Chapter 20

Ten Major Tudor Events

In This Chapter

● Assuming the crown

● Revising religion

● Waging major military battles

Being confronted by a lot of dates can be offputting, but they’re actually pretty handy. When exploring history, try thinking of dates as being like children’s clothes pegs. You hang things on them - events, conflicts and actions, - so that you can find them again.

This chapter highlights ten major events and essential dates for the Tudor period. Although some historians may debate our choice of events, the episodes we look at here mark important shifts in the evolution of the Tudor monarchy. Taken together, you get a picture of a dynamic period during which England’s self-confidence grew and became increasingly bloody.

The First Tudor King, Henry VII (1485)

School books often say that 1485 marks the division between medieval and modern history, with the beginning of a new monarchy. Although the distinction between these periods makes sense today, matters didn’t look that way in 1485!

Some people welcomed the death of the unpopular Richard III and hoped that his passing would mark the end of the feud between the Houses of York and Lancaster (which we describe in Chapter 2), especially when Henry Tudor (Henry VII) married Elizabeth of York. Others saw Henry VII as yet another usurper. In a sense both groups were right, because a rebellion occurred in 1486, and within ten years two claimants were pursuing the crown. The rightful Yorkist claimant, Edward, Earl of Warwick was kept in the Tower until his execution in 1499, while Henry VII kept the throne.

Henry VII did indeed establish a new dynasty, but he was a medieval king in his style of governing, relying on traditional methods and institutions to govern. (Flip to Chapter 4 for more about Henry VII.)

Henry VIII's Coronation (1509)

The young, magnificent and handsome Henry VIII married the beautiful and intelligent Catherine of Aragon soon after he became monarch in 1509, and not long afterwards they were crowned together in Westminster Abbey. The episode was a gorgeously executed piece of political propaganda.

English chronicler and lawyer Edward Hall recorded the coronation scenes in vivid detail, describing the elaborate work of tailors, embroiderers and goldsmiths who dressed both the courtiers and their horses. The King and Queen processed through the City of Westminster along streets hung with tapestries and cloths of gold. Henry was dressed with diamonds and rubies, so many that the actual material of his garments was almost obscured.

They entered the abbey under embroidered canopies and walked along a strip of cloth, which was cut up as soon as they passed, as souvenirs for onlookers. William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, carried out the crowning. Afterwards everyone went to Westminster Hall for an enormous and sumptuous banquet with jousting and feasting followed by weeks of celebrations. (Turn to Chapter 4 for more on Henry VIII’s early years.)

Breaking with Rome (1534)

The Act of Supremacy in 1534 ended papal power in England and made Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England, breaking centuries of tradition.

Pope Julius II had given Henry permission to marry Catherine, his brother’s wife. But Henry became convinced that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was against the law of God, which was why she failed to bear him a son. For her part, Catherine was sure that her marriage was legitimate, and she had the support of her nephew, Charles V, the supremely powerful Holy Roman Emperor who had raided Rome and held the Pope Clement VII prisoner.

When Henry’s new love Anne Boleyn became pregnant in the autumn of 1532, he was certain that the child would be a boy and married her. The ceremony was performed by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury who declared the marriage to Catherine null and void, believing that Henry was right and ready to break his oath of allegiance to the pope. (You can read more about the break with Rome in Chapter 7.)

Anne Boleyn's execution (1536)

Henry VIII moved heaven and earth to marry Anne, a woman whose sexual grip on him didn’t relax through six long years of courtship and frustration.

However, she was suddenly cast aside because Henry believed that she’d committed both adultery and incest; and adultery by the Queen was always treason because it threatened the legitimate succession.

Anne’s fate shows the volatility of Henry’s temperament - his gullibility, his ruthlessness and the personal nature of Tudor politics. Anne had given birth to Elizabeth, but she failed to bear a son - just like Catherine. Again, the King had doubts about the lawfulness of his second marriage. Was God punishing him again?

Anne was the leader of a family-based political faction that had attracted Henry’s powerful secretary, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was allied to the Boleyn family until the end of 1535 because Anne’s marriage had been the result of the Act of Supremacy, which Cromwell had drafted and put through the English Parliament.

When Catherine died in 1536, alliances changed. Cromwell played on Henry’s doubts about Anne and her flirtatious nature, and Henry ordered her arrest.

The evidence against Anne was weak and she was almost certainly innocent, but Henry believed her to be guilty and so she was beheaded at the Tower.

(We describe the fate of Anne and all Henry’s wives in Chapter 6).

Dissolution of the Monasteries (1540)

The Dissolution of the Monasteries, also known as the Suppression of the Monasteries, was more than a decree with religious and political overtones; it was an act of vandalism. Great libraries were destroyed or dispersed, works of art confiscated and great buildings left to fall into disrepair and ruin.

The year of 1540 ended a process of dissolution that began in 1523, and closed a part of English religious life that had existed for a thousand years. Monks and nuns were forced to return to the everyday world and their lands returned to the Crown, which acquired property worth many millions of pounds - about 20 per cent of the landed wealth of England. Thomas Cromwell carried out a survey of monastic wealth, published as the Valor Ecclesiasticus in 1536. This report showed the vast amount of land the clergy owned and how the inhabitants gave taxes to the papacy, a sum known as Peter’s Pence.

Henry believed that monks and nuns were living lives of luxury and idleness. He also contended that closing the monasteries was a safe way for the Crown to acquire a lot of money and lands, much of which he later sold. Much of acquired land was sold to Catholics, but when Mary became monarch (flip to Chapter 10), asking them to return the land to the Church was impractical after they’d held it for almost 20 years.

Elizabeth Is Ascension (1558)

After 1558 the future of the English Church was Protestant rather than Catholic, and its governors were gentlemen rather than nobles or clergy. The future also held friendship with Scotland and hostility to Spain.

Having a woman on the throne was nothing new for England, but unlike her sister Mary, Elizabeth was a remarkable woman. Elizabeth’s court was secular, highly educated and Protestant. From her mother Anne Boleyn, she inherited the ability to use gender and sexuality as weapons, which made her a highly original ruler. Indeed, much of Elizabeth’s foreign policy through to 1581 was about marriage negotiations as much as security. Her frequent changes of mind allowed her to retain control in the male-dominated world of politics. (Only in relation to Robert Dudley did her desire almost overcome her political sense, as we describe in Chapter 13.)

Her Church Settlement of 1559 was revolutionary and against the advice of her councillors, but it reflected her own tastes and opinions. Few were happy with it. But Elizabeth believed that God had given her the realm of England to rule, and she would allow no interference (Chapter 14 has more on these issues).

Elizabeth was also one of the great image creators of the English monarchy. Many portraits of her survive that show her love of pearls and the elegant hands of which she was so proud. She was Gloriana, the Virgin Queen. Her inviolate body became the symbol of a realm free from invasion and foreign power.

Birth of William Shakespeare (1564)

William was born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden in April 1564 and was baptised in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon. He was the eldest of eight children, five of whom survived, but little is known about their upbringing. At 18 he married the pregnant Anne Hathaway. Scholars know little of his religion and even less about his education. But a travelling theatre company, The Queen’s Men, visited Stratford in 1587, and William may have joined them at that point. Certainly by 1595 he had joined The Chamberlain’s Men company.

Historians don’t know when he began to write - or why - but he did write poems dedicated to his patron, the Earl of Southampton. The first authentic dramatic work was a version of Richard III debuting in 1595. He was quickly in demand and within two years bought a substantial house in Stratford, where his wife and family continued to live in spite of his many commitments in London.

He was well-known during his lifetime in the world of London theatres and at court. His gift with words and empathy with the human situation ensured that his plays survive as a monument to Elizabethan culture and to the English language in general. He died in 1616, but his work survives as the crowning achievement of the English Renaissance.

Conflict with the Papacy (1570)

In 1570, Pope Pius V issued the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, excommunicating and deposing Elizabeth I. Philip II like many others thought Pius’s move was a mistake because it created problems for English Catholics:

● Before 1570, the English Catholics saw themselves as loyal Englishmen who disagreed with the Elizabethan religious settlement and looked to Mary, Queen of Scots, as the heir to the throne. They wanted Elizabeth to acknowledge Mary but weren’t prepared to help Mary, by conspiracy or in any other way.

● After 1570, in principle the option to help was no longer open to English Catholics. If they accepted the pope’s authority, they couldn’t accept Elizabeth as monarch, and thus became potential traitors to the English Crown.

Elizabeth had no idea how many Catholics lived in her dominions or how seriously they would take the bull. Most conformed to her conservative Protestant Church Settlement and became an identifiable and manageable problem (as we relate in Chapter 14). But how should she identify individuals who supported the papacy, because for them Regnans in Excelsis was a declaration against Elizabeth?

The bull forced the Queen to support the Protestant side in the religious division, which was opening up throughout Europe. Eventually Elizabeth’s Protestant support led to war with Spain (check out Chapter 16).

War with Spain (1585)

The extraordinary thing about the war between England and Spain is that it took so long to happen! Elizabeth had been backing pirates raiding the Spanish colonies since the mid-1560s. English trade with the Low Countries was embargoed, English volunteers were fighting the Spanish alongside the Dutch rebels and Francis Drake had out-paced Philip, King of Spain, in his round-the-world voyage. Elizabeth professed goodwill towards Philip with one hand, but then knighted Francis Drake with the other.

Philip was exasperated but held back because he knew the quality of the English soldiers and seamen. He also had enough to deal with in the Low Countries with North African pirates and with the Turks in the Mediterranean. His acquisition of Portugal in 1580 only added to his problems. Spain’s naval power was essentially for the defence of its coastline, but after 1580 Philip’s priorities changed: partly due to his success in Portugal, partly to the brazen way in which Elizabeth welcomed Francis Drake and partly to Philip’s continued success in getting his silver supplies through from the New World.

When a Catholic assassin killed William the Silent, the Dutch lost their leader and chief inspiration. The English Council was alarmed and feared England would be next on Philip’s hit list (as we relate in Chapter 16). The war was finally on!

England's Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588)

England was already a great sea power before encountering the Spanish Armada, but 1588 reinforced her supremacy and gave her sea dogs huge confidence (turn to Chapter 16 for more details).

Philip’s attack was planned as a glorified raid to conquer southern England and force a regime change, although with Mary Queen of Scots dead, who Philip planned to install in Elizabeth’s place is unclear. The Marquis of Santa Cruz, a great sea commander but a poor administrator, was placed in charge of preparations.

In England the preparations were being carefully monitored. The English navy was strengthened, arms stockpiled and arrangements made for musters. A counter-attack was also prepared, and on 19 April 1587, just weeks before the Armada was intended to sail, Drake struck at Cadiz and destroyed supply ships that were loaded and waiting in the harbour for the order to sail north. The surprise and destruction were complete. No Armada was able to sail in 1587.

When Santa Cruz died, he was replaced by the efficient Duke of Medina Sidonia, and soon the Armada was ready to leave Lisbon. The Armada entered the western approaches and then a major flaw was revealed. Medina had instructions where to rendezvous with the Duke of Palma, but he had no idea how he was to do so. Medina received no news from the duke until the ships reached Calais and the news was bad: it would be at least a week before the army of Flanders would be ready. The Armada simply had to stay where it was.

The same night Lord Howard of Effingham sent in fireships at Calais and scattered the Armada along the Flanders banks. The next day Effingham sent in the warships and pounded the Spanish. The ensuing Battle of Gravelines demonstrated the superiority of the English gunners and resulted in a comprehensive defeat of the Spanish and the loss of about 16,000 Spanish men.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!