Local Heritage

The Ruling Children of Henry VIII

Several months back, we uploaded a blog post on the six wives of Henry VIII. In this article, we will be exploring his three children, whose lifestyles are as equally interesting and complex.

Henry VIII gave birth to several children with his wives and mistresses, but only three legitimate ones survived and took the throne. In order of birth, they were Mary (1516-1558), Elizabeth (1533-1603) and Edward (1537-1553). Each of them had contrasting religious beliefs and ways of ruling the country, which this blog post will explore in more detail, starting with the first heir to the throne.

Edward VI

King Edward VI
by Unknown artist, after William Scrots
oil on panel, circa 1546
NPG 442
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mother: Jane Seymour (1508 or 1509-1537)

Ruled: 1547-1553

Edward was only ten when his father died, but was expected to take the throne anyway due to being the only male heir. As a result, his advisors often had to guide him, something that did not always work out as plenty of them seeked to influence him for their own gain.

Edward gained a reputation for being weedy, especially in comparison with his sisters, but he was far from it. He could be cold in certain situations, such as when he ordered the death of Thomas Seymour for attempting to overthrow him and killing his dog. He also inherited the same hot temper that his father was known for, once tearing a live falcon to pieces with his bare hands. Some historians have shown concern that, had he lived longer, he would have grown up to be just like his father on his worst days.

Edward was a devout Protestant, likely because he’d been the first English monarch to be fully raised as one. Major changes were made to the country as a result, such as the dissolving of the Chantries and seizing of the money for the Crown in 1547. Altars were replaced with simple tables, Mass was replaced with Holy Communion and priests could not wear elaborate garments. Some of these changes came with benefits though – in 1549, priests were given permission to marry, something that had been forbidden by the Catholic church.

Edward was not a sickly child, but he fell ill with a severe case of measles as a teenager, which weakened his immune system. He died at the age of sixteen, likely from tuberculosis. Before his death, he and his advisors schemed to get his cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne in place of Mary, a plan that ultimately failed and resulted in the execution of Jane and nearly everyone involved, most notably John Dudley.

Mary I

Queen Mary I
by Master John
oil on panel, 1544
NPG 428
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mother: Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), also known as Katherine or Katharine

Ruled: 1553-1558

Mary was the first officially recognised queen of England – there was Queen Matilda, who lived from 1102 to 1167, but despite being the offspring of the King Henry I, she was never officially recognised in favour of King Stephen.

Initially, the people of England rejoiced when Mary took to the throne, not caring for the disposed Lady Jane Grey. That all changed when she fell in love with King Phillip II of Spain, a devout Catholic like herself. Wanting to get on his good side, she kickstarted the Marian persecution, which targeted Protestants for heresy. Over 300 Protestants were burnt at the stake under her rule, with notable examples include John Dudley, Thomas Cranmer and the Oxford martyrs. Yet Phillip ultimately showed no real affection or interest in Mary – he had his fair share of mistresses that he interacted with behind her back and he was often away in other countries such as Spain and Belgium. Even when she died while he was in Brussels, his main reaction was that he “felt a reasonable regret for her death”.

Mary wasn’t completely ruthless though. One of the people accused of Protestant-related treason against her was Anne of Cleves, her fifth stepmother and beloved friend. In this case, Mary’s councillors had accused her of being part of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion against her. However, Anne was ultimately let off (though didn’t return to court) and Mary allowed her to be buried at Westminster Abbey after her death.

Though Nonsuch Palace had been the pride and joy of her father, Mary didn’t have much interest in it herself. In 1556, she sold it off to Henry Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel. Interestingly enough, he had supported the earlier plot to place Jane on the throne, so he got off pretty lightly all things considered.

Throughout her life, Mary suffered from several cases of illness and mental health issues. It was believed that she died from a phantom pregnancy in 1558, but this isn’t the case. Whilst Mary did believe she was pregnant at the time, in reality she was suffering from a tumour on her pituitary endocrine that caused abnormal swelling. It should also be noted that there was a flu epidemic at the time in the country, which some historians have also seen as contributing to her worsening condition.

Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown continental artist
oil on panel, circa 1575
NPG 2082
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mother: Anne Boleyn (c. 1500-1536)

Ruled: 1558-1603

Elizabeth may not have been the “ideal” male heir that Henry had been looking for, but she ultimately proved herself to be the most successful of his legitimate offspring in terms of ruling England. Strong-willed, clever and persuasive, she ruled during a time when being a female monarch was still frowned upon. During her 45 years on the throne, England increased its military might and achieved many victories. In a British poll from 2015 searching for the greatest monarch, she came out on top with 36% of the votes from historians.

It should be noted though that by no means was Elizabeth more “saintly” than her Protestant-hating sister. She was renowned for her vicious temper, once even boxing the Earl of Essex’s ears when he dared turn his back on her during a fierce argument. And though she was more of an Anglican who appreciated some of the aspects of the Roman Catholic religion rather than a straight-up Protestant, she still showed scorn towards the Catholics. In fact, more people were executed under Elizabeth’s rule than under Mary’s, with some such as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots simply being disguised as “misunderstandings”.

Unlike Mary, Elizabeth wanted nothing to do with Phillip. Besides not being a devout Catholic, she likely sensed that he would simply use her as a means to gain more power. There were many battles between the English and the Spanish, some that the English won and some that they lost. For instance, England famously defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, but the “English Armada” attack the year after was such a disaster that the history books rarely mention it.

Elizabeth has a noticeable link with Cheam, particularly Nonsuch Palace. She visited the place often and liked it so much that she took it back from Lord Lumley in 1590 as repayment for his debts. It was also here that The Earl of Essex infamously burst into her dressing room on the 28th September 1598 when he was supposed to be in Ireland fighting against the Irish rebels there. Naturally, she was not impressed, especially since there were implications that he’d been planning to overthrow her, and he was punished severely.

Elizabeth never married in her life, thus gaining the nickname of the “Virgin Queen”. There have been rumours that she may have had illegitimate offspring during her rule, but this has never been outright confirmed. When she died in 1603, the title of monarch went to King James VI of Scotland, who would become James I of England, officially ending the Tudor reign.

Written by Imogen Easton, Whitehall Historic House volunteer.

Works Cited:

  1. Abernathy, Susan. “The Illnesses and Death of Queen Mary I.” The Freelance History Writer, 23 Feb. 2018, https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2018/02/23/the-illnesses-and-death-of-queen-mary-i/
  2. Ross, David. “Elizabeth I and Tudor England.” Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/History/Edward_Mary_and_Elizabeth.htm
  3. Schutte, Valerie. “Mary Tudor and her five stepmothers: what was their relationship like?” History Extra, 4 Feb. 2021, https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/bloody-mary-tudor-relationship-stepmothers-henry-viii-anne-boleyn/
  4. “14 Mind-Blowing Facts About Edward VI.” History with Henry, https://historywithhenry.com/edward-vi-facts/
  5. “Chilling Facts About Edward VI, The Doomed Son Of Henry VIII.” Factinate, https://www.factinate.com/people/42-tragic-facts-edward-vi-doomed-son-henry-viii/
  6. “The Marriage of Queen Mary I and Philip II of Spain.” The Tudor Enthusiast, 25 Jul. 2012, https://thetudorenthusiast.weebly.com/blog/the-marriage-of-queen-mary-i-and-philip-ii-of-spain

7. “The Tudors – Edward VI – Protestantism.” History on the Net, https://www.historyonthenet.com/the-tudors-edward-vi-protestantism


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