Britain and the Wider World in Tudor Times


Published: 13th January 2011

Britain and the Wider World in Tudor Times: Overview

The wider world: The Tudors ruled Britain during a fascinating and fast-changing century. Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, and Europeans sailed across the oceans, reaching the East, discovering the New World of America, establishing colonies, and circumnavigating the world for the first time (Ferdinand Magellan in 1517, and Francis Drake in 1577-80).

Please note: this guide was written before the 2014 National Curriculum and some of the advice may no longer be relevant. 

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The result was a shift in the distribution of power and wealth from the East to Europe, setting in place the pattern of Western supremacy that we still see today. This change in power involved a destructive clash of cultures, the establishment of European empires across the seas from Europe, rivalry, piracy, and wars.

The voyages and exploits of European explorers like Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro fall within the Tudor period. They provide great stories and also raise important issues for debate, such as Columbus the explorer for KS1 and Columbus: was he a hero? for KS2. The clashes of culture and belief between these European adventurers and the inhabitants of the lands they went to provide rich material for citizenship education. Two thought-provoking books which examine Europe's encounters with the rest of the world are Guns, germs and steel by Jared Diamond, 1997; and Cultures in conflict by Urs Bitterli, 1989.

This was also the century of the great religious split in the Christian Church, where new Protestant beliefs challenged the authority of the Pope and the practices of the Catholic Church. Both Europe and Britain saw fierce conflict between the Protestant reformers and the power of the traditional Church. The Catholic vs Protestant struggle continued throughout the 16th century and well beyond. During the period a radical Protestant movement emerged - the Puritans.

In England the Tudor dynasty ruled England for 118 years, from 1485 to 1603. It was dominated by the long reigns of Henry VIII (38 years) and Elizabeth (45 years). There were numerous plots and rebellions against the Tudors, but no civil war, unlike the previous and subsequent centuries. The Tudor period was heavily influenced by the European Renaissance (rebirth), it was a time of widening horizons, of adventuring, of scientific and technological development, of artistic flowering, and of thrusting entrepreneurs. It was also a dangerous time, as the fall of powerful figures demonstrates (e.g. Wolseley, Cranmer, Anne Boleyn, Essex).

Tudor society was hierarchical, with steep divides between men and women, and rich and poor. Some classes, like the gentry, expanded and grew wealthy, building houses of stone and brick with glass in the windows. The poor became poorer, partly because of the loss of common land after the enclosure of medieval fields - thousands roamed the country as vagrants. During the century the population rose, as did violent crime.

By 1603 England was stable, prosperous and influential. It had become a largely Protestant, and very nationalistic, country. It had made its first colony in America, and the trade in slaves from Africa had begun. These laid the foundations of the empire which reached its height four centuries later.

Teaching the Tudor world

  • A class timeline is essential, to track the many changes during the reigns of the five Tudor monarchs, as well as the continuities.
  • Good visual and documentary sources are available for this era; they will yield rich insights into personalities, wealth and ambitions.
  • The period abounds with differences of religious belief, culture and wealth, so there is a lot of scope for looking at different perspectives.

Topics for teaching

The Battle of Bosworth, where the Lancastrian Henry Tudor defeated the Yorkist King Richard III and established the Tudor dynasty. He cleverly married Elizabeth of York. In this way he ended the Wars of the Roses by combining the white rose of York with the red rose of Lancaster. See How the Tudors came to power.

Henry VIII: the key point about Henry and his six wives is a simple one – he felt he needed to remarry because he had to produce a son to continue the Tudor dynasty. From this core reason Henry's other actions flowed. Because the Pope would not grant him a divorce from Katharine of Aragon, Henry had to make himself the head of the Church instead of the Pope. Henry was never in his heart a Protestant. A few years previously the Pope had granted him the title ‘Defender of the Faith' [the Roman Catholic faith] against the Protestant reformers. Henry was short of money, and the break with the Pope freed him up to plunder the monasteries of England. See Dissolution of the monasteries: Haughmond Abbey.

Religion continued to be a source of conflict for all Henry VIII's children during their reigns (Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I). For priests and people, the rapid changes between Catholicism and Protestantism between c.1530 and 1560 were traumatic.

Elizabeth I, a complex and clever woman, was adept at holding onto her personal power against all assaults on it. Portraits, descriptions, letters and speeches provide a range of good sources for teaching about her life and reign. See Queen Elizabeth I

Mary Queen of Scots – her tragic story encompasses foolish marriages, abdication of her throne, escape to England, imprisonment, Catholic plots to put her on the English throne, and death by beheading in 1587.

The 1588 Armada, sent by the Catholic King of Spain to invade Protestant England. See Spanish Armada. Good for map work and chronology of events. Do also tell the story of Drake's 1587 ‘singeing of the King of Spain's beard' where he destroyed most of the Spanish fleet in Cadiz harbour as it prepared for the invasion.

Exploration and adventuring: John and Sebastian Cabot (reached Newfoundland), Willoughby and Chancellor (visited Russia), Drake (the first European to reach California and the first Briton to sail round the world), Raleigh (established two colonies in America - both failed; also tried to find the legendary El Dorado, land of gold, in South America).

Piracy: Spain had grown wealthy from the silver and gold of Mexico and Peru, which she had conquered. English adventurers such as Hawkins and Drake wanted a share. They made several raiding voyages, where they attacked Spanish treasure ships and ports. Their piracy was covertly supported by the Queen, who got a cut of the profits. Elizabeth reputedly called Drake her ‘little pirate'. To make their voyages more profitable, Hawkins and Drake also brought slaves across the Atlantic to the Americas.

The flowering of culture, particularly poetry and popular theatre: Shakespeare, but also Marlowe, Fletcher, Middleton, Webster, Jonson. It's worth examining the Elizabethan theatre, its architecture and audiences, together with careful selections from the film Shakespeare in Love, to bring Shakespeare's world to life. If you live in London, or can arrange a visit, the Globe in Southwark is a faithful reconstruction of Shakespeare's theatre. See A Tudor Tempest.

People: inventories and portraits give us wonderful insights into Tudor people, from the poor to the well-off. See Tudor portraits - Who am I?.

Questions to debate

  • Was Henry VII or Henry VIII the better king?
  • Why was Henry VIII so desperate for a male heir?\
  • Should Elizabeth I be known as ‘Elizabeth the Great?'
  • Why did Elizabeth never marry?
  • Why did Elizabeth allow her cousin Mary Queen of Scots to be executed?
  • Why did Spain want to attack England?
  • Why did the Spanish Armada fail?
  • Was Sir Francis Drake a hero or a villain?

Key concepts

New World