They arose on the thinnest of premises: Henry Tudor, grandson of a minor Welsh nobleman, claimed the crown of England on the basis that his grandmother had originally been married to Henry V. However, Tudor found himself pursued by the infamous Richard III, himself a usurper, at the bloody end of a period knogwn as the War of the Roses. So when Henry won at Bosworth Field to become Henry VII, he founded one of England’s best known dynasties: The House of Tudor.
Peter Ackroyd begins his history with the death of Henry and the accession of his son, Henry VIII. The virile, handsome heir to the crown took for his queen Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his older brother Arthur. (Now that would have been a bit of marketing luck for the crown: The first Tudor born to the crown named Arthur, and with Welsh blood to boot.) By then, the old rivalries between the branches of the old Plantagenet family, the Lancasters and the Yorks, had long since faded. The new king’s only real rival for power was the Pope.
And so this provided an opening for reform-minded clerics, lords, and commons to give rise to the great schism of the sixteenth century: Protestantism vs. Rome. Ironically, Henry VIII was not all that religious. He simply resented a foreign prince having final say in matters of government and in royal bloodlines. Plus, let’s not overlook Henry’s grandest desire, a male heir to carry on the Tudor name.
He managed to get his marriage to Catherine annulled while still on good terms with Rome, despite Catherine’s bearing him a daughter, Mary. Henry, like any monarch of his day, saw something he liked better in Anne Boleyn. So with Catherine cast aside and Mary essentially declared illegitimate, he married Anne, who gave him another daughter, Elizabeth. Still no boy. So Anne was accused of adultery and beheaded (not the nice, clean execution of the French Revolution, either. Axe men were notoriously clumsy at severing heads, often putting the condemned through several painful minutes of repeated hacking.) By now, Henry had fired the Pope as the head of England’s flock and branched off the Church of England. It’s premise: Henry could do whatever he wanted, and Rome had no say in the matter. This horrified Catholics all over Europe but caused rejoicing among Lutherans, Anabaptists, and a small band of anti-Papists in Scotland who would become known as Presbyterians. And what did Henry want to do? Marry Jane Seymour, who promptly bore him Prince Edward and died in childbirth. This made Henry sorry as Jane was likely the one queen he did love and, it must be said, finally gave him a son.
Ackroyd depicts Henry as a promising young king in the beginning and follows his reign as it deteriorates, like so many English kingships, into an increasingly paranoid effort to hold onto power. When he died, he left the young, rather sickly Edward VI to guide England. Had he lived past his teens, it’s possible Edward might have become one of England’s greatest kings, worthy of the name derived from the revered Edward the Confessor. Once he came into his own as monarch, he made the English clerics codify the Church of England as more than an independent bunch of Catholics. He also reformed the education system into something a bit more modern. Alas, he died before he could marry and leave an heir, which setup a succession crisis that makes the 2016 election look like a student council vote that got rowdy. The crown passed to the once-more legitimate Mary.
And Mary wasn’t having any of this Protestant business. Her favorite means of reasserting the authority of the Pope? Burning “heretics” at the stake. And she found a lot of heretics. But Mary also died young, most likely of cancer, which she originally was convinced a pregnancy by her co-monarch, Philip of Spain. That left one Tudor and no Yorks, Lancasters, or any remaining Plantagenets to follow. So Elizabeth took the throne.
I won’t rehash her reign here. She is the most famous of the English monarchs prior to unification with Scotland (brought about partially by her succession by James VI of Scotland, aka James I, he of the Bible fame.) And Elizabeth was her father’s daughter. She restored many of Edward’s reforms. Ackroyd depicts a woman unwilling to compromise her power with marriage and balancing somewhat despotic enforcement of her law (which was pretty mild for the age but worthy of Nuremberg in modern times) with uniting a people divided first by royal bloodlines then religious requirements. Had she left an heir, it’s quite likely successive Tudor monarchs would have guided England into its modern era, a more democratic constitutional monarchy familiar to even the Founding Fathers in America.