Historical Hot Messes: The Tudor Brood
Henry VIII: A Dreadful Father
By the time Henry VIII died in 1547, he left a royal mess of his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. After all, he declared them illegitimate after falling out with their mothers due to his wandering eye and ego.
Because Henry declared them illegitimate for most of their lives, the ladies weren't able to be "shopped around" (not an exaggeration) for husbands, as most royalty did. Henry even put in his will that who the ladies married had to be in accordance with the wishes of the sixteen men that he nominated to be his successors. One could argue that because of this, neither ladies left a Tudor heir. This would eventually lead to the end of the Tudor dynasty--by Henry's own hand.
Despite Henry's role in the downfall of the Tudors, his descendents certainly left their mark on history. Let's take a look.
After Henry died, his sixth wife Catherine Parr married her former lover, Thomas Seymour. When Catherine became pregnant with his child, he grew bored and turned his attention to his stepdaughter. Princess Elizabeth, who lived with them, was fourteen years old at the time. He was thirty-nine.
Thomas would come into Elizabeth's room while she was dressing and tickle her. He would romp around with her in the garden. Instead of stopping the inappropriate behavior, Catherine would sometimes play along. She once held Elizabeth down while Thomas proceeded to rip her dress to shreds. Elizabeth was sent away shortly after.
The Bubble Boy
While Mary and Elizabeth vied for their father's affections, their younger brother Edward was treated as a king. As he was the only legitimate male Tudor, Henry ordered his servants to protect Edward at all cost--like a proverbial bubble.
Edward took over his father's reign in 1547. He was just nine years old.
King Edward continued his father's belief that the king was the head of the church, and therefore, any religious objects not associated with the king or Protestantism were to be removed. This meant that statues of saints, stained glass windows, rosaries, and ashes for Ash Wednesday were banned. This angered his sister Mary and they fought about religion throughout his reign. At one point, she showed up to court with banned rosaries. In response, Edward had Mary's servants imprisoned. Mary had to relent.
Mary wasn't the only one upset at the changes. Villagers in Devon, England viewed this to be sacrilegious, and rebellions formed across central and western England. In Norwich, 16,000 rebels gathered to demand change. German mercenaries were brought in to crush the rebellion, and over 5,500 people were killed. By this time, Edward was twelve years old.
In 1553, his bubble burst and he became deathly ill with tuberculosis. As he lay on his deathbed, his main adviser John Dudley persuaded Edward to appoint his cousin, the Protestant Lady Jane Grey.
If the last name Dudley sounds familiar, it is. John was the son of the hated debt collector Edmund Dudley during Henry VII's reign. Equally as power hungry, John wanted to make his son, Guildford Dudley the king.
The plot was hatched. After the wedding, Lady Jane was declared queen. Jane was completely oblivious, maintaining "It is not my right". Her parents convinced her to take the crown. Jane sensed it was a bad idea.
Meanwhile, Mary raised an army to defend her claim to the throne. John Dudley raised his. Support for Mary was growing. Desperate to avoid a treason charge, the Council in London changed their support to Mary. This declared John Dudley a traitor and Lady Jane, an illegitimate queen. Oblivious to her danger, poor Lady Jane asked her father Henry Grey, "Can we go home now?" Unfortunately, she would never be able to.
Mary's army defeated John Dudley's and he was arrested. Lady Jane's parents abandoned their quarters, leaving Lady Jane behind. She and her husband were arrested and taken to the Tower of London.
Mary took the throne. She had John Dudley executed, but spared the teenage couple as they appeared to be pawns. She gave her word that they would be pardoned.
Unfortunately, because nothing could be easy in Jane's world, Jane's father Henry put together an army to keep his daughter on the throne. Henry Grey then proceeded to "bombard the tower with his own daughter inside". Lady Jane's fate was sealed, as she and her husband were executed. Lady Jane reigned for only nine days.
Spiteful Mary and The Possibly Plotting Sister
In 1554, Mary's search for a good Catholic husband brought her to Phillip II of Spain. As a royal, the best thing she could do to secure her lineage was to marry a fellow royal. Phillip was quite royal. He was related to Mary through the Lancaster family, as well as from an old English bloodline, the Plantagenets. Marrying Phillip would also connect her to one of the largest empires of the time, the Holy Roman Empire.
England was upset. Many felt that Mary should marry an Englishman, not a Spaniard. (This is, of course, hypocritical thinking, as Henry VIII married her Spanish mother with few objections.) A rebellion formed to protest the marriage and make Elizabeth queen. Among the four leaders was Thomas Wyatt, a son of the elder Thomas Wyatt, who a lover of Anne Boleyn before she met Henry VIII. Three thousand rebels came to the gates of London. This was a very clear threat.
Elizabeth was brought into the fold when it was strongly suspected that members of her household were sympathetic to the rebels' cause. After all, who had the most to gain from Mary's removal? Instead of Mary immediately executing Elizabeth, which is probably what her father would have done, she had Elizabeth imprisoned.
This is pretty understandable considering the situation, but Mary took it a step further and kept Elizabeth in the exact same room where her mother Anne Boleyn was held before she was executed. This was a cruel show of hands. Luckily, Elizabeth had her mother's ability to talk herself out of [most] situations, and with Wyatt's exoneration of Elizabeth at his execution, she was freed a few months later. Historians are still stuck as to whether or not Elizabeth had plotted against her sister.
Bloody Mary or Harry?
By the time Mary became Queen, she had been through the ringer. Mary had seen her mother humiliated, her birth declared illegitimate, and her younger brother as a Protestant king. She was forbidden to speak or see her mother, Catherine of Aragon, even suffering with terrible menstrual problems. Her father forced her to sign a declaration, saying that he was the head of the church, under threat of execution.
In addition, Mary rarely saw her young husband Phillip, she had a humiliating false pregnancy, and her sister Elizabeth may or may have been involved in a conspiracy to overthrow her. Mary had an axe to grind--literally.
She had bishops go into towns across England and Wales to find those who refused Catholicism. From 1555 to 1558, she burned almost three hundred Protestant 'heretics'. Of these executions were several women, a blind boy, and an old man who could barely walk. Mary proved she could be as ruthless as her father.
Although Mary received the nickname "Bloody Mary", her father killed over 57,000-72,000 people in his thirty-eight year reign. Even at the conservative estimate of 57,000, he still killed 1,500 people a year. Maybe the "bloody" title should go to Henry?
Ironically, some of the people Mary had burned previously coordinated the execution of Catholics under her father, including Thomas Cranmer. This is yet another example of a family who would never be on the same page.
Loyal To A Fault
Despite the eleven year age gap with her husband Phillip, it seemed like a happy marriage. The problem was that Phillip was absent a lot, which made Mary more lonely. In his mind, he had an empire to run.
Unfortunately, this marriage would unintentionally lead England into war with the French. In 1556, the French broke the Treaty of Vaucelles, which was intended to simmer the war between them and Phillip's father, Charles V. The two countries were officially at war.
Back in England, Mary's Council were wholly convinced that war was a bad idea and persuaded her to only send money and arms. Phillip pressured her to send men and take battle. She felt obligated to Phillip and begged her Council to reconsider. The Council maintained that England was in no condition to engage in war, and that it would not be a good decision to cut off trade with France. Mary told them to reconsider, on threat of death or loss of their titles. The Council submitted.
In 1557, Mary officially declared war with France. On January 1, 1558, the French launched a surprise attack in the last English stronghold in Calais, France. The English were completely unprepared by the attack, and forced to surrender. The defeat was catastrophic for the English, who thought that Phillip's forces did little to help them, while Phillip blamed it on English ineptitude. The fall of Calais haunted Mary on her deathbed when she died from uterine cancer in 1558.
After Mary's death, Elizabeth took the throne. She was different than Mary. While Mary gave herself the more stereotypical womans' role of being delicate (to some extent), Elizabeth rejected those expectations. She chose to rule as a king, and as king, no one was going to stand in her way. If they did, they would suffer her quick temper, thanks to her parents.
Elizabeth threatened to send anyone to the Tower of London if they made her angry. She often cursed or threw objects. Reportedly, one of her ladies-in-waiting got married without her consent, so Elizabeth stabbed her with a fork at dinner. She also broke one of her maid's fingers for an unclear reason. It probably didn't help that Elizabeth suffered from migraines, insomnia, and frequent toothaches.
Murder in Her Midst
One of Elizabeth's favorite people was her childhood friend, Robert Dudley--grandson of the hated Edmund Dudley. Robert and Elizabeth were good friends and virtually inseparable. She even had his bedchamber moved next to hers. Robert lived at court while Amy, his wife of ten years lived in Cumnor, a town northwest of London.
On September 8, 1560, Amy was found at the bottom of her stairs with a broken neck. She had two massive head wounds. This was shocking. Amy was healthy and had just ordered a new, expensive gown. Amy's servants reported that she was angry that day and dismissed the servants so she could have the house to herself. Back then, that would have been an odd thing to demand. The other option was if she was expecting someone important, like Dudley or anybody from court.
Elizabeth seemed to be aware of Amy's death, even before her advisers informed her of it. Some suspected the queen. While she was believed to have been in love with Dudley to some extent, but she would not have soiled her reputation. Another possibility was William Cecil, Elizabeth's spymaster. Cecil didn't want Elizabeth to marry Dudley, so maybe he ordered the killing to push her away from Dudley? Robert Dudley also surrounded himself with brutish friends, so it's completely possible that they acted on orders or on their own.
Either way, Dudley didn't attend Amy's funeral and shortly after, threw a huge party with lots of available women. Dudley eventually he married one of Elizabeth's cousins, Lettice Knollys. Elizabeth turned against Dudley and spoke to either Dudley nor Knollys much afterwards.
Unfortunately Guilty Cousin
Because Elizabeth was Protestant and forbid anything Catholic, Pope Pius declared her a heretic. To Catholics, that meant that killing her was considered lawful, and there were over fourteen assassination attempts on Elizabeth's life. To combat this, she made one of her advisors William Cecil, become her spymaster. He and his network of spies infiltrated the English Catholic community, which included nobles and ambassadors.
If Elizabeth were killed, Mary, Queen of Scots would logical inherit the throne. Mary was one of Elizabeth's cousins; technically a Stuart, but a Tudor by blood. She was a granddaughter to Margaret Tudor, Henry's sister. Mary, Queen of Scots was very Catholic and some were eager to see her on the throne.
In 1571, an attempt was made to put Mary on the throne. This was known as the Ridolfi plot. It involved not only Mary, Pope Pius V, and Elizabeth's cousin the Duke of Norfolk, but also her former brother-in-law, Phillip II. They sought for Spain to invade England, overthrow Elizabeth, and then for Mary to marry the Duke of Norfolk. The plot was discovered and Mary was imprisoned.
It was possibly for the best. Her husband, Lord Darnley, was a violent alcoholic. In 1566, he murdered Mary's assistant, David Riccio for an unknown reason. Darnley, also a Tudor by blood, was murdered in 1567. The main suspect was James Hepburn, who then proceeded to rape Mary to ensure a marriage. Mary tried to denounce Hepburn publicly, and in response, his forces tried to overthrow her. They did not succeed, but demanded that she be burned as a heretic as Scotland was Protestant.
In 1586, a group of underground Catholics wrote to Mary, asking for her "approval and advice to ensure 'the dispatch of the usurping Competitor', meaning Elizabeth. Mary, being "impulsive" and "short-sighted" responded: "When all is ready, the six gentlemen must be set to work, and you will provide that on their design being accomplished, I may be myself rescued from this place." These words sealed her fate and became known as the Babington Plot.
Elizabeth did not want to believe that her cousin, a fellow queen, was involved. Why would Mary do such a thing? Plus, if Mary were to be executed, this set a dangerous precedent for royalty. Nonetheless, her advisers convinced her that this was the right decision. Elizabeth reluctantly signed Mary's death warrant. On February 8, 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots' pain was ended.
In terms of religion, Elizabeth was much more moderate than her siblings. She 'only' burned over eighty people.
A Series of Bad Decisions
As early as 1500, Ireland was English territory and Henry VIII made the Irish nobles swear allegiance to him. Unfortunately, because the nobles didn't speak for the rest of Ireland, there were minor rebellions, which were suppressed. Henry generally kept the peace by bribing Irish officials with newly acquired land taken from the monasteries.
Mary had dealt with a few minor rebellions as well. She imposed martial law, which allowed any dissidents to be tried without jury, and implemented plantations. Plantations were previously owned Irish land given to English nobles. The Irish then had to pay rent to live there, and were given a small wage to farm the land. Not to mention that Irish culture was also forbidden. Virtually overnight, Irish people found that they could not speak Irish, and practice their own culture as they had done for centuries. This angered the Irish even more.
Logically, the unrest worsened when Protestant Elizabeth came to the throne. Pope Gregory XIII encouraged rebellion and Phillip II (Elizabeth's former brother-in-law) was willing to provide the troops. This could easily turn into a world war.
One of her advisers, Robert Devereux, convinced her to send him to Ireland to crush the rebellion. On paper, it should have been a quick victory as he had over 16,000 men. He instead decided to massacre villages--some with the cowardly lure of peace talks, as in the case of the O'Neill clan. Devereux invited the clan to dinner and murdered all 200 members who attended. English soldiers killed over nine hundred men, women, children, young, old, and sick.
When Elizabeth heard of the senseless killings, she was enraged. This was not what she had intended. she promptly removed Devereux from his post. He later tried to overthrow Elizabeth, and was executed.
More rebellions took place from 1569-1573, and then again in 1579-1583 in Munster. These became known as the Desmond Rebellions. Over 1,300 rebels were killed. English destroyed crops and stole cattle, leading to another 30,000 dying of disease and starvation. Because of many of these policies, unrest would continue in Ireland for many, many years to come.
What They Accomplished: Edward, Jane, the Marys, and Elizabeth
Henry's kingdom was a mess when he died, and as a nine-year-old, Edward did his best. He fought off rebellion, and held onto the throne, like a good Tudor king. And let's face it: Edward probably had the easiest go of things.
On the other hand, Lady Jane Grey reigned for only nine days, so she has no accomplishments. She does secure her place as one of the Tudor's most tragic victims, and her parents, the most villainous. Rest in peace, Jane.
Mary Tudor became the official first woman queen of England. She overcame, despite her basically parentless upbringing. Of her accomplishments, she established better relations with Spain, created relations with England and Russia, and instigated new trade routes between England and Africa. Mary also stuck to her beliefs and kept alive during her father's religious flip-flopping. Despite circumstances beyond her control, Mary proved that she could rule England much more than most give her credit for.
Their Scottish cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots also had circumstances throughout her control. It's also obvious that she didn't make good choices. However, her son James I continued the Stuart reign, which continued for another hundred years and brought Scotland into the modern age. Because the Stuarts were cousins to the Tudors, one could say that the Tudor line was extended a bit longer.
That brings us to Elizabeth. As she watched her father and his many wives, she learned their lessons. Elizabeth refused to be at the mercy of a man. She defied expectations and pressure to marry, instead making her rule the sole focus. She created England's much-needed and mostly peaceful Golden Age. During this time she reduced debt, increased literacy, and prevented a large scale Spanish attack from penetrating the English shores. She sought to create more religious moderation and her poorhouses provided food and shelter for the poor. Elizabeth also sent explorers to the New World, which set the stage for America. Elizabeth's encouragement of the arts brought us William Shakespeare. These accomplishments put England on the map and created the incredible powerhouse that it still is today.
Elizabeth became a queen that England, and the Tudors, could finally be proud of.
Want more Tudors? Check out this article!
- Historical Hot Messes: The Tudors
Murder. Betrayal. Deception. A weak claim to the throne permeated insecurity throughout a dynasty who would become one of the world’s most notorious.
Elizabeth I: The Golden Reign of Gloriana
"Elizabeth: Killer Queen"
Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince
"Elizabeth's Secret Agents"
Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen
Queen Elizabeth I
Sex Lives of the Kings and Queens of England
The Word of a Prince
Tudor: Passion. Manipulation. Murder
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Lauren Sutton