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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Romans in Britain
Anglo-Saxons & Vikings
Lancaster and York
Henry VII and Henry VIII
     Pretenders to the throne
     Building the Tudor inheritance
     England and Scotland in Europe
     Holy League and Flodden
     Royal divorce
     Royal reform
     Act of Supremacy
     Royal palaces
     Wives of Henry VIII

Children of Henry VIII
Charles I and Charles II
Civil War, Commonwealth
Restoration, Revolution

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Pretenders to the throne: 1487-1499

Like Henry IV almost a century earlier, Henry VII has usurped the throne - albeit with the support of most of the nobility. Like his predecessor, his reign is troubled by attempts to unseat him. But this time they take an unusual form. They are headed by pretenders, nonentities who are coached by the rebels to impersonate princes who would have a real claim to the throne.

The first pretender is Lambert Simnel, claimed by supporters of the Yorkist dynasty to be the young Edward of Warwick (a nephew of Edward IV and Richard III). In 1487 the Yorkists crown the boy Edward VI in the cathedral in Dublin. They then invade England with an army of German mercenaries.


In a battle at Stoke, in Nottinghamshire, Henry VII defeats the rebels (with some difficulty) and captures Lambert Simnel. Recognizing that the boy is a harmless dupe, the king employs him in the royal kitchens. Simnel lives to the age of about sixty, dying in 1535.

A more serious threat emerges in 1491. Margaret of Burgundy, the sister of Edward IV and Richard III, claims to have rescued her nephew Richard, the younger of the two Princes in the Tower. He is in fact a 17-year-old, a certain Perkin Warbeck, but Margaret coaches him to impersonate the prince - so successfully that he is at differing times accepted in that role by the king of France, by the Holy Roman Emperor and by James IV of Scotland.


With friends of this calibre, and a powerful claim to the throne as the supposed son of a crowned king, this pretender is dangerous indeed. But Henry's diplomacy succeeds in diverting foreign support, and fortunately Warbeck's three attempts to invade England are incompetent. He is captured in Hampshire in 1497.

Once again Henry VII at first spares the impostor, until further political developments make his death seem a wise precaution. Warbeck is hanged at Tyburn in 1499.


Building the Tudor inheritance: 1485-1509

The caution and commonsense which Henry VII shows in relation to the two pretenders is typical of his reign, both in domestic and foreign affairs. At home, strictly controlled expenditure and efficiently raised revenue soon put the royal finances in a healthy condition unprecedented in the past century or more. In establishing strong central control, the king is helped by a widespread desire to avoid a return to the anarchy of the preceding reigns.

Henry commissions John Cabot and his sons in 1497 to cross the Atlantic, in search of new lands and trade routes. In doing so he takes the first step towards English colonial expansion - though nothing comes of these early voyages.


In his relationship with other kingdoms, Henry is equally successful. At the start of his reign the kings of France and Scotland and the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, are all opposed to him - partly because they consider him likely to lose his throne. But he achieves treaties of peace and recognition from France in 1492, from Maximilian in 1496 and from Scotland in 1499.

The Scottish treaty is followed by the marriage, in 1503, of the Scottish king James IV and Margaret Tudor, Henry's daughter - an event of great signficance in English and Scottish history, for exactly a century later it brings the union of the crowns.


An equally significant marriage, and another triumph for Henry's foreign policy, has taken place two years earlier. Among the kingdoms of Europe, Spain is the new power to be reckoned with - fully recovered for Christianity with the capture of Granada, united under the joint rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, and certain soon to benefit from the wealth of America.

Henry contrives to link England with this emerging power. In 1501 Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, arrives in England to marry Henry's eldest son, Arthur. They are both fifteen at their wedding in November. They spend the winter together in Ludlow castle. There, in April, the young husband dies.


Immediately there are plans for the Spanish princess to marry the new heir to the throne, Henry VII's second son - also called Henry. Papal dispensation is secured for the union (the legality of which is recognized as open to interpretation), but shifting political alliances between the European powers cause the king to delay the wedding.

It is almost the only unresolved political issue when Henry VII dies in 1509. He leaves his heir a prosperous and stable kingdom, which Henry VIII inherits without any trace of disturbance or unrest. One of his first acts, within two months of his father's death, is to marry Catherine.


England and Scotland in Europe: 16th century

In the greatest rivalry of 16th century Europe - that of Spain and France - the two kingdoms of the British Isles are peripheral players. But there are certain contexts in which they can harm or hinder the main contestants.

England can help Spain by invading across the Channel when France is engaged elsewhere. England can help France by denying Spanish ships an easy passage through the Channel to the Netherlands. And Scotland can help any enemy of England by marching into the northern English counties.


Royal marriages with France and Spain are used by both countries to reinforce these potential alliances. England's Henry VIII is himself already married to the Spanish Catherine of Aragon when, in 1514, he arranges a match for his sister Mary with the French king Louis XII.

Henry VIII's wedding plans for his daughter Mary are equally even-handed. When she is two, a betrothal is agreed between her and the infant son of the king of France, who by now is Francis I. When she is five, there is a new plan; she will instead marry Francis's hated Spanish rival, Charles V. When she is eleven, the prospective bridegroom is once again French - but now it is accepted that it may be either the young dauphin or his father, Francis I.


In the event the unfortunate Mary marries no one until 1554, when she is thirty-eight. By then she is herself queen of England, as Mary I, and her bridegroom is Spanish - the son of Charles V. Meanwhile Scotland's diplomats are busy at the same game. In 1548 the 5-year-old Scottish queen, Mary Stuart, is betrothed to the dauphin of France. They marry in 1558.

These matrimonial negotiations are part of the wider diplomacy of England and Scotland in Europe, involving military alliances and sometimes war. The first occasion for war, in 1513, proves a disaster for Scotland.


Holy League and Flodden: 1513

In 1513 the European rivals entice both England and Scotland into their conflict. The pope, the emperor and the king of Spain have formed a Holy League against France. The king of Spain, Ferdinand II, is the father-in-law of Henry VIII. He persuades his son-in-law to support the cause. In June 1513 Henry leads an army across the Channel into France.

Meanwhile the French king has recently agreed a treaty of alliance with Scotland. He now urges James IV, king of Scotland, to respond in kind to this English aggression. In August, within weeks of Henry's departure for France, James crosses the river Tweed to invade northern England.


Both the English and the Scottish kings have initial successes in their summer campaigns, but disaster strikes the Scots in September 1513. At Flodden they meet an English army sent north under the earl of Surrey. Scottish casualties amount to some 10,000 men, subsequently lamented in ballads as the 'flowers of the forest'. Among the dead is the king, James IV. He is succeeded by his one-year-old son, as James V. Scotland enters a profoundly unsettled period.

By contrast Henry returns to England in October, well pleased with his participation in two successful sieges and a victory over the French at Guinegate.


At the time of these adventures the Holy Roman emperor and the French king are Maximilian I and Louis XII. A few years later they are respectively Charles V and Francis I.

Both are more powerful players than Henry VIII in Europe's current turmoil. But an alliance with England is nevertheless an asset. In 1520 Henry has the satisfaction of finding each ruler eager for his friendship - Francis I on the Field of Cloth of Gold, Charles V more discreetly in Kent. The result of those negotiations is an alliance with Spain. But soon Henry's urgent wish for a divorce will alienate Charles V - for Henry's queen, Catherine of Aragon, is the emperor's aunt.


Royal divorce: 1526-1533

A wife in any great dynastic marriage is expected to provide two assets - a diplomatic alliance with her own royal house, and a male heir for her husband's. Of the two the second is by far the more important. It is the one which Catherine of Aragon tragically fails to fulfil.

She bears Henry VIII six children, three of them sons. All are either stillborn or die in early infancy except for one girl, Mary, born in 1516. Henry's first response is to use Catherine's other asset, her own powerful dynasty. In 1521 he arranges the betrothal of Mary to Catherine's nephew, the emperor Charles V. He hopes that the Tudor inheritance, under such protection, will survive one female reign.


The plan crumbles in 1525 when Charles V decides there is greater advantage in binding Spain to Portugal; he marries a Portuguese princess. This leaves the Tudor line dangerously exposed. No woman has inherited the English throne since Matilda, who does not provide an encouraging example. Henry's thoughts turn instead to the possibility of divorce.

This can only be achieved by the pope annulling his marriage to Catherine. There is a good recent precedent. In 1498 the king of France, Louis XII, had his first marriage annulled for the nakedly political reason of securing Brittany for France. Henry's lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, is optimistic that as much may be achieved for England.


At first his optimism seems justified. The pope, Clement VII, sends Cardinal Campeggio to try the case in England. The argument hinges ostensibly on two Rival verses from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 25:5 and Leviticus 20.21). One of them (Leviticus) seems to support Henry's assertion that his marriage to Catherine was from the start against holy writ and therefore invalid.

As ever, a more practical argument decides the case. Since the battle of Pavia in 1525 Catherine's nephew, the emperor Charles V, has been in a position of strength. In 1527 imperial troops besiege Clement VII in Rome. Whatever the theology, the pope cannot afford to grant Henry his annulment. In 1529 Cardinal Campeggio is recalled.


This reversal brings the end of Wolsey's career; he is stripped of all his offices in 1529 but dies of natural causes, in 1530, before what would have been his certain execution. Henry's own reaction to the setback is forceful. The pope is uncooperative. But does England need the pope? In the turmoil of the Reformation, the question is a natural one to ask.

Henry himself is no reformer - indeed he has been granted the title 'Defender of the Faith' by a previous pope in recognition of his pamphlet written against Luther in 1521 - but there are practical benefits to be had from an anti-papal policy. There is a tempting example in Sweden, where Gustavus I has recently raised vast sums from the seizure of church property.


To add to such reasons of state, Henry by now has a strong personal motive for pushing ahead with the divorce. He has fallen in love with the young Anne Boleyn. The letters surviving from his courtship prove the warmth of his passion.

This marriage, so necessary for the provision of a male heir, will be pleasure as well as duty. To speed it on, Henry initiates the unusual series of events which constitute the English Reformation.


Royal reform: 1529-1541

During the five years after Wolsey's fall Henry changes to a new tack in his pursuit of the annulment of his marriage. Instead of trying to persuade the pope of his case, the new strategy is one of forcing his compliance. Many members of parliament are deeply anti-clerical, in response to the overweening behaviour of great prelates such as Wolsey. Henry easily persuades them to pass a series of measures which restrict papal authority in England and prevent church funds from flowing to Rome.

These measures fail to win the annulment from Clement VII. But the pope plays into Henry's hands when he accepts his proposal for the see of Canterbury, which falls vacant in 1532. The name put forward is Thomas Cranmer.


Cranmer has been in the forefront of Henry's campaign for the divorce. Now as archbishop, in May 1533, he declares Henry's marriage to Catherine to be null and void. Of the Rival verses, the one from Leviticus has carried the day. At the same time it is announced that Henry and Anne were secretly married in January. There is urgency in all this, for Anne is already four months pregnant.

Over the coming months parliament passes several acts completing the separation from Rome. The most significant is the Act of Supremacy, in 1534, declaring that Henry VIII is head of the church of England.


Within a week of making himself supreme head of the church, in January 1535, Henry commissions his principal secretary, Thomas Cromwell, to make a detailed survey of monasteries, convents and other ecclesiastical property in England and Wales. This is achieved by Cromwell with great efficiency in a massive document Valor Ecclesiasticus ('Church Wealth').

Before the end of 1535 Cromwell's agents are sent out to list evidence of laxity and corruption in the monasteries - not hard to find at the time. In 1536 the process begins of appropriating properties listed in the first survey, on the grounds of abuses discovered in the second.


In this dissolution of the monasteries, the priories and other smaller establishments are closed and appropriated first. Then Cromwell and his master are ready to tackle the great abbeys, with their rich swathes of land. The task is complete by 1541.

Most of the land is sold to private citizens. Valuable funds flow into the royal exchequer, while the new owners find in the abbey buildings a supply of excellent stone for the mansions which now rise beside picturesque ecclesiastical ruins.


Act of Supremacy: 1534-1535

The Act of Supremacy demands public consent to the king's newly assumed role as head of the Church of England. Prominent figures in public life are required to swear on oath their acceptance of this new doctrine. A few brave men refuse to do so, among them the bishop of Rochester (John Fisher) and Thomas More.

Thomas More holds a position of particular significance. A scholar of distinction, friend of Erasmus, author of Utopia, he has also been a close friend of Henry VIII and for three years - after the fall of Wolsey - his lord chancellor.


More refuses the oath because it implies denial of the pope's supremacy. Imprisoned from May 1534 in the Tower of London, he is tried in Westminster Hall in July 1535 (ten days after the beheading of John Fisher on the same charge of treason).

Found guilty, and returned to the Tower, More declares on the scaffold that he dies 'the king's good servant, but God's first'. He and Fisher, and a group of Carthusian monks who make the same stand, become England's first Catholic martyrs.


And yet there is no element of religious reform in all this, for Henry retains his dislike of Luther. The king has not so much denied the pope as replaced him. Instead of the Roman Catholic church there is to be an English Catholic church. Doctrine is barely involved.

But this account leaves out Cranmer. He has been by instinct a reformer since 1520, when he was one of a group in Cambridge meeting to discuss the ideas thrown up by Luther's defiance of Rome. Under his guidance the Anglican church, begun as an act of political expediency, gradually finds its own religious identity.


Royal palaces: 16th century

In 1538 Henry VIII begins the construction of a country palace near Epsom. Its name reflects conscious competition, in this field as in others, with his fellow monarchs in western Europe - and in particular with the king of France, Francis I. The new palace is called Nonsuch.

Francis I has made spectacular improvements to existing buildings at Fontainebleau and Chambord. Henry goes one better with this extravagant new creation, lavishly decorated throughout in Renaissance style by craftsmen who are mainly from Italy. Some of them have worked previously at Fontainebleau.


In this age of the palace, Henry has a magnificent quartet strung out along the Thames. Built by others, they are all greatly extended by him. Greenwich, dating originally from the early 15th century, is where he was born. It remains his favourite.

In the centre of London Henry uses, from 1529, the palace which he names Whitehall. As York Place, it has previously been the London residence of the archbishop of York. Cardinal Wolsey, absentee holder of this office, has done much to improve this riverside building. It is plainly church property, but when Wolsey falls from favour the king loses no time in moving in.


Further upstream Henry has a palace at Richmond, lavishly rebuilt by his father after a fire in 1499. Beyond that, at Hampton Court, he benefits again from Wolsey's energies as a builder.

The cardinal creates this magnificent residence (where some 280 beds are kept available for strangers) between 1514 and 1521. By 1525 he considers it politic to avoid the king's envy. He makes him a gift of the palace and all its contents. Wolsey is graciously allowed to remain in his house until his disgrace in 1529, after which Henry adds it to his collection.


Wives of Henry VIII: 1509-1547

Not many men have six wives. Even fewer execute two. It is not surprising that Henry VIII and his wives have an assured niche in popular history.

The king is married to Catherine of Aragon for nearly two and a half decades, then fits five more wives into just fourteen years. His marriage to Anne Boleyn, at first passionate, lasts only three years. The king is disappointed that her first child is a girl (the future queen Elizabeth). He is further distressed when she has a late miscarriage, probably of a male child, in January 1536. In May of that year she is suddenly sent to the Tower on charges of adultery.


It is not known whether there is any basis to this accusation, but those accused of being her lovers (including her own brother) are executed on May 17. Anne is beheaded on May 19. On the very next day Henry is betrothed to one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. They marry on May 30. The following year, in October, Jane does at last produce the long-awaited male heir, the future Edward VI. But she herself dies twelve days later.

Henry's next marriage also leads to a death, but not in this case that of the bride.


Thomas Cromwell, by now the king's right-hand man on all matters, persuades his master in 1539 that an alliance with a German house, with Lutheran connections, is a diplomatic necessity - there appears to be a danger of Catholic France and Spain, long-term enemies, settling their differences. He proposes marriage with Anne, a princess of Cleves.

Henry is said to dislike Anne on first sight, in 1540, calling her the 'Flanders mare'. He refuses to consummate the marriage, which is easily annulled six months later by a compliant English church and parliament. By then France and Spain are back to their squabbles, so the union was not even a diplomatic necessity. Thomas Cromwell pays for this blunder with his head.


Less than three weeks after the annulment of the marriage to Anne of Cleves, and on the very day when Thomas Cromwell is executed, Henry marries one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting - the 19-year-old Catherine Howard. For a year Henry is enchanted with his young bride. Then he discovers that she has had affairs both before and during her marriage. She is beheaded in 1542.

Finally, in 1543, he marries his third Catherine. Already twice widowed herself, and now aged thirty-one, Catherine Parr is an intelligent and cultivated woman who succeeds in uniting the king's family. For the remaining few years of his life his three children, from separate mothers, all live together for the first time in the royal household.


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