Did the Tudors help invent modern Britain?

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb

When it comes to Tudor history, you really couldn't make it up: you’ve got a much married king in search of a male heir (and a spare), two wives who lost their heads, a murderous reign of religious repression, and a virgin queen. Perhaps that’s why over four hundred years after the end of the Tudor period, King Henry VIII and the heirs to his throne continue to fascinate us today. But is there more to this dynasty than just their enduring notoriety? Award-winning historian and broadcaster, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb believes there is, and as part of the University’s annual National Identity Lecture Series, she outlined why she thinks the Tudors are Britain’s most significant royal dynasty.

So just how did they help shape our national psyche and identity? The Tudors took the throne at the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485, ending the 331 year reign of the House of Plantagenet, originally a noble family from northwest France. During their reign, French not English was the language of the court and England was viewed as little more than a backwater. Dr Lipscomb contrasted this with England at the end of Tudor rule in 1603, when the country was a powerful nation in its own right, politically and religiously distinct from mainland Europe, surprisingly similar to the position outlined in the recent Brexit referendum results. 

Henry VIII’s break with Rome, following the Act of Supremacy in 1534, seeded the belief that England would not bow to any other jurisdiction, massively enhancing the country’s status, says Dr Lipscomb. It also paved the way for later events such as the English civil war, the Glorious Revolution and the Act of Settlement, positioning of England (and Britain) as a protestant country. Today’s sovereigns still adopt the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and all British coins bear the initials FD, which stands for ‘Fidei defensor’ or ‘Defender of the Faith’, a title first used by Henry VIII in 1544. 

As the Tudor gaze shifted away from continental Europe, it marked the beginning of a new age of discovery focused on the New World. Dr Lipscomb argued that this helped establish England as a country with clout, with its own identity as a maritime nation, with rights to conquest and colonisation, starting first with Ireland in the 1530s. Wales was also absorbed following the Act of Union in 1536, helping create the familiar identity of modern Britain, while organisations such as the East India Company, established by Elizabeth I in 1600, further extended their reach and the future growth of the British Empire. 

The Tudors also helped turned the English Channel into an obstacle that prevented invasions from Europe, right up to the twentieth century. Britain’s position as a naval power owes much to Henry VIII establishing the country’s first fleet of warships. Tudor investment in navy personnel, coastal defences, and developing more manoeuvrable ships equipped with cannons for long distance fighting not only helped defeat the Spanish armada (albeit with a little help from the English weather) but it also enabled privateers, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, to circumnavigate the globe and amass great fortunes for Elizabeth I, further fuelling the growth of the nation. 

Dr Lipscomb also credits the Tudors with the creation of the modern state, through their investment in the machinery of government, such as obligatory record keeping from 1538 and Britain’s first secret service, initiated by Sir Francis Walsingham, ‘spymaster’ under Elizabeth I. The break with Rome fundamentally changed the role and power of Parliament, making it a key feature of the Tudor state, with the Reformation Parliament of 1529-36 transforming the relationship between the English Crown, the English people and the church. The importance of the Houses of Parliament was, said Dr Lipscomb, demonstrated by the actions of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, who just two years after the end of Elizabeth’s I reign, tried to blow them up as part of the Gunpowder Plot. 

Thanks to the Tudors, the English Renaissance flourished, and Henry VIII’s patronage of Hans Holbein marked the first great age of portraiture. Architecture too changed and ‘mock tudor’ designs still resonate with homeowners today. Most importantly, it was a golden age of literature, with the works of luminaries from the Elizabethan age, such as Spencer, Marlowe and of course, William Shakespeare, indelibly transforming both the written and spoken word. 

So as origin stories go, did Dr Lipscomb make a strong case for why Tudor history stills forms part a key part of British identity? True they ruled a long time ago but the Tudors did help establish in English (and British) minds a picture of an island nation, separate and supreme, which still resonates today, even if you don’t necessarily agree with all that it stands for. 

Dr Suzannah Lipscomb is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History and Fellow of the New College of the Humanities, London, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She has written and presented a number of documentaries on Channel 5, including Henry VIII and His Six Wives and Hidden Killers of the Post-War Home. Her new series on Elizabeth I will air in 2015.


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