There were five Tudor monarchs, in all: Henry VII (who ruled from 22 August 1485 to 21 April 1509), Henry VIII (21 April 1509 to 28 January 1547), Edward VI (28 January 1547 to 6 July 1553), Mary I (19 July 1553 to 17 November 1558), and Elizabeth I (17 November 1558 to 24 March 1603).
In a time when blood and religion determined the right to rule (but was not a guarantee of continued reign), violence and cruelty were requisites for power and its maintenance. All monarchs had to be deadly if they wanted to survive; but in a time of violence, who was the deadliest Tudor monarch?
In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, the House of Lancaster became extinct, paving the way for the House of Tudor. This was a line of Welsh and English rulers who rose to power after Henry Tudor defeated his rivals in war and married Elizabeth of York to consolidate the warring sides.
The Tudor line would extend English rule over Wales and Ireland, and fight for their claim over France, before losing it permanently under Mary I. When Elizabeth I (The Virgin Queen) died without any heirs, the Tudor dynasty gave way to the House of Stuart.
From a militaristic point of view, Henry VII can be said to be deadly, at least as far as his enemies were concerned. To his credit, however, he did allow the defeated factions to maintain their lands and titles, so long as they swore fealty to him.
Mary I tried to stem the tide of Protestant power in England in favor of the Catholics. The number of Protestants who died under her regime is believed to range anywhere from 277 to 300. Her other name, Bloody Mary, is hardly flattering. Nor is it entirely accurate, considering the number of Catholics and others who died under Henry VIII. Mary’s vicious reputation stems, however, from the fact that England today is predominantly Protestant; and history always favors the winning side.
Elizabeth I’s regime reversed the anti-Protestant stance. While she was tolerant of religious differences, her reign was under constant threat from internal and external sources. During her tenure, her legitimacy, and therefore England, was constantly challenged by the Catholic powers, which had to be dealt with through assassinations and purges.
Based on the body count alone, however, Henry VIII has to be the deadliest Tudor monarch of all. It was he who brought about the English Reformation, subjugating the church to the state, and completely altering the English Constitution to recognize the divine right of kings. Toward this end, not even family members were spared from his ambitions or his bloodlust.
It was his inability to sire a son, however, that would best be remembered for what was to come. In the aftermath of the War of the Roses, the country’s peace and unity remained fragile, and with it, Tudor power. To ensure his line’s continuity and enforce his political grip, it was necessary to have a son. Getting to that point took a long while, however, and to the detriment of many.
Two days after his coronation in June 1509, he had two of his father’s ministers arrested for treason. The following year, they were executed. It was a taste of things to come, as well as a portent of how he was to rule.
He had married Catherine of Aragon days before his coronation, but by 1525, she still had not produced the son he required. He started having an affair with her lady-in-waiting, Mary Boleyn, before falling for her sister, Anne.
Since Catholic law forbade divorce, he broke away from the Catholic Church and annulled his marriage to Catherine. He then married Anne in secret in 1532 and again in public the following year. By 1534, however, she too failed to produce a son.
In 1536, he turned his eyes on Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting. On May of that year, Anne was beheaded on charges of adultery, incest, and treason. Henry married Jane two weeks later. Fortunately for her, she finally produced a boy (Edward VI) on October 12 the following year, though she died before the month ended.
Anne of Cleves was the next wife. He married her in January 1540, only to annul it in July so he could marry Kathryn Howard that same month. She not only failed to produce a son, but rumors circulated that she was having an affair with one of Henry’s courtiers, a Thomas Culpepper. In 1541, Culpepper was tortured and beheaded, followed by Anne the following year. Wife number six was Katherine Parr, who fortunately outlived him.
Although Henry had broken with Papal authority in Rome, he did not break with Catholicism, per se. What he wanted was control over religious affairs in England, not let it be subject to a foreign power. Since he was a Catholic and since most of his subjects were officially so, it took several years before he could bring the church under his thumb.
In 1534, the Act of Supremacy was signed, granting him this right. To enforce it, he passed the Treasons Act of the same year, giving him the right to execute anyone who failed to recognize him as the Only Head of the Church of England. Starting in 1536, he began confiscating church properties, a move known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
To secure his claim over Scotland, he tried to marry off his son, Edward VI, to Mary, Queen of Scots. Not all Scots were happy at the thought of uniting with England, however, bringing about war in 1544. This was called the War of the Rough Wooing.