Long before Jonathan Rhys Meyers declined to wear body padding to play Henry VIII, the real Tudors provided enough drama, passion, conflict and spectacle that some Tudor aficionados contend that the HBO series didn't have to change a thing to provide an entertaining tale. From Henry VII to his granddaughter, Elizabeth I, the Tudor dynasty has long been a favorite among writers such as Jean Plaidy, Bertrice Small and Philippa Gregory, not to mention the feast for the eyes in numerous films set in this era. As supporting players or leads, the Tudors left their stamp on everything they touched.
Henry VII came to power at the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485. Henry, aligned with the house of Lancaster on his mother's side, united both factions by marrying Elizabeth Plantagenet of York, the niece of the defeated Richard III. The Tudor rose symbol pays homage to union of York and Lancaster. Henry and Elizabeth may have thought the united houses' future well secured with four surviving children, Arthur, Henry, Margaret and Mary.
Both girls married well, Mary to Louis VII of France and Margaret to James IV of Scotland. Arthur's marriage to Catherine of Aragon provided an alliance with the Spanish crown, and had Arthur survived, we might have seen history play out in far different fashion.
After only four months of marriage, Arthur died. Henry VII secured a papal dispensation to allow Prince Henry to marry Arthur's widow, Catherine. By the time the marriage took place, Henry VII had died and Henry VIII made Catherine his queen. Another point where history might have taken a vastly different turn; Henry and Catherine endured a string of stillbirths and infant deaths, including a son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, who died at an age of less than two months. Only one daughter, Mary, survived, and Henry's desire to preserve his dynasty through the birth of sons only grew. Attempts to obtain a divorce within the Catholic church failed time and again.
What's a desperate monarch to do?
In Henry's case, break with Catholicism and form the Church of England, with the king as the head of church as well as head of state. Henry's appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, allowed for the dissolution of Henry's marriage to Catherine. Now single, Henry made his mistress, Anne Boleyn, his wife and new queen. Perhaps if their daughter, Elizabeth, called by many one of England's greatest monarchs, had been a male, Henry would have been satisfied, but fate was once again keeping the desired son out of his reach.
Anne would no longer suffice, and Henry was faced once again with getting rid of a wife he no longer wanted. Accusations of witchcraft, incest and high treason leveled upon Anne and though the validity of several accusations are widely contested among historians, it was enough to send Anne to her death. She was beheaded in 1536, after which Henry remarried, this time to Jane Seymour.
It was Jane at last who provided Henry with a son, Edward, though she died soon after his birth, leaving Henry distraught at her loss. Not distraught enough to put him off marriage, as he took a fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, his reluctance overcome when he saw a portrait of her painted by Hans Holbein the younger. The real Anne, however, did not suit him. Nor, apparently, did he suit her, as she agreed to an annulment, and was known thereafter as My Lady, the King's Sister. Henry had Thomas Cromwell, who had proposed the marriage, executed.
Henry was nothing if not determined. He married Catherine Howard, a cousin of the Duke of Norfolk. The marriage was doomed. Catherine, more than three decades Henry's junior, conducted an affair with one of Henry's favorites, Thomas Culpeper, and as one might guess, this did not go over well. Catherine was executed in 1542.
By 1543, Henry was back at the altar with Catherine Parr, who survived him upon his death in 1547...which is where things really get interesting. His will had restored Mary, his daughter by Catherine of Aragon and Elizabeth, his daughter by Anne Boleyn, to the line of succession. It did not, however legitimize them, as annulled marriage legally never occurred, so both girls were still legally illegitimate. Edward VI ascended the throne at the age of nine.
Had the boy king, a religious reformer even at his young age, survived, again, we might have a far different tale to tell, but Edward became ill in 1553, and the issue of Edward's successor came into play. Edward changed his father's will to allow his cousin, Jane Grey to succeed him upon his death. There's no telling what England might have been under Jane's rule, as she did not want the throne, and indeed did not technically have it, and her reign lasted only nine days before she was dethroned.
Henry's older daughter, Mary, became queen, and Jane, along with her husband, Guilford Dudley, were executed. Mary, who desired to make England a Catholic nation once more, married Prince Philip of Spain, a distant relative. Mary, however, inherited her father's bad luck with marriage, as Philip preferred to spend his time away from Mary. Though there were several reputed pregnancies, Mary produced no offspring. Though she could not produce a Catholic heir, her actions as eliminating Protestants earned her the name of "Bloody Mary." She died without issue in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth as her heir.
Elizabeth has been known as the Virgin Queen, though there have been speculations about her relationship with Robert Dudley, her Master of the Horse and constant companion. Elizabeth never married, knowing that a woman's power and assets would go to her husband and preferred to remain in control of her own life and country. Politician, fashionista, poet, diplomat and true Renaissance woman, Elizabeth left her mark on the age that bears her name. Her speech at Tilbury on the eve of the Spanish Armada still inspires many to hold fast in the face of danger. Her court is synonymous with splendor and intrigue, and Elizabeth is as famed for her temper as her fashion sense.
If Elizabeth had accepted any of the many applicants for her hand, again, we'd have a very different history, but the Virgin Queen remained married only to England, and upon her death in 1603 unmarried and without issue, the sun set on the Tudor dynasty. Elizabeth was succeeded by her cousin, James VI of Scotland who became the first English king of that name, beginning a new age...but that's another story.