The Tudors Rule England

The Tudor Dynasty, established in England after Henry VII seized the English throne from the Lancastrian king Richard III, had its accomplishments consolidated by Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII. The beginning of the dynasty also marked the end of the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York.

Summary of Event

On August 22, 1485, at the battle of Bosworth Field Bosworth Field, Battle of (1485) , a rebel army under Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, defeated the forces of the legitimate Yorkist Yorkists monarch, Richard III. This victory for Henry—a claimant to the English throne through his mother’s family—put an end to the lingering Wars of the Roses Roses, Wars of the (1455-1485) between the houses of Lancaster Lancastrians and York, and at least provisionally established a new dynasty, the Tudors, on the English throne. It would be the work of Henry’s reign, and that of his son, Henry VIII, to firmly establish the Tudors as the rightful and accepted rulers of England. Tudor Dynasty
Henry VII
Henry VIII
Catherine of Aragon
Richard III
Wolsey, Thomas
Cromwell, Thomas
More, Thomas
Henry VII (king of England)
Richard III (king of England)
Henry VIII (king of England)
Elizabeth of York
Catherine of Aragon
Arthur (prince of England)
Wolsey, Cardinal Thomas
More, Sir Thomas
Cromwell, Thomas

Within three months, Parliament had accepted Henry VII’s claim and title to the English throne. His immediate concerns were to establish the security and stability of the new Tudor rule. His marriage to Elizabeth of York five months after Bosworth was part of this strategy; through this marriage Henry “united” the red and white roses of the Yorkist and Lancastrian families and so wrote a symbolic ending to the seemingly interminable civil wars of the past three generations. The birth of four children, including two sons, Arthur (b. 1486) and Henry (b. 1491) further secured the position of the new dynasty.

The change in ruling families was immediately important only at the upper strata of English political and social life, and even in those spheres there was considerable continuity. Administrative and bureaucratic reforms begun by the Yorkist king Edward IV and continued by his brother and heir, Richard III, remained in place. In some instances, Henry VII even expanded upon them to consolidate and enlarge royal authority and prerogatives. The restoration of the power of the monarchy, especially in fiscal affairs, which had started under Edward IV, was continued by the Tudors, and often with the same advisers. Henry VII wisely retained a number of Edward’s and Richard’s chief ministers: Out of forty of Edward IV’s councillors who were alive in 1485, twenty-two became councillors to Henry VII. Twenty of the chief councillors who had served Richard III (including some who had also been active in the court of his brother, Edward) were to be found in the service of Henry VII.

Henry VII’s domestic and foreign policies were fundamentally conservative. At home, he made relatively few changes; his major innovations were in the greater efficiency and functioning of the royal bureaucracy. As his reign progressed, however, Henry took an increasingly personal role in daily activities, especially fiscal and judicial policy. The delegation of authority that was to become first notable under his son Henry VIII and then routine under his granddaughter Elizabeth I was not part of Henry VII’s matured view of royal government. In part, no doubt, this could be attributed to his position as the first member of a new dynasty, as well as someone constitutionally incapable, from long years of exile and plotting, from fully trusting anyone else.

Henry VII’s major goal in foreign policy was to reduce England’s commitment to potentially dangerous entanglements in Europe, especially those involving France, Burgundy, and the Low Countries. Although he had received help and encouragement from the French during the period of this exile, Henry VII was generally successful in avoiding any lasting commitment on the European mainland. His generally defensive foreign policy was cemented by the engagement and marriage of Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, to his son Prince Arthur. After Arthur’s death Catherine was married to Henry VIII.

In general, Henry VII was successful in his efforts. There were few pretenders and no serious rivals to his position as monarch during his reign. He won recognition of his title from Parliament, the Papacy, and the nation in general. Through his careful efforts and diligent service he kept England free of foreign adventures and built up a substantial treasury. On his death in 1509, it was left to his son, Henry VIII, to consolidate Tudor rule in England and to expand England’s influence throughout Europe.

Henry VIII became king of England when his father died April 21, 1509, and his immediate—and lasting—desire was to augment royal power and enhance England’s position in European political affairs. Internally, he initially sought to increase the flow and regularity of revenues into the Crown’s purse; later, he attempted to stamp his version of acceptable religious belief and practices on the kingdom. Externally, Henry sought to establish England as an “empire,” the term used during the time for a power of the first rank. To accomplish this, Henry repeatedly engaged in European affairs, including a series of invasions of France that practically amounted to a renewal of the Hundred Years’ War. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempts, and to a considerable degree emptied the English treasury through his efforts, Henry did make his nation once again a major player in European political affairs.

Through his brilliant minister Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry was much more successful in consolidating and enlarging royal power at home. Wolsey, who took his seat on the king’s council in 1510, rose quickly through his abilities as an administrator. From his selection as Lord Chancellor in December of 1515 to his fall from power in 1529, he was commonly acknowledged as practically a second king (alter rex, in Latin) in England, whose initiatives and policies were equal to those of Henry VIII himself. Although in many respects high-handed and even dictatorial, Wolsey had a firm belief in administrative and legal fairness and competence; throughout his career he upheld the right of the common people to justice and fairness, and he did much to advance the growth of English administrative law.

Wolsey’s fall was bound up with Henry VIII’s obsessive desire to secure his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Having no legitimate male heir, Henry felt the Tudor line seriously threatened, and he convinced himself that by marrying his brother’s widow he had seriously transgressed God’s law. Divorce;Henry VIII and
Divorce;Catherine of Aragon and Wolsey, as his chief minister, was charged with securing a dispensation from the pope; unfortunately for the cardinal, European political conditions made such an accomplishment impossible. In 1529, Henry dismissed Wolsey; the cardinal died the following year while en route to the Tower of London to almost certain execution. Sir Thomas More was named chancellor, but he too felt Henry’s displeasure over the “divorce question” and was beheaded in 1535.

In the meantime, Henry had effectively broken with Rome. By 1531, his propaganda machine was using the printing press to advance his case for the divorce and was spreading the theory that the king, rather than the pope, was the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Protestantism;England
Printing;Henry VIII and propoganda In May of 1532, this theory became fact with the forced submission of the English clergy to Henry’s royal power. (It was this that caused More’s resignation as chancellor and his eventual execution.) Thomas Cromwell, who had served as Wolsey’s deputy, rose to power and brought the full weight of royal power to bear on suppressing English Catholics, dissolving the monasteries and other church establishments and making Henry VIII in fact, as well as name, head of a new, national church called the Church of England Church of England .


The establishment of the Tudor Dynasty in England can be seen as essentially a two-step process. First, Henry VII seized the throne from the ruling monarch, Richard III, and then established himself and his family by cautious, even conservative policies that left most of English society unaffected by the transformation at the court and that brought a period of relative peace and prosperity to the nation. Then, the more ambitious and public monarchy of his son Henry VIII awakened a sense of national pride and identity that, despite the upheaval of the break with the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent turmoil, left England and the English with a sense of a unique and separate nationhood that was fully and brilliantly exploited by the greatest of the Tudor monarchs, Elizabeth I.

Further Reading

  • Bucholz, Robert, and Newton Key. Early Modern England, 1485-1714. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. Comprehensive survey and introduction to English history under the Tudors and the Stuarts. Covers both the political history of the monarchs themselves and cultural and social history during their reigns. Includes illustrations, maps, genealogical tables, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Collinson, Patrick, ed. The Sixteenth Century, 1485-1603. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Anthology of essays on English and British culture during the Tudor Dynasty. Covers economics, religion, the scope of monarchic power, and foreign relations. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 1991. A general survey that provides a comprehensive review of English life under the dynasty, encompassing political, religious, and economic affairs.
  • Griffiths, Ralph. The Making of the Tudor Dynasty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Excellent in its review of the background of Henry Tudor and his family, and perceptive in its study of his shrewd, if sometimes unscrupulous, tactics in maneuvering himself into first the pretendership and then the monarchy itself.
  • Guy, John. Tudor England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Detailed, lucid, and learned, this volume provides an excellent introduction to the life of England under the dynasty, with an outstanding discussion of the operations of royal administration. It is perceptive and sympathetic in its treatment of Cardinal Wolsey, one of England’s most underrated ministers.
  • Loades, David. The Tudor Court. 3d ed. Oxford, England: Davenant, 2003. Comprehensive account of the courts of the Tudor monarchs. Discusses both the external trappings and the internal politics of the court, and the often labyrinthine nature of the relationship between appearance and political reality. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Morris, Christopher. The Tudors. London: Severn House, 1976. A good starting point for the beginning student who needs to understand the worldview of sixteenth century England in a broad context.
  • Rex, Richard. The Tudors. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Tempus, 2003. A study of the relationship between the public persona and the private life of each of the Tudors. Emphasizes the common characteristics of the monarchs, especially their mixture of charisma with the threat of violent action. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Ridley, Jasper. A Brief History of the Tudor Age. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Brief but comprehensive survey of English culture under the Tudors. The focus on both London and rural England is especially useful, given the tendency of other sources to look primarily at the royal court. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.

1455-1485: Wars of the Roses

Aug. 29, 1475: Peace of Picquigny

1483-1485: Richard III Rules England

1515-1529: Wolsey Serves as Lord Chancellor and Cardinal

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I