5 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Tudors

The Tudor era lasted from 1485 – when Henry VII defeated the Yorkist king Richard III at the battle of Bosworth – until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. But how much do you know about this turbulent period? Here, historian Tracy Borman reveals five lesser-known Tudor facts...

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
1

The Tudors should never have got anywhere near the throne

When Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, the vast majority of his subjects saw him as a usurper – and they were right. There were other claimants with stronger blood claims to the throne than his.

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Henry’s own claim was on the side of his indomitable mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III, and his third wife (and long-standing mistress), Katherine Swynford. But Katherine had given birth to John Beaufort (Henry’s great grandfather) when she was still John’s mistress, so Henry’s claim was through an illegitimate line – and a female one at that.

Little wonder that he was plagued by rivals and ‘pretenders’ for most of his reign.

2

School was for the ‘lucky’ few

Education was seen as something of a luxury for most Tudors, and it was usually the children of the rich who received anything approaching a decent schooling.

There were few books in Tudor schools, so pupils read from ‘hornbooks’ instead. Pages displaying the alphabet and religious material were attached to wooden boards and covered with a transparent sheet of cow horn (hence the name).

Discipline was much fiercer than it is today. Teachers would think nothing of punishing their pupils with 50 strokes of the cane, and wealthier parents would often pay for a ‘whipping-boy’ to take the punishment on behalf of  their child. Barnaby Fitzpatrick undertook this thankless task for the young Edward VI, although the two boys did become best friends.

3

Tudor London was a mud bath

Andreas Franciscius, an Italian visitor to London in 1497, was horrified by what he found. Although he admired the “fine” architecture, he was disgusted by the “vast amount of evil-smelling mud” that covered the streets and lasted a long time – nearly the whole year round.

The citizens, therefore, in order to remove this mud and filth from their boots, are accustomed to spread fresh rushes on the floors of all houses, on which they clean the soles of their shoes when they come in.”

Franciscius added disapprovingly that the English people had “fierce tempers and wicked dispositions”, as well as “a great antipathy to foreigners”.

4

Edward VI’s dog was killed by his uncle

Edward was just nine years old when he became king, and his court was soon riven by faction. Although the king’s uncle, Edward Seymour, had been appointed Lord Protector, he was undermined by the behaviour of his hot-headed and ambitious brother, Thomas.

In January 1549, Thomas Seymour made a reckless attempt to kidnap the king. Breaking into Edward’s privy garden at Westminster, pistol in hand, Thomas tried to gain access to the king’s bedroom, but was lunged at by the boy’s pet spaniel.

Without thinking, he shot the dog dead, which prompted a furore as the royal guard rushed forward, thinking that an assassin was in the palace. Thomas Seymour was arrested and taken to the Tower. He was found guilty of treason shortly afterwards, and his own brother was obliged to sign the death warrant.

5

Elizabeth I owned more than 2,000 dresses

When her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed, Elizabeth was so neglected by her father, Henry VIII, that she soon outgrew all of her clothes, and her servant was forced to write to ask for new ones.

Perhaps the memory of this humiliation prompted Elizabeth, as queen, to stuff her wardrobes with more than 2,000 beautiful dresses, all in rich fabrics and gorgeous colours.

But despite her enormous collection, she always wanted more. When one of her maids of honour, Lady Mary Howard, appeared in court wearing a strikingly ostentatious gown, the queen was so jealous that she stole it, and paraded around court in it herself.

Tracy Borman is a Tudor historian and joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces.

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This article was first published by History Extra in August 2014