Tudor Britain

Lecture Seven—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

From the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485 to the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, Britain experienced severe political upheavals. Among other events, Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church to found the Church of England. Witness how the era’s architecture—including Hampton Court Palace, Hardwick Hall, and Sulgrave Manor—reflected the political turmoil.

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Tudor Britain – The Death and Discovery of King Richard III

King Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, defeated by Henry Tudor. This was the last battle in the Wars of the Roses.

Bosworth Field in Leicestershire is largely farmland today, but a visitor center, a museum, and a set of footpaths enable you to walk over the ground where the soldiers fought and died. The exhibits give you a lively sense of the participants, the immense class gulf that separated knights from men at arms, and the way the armies had moved to their rendezvous over the preceding weeks.

The loser of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard III, had been king of England for only two years. Most people know Richard through Shakespeare who depicts him as a malicious hunchback who did evil for its own sake. Everyone was fascinated to learn in 2012 that the body of a hunchbacked man had been discovered beneath a parking lot where Greyfriars Church had once stood in the city of Leicester.

DNA testing proved that it was, in fact, Richard, and that at least one part of the Shakespearean version was true.

Henry VIII and British Architecture of Tudor Britain

Henry VIII became king in 1509, at the age of 18. For a taste of royal opulence in Henry’s reign, visit Hampton Court Palace, in south-west London. It was designed and built by Cardinal Wolsey, a worldly churchman who was Henry’s chief advisor in the 1510s and 1520s.

Hampton was extended by Christopher Wren in the 1690s, for King William III, so that the façade facing the gardens looks very different from the Tudor front.

From our vantage point it’s difficult to recall just how widespread and how powerful the English monasteries had become. There are more than 800 ruined abbeys, priories, and monasteries across Britain. Many are imposing, even as ruins. At Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, for example, enough of the complex remains to give you a vivid sense of its extent and magnificence.

When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he dispersed the remaining twenty-three monks and handed the whole estate over to Thomas Manners, the Earl of Rutland. A later owner, Thomas Duncombe, recognized the scenic possibilities of the site. In 1758 he built a terrace, overlooking the picturesque Rievaulx ruins. It is a curving, high-level path, marked at its north and south ends by classical temples.

Another among the picturesque monasteries dissolved by Henry is Tintern Abbey, on the Welsh side of the River Wye. Founded in the 1100s, and also growing to cathedral-dimensions in the late 13th century, it, too, was Cistercian, though its remains don’t bring to mind poverty, chastity, and obedience so much as drama and ostentation.

A Tour of Queen Mary I’s Britain

Mary I of England also known as Mary Tudor
Mary I of England also known as Mary Tudor

On Henry VIII’s death in 1547, nine-year-old Edward VI, the son of Jane Seymour came to the throne. He lasted only six years, during which the kingdom faced the distressing and unfamiliar fact that a queen, rather than a king, was likely to be his successor. The 15-year-old Edward VI, recognizing that his death was near, nominated his cousin, 15-year-old Lady Jane Grey, to succeed him because she was a Protestant.

Her reign lasted only a week, before the 37-year-old Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s oldest daughter, marched on London from Framlingham, in Suffolk, with her sister Elizabeth and a large military contingent, to displace her. The intelligent and well-educated Jane Grey was imprisoned, later tried for treason, and ultimately beheaded at the Tower of London. Mary became Queen Mary I, often known to posterity as “Bloody Mary.”

Mary persecuted and killed several of England’s Protestant leaders, including three bishops, Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, who were burned at the stake in Oxford. Their willingness to die for their faith demonstrated that there was more than cold political calculation involved in the English Reformation. The Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford that commemorates them is Victorian, from about 1840, but its design is strongly reminiscent of the “Eleanor Crosses” that Edward I had set up in England to commemorate his wife in the 1290s.

Among the Catholics who suffered at Elizabeth’s hands was Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, whom she imprisoned for 18 years, and finally executed in 1587. Today, you can visit many of the places where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned, including Carlisle Castle near Hadrian’s Wall and Bolton Castle in Yorkshire. Little remains of Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary was put to death; but the site is marked by a bit of masonry from the castle’s keep, along with some commemorative markers.

A New Tudor Style in Britain

The design of English houses changed radically between 1485 and 1603. Henry VIII’s abolition of private armies, and the end of the Wars of the Roses, created a situation in which fortification was no longer necessary. The best Tudor houses in England have much bigger windows than the old castles, and they conspicuously do not have curtain walls, moats, drawbridges, and portcullises.

One fine example of the new Tudor house is Wollaton Hall in Nottingham. Wollaton is one of several houses from the era that architectural historians refer to as “prodigy houses,” because of their showiness. It’s slightly disappointing to learn that Elizabeth never actually visited Wollaton, confining herself throughout her reign to places in the south of England.

Tudor Style - Melford Hall
Melford Hall is a stately home in the village of Long Melford, Suffolk, England. The hall was mostly constructed in the 16th century, incorporating parts of a medieval building held by the abbots of Bury St Edmunds which had been in use since before 1065. Wikipedia

Melford Hall in Suffolk is a striking example of a Tudor house built on formerly monastic lands—in fact, its cellars were part of the monastery and the current house was built right on top of them. It is a red brick structure with six impressive towers, topped by onion-shaped domes.

Melford House was partially redesigned in almost every generation. The gardens are mainly Edwardian, from the early 20th century, and there’s a “ha-ha” in good condition. A ha-ha is a walled ditch surrounding the house. It prevents farm animals from coming into the gardens, but has the added advantage of being invisible from the house, so that the family, as they gaze through their windows, have an unimpeded view into the distance.

Just over a mile from Melford stands Kentwell, another fine house from the same era, built in the same style. The parish church of Long Melford, Holy Trinity, lies between the two houses, and it is among the most spectacular churches in the whole kingdom. Built by prosperous wool merchants in the perpendicular style just before the Reformation, Holy Trinity could easily pass as a cathedral.

The Rise of Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes, along with other English Catholics, planned to assassinate the Protestant King James by igniting several barrels of gunpowder they had hidden in the cellars underneath Parliament.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, the Tudor dynasty came to an end. King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. James, nicknamed “the wisest fool in Christendom,” was the son of Mary Queen of Scots. She had died a martyr to the Catholic faith, which led England’s Catholic minority to hope that he would look favorably on their plight, and begin to roll back the Reformation. But James was a Protestant, and understood the folly of repeating Queen Mary’s mistakes.

When the English Catholics realized that the king was not going to help them, some of them decided to assassinate him, along with the leading men of the kingdom, by blowing up the Houses of Parliament when the king was present for the state opening. This was in 1605.

Guy Fawkes led the conspirators, who began to cram barrels of gunpowder into a small storeroom underneath the House of Lords. The plot was discovered on November 5th and the villains were arrested before they could carry out the plot. Fawkes and his friends suffered the horrifyingly cruel execution that befell all traitors in that barbarous era—they were hanged, drawn, and quartered.


Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture


Suggested Online Reading About Tudor Britain

A History of British Architecture
Influence of the British Monarchy on British Architecture
Kings and Queens of England & Britain


Images Courtesy of:
Mary Tudor, Antonis Mor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons