As parvenus, the Tudors were unsurpassed. In the early 15th century no one would have predicted that within a couple of generations these minor Welsh land-owners would mount the English throne and rule the kingdom for more than 100 years. Notwithstanding their ‘vile and barbarous’ origins, their name would become synonymous with historical glamour and the ruthless exercise of regal power.
The family started their precipitous ascent when young Owen Tudor was taken to England by his father and secured himself a position as a chamber servant to Henry V’s widow, Catherine de Valois. Having opportunely tripped and fallen into her lap while dancing, he secretly married her and had four children. Only when his mother died in 1437 did the teenaged Henry VI discover that he had a stepfather and several half-siblings, whom he took under royal protection.
Owen’s eldest son, Edmund Tudor, was married to the redoubtable heiress Margaret Beaufort. Like Henry VI, she was descended from Edward III’s son, John Duke of Lancaster, and though in theory her branch of the family was debarred from claiming the throne this would not stop her son from doing so.
With the advent of the Wars of the Roses, Tudor fortunes wavered. Henry VI was supplanted on the throne and ultimately murdered by his Yorkist cousin Edward IV. By 1471 so many of Henry’s supporters had been killed that one observer assumed ‘no one from that stock remained who could now claim the throne’. In fact, Margaret Beaufort’s son Henry Tudor had escaped to exile in Brittany, and remained — at least in her eyes — a viable candidate for the crown.
Margaret saw her chance after Edward IV’s death, when the late king’s brother Richard usurped the throne of his nephew Edward V. She was fortunate to avoid being executed in 1483, when she sponsored an unsuccessful attempt by her son to invade. Undeterred, two years later she raised loans to finance another effort. She pledged that if her son became king, he would heal divisions by marrying Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. This time the invasion went better, and Henry Tudor became Henry VII after Richard III was killed at Bosworth.
However extraordinary it was that a ‘penniless exile with the name of a humble Welsh farmer’ should have become England’s sovereign, in other respects Henry proved far from a fairytale prince. He terrorised his wealthier subjects by extorting unjust fines. Potential pretenders to the throne were ruthlessly eliminated, the most tragic being Edward IV’s nephew, the Earl of Warwick. In 1499 this harmless youth was executed prior to Katherine of Aragon’s brief marriage to Henry’s short-lived eldest son, Arthur, a match which Katherine later lamented had been ‘made in blood’.
When Henry’s surviving son inherited the throne as Henry VIII, he continued his father’s policy of judicially murdering anyone close enough to the throne to imperil the claims of his immediate family. Yet the dynasty’s future remained precarious, for Henry’s six marriages produced only a single male heir. Having disinherited his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, Henry only reinstated them in the succession towards the end of his life. He then decreed that if all his children died childless, the crown should go to the descendants of his younger sister, Mary, rather than those of his elder sibling, Margaret, who had been married to James IV of Scotland.
This overlooked the claims not only of Henry’s nephew, James V of Scotland, but also of Margaret Douglas, Queen Margaret’s daughter by her second husband. Margaret Douglas herself never accepted that she had been rightfully excluded from the succession. Having matured, in de Lisle’s opinion, into as canny an operator as her forebear Margaret Beaufort, in the reign of Elizabeth I she would scheme tirelessly — and ultimately successfully — to ensure that one of her descendants inherited that queen’s crown.
Henry VIII’s death in 1547 ushered in a decade of bewildering transformation. His son Edward VI oversaw a Protestant revolution, and on becoming mortally ill in his mid-teens, he sought to safeguard his achievements by bequeathing his crown to his evangelically minded cousin Lady Jane Grey. His sister Mary challenged this, rallying public support after Edward’s death to assert her own claim. She duly secured the crown, while the hapless Jane Grey was executed, but the triumph proved temporary. Mary’s failure to produce children meant that on her death in 1558 she was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, who Mary knew would undo the Catholic revival she had inaugurated.
Since Elizabeth elected to remain unmarried and childless, in one sense she was not dynastically minded. In other ways she was obsessive about family matters, ferociously monitoring the activities of her network of cousins (‘a Tudor hydra’, as de Lisle puts it) and punishing all who contracted unauthorised marriages or engaged in intrigue. In 1562, when Jane Grey’s sister Katherine was in the Tower and Margaret Douglas was under house arrest, the Spanish ambassador commented ‘The prisons will soon be full of the nearest relations of the crown.’
Privately Elizabeth believed that her crown should pass next to the royal line of Scotland, but never recognised this formally. Insisting that naming a successor ‘would cost much blood in England’, she neither excluded rival claimants nor named an official heir. ‘When I am dead let them succeed who have the best right,’ she declared, finding it easier to deal with the tensions to which this gave rise than settle the matter in her lifetime.
Leanda de Lisle’s accomplished survey of the ‘Renaissance romance and gothic horror’ of the Tudor era provides a vibrant reappraisal of this turbulent family saga. While not ignoring matters such as Henry VIII’s matrimonial adventures, by focusing on the monarchs’ antecedents, and charting the lives of the dynasty’s lesser members, she introduces a different perspective. Avoiding sensationalism, she is meticulous in her use of sources. Her account confirms the Tudors as one of history’s great success stories, even though their reigns were marked by bloodshed, religious upheaval and the fearful prospect of a disputed succession.
Anne Somerset’s books include Elizabeth I and Ladies in Waiting: From Tudors to the Present Day.