The events of the Tudor dynasty have enthralled the public for centuries, none so more than the dominating reign of Henry VIII. The titan figure, who ruled England for 37 years, is known most for breaking the country from the Catholic Church and for his scandalous six marriages, fueled by his determination for sons to succeed him. Previous attempts to place a woman on the English throne had led to Civil War, so Henry sought male heirs to protect his reign and secure the Tudor dynasty.
Despite Henry’s attempts, only four of his children reached adulthood, with just one being a legitimate son. For Henry’s three surviving legitimate children—Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward—their father’s turbulent reign shaped their lives dramatically. Ultimately, each of them reigned in England and made their own mark on history (the surviving legitimate children are listed below in the order of their reign).
1. Henry, Duke of Cornwall (January 1511–February 1511)
On New Year’s Day 1511, the Tudor court erupted in celebration as Katherine of Aragon gave birth to a son. Named Henry after his father, he was given the title of Duke of Cornwall and nicknamed “The New Year’s Boy.” Bells were rung and bonfires were lit, with King Henry holding a lavish tournament and pageant to celebrate his son’s arrival. Unfortunately, the joy was temporary: Prince Henry died only 52 days after his birth.
2. Henry Fitzroy (1519–1536)
Born on June 15, 1519, Henry was the illegitimate child of Henry VIII and his mistress Elizabeth Blount, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine of Aragon. He was given the surname Fitzroy, meaning “son of the king.” Henry was the only illegitimate child King Henry recognized as his own, though rumors of more persisted. His birth fed into the Tudor idea that it was the queen—not the king—who could not have a son (people now know that it's the chromosomes in a man's sperm that determine the sex of a baby).
King Henry awarded his son numerous titles, making him Duke of Richmond and Somerset as well as a Knight of the Garter. As historian Anna Whitelock wrote, “not since the twelfth century had a King of England raised an illegitimate son to the peerage.” Henry became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and by 1533 he had married Lady Mary Howard. Katherine feared for her daughter Mary's place in the succession, though these worries ultimately proved futile. Henry died of suspected tuberculosis just three years after his wedding.
3. Edward VI (1537–1553)
On October 12, 1537, King Henry at long last had his legitimate male heir. But the joy was soon muted when Edward’s mother, Jane Seymour, passed away from childbed fever just over 10 days later. Henry dubbed Edward “this whole realm’s most precious jewel.” Edward received a rigorous education and was constantly watched over and pampered. Yet his childhood was cut short: When Henry VIII died in 1547, 9-year-old Edward was left to rule. Edward was told the news alongside his half sister—Anne Boleyn's daughter Elizabeth; the two burst into tears and held each other.
The new king’s uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, became Lord Protector, meaning to rule until Edward turned 16. Edward resented his power-hungry Uncle: The Duke curbed his freedoms to the point where he complained about his lack of pocket money. Edward Seymour’s reign saw significant Protestant reforms, which caused tensions with the young king’s eldest sister, Mary, for reasons we'll discuss below.
After several uprisings and rebellions in 1549, the unpopular Duke of Somerset was executed for treason. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, took his place as Lord President of the Council and took a less domineering approach with Edward, instead working with the young king to further his political education. Yet Edward’s potential was cut short when in 1553 he fell ill with suspected tuberculosis. While on his deathbed, he removed his sisters from the line of succession, naming his Protestant cousin (and Northumberland’s daughter-in-law) Lady Jane Grey his successor. Edward was just three months away from his 16th birthday when he died.
4. Mary I (1516–1558)
Born on February 18, 1516, Mary was the only surviving child of King Henry VIII’s first wife, the formidable Katherine of Aragon. Henry doted on his daughter, calling her his “pearl of the world.” Mary soon demonstrated she took after her parents, sharing her mother’s talent for languages and her father’s musical ability. Despite Mary’s promising future, Henry’s determination for a male heir changed the course of her life forever.
By the time Mary was 10, Henry became determined to divorce Katherine—he claimed he had sinned by marrying his late brother’s widow. Though Katherine fought for her marriage, the union was declared null and void in 1533. At 17, Mary was not only no longer a princess (instead titled the “Lady Mary”) but was now forbidden from communicating with her mother. In 1536, Katherine died from suspected stomach cancer; by then, Mary had not seen her mother in four years. Her refusal to accept her father as head of the Church of England led to Henry threatening her life. Eventually, however, she submitted to his demands.
After Edward VI declared Jane Grey as Queen, Mary rallied her supporters and the public, who supported her claim to the throne over the unknown Jane Grey. Her fight for the throne was successful, and despite her father’s fears, England had its first reigning Queen.
As Queen, Mary married Prince Philip of Spain and turned England Catholic once more. Public fears about the marriage soon led to rebellion, though Mary successfully put these down. Even so, her marriage to Philip would prove unhappy due to his frequent absences from England and two phantom pregnancies that left her childless. Mary’s reign also suffered in public opinion when the restoration of Catholicism led to 300 Protestants being burned at the stake for refusing to recant their religion.
By 1558, Mary had reluctantly named her half sister Elizabeth as her heir before passing away at the age of 42. Though Mary’s reign wasn't remembered kindly, she had still proved women could successfully sit on the throne—a legacy that would greatly benefit her successor.
5. Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
If Mary’s rise to the throne was unexpected, then Elizabeth’s was astonishing. Her birth in September 1533 was met with joy from her mother, Anne Boleyn, and muted disappointment from her father. Henry had pursued Anne for years, hoping his second marriage would provide a male heir at last. Yet three years later, Henry’s patience with his second wife ran thin; in 1536, Anne was executed on trumped-up (and most likely false) charges of treason and adultery. The then-3-year-old Elizabeth was branded illegitimate and the daughter of a traitor.
Though officially declared illegitimate, Henry still recognized Elizabeth as his daughter. She was brought up to follow her mother’s Protestant faith and was provided with a robust education.
Elizabeth was 13 when Henry VIII died. Mary’s bid for the throne upon Edward VI’s death six years later restored Henry VIII’s original plans for the succession, and Elizabeth rode into London alongside her elder sister to celebrate her ascension to the throne.
But tensions between the two would soon flare-up. The conspirators involved in the rebellions against Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain wished not only to prevent Mary’s marriage, but to place Elizabeth on the throne in her stead. Despite it being unlikely that Elizabeth was involved in the plot, she was arrested and placed in the Tower of London. Citing a lack of sufficient evidence, Mary opted not to prosecute her sister, and Elizabeth was released from the Tower on the 18th anniversary of her mother’s execution. Before Mary died, she named Elizabeth as her successor, starting the reign of one of England’s most famous monarchs.
Seeing the trouble her sister had with Philip of Spain (who proposed to his sister-in-law after Mary’s death), Elizabeth never married. Instead, she presented herself as the Virgin Queen, devoted only to her country. Elizabeth remained dedicated to intellectual pursuits, even translating Greek and Latin texts in her spare time.
Elizabeth restored Protestantism, though she still faced Catholic threats from her Scottish cousin Mary, Queen of Scots and Philip of Spain. The Spanish Armada in 1588 saw a Spanish invasion of England, which was thwarted by the English navy (and the bad weather). Her 45-year reign is remembered as the “Golden Age” for its relative peace, and for the developments made in literature and drama (though this rosy image was partly the result of successful Elizabethan propaganda).
Elizabeth died in 1603 at age of 69, leaving her Scottish cousin James VI of Scotland to succeed her. She shared a tomb with her sister—an odd yet almost fitting tribute to two very different sisters whose lives were so entwined.