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The Tudors and Stuarts

The Tudor period and the Reformation

After Henry VII's victory in the Wars of the Roses, he aimed to keep England peaceful and ensure the security of his reign. He strengthened the central administration, reduced the power of nobility, and built up financial reserves. His son, Henry VIII, carried on with this policy of centralising power.
Henry VIII is best known for his six marriages and his break with the Roman Catholic Church. Disputes over his first marriage led to England's separation from the Catholic Church and the creation of the Church of England, with Henry VIII as its head. This event is known as the English Reformation.
This religious revolution had a profound impact on English society. Monasteries were dissolved, wealth and lands were seized, and religious practices changed. It also brought England into conflict with Catholic nations, particularly Spain, leading to events such as the Spanish Armada's attempted invasion in 1588.
However, the English Reformation also brought about new educational institutions, like grammar schools and colleges at Cambridge and Oxford, due to the redistributed wealth from the dissolved monasteries. Furthermore, it enabled the translation and distribution of the Bible in English, which had a significant influence on English literature and language.

The Six wives of Henry VIII

Catherine of Aragon – The first wife of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon was a Spanish princess and originally married to Henry's older brother, Arthur. After Arthur's death, she married Henry, becoming Queen of England. Their marriage lasted for over 20 years, but their inability to produce a male heir led to Henry seeking an annulment, setting off a chain of events that would lead to the English Reformation. Catherine remained a devout Catholic and refused to accept the annulment. She was the mother of Mary I.
Anne Boleyn – Anne Boleyn was Henry's second wife and the mother of Elizabeth I. Her marriage to Henry followed the controversial annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Anne's failure to produce a male heir and her alleged involvement in court intrigues led to her arrest and execution on charges of treason, adultery, and incest. Her execution marked a tragic and pivotal moment in English history.
Jane Seymour – Jane Seymour was Henry's third wife and is often remembered as his favorite because she gave birth to his long-awaited male heir, Edward VI. Tragically, Jane died shortly after childbirth due to postnatal complications. Her death deeply affected Henry, and she was the only wife to be buried beside him.
Anne of Cleves – Henry's fourth wife was Anne of Cleves. Their marriage was politically motivated, intended to forge an alliance with her brother, the ruler of a German duchy. However, the marriage was short-lived as Henry found her unattractive and quickly annulled the marriage, citing non-consummation. Anne was treated generously after the annulment and was referred to as the King's beloved sister.
Catherine Howard – Young and vivacious, Catherine Howard became Henry's fifth wife. However, her past and extramarital affairs led to her downfall. Accused of adultery, she was executed for treason. Her execution reinforced the dangerous volatility of Henry's court and his increasingly tyrannical rule in his later years.
Catherine Parr – As you mentioned, Catherine Parr was Henry's sixth and final wife. She was a widow who showed great affection and care for Henry's children and was instrumental in reconciling him with his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. A learned woman, she also engaged in theological discussions and was a patron of the arts. Catherine outlived Henry, surviving him by a year.
Each of Henry VIII's wives played a significant role in the religious and political shifts of the time, and their stories reflect the tumultuous nature of the Tudor court. Their individual experiences and fates provide a fascinating insight into the complexities of royal marriages and the consequences they bore on English history.

The Elizabethan Era

Queen Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558 and her reign is known as the Elizabethan era. She was a Protestant and she re-established the Church of England. Her reign was marked by the settling of religious differences, attempts to find a balance between the conflicting views of Catholics and Protestants, and the expansion of English influence and power abroad.
Elizabeth’s reign is known as a ‘golden age’ in English history. It was a time of relative peace at home and successful exploits abroad, particularly in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The era is also renowned for its cultural achievements, particularly in literature and the arts.
It was during Elizabeth's reign that William Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets, contributing greatly to the development of English literature. His works remain highly influential to this day.
Elizabeth died in 1603 and left no heir. This ended the Tudor line of rulers, and the crown passed to James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England. This united the thrones of Scotland and England, and James I's reign marked the beginning of the Stuart period.

Queen Elizabeth I

During Elizabeth’s reign, English art and high culture began to thrive. It was a time of relative peace and stability which led to an explosion of creativity in the arts. This period is often known as the ‘Elizabethan Renaissance’, referring to a broader European cultural movement which saw a renewed interest in the arts, science, exploration and literature.
The Elizabethan era is known as the golden age of English literature. William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were part of a group of playwrights who created some of the most enduring works in the English language. Many of their plays were performed at the Globe Theatre in London.
Music and dance were also important aspects of Elizabethan culture, with composers such as Thomas Tallis and John Dowland gaining fame. The era also saw advancements in science and exploration, with Sir Francis Drake becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.
Elizabeth's reign had a lasting impact on England and it's often seen as one of the high points in English history.

The Union of the Crowns

Elizabeth I had never married and therefore had no direct heir. Upon her death in 1603, her cousin, James VI of Scotland, was declared King James I of England. This event, known as the Union of the Crowns, meant that the same person was monarch of both England and Scotland, although the two countries remained separate kingdoms with their own parliaments and laws for over a century more.
James wanted to unite the two kingdoms in a more formal way, but the English Parliament resisted his attempts. However, the Scottish and English crowns remained united, and James I's successors continued to rule both kingdoms.
James I also faced multiple challenges during his reign. These included religious dissent, political struggles with the English Parliament, and international issues. Despite these difficulties, the Union of the Crowns under James I laid the groundwork for the later creation of the United Kingdom.

Exploration, Poetry, and Drama

During the Elizabethan period in England, there was a growing sense of pride in being English. English explorers were looking for new trade routes and attempting to expand British trade into the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Sir Francis Drake, one of the leaders in defeating the Spanish Armada, played a significant role in establishing England's naval tradition. His ship, the Golden Hind, was one of the first to sail around the world. In Queen Elizabeth I's time, English settlers began colonizing the eastern coast of America, which increased even more in the following century, especially among those who disagreed with the religious views of the next two kings.
The Elizabethan period is also known for its rich poetry and drama, particularly the plays and poems of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He was a playwright and actor who wrote numerous poems and plays. Some of his most famous works include A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. He also dramatized significant historical events, not limited to kings and queens alone. He was one of the first to depict ordinary English men and women in his works. Shakespeare had a profound impact on the English language and coined many words that are still widely used today. Some lines from his plays and poems are often quoted even now.

  • "Once more unto the breach" - Henry V
  • "To be or not to be" - Hamlet
  • "A rose by any other name" - Romeo and Juliet
  • "All the world's a stage" - As You Like It
  • "The darling buds of May" - Sonnet 18 - Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer's Day
Shakespeare is widely considered the greatest playwright in history. His plays and poems continue to be performed and studied in Britain and other countries to this day. The Globe Theatre in London is a modern replica of the theaters where his plays were originally staged.

James VI and I

Elizabeth I, who never married and had no children, did not have a direct heir to inherit her throne. In 1603, James VI of Scotland became her successor and became known as James I of England, Wales, and Ireland. However, Scotland remained a separate country with its own monarchy.

The King James Bible

One notable accomplishment during King James' reign was the translation of the Bible into English. This translation is commonly referred to as the 'King James Version' or the 'Authorized Version'. Although it was not the first English Bible, it continues to be used in many Protestant churches today.


During this time, Ireland was predominantly a Catholic country. English control had expanded beyond the Pale during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, establishing English authority throughout the entire country. Henry VIII took on the title of 'King of Ireland', and English laws were introduced, with local leaders expected to follow the instructions of the Lord Lieutenants in Dublin.
Throughout the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, many Irish people opposed the Protestant government's rule from England. This led to several rebellions. To strengthen Protestant influence, the English government encouraged Scottish and English Protestants to settle in Ulster, the northern province of Ireland. They took over land previously owned by Catholic landholders, and these settlements were called plantations. Many of the new settlers came from southwest Scotland, while other land was allocated to companies based in London. James I later organized similar plantations in other parts of Ireland. These actions had significant long-term consequences for the history of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

The Rise of Parliament

Elizabeth I was highly skilled in managing Parliament. Throughout her reign, she successfully balanced her own wishes and views with those of the House of Lords and the increasingly Protestant-leaning House of Commons.
James I and his son Charles I, however, were less politically adept. They both believed in the concept of the 'Divine Right of Kings,' which held that the king was directly appointed by God to rule. They believed that the king should have the power to act without seeking approval from Parliament. When Charles I inherited the thrones of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, he attempted to govern based on this principle. When Parliament disagreed with his religious and foreign policies, he sought to rule without Parliament's involvement. For 11 years, he found ways to raise money without Parliament's approval, but eventually, troubles in Scotland forced him to recall Parliament.

The Beginning of the English Civil War

Charles I desired to introduce more elaborate ceremonies in the worship of the Church of England and introduced a revised Prayer Book. He attempted to enforce this Prayer Book on the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, which resulted in significant unrest. A Scottish army was formed, and Charles found himself unable to fund his own army without the assistance of Parliament. In 1640, he called for the recall of Parliament to request funds. Many members of Parliament were Puritans, a group of Protestants advocating strict and simple religious practices. They disagreed with the king's religious views and were opposed to his reforms of the Church of England. Parliament refused to grant the requested funds to the king, even after the Scottish army invaded England.
Concurrently, a rebellion broke out in Ireland due to fears among Roman Catholics regarding the increasing influence of the Puritans. Parliament seized this opportunity to demand control over the English army, a shift that would have transferred significant power from the king to Parliament. In response, Charles I entered the House of Commons in an attempt to arrest five parliamentary leaders, but they had been forewarned and were not present. (No monarch has since set foot in the Commons.) As a result, civil war between the king and Parliament became inevitable and began in 1642. The country divided between those who supported the king (the Cavaliers) and those who supported Parliament (the Roundheads).

Oliver Cromwell and the English Republic

The king's army suffered defeats at the Battles of Marston Moor and Naseby. By 1646, it became evident that Parliament had emerged victorious in the war. Charles I was held captive by the parliamentary army but refused to reach any agreement with Parliament. In 1649, he was executed.
England declared itself a republic known as the Commonwealth, eliminating the monarchy. Initially, it was uncertain how the country would be governed. The military took control, with one of its generals, Oliver Cromwell, being sent to Ireland to address the ongoing revolt and confront the Royalist army. Cromwell successfully established the authority of the English Parliament in Ireland but did so with such brutality that he remains a controversial figure there to this day.
The Scots disagreed with the execution of Charles I and declared his son, Charles II, as the rightful king. Charles II was crowned king of Scotland and led a Scottish army into England. Cromwell defeated this army in the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester. Charles II managed to escape and went into exile in Europe, including famously hiding in an oak tree on one occasion. Parliament now held control over Scotland, England, and Wales.
Following his successful campaign in Ireland and victory over Charles II at Worcester, Cromwell was recognized as the leader of the new republic. He assumed the title of Lord Protector and ruled until his death in 1658. After Cromwell's death, his son Richard took over as Lord Protector but struggled to maintain control over the army and the government. Despite having been a republic for 11 years, the absence of Oliver Cromwell resulted in a lack of clear leadership or a stable government. Many people in the country desired stability and began discussing the need for a king.

The Restoration

In May 1660, Parliament invited Charles II to return from his exile in the Netherlands. He was crowned as King Charles II of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Charles II made it clear that he did not want to go into exile again. He understood that he couldn't always have things his way and would sometimes need to reach agreements with Parliament. In general, Parliament supported his policies, and the Church of England was once again established as the official church. Both Roman Catholics and Puritans were excluded from positions of power.
During Charles II's reign, in 1665, London experienced a major outbreak of the plague. Thousands of people, especially in poorer areas, lost their lives. The following year, a devastating fire broke out, destroying much of the city, including many churches and St Paul's Cathedral. London was rebuilt with the help of the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren, who designed the new St Paul's Cathedral. Samuel Pepys documented these events in his diary, which was later published and is still read today.
The Habeas Corpus Act became law in 1679, which remains significant to this day. Habeas corpus, meaning "you must have the body," guarantees that no one can be unlawfully imprisoned and ensures that every prisoner has the right to a fair court hearing.
Charles II had an interest in science, and during his reign, the Royal Society was established to promote natural knowledge. It is the oldest surviving scientific society in the world, and its early members included Sir Edmund Halley, who successfully predicted the return of Halley's Comet, and Sir Isaac Newton.

Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

Isaac Newton was born in Lincolnshire, eastern England, and developed an interest in science during his studies at Cambridge University. He became a prominent figure in the field and made significant contributions. His most famous published work was "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which explained the concept of gravity and its application to the entire universe. Newton also discovered that white light is composed of the colors of the rainbow. Many of his discoveries continue to have a profound impact on modern science.

A Catholic King

Charles II, who had no legitimate children, passed away in 1685. His brother James, a Roman Catholic, became King James II of England, Wales, and Ireland, and King James VII of Scotland. James showed favoritism towards Roman Catholics and allowed them to serve as army officers, despite it being forbidden by an Act of Parliament. He did not seek to reach agreements with Parliament and even arrested some bishops of the Church of England. This raised concerns among the English people that James intended to restore Catholicism as the dominant religion in England. However, James's two daughters were staunchly Protestant, leading many to believe that the next monarch would be Protestant once again. However, when James's wife gave birth to a son, the prospect of a non-Protestant successor became likely.

The Glorious Revolution

James II's eldest daughter, Mary, was married to her cousin William of Orange, who was the Protestant ruler of the Netherlands. In 1688, influential Protestants in England requested William to invade England and declare himself king. When William arrived in England, there was no resistance. James fled to France, and William assumed the throne as William III of England, Wales, and Ireland, and William II of Scotland. William ruled jointly with Mary. This event came to be known as the 'Glorious Revolution' because there was no fighting in England, and it solidified the power of Parliament, eliminating the possibility of a monarch ruling independently according to their own desires. James II attempted to regain the throne and invaded Ireland with the assistance of a French army. However, William defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland in 1690. This battle is still celebrated by some in Northern Ireland today. William reconquered Ireland, and James fled back to France. Numerous restrictions were placed on the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, and Irish Catholics were excluded from government participation.
There was also support for James in Scotland. An armed rebellion in favor of James, known as the Battle of Killiecrankie, was swiftly defeated. All Scottish clans were required to formally accept William as king by taking an oath. The MacDonalds of Glencoe, who were late in taking the oath, were all killed in what became known as the Glencoe Massacre. The memory of this event created distrust among some Scots towards the new government.
Some people continued to believe that James was the rightful king, especially in Scotland. Some joined him in exile in France, while others secretly supported him. James's supporters became known as Jacobites.

Make Sure You Understand

  • How and why religion changed during this period
  • The significance of poetry and drama in the Elizabethan period
  • Britain's involvement in Ireland during this time
  • The development of Parliament and the unique period of England as a republic
  • The reasons behind the restoration of the monarchy
  • Understanding the Glorious Revolution and its impact