L.P. Hartley famously opened his novel The Go-Between with a now proverbial sentence that described the past as “a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The history of early modern Europe, encompassing the Renaissance and Reformation, blends that alluring sense of difference with a sometimes misleading hint of familiarity. Seemingly familiar stories often involve unexpected complexities that make the protagonists and their problems more real than the legends convey.
Leanda de Lisle reveals such hidden depths in the vivid history of England’s most famous dynasty by focusing on how the Tudors won the crown and the struggles they faced to keep it. A 15th-century crisis of governance sparked a civil war that ended with a distant claimant to the throne seizing power after defeating Richard III at Bosworth Field. Henry Tudor’s victory, however, never put the succession beyond question. Peace remained as fragile as his dynasty’s hold on the realm.
Part of the problem in understanding the Tudors and their world, de Lisle persuasively argues, lies in the fact that they operated under very different assumptions from the generations that followed them. The English Reformation marked a watershed in more ways than one. Catholicism had shaped habits of mind and public culture right through the late 16th century. Even those who broke with its teachings operated in reaction to them. Concepts of justice and obligation differed from those of a post-Reformation or post-Enlightenment age even when conveyed in the same words.
Struggles in the 15th century had imbued Englishmen with a horror of disorder that set much of the context in which the Tudors acted. Monarchy offered a check on the licentious violence where the strong did as they would and the weak suffered as they must. Law and social hierarchy had divine sanction that constrained kings along with nobles and commoners. Providing good lordship that protected subjects and ensured that all received their due counted for more than a claim to the throne by blood.
De Lisle opens her story with an unlikely marriage that shows how truth can be stranger than fiction. Owen Tudor, an obscure Welsh squire, landed a position as chamber servant in the court of Henry V’s widowed queen, Catherine of Valois. By one account, he landed in her lap when a leap during a dance went awry. Prevented from marrying a great noble by the council Henry V had appointed to rule during his infant son’s minority, Catherine instead turned to a man who posed no political threat to the king or state. Their marriage broke social conventions and did little to raise Owen’s standing, but the four children it produced had wider opportunities as half-siblings to the young Henry VI. Edmund and Jasper Tudor were brought up for a life at court, and Henry VI later raised them to the nobility with hopes of securing them as allies in governing the ream.
The king needed loyal allies since England’s defeat in the Hundred Years’ War with France—and consequent discontent heightened by the money spent on the conflict—created difficulties. He lacked the commanding personality to impose his will, though de Lisle credits him with more ability than many contemporaneous or later accounts do. The fact that generations earlier Edward III left a numbers of sons who produced heirs made for a large extended royal family, some of whose scions might see themselves as potential kings. Henry VI only produced an heir in 1453, raising speculation before then over who would succeed him. That same year Henry VI suffered a mental collapse before his son was born, and thus the king’s cousin Richard, Duke of York, became protector of the realm. York’s brief ascendancy split the elite further as the kingdom moved toward civil war.
Family relationships mattered. Edmund Tudor’s marriage to Margaret Beaufort, one of Edward III’s descendants and a wealthy heiress, raised his standing and gave their children a distant place in the succession. Their marriage—when she was 12—bolstered the royal House of Lancaster, led by Edmund’s half-brother Henry VI. Edmund died of plague before Margaret gave birth to their son, Henry Tudor, in 1457.
De Lisle deftly weaves the Tudors’ rise into the larger narrative of the Wars of the Roses. Fighting over who Henry VI should have for his councilors turned into a struggle for the throne that decimated the nobility. Rival armies fielded more men than during the later Civil Wars in the 1640s. Richard of York’s death in battle pushed his eldest son, Edward, forward as the new Yorkist claimant. As Edward IV, he ordered Owen Tudor beheaded, along with other Lancastrian leaders. After several rounds of fighting interspersed with conspiracy and betrayal, Edward IV killed Henry VI and his heir before forcing their supporters into submission and exile. Two sons by his wife Elizabeth Woodville, the first commoner to become queen, consolidated Edward IV’s hold on the crown by securing the succession.
Henry Tudor provided a focus for Lancastrian sympathies; he fled into exile with his uncle Jasper. Edward IV’s death in 1483 sparked new tensions when he left a child heir likely to be dominated by his mother’s Woodville relations. The Yorkists split, and Edward IV’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester, pushed his young nephew aside to take the throne himself as Richard III. (Both the deposed boy king and his brother disappeared—their murder remains a mystery.) Henry Tudor seized the moment to stake his own claim to the throne, and the hard-fought battle of Bosworth Field ended with Richard III dead and Henry Tudor—now Henry VII—king.
Starting with Owen Tudor rather than his grandson Henry brings a few themes into tighter focus. Kings had an often precarious hold on power that depended greatly on their abilities. Failure bred discontent that laid the foundation for opposition. Weakness invited challenge, but so did personal failings or vices that antagonized elites. Kings had to keep in check the nobles whom Shakespeare aptly called “overmighty subjects,” even as they ruled through them. Anyone with a claim of his or her own to the throne posed an implicit threat. Producing an heir—and surviving until the child reached maturity—therefore became a political necessity.
These 15th-century lessons preoccupied the Tudors throughout their reigns and marked the unstated premises of decisions they made. Henry VII dated his reign from the day before Bosworth Field, and he had himself crowned before marrying Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth, an alliance that united the claims of Lancaster and York. He was determined to be seen as king in his own right and not as his wife’s consort. The Wars of the Roses ended only after he defeated several pretenders and had two sons to continue his line. Indeed, de Lisle suggests that Henry Tudor never thought of himself as founding a new dynasty.
Henry VII distrusted leading nobles whether they had a claim to the throne or merely sufficient power to play kingmaker. He relied instead on officials from more humble origins who owed their positions to him. Ruinous fines, held in abeyance at the king’s pleasure, kept overmighty subjects in jeopardy. Henry VII acted ruthlessly against those who posed the slightest threat: a few potential claimants to the throne faced treason prosecutions that amounted to judicial murder. The king also sealed treaties with Spain and Scotland by royal marriages that had consequences beyond strengthening England’s international position.
Other Tudors—including Henry VIII, the younger son who succeeded him—followed Henry VII’s general approach. But Henry VIII’s difficulty producing male heirs presented a new problem. In an effort to solve it, Henry VIII secured a divorce by rejecting the pope’s authority and placing himself at the head of the church in England. Enabling legislation from Parliament that blocked appeals to Rome declared the realm an empire sufficient unto itself. Breaking with the Catholic Church during a period of religious disputation in Europe, however, created additional problems: religion soon displaced older causes of strife.
Henry VIII thought supremacy over the church granted him the self-sufficient imperial power he had long sought, but his chancellor, Thomas More, saw it as a usurpation that left no appeal for individual conscience beyond king. Having made his choice, Henry VIII had to compel obedience—even at the cost of executing men like More—lest his authority as king seem hollow. Breaking up monasteries and confiscating most of their lands was part of the process, along with despoiling churches and forcing recalcitrant subjects to conform. The Reformation, de Lisle writes, brought a cultural revolution that transformed England: Protestants more fervent than Henry VIII pushed for sweeping religious changes, while Catholics resisted and sought to turn them back.
The next three reigns showed the dynamic at work. By leaving his only son, Edward VI, as a child heir, Henry VIII gave the boy’s uncle, the Duke of Somerset, the chance to become the power behind the throne. Somerset’s costly attempt to coerce Scotland into a marriage alliance that would subordinate it to England, and his militant efforts to impose the Reformation, sparked a backlash that brought him down. The Duke of Northumberland who replaced him showed more caution but tried to put Lady Jane Grey, a Tudor descendant, on the throne as successor to the dying 15-year-old Edward VI. His attempt at kingmaking ironically rallied support to Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, Mary, instead.
Where in the 15th century women like Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville had played a key political role behind the scenes, they now became protagonists in their own right. Queen Mary, her sister Elizabeth, and their cousin Mary, Queen of Scots—who also had a Tudor claim to the English throne—dominated the scene. The sisters demonstrated that a queen could rule as well as reign, albeit on different terms from a king. Mary, Queen of Scots fared less well and ended up an exile in Elizabeth’s court. Having walked a precarious line as queen in waiting under her sister, Elizabeth I had no illusions about the threat an alternative monarch posed to the reigning sovereign. Her advisors successfully pressed for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, as conspiracies threatened the peace of the realm. Although Elizabeth weathered the storms that followed, including war with Spain, her crown passed to Mary’s son James in 1603.
Tudor despotism solved many problems England faced in the late middle ages. It curbed the nobility, subordinated the church to the political nation, and brought Parliament into governing a docile partner to the crown. Elizabeth’s reliance on councilors and courtiers made them a power in the realm. Ruling though them, however, checked her power as they guided her choices and implemented the policies that followed. Still, the Tudors’ answer to disorder created problems of its own, along with a backlash that their Stuart successors faced in the 1640s. De Lisle captures the drama of the Tudors from the beginning in a narrative that presents a vivid example of the challenges to securing political order in a turbulent age.
William Anthony Hay is a historian at Mississippi State University.