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Women in the Tudor Dynasty

Tudor Women Ancestors

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Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn, with Catherine of Aragon (in painting) and Cardinal Wolsey, from a painting by Marcus Stone (detail)

Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn, with Catherine of Aragon (in painting) and Cardinal Wolsey, from a painting by Marcus Stone (detail)

Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn, with Catherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey, from a painting by Marcus Stone

Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn, with Catherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey, from a painting by Marcus Stone

Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Would Henry VIII's life be nearly as interesting to historians, writers, screenwriters, and television producers -- and to readers and viewers -- without all these fascinating female connections?

While Henry VIII is the epitome of the Tudor dynasty, and is himself a fascinating figure of history, women play a very important part in the history of the Tudors of England. The simple fact that women gave birth to heirs to the throne gave them a central role; some Tudor women were more active in shaping their role in history than others.

Henry VIII's marital history holds the fascination of historians and historical fiction writers alike. At the root of this marital history is a very real concern of Henry's: having a male heir for the throne. He was acutely aware of the vulnerability of having only daughters or only one son. Some of the history of which he was certainly keenly aware:

  • Henry VIII was himself the second son of his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. His older brother, Arthur, died before their father did, thus leaving Henry as his father's heir. When Arthur died, Elizabeth of York was still in her 30s, and in the grand tradition of the "heir and a spare," got pregnant again -- and died of complications of childbirth.
     
  • The last time there'd been only a female heir left for the throne, years of civil war had ensued, and that female heir -- the Empress Matilda or Maud -- was never herself crowned. Her son, Henry Plantagenet (also called Henry Fitzempress, because his mother had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor), ended that war, and, married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, began a new dynasty, the Plantagenets.
     
  • When Henry VIII's own father, Henry VII, established the new Tudor dynasty. he ended decades of nasty dynastic infighting among the York and Lancaster heirs of Edward III.
     
  • The Salic Law didn't apply in England -- thus, if Henry left daughters, or a son who died early (as his son, Edward VI, did end up doing), those daughters would inherit the throne -- with all the troubles that might entail of marrying foreign kings (as did his daughter Mary I) or remaining unmarried and leaving succession in doubt (as did his daughter Elizabeth I).

The dynasty of the Tudors was itself bound up in the histories of some very interesting women who came before Henry VIII:

  • Catherine of Valois, who was wife of Henry V of England and mother of his son, Henry VI, committed the scandalous act of secretly marrying after her husband's death. She married a Welsh squire, Owen Tudor, and through this marriage gave the Tudor dynasty its name. Catherine of Valois was the grandmother of Henry VII and great-grandmother of Henry VIII.
     
  • Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother, married the eldest son of Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor: Edmund, Earl of Richmond. Henry VII wisely claimed his right to the throne through conquest, but also had a claim to the throne through his mother Margaret's descent from John of Gaunt and Katherine Roët, known as Katherine Swynford (her earlier married name), whom John married after his children's births. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was the son of Edward III of England, and it is from John of Gaunt that the Lancasters in the Wars of the Roses are descended.
     
  • Margaret of Anjou took a very active role in the Wars of the Roses, defending the interests of the Lancastrian party.
     
  • Henry VIII's mother was Elizabeth of York. She married Henry VII, the first Tudor king, in a dynastic match: she was the last Yorkist heir (assuming that her brothers, known as the Princes in the Tower, were either dead or imprisoned securely) and Henry VII the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, thus bringing together the two houses that had fought the Wars of the Roses. She died of complications of childbirth at age 37, presumably trying to have another son as a "spare" after her oldest son, Arthur, died, leaving her younger son, later Henry VIII, the only living son of Henry VII.
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