The Tudors, that name conjures up in the imagination a big, bearded King Henry VIII and his six wives, or Bloody Mary and her burning at the stake of countless heretics, or of the Virgin Queen fending off the Spanish Armada, or for the thoroughly up to date among you, you imagine Jonathan Rhys Myers ripping the bodices of every wench that passes by. There can be no doubt that they are an exciting dynasty, they became expert at exercising their power for their own benefit as well as for the enhancement of their nation as a whole. It was in a sense however a dynasty that lived fast and died young. The dynasty only lasted for 118 years which is not long when compared to other dynasties in the British Isles and the continent, the House of Plantagenet who had ruled England before the Tudors ruled for 331 years.
The family ruled England for all of the 16th century and it is what they crammed into that time which makes the dynasty’s five reigning monarchs (not including Lady Jane Grey) so interesting and well known today. The family only had three generations on the throne between Henry VII to Elizabeth I so they barely had time to get their roots embedded into the throne before they were gone. Each of the Tudors is famous in their own right and I don’t intend to dwell too much on the rulers themselves but instead examine the origins of the ruling family. Few people know where the Tudors came from before they took the throne of England in 1485, the truth is their royal origins were somewhat dubious, not that it was the first or last time a tenuous regal connection won somebody a throne. The irony comes into it more when you realise the politics of previous generations of the Tudors, they are not the views you would expect an English King to espouse and indeed the Tudor monarchs did not share the views of their recent ancestors. In fact the monarchs were too ashamed of the apparently low born nature of the name Tudor to actually use it and it did not come into such common usage until the late 18th century.
The story of the Tudors before the throne of England is one of meteoric rise which perhaps gives a clue as to the ambition driving the dynasty to grasp whatever possible opportunity they could grasp to improve themselves. The family first appears on the radar of history in the early 13th century. The well-known ancestor of the Tudors from this time was Ednyfed Fychan who was a soldier in the army of the Prince of Gwynedd in North Wales. In terms of ancestry further back from himself, Ednyfed was a 9th generation descendent of tribal King of Gwynedd. The small physical size of the Welsh kingdoms probably meant that having some claim to Welsh royal descent was not really a surprise and it would likely have been far more common to have some royal blood there than one might imagine.
Ednyfed was a fierce warrior and legend has it that he was taken notice off when during one battle when, fighting for Prince Llewellyn the Great of Gwynedd against an invasion lead by the Earl of Chester at the behest of King John, he beheaded three English nobles and presented their heads, still dripping with blood, as trophies to Prince Llewellyn. The Prince then granted him a coat of arms which featured the heads of three warriors as a reminder of this service. As further thanks, the Prince made Ednyfed his chief councillor in 1215 and he was sent to represent Gwynedd in the negotiations which led to the peace of Worcester in 1218 and again in 1232 he was sent to a meeting with King Henry III. Prince Llewellyn died in 1240, but Ednyfed continued in the service of his son Dafydd ap Llewellyn until his own death in 1246. Ednyfed had put the family on the map, literally by being granted estates in the north of Wales from Prince Llewellyn. His son succeeded to these upon Ednyfed’s death, he was called Goronwy ap Ednyfed and it is his son, Tudur Hen (or Tudur ap Goronwy) who first bore the name by which the later ruling dynasty would come to be known.
Welsh Nationalists: The Tudurs
It was during Tudur Hen’s lifetime that the political landscape in Wales altered forever and the old ways of warring Princes began to ebb away. In 1272 everything changed when Edward I became King of England, he was intent on having the entire island ruled by England and he first turned his attentions to Wales. Most of the descendants of Ednyfed had decided it was best for them to swear loyalty to King Edward and it was proven to be wise choice when Edward took control of North Wales he allowed the family to keep their estates. Had they been set against him they would have lost more than just lands and titles.
For Tudur Hen there was more to life than status and position. He decided to join a revolt against Edward I in 1294 under the leadership of Madog ap Llewellyn who was a descendant of previous Princes of Wales, Madog now assumed that title for himself. Although he had been born in England and had previously been given a great deal of money by Edward I to buy his loyalty to and consequently his treachery to Wales, he still determined to revolt. The reasons for this are not so honourable as it may seem, Madog was furious at the high level of taxation which was being imposed by Edward, no doubt to help finance his extensive castle building projects in Wales. So because he was having to pay too much in taxes he kick started the revolution, not because the people were being oppressed or Wales was to be amalgamated into England.
Tudur Hen was appointed as steward in the self-styled “Prince of Wales” household and they set off with the intention to free Wales once again. At first they were successful, sacking Caernarvon Castle and several others all the while the revolt was spreading from the north to the south of the country. In the winter of 1294 King Edward brought his army into Wales determined to nip the revolt in bud. Edward was himself hemmed in at Conway Castle and was under siege until his navy provided relief and lifted the siege in 1295.
All of this success was to be short lived however and as the winter season melted away the military campaigning season resumed. Edward sent in a force under the command of the Earl of Warwick and the opposing sides met for battle on the 5th of March 1295 in Powys. The Battle of Moydog was to be the last stand that Madog and Tudur Hen would make in their attempt to regain Welsh sovereignty. Although the fought gallantly and managed to defend themselves well against an onslaught from the English cavalry, it was to be the skilful way in which Warwick directed his archers which was to prove decisive. Arrows reigned down upon Welsh spearmen and the losses began to pile up.
After defeat Madog went into hiding but was captured and taken to London, it is not clear what happened to him there, but he was obviously not killed because he is referred to as being alive in 1312. As for Tudur Hen he went back to his family who had made the pragmatic choice of affirming their loyalty to the English monarch. In 1301, Edward made another assertion of his authority by proclaiming his eldest son and heir, also Edward as the first English Prince of Wales. A tradition which continues to this day, the current Prince of Wales, heir to Queen Elizabeth II is the 21st man to hold the title as the heir to the English then subsequently the British throne.
Tudur Hen must have thought with this declaration that King Edward had every intention of defending his claims on Wales and so he himself swore loyalty to this newly created Prince of Wales. For this act of loyalty, which it is hard to believe could be heartfelt Tudur Hen was able to keep his families estates and when he died in 1311 he was succeeded by his son Goronwy ap Tudur Hen.
This Goronwy was a weak link in the nationalist chain. He was completely loyal to the English monarchs who ruled over Wales during his lifetime and even went so far as to fight in their armies during the English invasion of Scotland, it is speculated that he was present at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. If he was there in 1314 he was not killed amongst his comrades because he lived until 1331 and was in turn succeeded by his son Tudur ap Goronwy.
Like his father, Tudur ap Goronwy was not a rabble rouser and lived quietly as a loyal member of the English run establishment in Wales. So long as he did that, the money kept rolling in form his estates and he was secure in the knowledge that it would continue, so he never rocked the boat. He made his mark on the family’s nationalist credentials with his marriage to Marged ferch Tomos. Together the couple had several children and the eldest was Maredudd ap Tudur who would later succeed his father to the estates in North Wales. Marged had a sister named Elen, and Elen was the mother of a very famous Welshman, Owain Glyndwr.
The meant that Maredudd ap Tudur was the first cousin of Wales’s most celebrated nationalist in history, he is seen as being to Wales what William Wallace is to Scotland. Glyndwr however was not always a Welsh nationalist and had been quite happy to serve the King of England up until about the time that Richard II was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV).
At this time Glyndwr’s neighbouring lord annexed some of the Welshman’s land to his own. This neighbour, Lord Grey was a personal friend of the new English monarch and so he was the winner of the case which meant that Glyndwr had to accept the loss of his lands. Not only this but Grey “forgot” to inform Glyndwr that all landowners were to give up men for a troop levy which was demanded by the King for sending into battle against the King of Scots. As Glyndwr responded late, Lord Grey was able to circulate the impression in London that his neighbour in Wales was disloyal to the crown.
These events were the background to which Glyndwr was proclaimed by a small band of his followers as Prince of Wales in September 1400, not entirely randomly as he was descended from Princes of Powys. It was at this stage that Maredudd ap Tudur and his bothers elected to join their cousin in battle and supported him in claiming the Principality. 1401 proved to be Glyndwr’s year and he was victorious over King Henry IV forcing him eventually to retreat back to England.
In 1402 the English tried to exert political pressure when they introduced the Penal Laws against Wales in 1402 in a bid to establish legal dominance. This only drove even more Welshmen under the banner of Glyndwr. The same year he managed to capture Lord Grey, the man who had caused all of the enmity to start, Grey was only released a year later once Glyndwr had extracted a huge ransom from the King of England. In 1402 the King of France also delivered his tacit approval to the Welsh rebellion by apparently sending troops to help them out. He had every intention of forming an alliance with an independent Wales as he had with Scotland, so that should he ever need to, he could invade England from Welsh or Scottish soil.
By 1403 the revolt was being taken seriously enough that the Welshmen who were studying at Oxford decided to take themselves back to Wales as did Welsh born labours living in England. They wanted to fight under the banner of this newly appointed and charismatic Prince. More importantly perhaps was the fact that soldiers, especially the very experienced longbow men serving in the English Army began to desert and go home to fight for Glyndwr.
The next year Glyndwr was in a position to hold his princely court at Harlech Castle and decree his plans for the nation going forward. This proclamation included the ambitious notion that there would be two universities. He declared that there would be a Welsh Parliament and separate Church of Wales which would chose loyalty to either the Pope in Rome or in Avignon as the Welsh people saw fit so to do. This was the pinnacle, almost all of Welsh society, both high born and low now sided with the rebel Prince and English resistance crumpled in the face of such national unity.
The House of Tudor may have ended up close to the throne of an independent Welsh kingdom if events had taken a different course, but this success was not to last. In 1406 it had become clear that King Charles VI of France was no longer really interested in helping the Welsh. At the same time the English started to achieve major military victories against them. King Henry IV combined his army’s military success with punitive economic restrictions on trading with Wales. One by one the Welsh leaders began to surrender and gave up their castles to the invaders. It seemed that as quickly as he had risen up he was knocked down. Although his own family were captured and sent to be imprisoned in the tower of London he kept up the insurrection until as late as 1412, at which point he seems to just disappear off the face of the earth. It is most likely that he was killed, but many believed that their Prince still lived and the rumours of sightings and secret communication persisted for years afterwards, in the same way that people have been convinced that Elvis Presley still lives, mostly because that’s what they want to think.
Maredudd ap Tudur was subsequently stripped of all his lands which became forfeited to the English Crown upon the reestablishment of their administration. Maredudd somehow managed to keep his life, but his brother Rhys was executed by the English at Chester in 1412 for his part in the uprising. Maredudd married Margaret ferch Dafydd, daughter of the Lord of Anglesey. It was their son Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur who decided to take the family on a new path which would, he no doubt hoped, bury the shame of the past forever.
Tudur becomes Tudor and a Welsh dynasty becomes English
In the immediate aftermath of Glyndwr’s initial defeats in 1406 Maredudd sent his son to London to be educated there in the style of an English gentleman and perhaps one day bring some prestige back to the family. Owain lived with his father’s second cousin Lord Rhys and one of the first things he was made to do was to anglicise his name, this meant he was the first one in the family to acquire a surname. Instead of choosing to be called Owain Maredudd or Owen Meredith in English he took his grandfather’s name of Tudur and so he was known as Owen Tudor from his arrival in London, but for this decision almost nobody would have heard of “the Tudors” and would instead have referred to “the Merediths” as the ruling dynasty of England from 1485 to 1603.
He was sent when still only a child into the court of King Henry IV who had was still at that time quashing Glyndwr’s revolt in Wales. During the reign of Henry V Owen became a soldier and fought under that King’s command at Agincourt in 1415. For his efforts he was made a squire and was granted the right to bear a coat of arms in England.
It was after the time of King Henry V’s death in 1422 that Owen entered the service of his widow, Catherine de Valois. Over the years Owen served the dowager Queen loyally and they grew closer, to be more than just mistress and servant. Catherine had attempted to marry John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset but had been thwarted by her young son’s regents. In 1428 the parliament passed an act which forbade the widows of former monarchs from marrying without the King’s permission. So she resolved to marry somebody of lowly enough birth that the Kings’ ministers would not care to interfere.
The next year she married Owen Tudor, she never sought her son’s permission so it was questionable whether or not the marriage was legal. Presumably Henry VI would have raised any concerns he may have had about the marriage when he obtained his majority, he never seems to have done so and he made his step-father a knight. Henry must also have approved of his half siblings as he made two of Owen and Catherine’s sons earls. One of these brothers, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond was the father of the future Henry VII.
Owen Tudor had not brought his family any closer to the throne in the legal sense; his children inherited no right to the crown by being the children of a queen consort. As the opening salvo of the Wars of Roses was fired Owen was trotted out one last time to command troops against the upstart Earl of March. March was the man who quickly toppled Henry VI and made himself King of England, such ruthless times produced ruthless attitudes and when he defeated Owen Tudor he wasted no time at all in having him beheaded along with the other prisoners of war in Hereford.
Edmund Tudor was brought up by the abbess of Barking until 1442, at which point aged around twelve years old he was sent to his half-brother’s palace in London. He was well beloved by Henry and parliament declared the Tudors formally legitimate in 1453; at least they confirmed their legitimacy as Owen and Catherine had been married in the eyes of God.
In 1452 the nine year old daughter of the Duke of Somerset was summoned by King Henry VI to come to court. The child was placed in the care of Edmund Tudor and his brother Jasper, whom had been created Earl of Pembroke by their half sibling the King. Three years later when the girl was twelve she was married to Edmund, in an act that must have been solely aimed at dynasty making and power broking. Astonishingly the culture of power matches was so rife that this was actually Margaret’s second marriage, she had been married off as a toddler, however the union was annulled a few years later (Henry VI who had allowed the marriage must have had a new plan for her) and was never recognised as a proper marriage by Margaret herself.
It was this marriage to a pre-pubescent child which brought to the Tudor’s a claim to the throne; she was descended from King Edward III through her father. This is why she was such an attractive marriage prospect, royal blood brought that double edged sword of a claim on the crown but it could also bring danger. Edmund Tudor obviously though it was a combination worth accepting, and when she was only 13 she gave birth to their only child. The difficult nature of the birth meant that there was no chance of another child ever again. This was not ideal in a time of high infant mortality, but it did mean that all care and attention had to be paid to the young son that was born to them in 1557, Henry Tudor.
Perhaps these somewhat harrowing experiences for such a young woman of genteel upbringing made Margaret the force of nature she was in later life. She outlived her husband Edmund who died of the plague whilst in captivity by Yorkists and being held in South Wales. Margaret went on to outlive her next two husbands, she outlived her son whom had become Henry VII and had put the Tudor’s on the throne and took charge of arranging the coronation of her grandson Henry VIII.
The Tudor’s pick up the Crown of England
So far you have been able to see how Edmund Tudor and his father had manoeuvred the family into the right sort of lineage, but still that does not explain how somebody so distantly related to the throne was able to become King. Fate was sealed by one more useful marriage. When Henry became an adult he promised to marry Elizabeth of York (arranged of course by his mother). Elizabeth was Edward IV’s eldest daughter, and her brothers were the murdered Princes in the Tower. This meant that Elizabeth was the heir to her father as her brothers were dead, and so the supporters of Edward IV rallied round Henry Tudor even though the Tudors had always been Lancastrians. This would unite the two sides of the Wars of the Roses and provide stability which was much craved after by the war weary people.
Henry’s mother was happy to promote her son as an alternative to King Richard III and Richard had no friend in the King of France, whom readily agreed to supply Henry with troops. Henry left France with little more than a small expeditionary force of soldiers provided by both the Kings of France and Scotland who always loved sponsoring a coup d’état in England even if the monarch they helped get onto the throne became bothersome in later years.
Henry very tactically landed his force in Wales and marched through that country raising troops to invade England with. It was only due to the Welsh heritage of the Tudor name that so many men flocked to his banner so readily. Henry’s idea was to get on and fight quickly before the King had the chance to muster all his forces and form an indestructible enemy.
At Bosworth Field in the August of 1485 Henry was able to engage King Richard in battle. The King’s army outnumbered the rebels, but some of Richard III’s key supporters abandoned the battlefield or even switched sides at the crucial moment. Henry was victorious and Richard was killed that day, ending the Wars of the Roses there and then and bringing onto the throne of England the Tudor family from Wales. The rest is history.