Law".

It was an overuse of power at best. For example, one of the councilors, Edmund Dudley once accused a family of murdering a newborn child. In reality, the family may have said or done something that Dudley considered to be unsavory. The family refused to pay the five hundred pounds* and was sent to trial. The husband was found guilty and finally paid, after realizing that he would probably be sent to jail for a long time. Because of this, citizens lived in fear and frustration that the Tudor dynasty became known for.

*I am unsure as to whether the amount was five hundred pounds in 1485-ish or five hundred pounds now, roughly 672,000 pounds. Either amount would have financially strained citizens in the kingdom.

Henry VIII Finds a Scapegoat

When Henry VIII came to power at age seventeen, he sought to undo the frustration that citizens felt from his father's dynasty. He had to find a scapegoat to blame his father's poor decisions and greed.

That scapegoat came in the form of councilor Edmund Dudley. Henry had Dudley executed, while he declared that all debts to the Crown were dismissed. He promised that things would be different.

Henry Abandons His Pregnant Wife

In 1509, Henry married his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon. By most accounts, they had a happy marriage. Unfortunately, about five years later, Catherine had a number a stillborn children, a son that lived for two months, and finally, a daughter—Mary. Catherine wanted her husband's support. Henry wanted an heir.

Henry turned to one of Catherine's own servants, Bessie Blount, with whom he had a child, Henry Fitzroy. (Fitzroy is the last name for children of the royals that were born out of extramarital affairs.) There is strong speculation that Henry was priming Henry Fitzroy to be an heir, but unfortunately, he died in his teens.

Henry VIII continued to have affairs with the married Lady Anne Hastings, Jane Propincourt, and Mary Boleyn, sister of his future wife, Anne. When Henry tired of his mistresses, he simply discarded them. This would become a pattern in his court.

Catherine of Aragon, played by Maria Doyle-Kennedy in The Tudors. Catherine is intelligent, devoted, and cognizant.

Catherine of Aragon, played by Maria Doyle-Kennedy in The Tudors. Catherine is intelligent, devoted, and cognizant.

Henry Turns the Kingdom Upside Down

Mary Boleyn and her sister Anne served Henry's sister Margaret in the French court. Back then, nobles would often send their teens to serve royalty, similarly as college graduates attend internships today: for education and to make connections.

Fun Fact: Mary Boleyn certainly had fun in France. She earned the nickname "the English mare" for making her way around court.

When she and Anne returned to England, they served Catherine of Aragon, which is how they met Henry. Anne caught the King's eye in a play called "The Assault on the Castle of Virtue", which couldn't have been a more appropriate name for what was about to happen.

The King's interest was piqued as Anne fought his advances. She did not want to be another embarrassing memory like her sister. Another glaring problem was, that he was married to Catherine and had for over twenty-four years. Poor Catherine, at this point, knew about most of his affairs and his new love interest. Nevertheless, Henry was determined to marry Anne.

Henry forced Cardinal Wolsey to obtain an annulment through the Pope. He used the argument that Catherine had indeed consummated her marriage to Henry's deceased brother, Arthur, and thus, she was still married to Arthur. Catherine was understandably upset and begged Henry to know why. Ironically, Henry thought that Catherine was being selfish.

For over two years, Wolsey tried and the Pope refused. In typical Henry fashion, Henry created a new church, the Church of England, and then declared himself the head of it. By doing so, he was also excommunicated by the Pope, but the divorce was granted. After such a long marriage, support was still strong for Catherine as she was a much-loved queen. Anne, on the other hand, was called different versions of the word "home wrecker".

Henry dismissed Catherine and their daughter Mary to a palace away from the court's eye. After twenty-four years, he didn't even say goodbye. Their marriage was considered invalidated, so Catherine's status was downgraded to Princess Dowager. Mary could no longer inherit the crown. The Spanish ambassador was furious and wrote to Catherine's nephew in Spain, King Charles V, almost starting a war to defend Catherine's honor. Catherine wanted no war on her behalf.

Flavor of The Week

Just as quickly as Catherine fell out of favor with Henry, so did many others around him, including Anne. Just three years later, with Henry's wandering eye, quest for an heir, and public support for Anne waning, he executed Anne on false grounds of treason and adultery.

The marriage to Anne Boleyn had strained Henry's relationship with Cardinal Wolsey. In fact, Anne blamed the hardship of getting an annulment on Wolsey. Sensing that he was in trouble, Cardinal Wolsey gave Henry his Hampton Palace. He was accused of treason, but grew ill and died before further punishment could be afflicted. Wolsey had served the Tudors for over twenty-five years.

Sir Thomas More, refused to attend Anne's coronation as well as take the oath that Anne was his wife and that Elizabeth was the heir. More had served Henry as an advisor for twelve years and was his close friend. He too was sent to the block.

A marriage with another Anne would cost Thomas Cromwell his life. One of Henry's closest advisors for ten years, he attempted to set up a strategic marriage between Henry and the German Anne of Cleves. Henry made the decision to marry her by simply seeing a portrait of Anne. When they met in person, he was not impressed. Of course, Henry did not see his own complicity in making his choice and executed Thomas on false charges of treason and heresy. It was dangerous to be associated with Henry.

Hampton Court Palace. Cardinal Wolsey gave his castle to Henry to put himself back into favor. It didn't work.

Hampton Court Palace. Cardinal Wolsey gave his castle to Henry to put himself back into favor. It didn't work.

Henry and Religion: It's Complicated

Henry felt that it was his God-given right to make himself the head of the Church of England. In his delusional mind, this act elevated him to great emperors like Constantine. Anyone that denied him that God-given right would be treason.

One of the first victims was Bishop Fisher, who was an old friend of Henry's grandma, Margaret Beaufort. Many of the Carthusian monks—some of who many considered the holiest men in the land—were put to death.

Another way to break down the 'old religion' was to destroy over eight hundred monasteries, nunneries, abbeys, etc. He disbanded the monks and nuns and then looted the buildings themselves. Anyone who resisted was executed. This was especially detrimental to many rural communities across England as these churches served as a community center, inn, library, school, homeless shelter, and record keeper.

Henry also had the tomb of Thomas Becket blown out of a cannon and forbid anyone to speak his name. For being devoted to religion, Henry sure had a strange way of showing it.

The Family That "Shares" Together...

If you thought Mary and Anne Boleyn "sharing" Henry wasn't gross enough, Henry's third wife, the virginal Jane Seymour—was the Boleyn Ladies' second cousin. Rumor has it that Jane was also distantly related to Henry, but no one dared to question. (Incest during Henry's time would have been a problem, but not necessarily generations earlier.)

Henry later married yet another cousin of the Boleyn sisters—Catherine Howard. It's puzzling that even after Anne's execution, somehow Catherine's family thought the marriage was worth risking her life. She was later executed after misleading Henry about her virginity. One of her partners in crime? Thomas Culpeper, her distant cousin.

Anne Boleyn, played by Natalie Dormer, who plays the best version of Anne that I've seen. She captures Anne's charm, wit, and beauty.

Anne Boleyn, played by Natalie Dormer, who plays the best version of Anne that I've seen. She captures Anne's charm, wit, and beauty.

Henry Creates More of a Mess

For English citizens, many changes were being made throughout the kingdom, and not always for the better. They saw their monasteries being destroyed, Catholicism was replaced virtually overnight, and the Catholic Princess Mary would be unable to inherit the crown.

Droughts in 1535 had decimated much-needed crops, and as a result, livestock. The price of food skyrocketed and wages dropped significantly. Even so, Henry had no problem building more palaces and having lavish banquets. His kitchens could cater to a thousand people at a time, and eat rich foods that most of his citizens could only dream of lobster, custard, and cr:eam of almonds.

The inflation was further exacerbated by Henry's paranoid obsession with the fruitless wars in France and Scotland. As so, he hastily increased his kingdom's money supply with numerous, cheaply-made coins which caused inflation. Newly-discovered silver and gold from the Americas also entered the market, and thus depreciated English money.

Henry had shown citizens that he had no trouble spending their money in Field of the Cloth of Gold, a summit in which he and King Francis I took turns showing how rich they were. Nearly everything was in gold; clothes were made from gold and silk, and elaborate tents were constructed to mimic a palace. The rooms included "reception rooms, private apartments, chapels", etc. Henry was bankrupting his own kingdom.

Furthermore, he created the Statute of Uses in which landowners had to pay fees on their land that they were able to get around paying previously.

People were outraged. In northern England, where some of the largest monasteries were, several uprisings took place, called the benign-sounding Pilgrimage of Grace. What started out as a protest became an armed rebellion, and almost 40,000 people turned out. It became one of the largest rebellions since the 1300s. Henry was furious, then promised a free pardon to rebels who dispersed, and in typical-Henry fashion, changed his mind and broke his word.

At least two hundred people were executed. Execution records weren't kept well back then, so the number could be in the hundreds or thousands. Their only crime was thinking that Henry was good-natured but simply led astray by Thomas Cromwell. They were wrong.

Guilt By Association—Even a Senior Citizen

When King Henry VIII founded and declared himself the head of the Church of England, there was at least one vocal opponent: Reginald Pole. Instead of being executed, he chose to exile himself.

The problem was that almost everyone associated with Reginald was detained, including his mother, Margaret Pole. She served households for Catherine of Aragon, as well as Princess Mary.

Margaret Pole was the Countess of Salisbury and one of the last surviving Plantagenets. In 1541, Margaret was sixty seven years old and served no real threat, other than being "one of the five wealthiest peers in England". Knowing how petty Henry could be, that could have been reason enough. Henry had her detained for over two years before he executed her for false charges of treason.

At her execution, the Countess gave them a run for their money. One story is that she refused to bend over the chopping block. She maintained that she had committed no crime and the executioner had to chase her around Tower Green. The most common version is that the axman 'hacked' her to pieces.

Henry VIII. Henry had an ego and a temper, but he started a dialogue for change.

Henry VIII. Henry had an ego and a temper, but he started a dialogue for change.

What They Accomplished: Owain and The Henrys

By being a charming schmuck, Owain Tudor was able to elevate his family's status from former nobles to royalty, and as a Welshman, was able to penetrate the English court.

His grandson, Henry VII cleverly created the dynasty by taking advantage of a loophole, when others had much stronger claims to the throne. By doing so, it brought the Welsh to power and gave them a voice. He also took down one of the oldest and most powerful English rulers, the Plantagenets. Imagine how differently the United Kingdom and Ireland look today if the Plantagenets were still in control? Would these countries be as powerful as they are today?

Henry ensured good relations with Spain through the marriage of Catherine of Aragon to his son, Henry VIII. He did the same by marrying his daughter Margaret to Scottish King James IV.

A lot of Henry VII's reign was plagued by political abuse, but overall, he was able to hang onto the crown and protect his dynasty. He would consider that a Tudor victory.

Most of Henry VIII's greatest accomplishments, like his father, tend to be more idealistic. With his ego and quest for a son, he was able to challenge old ideas and usher in new ones. One of the best examples of this is with the Church of England—he started a new religious movement, and by doing so, initiated a fresh dialogue. (Although, most agree that he could have done this with less divisiveness and bloodshed. And strangely enough, after executing many Catholics, he died with the Catholic rosary by his side.)

Of course, these new ideas were perpetuated by Anne Boleyn's Protestant influence. It's arguable that without his and her actions, English Protestants may not have sought protection from persecution in a new land: America. The country that we know now may never have been created.

Also, when Henry VIII destroyed the various monasteries, he also used some of the profits to create educational institutions like Trinity College. This is still one of England's foremost colleges and has produced prominent Noble Prize winners in literature and science.

Another arguable point could be that Henry VIII was able to protect his dynasty by executing most around him, even though his lack of compassion for human life was startling. Luckily, he was able to pass it on to one of his greatest accomplishments yet—his daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth I would go on to become one of the most powerful rulers in history.


"Inside the Court of King Henry VIII"

Sex Lives of the Kings and Queens of England

Strange Unsolved Mysteries: Ghosts, Hauntings and Mysterious Happenings

"The Six Wives of Henry VIII"

Tudor: Passion. Manipulation. Murder

© 2018 Lauren Sutton


Lauren Sutton (author) from Milwaukee, WI on January 29, 2018:

Thank you! Yes, I agree.

I often wonder who would be worse off: the everyday citizens or the nobles in Henry VIII’s court?

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 27, 2018:

Thank you for sharing a very informative article. You've described a horrible time in history that is also fascinating!