How the Tudor dynasty shaped modern Britain

Building the house of Tudor

The Tudor era saw unprecedented upheaval in England. Between them the five Tudor kings and queens introduced huge changes that are still with us today.

The years between the crowning of Henry VII in 1485 and the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 saw the old religious order swept away, the establishment of the American colonies, the foundation of the Royal Navy and the power of Europe challenged.


Henry VII seizes the throne

Henry Tudor is crowned King of England on the battlefield at Bosworth after his army defeats and kills Richard III.

Henry VII presents himself as the unifier of the warring Lancaster and York dynasties – symbolised by his adoption of the red and white Tudor Rose. His reign brings 85 years of civil war to an end. He marries Elizabeth, daughter of the Yorkist king Edward IV. Within a year they have a son, Arthur, later followed by another, Henry.

Thomas Penn reveals how the first Tudor monarch rose to power. Clip from Winter King (BBC Two, 2013).

1502 - 1503

Peace treaty with Scotland

Henry wants to keep his kingdom secure and creates several foreign alliances to try to avoid wars.

He arranges the marriage of his 13-year-old daughter Margaret to James IV to secure peace between England and Scotland. Although the peace doesn't last, the couple's great-grandson, James I of England and VI of Scotland, will unite the crowns of Scotland and England 100 years later.

Portrait of Margaret Tudor.


Henry VIII is crowned king

The 17-year-old Henry succeeds to the throne on the death of his father, Henry VII. His older brother Arthur had died seven years earlier.

The Pope gives a special dispensation for the young king to marry his late brother’s wife Catherine of Aragon. Three years later Henry invades France in pursuit of an ancient claim to the throne. He is aided and abetted by his advisor Thomas Wolsey, who he appoints Lord Chancellor in 1514.

David Dimbleby explains the character of Henry VIII's reign. Clip from Seven Ages of Britain (BBC One, 2010).


The Royal Mail is founded

Henry VIII orders the creation of the first national postal service for royal mail.

Called 'The King’s Posts', it was devised by Sir Brian Tuke and commanded all towns to have a fresh horse available for anyone carrying mail from the Tudor Court. This royal mail system was opened to the general public in 1635 by King Charles I - the start of the postal system we use today.

Sir Brian Tuke, First Master of the Posts.


Church of England is created

Henry requests an annulment of his marriage with Catherine from the Pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The request is refused.

In response, Henry breaks from the authority of the Pope and is declared head of the English Church by Parliament. To cancel out the power of the Catholic church in England, he dissolves over 800 monasteries and transfers their wealth and lands transferred to the crown. Years of discord between Protestants and Catholics follow.

Title page of the Great Bible. Henry VIII authorised it to be the first English Bible for public use in 1539.


Mary Rose sinks but Royal Navy flourishes

Henry VIII is keen to build up his fledgling navy from the 15 ships he inherits. By 1540 the navy has 45.

He also builds the first naval dock at Portsmouth and establishes the Navy Board to run the service. Many of the ships, like Henry's flagship the Mary Rose, are fitted with the latest guns. Henry's ships can now now stand up against those of the French and Spanish navies. In 1545, the Mary Rose sinks while leading an attack against a French invasion fleet.

David Dimbleby explains how Henry VIII founded the Royal Navy. Clip from Seven Ages of Britain (BBC One, 2010).


England becomes Protestant under Edward VI

Henry dies and his son Edward, aged nine, becomes king. Edward's uncle Edward Seymour seizes power by establishing himself as protector.

In order to make England a truly Protestant state, the Book of Common Prayer is introduced and religious imagery in churches is destroyed. Seymour is arrested and later executed after he fails to solve England's near bankruptcy. The king dies aged fifteen, never ruling in his own right. The cause of his death is not certain.

Simon Schama describes how the reformation was brought in during Edward VI's reign. Clip from A History of Britain by Simon Schama (BBC Two, 2000).


Mary I is crowned queen

Edward's half-sister Mary takes the throne, after a power struggle with Edward's advisers who want his cousin Lady Jane Grey to be queen.

At first Mary I enjoys widespread popular support. But many oppose her decision to marry Catholic Phillip II of Spain and reconcile with Rome. She attempts to take England back to Catholicism. During her reign nearly 300 Protestants are burned for refusing to reconvert, earning her the nickname 'Bloody Mary'.

Portrait of Mary I.


Elizabeth I’s long reign begins

When Mary dies, her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, becomes queen.

Elizabeth returns England to Protestantism, but she does not enforce strict religious conformity and declares she does not want to 'make windows into men's souls'. Elizabeth chooses never to marry as she wants England free from the influence of foreign princes and the dissent and infighting a marriage to a fellow countryman might bring.

Simon Schama describes Elizabeth I's tolerant approach to religion. Clip from A History of Britain by Simon Schama (BBC Two, 2000).


Royal Exchange sees trade flourish

Sir Thomas Gresham, known as the father of English banking, sets up the Royal Exchange – the first purpose-built centre for trading stocks in London.

However stock brokers are not allowed inside the building because of their rude manners, instead they operate from nearby coffee houses. Gresham helps persuade Elizabeth I's parliament to legalise money-lending, which allows the Crown to raise loans from home rather than abroad. Over time London takes over from Antwerp as the financial capital of Europe.

The first Royal Exchange at Cornhill, City of London.


First English colony in America

England wants to compete with Spain and Portugal, whose American colonies generate great wealth.

Sir Walter Raleigh sets up a colony of about 100 men on the east coast of North America, which he names Virginia after Elizabeth I, ‘the Virgin Queen’. Although Raleigh's settlement fails after a year it marks the start of an effort by England to colonise North America. The first successful permanent settlement is founded in 1607.

The arrival of Sir Walter Raleigh's colonists in America, depicted in a 16th-century engraving.

1586 - 1587

Spymaster ensnares Mary, Queen of Scots

Queen Elizabeth I faces numerous plots against her and pays Sir Francis Walsingham to set up a European network of spies across Europe.

He establishes England's first counter-intelligence network and a London school that teaches cipher breaking and forgery. Elizabeth's Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots is in exile in England and poses a threat to Elizabeth. Mary is put under house arrest. Walsingham is convinced she is plotting against the queen and implicates her in a plan to depose Elizabeth. Mary is executed a year later.

Neil Oliver describes how Mary Queen of Scots was involved in plotting Elizabeth I's downfall. Clip from A History of Scotland (BBC Two, 2008).


Defeat of Spanish Armada inspires England

Philip II of Spain launches a great fleet of ships, known as the Spanish Armada, to overthrow Elizabeth and restore Catholicism to England.

The Armada of 130 ships sails up the English channel towards the Spanish Netherlands to pick up troops for the invasion. However, they are engaged by the Royal Navy and driven to the North Sea by strong winds. Only around half of them make it back to Spain. The English celebrate their victory with a medal inscribed with the words 'God Blew and they were Scattered'.

Dan Snow describes how the English sent fire ships to disrupt the Spanish Armada. Clip from Battlefield Britain (BBC Two, 2004).


Provisions for the poor

The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII leaves many of the poorest without a safety net. Poor laws are introduced to help.

The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 requires each parish to provide for the 'lame, impotent, old and blind'. Overseers collect a regular amount from parishioners according to their ability to pay. Over time this evolved into a more centralised system which is replaced by the modern welfare state in the 20th Century.

The Lambarde Almshouses.


End of the Tudor dynasty

Elizabeth I dies aged 69. The Virgin Queen never married or had children.

James VI of Scotland was her closest royal relative as they were both direct descendants of Henry VII. He is named King James I on the day of Elizabeth's death. One of Britain's greatest and most influential dynasties finally reaches its conclusion.

Elizabeth, The Weary Sovereign.