Anne Boleyn was executed on 19 May 1536 (© World History Archive/Alamy)
28 June 1491: birth of Henry VIII
Henry VIII, born at Greenwich Palace, was the third child and second son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Although he was destined for the church rather than the throne – somewhat ironically, given his later break with Rome – he nevertheless received an impressive education.
Engaging, charismatic, and very handsome, Henry captured the public’s attention and adoration when he accompanied Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon down the aisle to wed his elder brother, Arthur. Henry VII was shrewd, cynical, and was known for having a mercurial temperament. He no doubt envisioned his son’s reign to be more of the same, but it was Henry VIII who would take the throne, and his early reign could not have been more different. Henry loved to dance, feast, hunt, and, most importantly, he seemed determined to break with tradition and forge his own path.
Henry VIII’s birth was a key moment in the Tudor era says Lauren Mackay. (Getty Images)
2 April 1502: death of Arthur, Prince of Wales
Prince Arthur had been formally betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, and they were married in 1501 following her arrival in England. The young couple lived in Ludlow Castle, but after only six months Arthur fell ill and died on 2 April 1502, possibly from the sweating sickness.
Arthur’s young wife Katherine was then betrothed to Prince Henry, but his father and Katherine’s parents disagreed over her dowry, and Katherine languished in political limbo until after Henry VII’s death.
Arthur’s death certainly changed the course of English history, as Henry succeeded his older brother. Perhaps the largest issue of contention, which directly influenced Henry’s dramatic break with Rome, was whether Katherine and Arthur had consummated their marriage. Although it was never proven one way or the other, Henry claimed it was the catalyst for his later annulment.
21 April 1509: death of Henry VII
After reigning for almost 24 years, Henry VII died of tuberculosis on 21 April 1509, and was buried next to his wife, Elizabeth, in Westminster Abbey.
Henry VII had shown every indication that he wished his remaining son to marry a foreign bride other than Katherine of Aragon, but Henry ignored his wishes, and chose his brother’s wife. He would later state that his father had confided in him on his deathbed, instructing him to marry Katherine, thus securing an alliance between England and the Spanish Empire.
Henry VII’s death was kept secret for two days before Henry was proclaimed king. Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth, had died in 1503, following complications during childbirth, but his mother, Margaret Beaufort, died only two months after her son.
19 May 1536: Anne Boleyn’s execution
The annulment of Henry’s marriage with Katherine of Aragon and his determination to marry Anne had wreaked havoc in his realm. But the love affair was short-lived: the marriage had caused rifts personally, religiously and politically – in England and throughout Europe – but Henry expected that his sacrifices would be worth the son and heir Anne had promised to give him.
However, politically Anne was a liability. The marriage was not recognised by foreign powers: the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, refused to acknowledge the marriage, and France followed suit.
In 1533, Anne gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth – not the long-desired son and heir, which Henry believed would secure the Tudor dynasty. After almost three years as queen, Anne Boleyn was arrested along with five courtiers, including her brother, and executed on trumped up charges of adultery and treason.
2 October 1536: Pilgrimage of Grace
Henry’s religious changes and his break with Rome may have smoothed the way for his second marriage, but his religious policies continued to evolve, and with Thomas Cromwell at the helm of religious change, Henry began a systematic destruction of monasteries, convents and religious houses throughout England, Ireland and Wales.
The considerable wealth of these houses fed Henry’s coffers. Not all of his subjects approved of these radical changes, however, and a protest began in Yorkshire in October 1536, opposing the breach with Rome; the religious policies of Henry’s advisors, and the dissolution and destruction of monasteries around the country. It was the first serious rebellion against Henry’s authority, and, led by Robert Aske, a lawyer from Yorkshire, the movement gained momentum.
The rebellions were eventually quashed, and despite a promise of pardon, Aske and other leaders were executed.
12 October 1537: birth of Edward VI
Henry’s third marriage was perhaps his most successful. Henry had fallen in love with one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour, whom he married on 30 May 1536, not wasting any time after Anne’s death. Jane would not conceive for several months after marriage but her pregnancy progressed well, and after two marriages, countless miscarriages, stillbirths and two girls, Henry finally got his longed-for son and heir: Prince Edward.
Edward was born at Hampton Court after a long and difficult labour, to the great relief of his parents and the country. Jane had done her duty, but she fell ill within days of giving birth, suffering from puerperal fever, an infection of some of the female reproductive organs that can occur after childbirth. She died on 24 October, and was buried at Windsor.
1539: creation of the Great Bible
Henry and his ministers, notably Thomas Cromwell, implemented dramatic changes within the English church, following the break with Rome. Henry had already declared himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England, and in 1538 work began in earnest to produce the first printed English-language Bible, which was published by Myles Coverdale.
It was a turning point in English history. For the first time ordinary men and women would be able to read and listen to the Bible in English, and without the need for the clergy’s interpretation. More than 2,000 copies of the Bible were printed in Paris, and it was distributed in churches throughout England. Coverdale had used, and expanded upon, the work of William Tyndale, an English scholar and passionate religious reformer, who had been executed for heresy in 1536.
28 January 1547: death of Henry VIII
Plagued by ill health for the latter half of his reign, Henry was constantly in pain, and had become almost as mercurial as his father. Henry died at the age of 55, and was buried with his third queen, Jane, in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Henry’s reign had been marred by political and religious upheaval, six marriages, and the executions of two wives – Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn. By the time of Henry’s death, only Edward was his legitimate heir, and he had made both his daughters illegitimate (although they remained in the line of succession).
Henry no doubt believed he had secured the Tudor dynasty, but no one could have foreseen Edward’s premature death in 1553, some three months before his 16th birthday. His eldest half-sister Mary succeeded him [although technically Lady Jane Grey reigned for nine days in between them], but Mary, too, failed to produce an heir, and reigned for only five years.
15 January 1559: Elizabeth I crowned queen
After the deaths of her half-siblings, Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, ascended the throne. Her reign marked the evolution of the Church of England, and the restoration of England as a political power. She opened up trade between England and the ‘Barbary States’, namely Morocco, as well as the Ottoman Empire.
Under Elizabeth’s rule England also flourished in the arts, and she proved to be more religiously tolerant than her father and half-sister, Mary. Her reign was dubbed the ‘Golden Age’, but Elizabeth consistently refused to marry and have children to secure it – to the despair of her advisers.
Elizabeth reigned for 45 years. She died in 1603 at the age of 69, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to her half-sister, Mary.
The Tudor dynasty died with her.
25 July 1603: James I crowned King of England
James was the great, great grandson of Henry VII, and the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. He took the Scottish throne at only 13 months of age, following his mother’s abdication. Elizabeth I had never married and produced heirs, so James was the most popular candidate for the throne, and had the strongest claim when Elizabeth – and the Tudor line – died in 1603.
James ruled England, Scotland and Ireland for 22 years. He expanded on Elizabeth’s foreign trade policy, and made a number of parliamentary changes: in 1604 he authorised the publication of what is now referred to as the King James Bible.
A Protestant monarch, James was tolerant towards his Catholic subjects, but his religious policies nevertheless faced opposition – in 1605 a serious plot was foiled to blow up parliament and the House of Lords.
James died in 1625.
Lauren Mackay is the author of Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the Life and Writings of the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys (Amberley Publishing). To find out more, visit lauren-mackay.com.