British Middle Ages—Tudors and Reformation

1485 to 1603
Henry VII Tudor to Death of Elizabeth I

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Tudors and Reformation

Henry Tudor was descended from John of Lancaster, but his claim to the throne was no greater than those of many other distant Plantagenet descendants. Soon after defeating Richard III at Bosworth fields, he married the daughter of the Yorkist king Edward IV in order to join the York and Lancaster houses into a single line. He then ruled with diplomacy and tried to avoid war and give England time to recover from the dislocations of the ruinous War of the Roses. Many doubted his claim, but few were willing to reopen the issue.

Henry VIII and the Break with Rome

Henry Tudor's son Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509 and ruled for 38 years. His reign coincided with the outbreak of the Protestant reformation in Europe, and during his reign that England became a Protestant country. England's conversion to Protestantism remains controversial because, although there were many sincere churchmen who favored reforms, the manner in which Henry VIII broke England's ties with the church of Rome was highly opportunistic. There were two issues which motivated Henry VIII to declare the Act of Supremacy. One was to remove any obstacles to his divorce from his wife of 20 years, Catherine of Aragon, so he could marry Anne Boleyn. The second, just as important, was for an excuse to dissolve monasteries, an issue which his minster Thomas Cromwell had been pushing in spite of tremendous outcry from the poor who depended on the monasteries for their living. It was true that several of the monasteries were very wealthy and corrupt, but instead of reforming them, Henry VIII closed them, turned hundreds of their inmates out onto the streets, and sold their lands to his friends and nobles for cash. Once this great theft had transpired there was no turning back, for a great many of the nobles of England were in possession of valuable property that the Roman Church claimed as its own. Henry outlawed the Catholic church, and executed hundreds of people who opposed him. Most of those who were executed under Henry's reign, including both the Catholic Thomas More and the Protestant Thomas Cromwell, did not suffer directly from persecution based on their beliefs, but were killed because they stood in the way of Henry's schemes.


Henry left three children by three different wives. His only son, Edward VI, reigned for six years, but was under the sway of his uncles, the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland. Both were Protestants who had benefited greatly from the dissolution of the monasteries and were primarily interested in consolidating their own power. Like Henry VIII, they persecuted Catholics based on political factors rather than ideology. When Edward VI fell ill, the Duke of Northumberland arranged for his young cousin Lady Jane Grey to assume the throne, since he believed she would be easier to control than Mary Tudor, Edward’s elder sister. However, most people believed that Mary had a better right to the throne and supported her claim, even though she was known to have Catholic sympathies.

Mary I

Mary Tudor was a sincere Catholic, and as soon as she came to the throne tried her best to mend the breach with the Church of Rome. By this time, however, Protestantism was fairly well established, especially among the aristocracy and the merchant class. Her greatest miscalculation was to take Philip II, the most powerful Catholic monarch in Europe, for her husband. Even among devout Catholic Englishmen, Spain was feared and hated because they controlled all of the trade with the new world and were the world's predominant sea power. To make matters worse, her marriage was an unhappy one and did not produced an heir as Mary hoped. Mary is said to have put over three hundred people to death in her efforts to restore the faith, which is no more than her predecessors did. However, being a sincere Catholics instead of merely a cynical politician, she harassed some of the most able and articulate Protestant leaders for their heretical beliefs, which made her unpopular with those who genuinely sympathized with the protestant cause.

Elizabeth I and the Great Armada

During Mary's reign, her sister Elizabeth I was accused of a conspiracy against her and imprisoned. She was still being closely watched when news came that her sister had passed away and she was the Queen of England. She was only 24 at the time she became queen and her reign lasted over 45 years. Elizabeth was exceptionally politic in her manner of ruling, and although Protestant she sought to ease the religious strife of the times, and did not aggressively persecute Catholics. Whenever possible she tried to avoid direct conflict. She never married, but kept dozens of suitors on the line, presumably to gain favors. She signed a death warrant for her arch-rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, but protested loudly when she was executed. It was often difficult to discern her true motives, but she lived in troublsome times, and her two-faced demeanor may well have been discreet diplomacy. For example, England’s relationship with Spain was very poor for many years, but she managed to put off direct confrontation for nearly three decades by obfuscations and ambiguous promises. When the Spanish finally did invade, the entire country united against them. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was the decisive battle of the Anglo Spanish Wars and profoundly affected the perceived strength of England and Spain, both in Europe and in the New World.

The reign of Elizabeth is best known for her outstanding sea-men. Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, Sir John Hawkins, and Richard Grenville were some of the men who made great names for themselves before, after, and during the Spanish Armada. It is also known for some of the literary greats of the time, including Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.

Characters—Tudors and Reformation

Character/Date Short Biography

Tudor Monarchs

Henry VII
Descendent of John of Gaunt (a Lancaster) who fought Richard the Usurper for the throne.
Henry VIII
King of England famous for marrying and dispensing with six wives.
Anne Boleyn
Second wife of Henry VIII. Executed when she fell from grace.
Lady Jane Grey
Young noblewoman executed for involvement in conspiracies engineered by ambitious relatives.
Edward VI
Raised as a protestant, Edward's brief reign was controlled largely by his uncles, the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland.
Mary Tudor
Eldest daughter of Henry VIII. Tried to restore Catholicism to England.
Elizabeth I
Led England through tumultuous age of reformation and discovery. Reigned 45 years.
James V
Father of Mary Stuart. He was defeated in battle and died shortly after Mary was born.
Mary Stuart
Queen of Scotland. Deposed and exiled. Held captive and executed by Queen Elizabeth.


Thomas Wolsey
Rose from humble beginnings to become Chancellor of England. Stalled on Henry VIII's divorce.
Thomas Cromwell
Minister under Henry VIII. who encouraged his divorce and helped dissolve the monasteries.
Thomas More
Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII. Fired and later executed when he opposed Henry's divorce.
Margaret Roper
Daughter of Thomas More. Supported him throughout his ordeal.
Philip Sidney
Favorite of Queen Elizabeth's court. Was a poet, soldier, courtier, and adventurer.
Robert Dudley
Favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth. Granted many favors, but not much power.
William Cecil
Minister of Queen Elizabeth throughout her entire reign.
Earl of Essex
Favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Involved in a conspiracy and died in prison.


Humphrey Gilbert
Sea-faring adventurer. Founded the first English colony in Canada.
Martin Frobisher
Explored much of Canada in seach of the Northwest Passage. Fought in the Armada.
Francis Drake
Greatest sea adventurer. Sailed around the world, harassed Spanish ships. Fought in Armada.
John Davis
British explorer who sought the Northwest Passage through Canada.
Walter Raleigh
Courtier of Queen Elizabeth. Explorer, mastermind of the Jamestown colony in Virginia.


William Shakespeare
Greatest dramatist in the history of the English language.
Edmund Spenser
Elizabethan era poet. Wrote The Fairy Queen.
John Knox
Religious leader in Scotland who embraced Calvinism, founder of Presbyterian Church.
Thomas Cranmer
Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII. Broke with Rome. Founded Anglican Church.

Timeline—Tudors and Reformation

AD YearEvent
1486 Henry Tudor defeats Richard III at Bosworth Field and marries Elizabeth of York.
1492 Christopher Columbus discovers America.
1497 John Cabot sails for England, explores North America.
1517 Martin Luther incites wide-spread rebellion against the Church of Rome.
1534 Act of Supremacy—Henry VIII breaks ties with the Church of Rome.
1535 Execution of Thomas More for failing to acknowledge Henry VIII's divorce.
1536 Execution of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII.
1540 Dissolution of the monasteries enriches the Protestant gentry.
1549 Prayer Book Rebellion results in a massacre of rebels opposed to the new liturgy.
1553 Lady Jane Grey Attempts to Usurp the Throne at the death of Edward VI.
1553-58 Reign of Mary Tudor. Failed attempt to return England to the Catholic faith.
1558-1603 Reign of Elizabeth I.
1569 Northern Rising, a Catholic attempt to depose Elizabeth, is put down harshly.
1577-80 Francis Drake circumnavigates the globe.
1584 Founding of the 'Lost Colony' at Roanoke. First British colony in America.
1587 Execution of Mary Stuart, Elizabeth's rival for the throne.
1588 English sailors defeat the Spanish Armada dealing a blow to Spanish naval supremacy.
1591 Edmund Spenser publishes the Fairie Queen.
1594-1603 Tyrone Rebellion in Ireland delivers Ulster to English rule.

Recommended Reading—Tudors and Reformation

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Guerber - The Story of the English    Two Pretenders to Death of Elizabeth (17)
Marshall - Our Island Story   The Make-Believe Prince to The Queen's Favourite (14)
Synge - The Tudors and the Stuarts   Four Hundred Years Ago to England's Greatness (11)

Supplemental Recommendations

Harding - The Story of England   The Separation from Rome to England under Elizabeth (4)
Church - Stories From English History, Part Second   True or False? to Sir Walter Raleigh (11)
Morris - Historical Tales: English   The White Rose of England to The Story of Arabella Stuart (3)
Wilmot-Buxton - A Book of English Martyrs    (entire book)  
Tappan - In the Days of Queen Elizabeth    entire book
Nesbit - Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare    entire book
Antony - The Angelical Cardinal—Reginald Pole    entire book
Abbott - Queen Elizabeth    entire book
Abbott - Mary Queen of Scots    entire book
Marshall - English Literature for Boys and Girls   How a Poet Comforted a Girl to Raleigh—"History" (17)

Easy Reading Selections

Cambridge Press - Cambridge Historical Reader—Primary   The Battle of Flodden to The Little 'Revenge' (4)
Haaren - Famous Men of Modern Times   Cardinal Wolsey to Sir Walter Raleigh (3)
Skae - Stories from English History   Singeing the King's Beard (1)
Duncan - The Story of Sir Walter Raleigh    entire book
Elton - The Story of Sir Francis Drake    entire book
Lang - The Faerie Queen    entire book