British Empire/Tudor Origins

The Tudor Rose: a combination of the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York
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This module covers the period 1485-1603. Student Feedback and discussion of content is encouraged on the discussion page accessed by the tab above.


Tudor Origins of the British Empire Timeline Quizzes

The Renaissance Concept of Empire

Portrait of Charles V by Titian

The first person to use the phrase British Empire was the Elizabethan John Dee. The term appears in his 1576 book entitled General and rare memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation. His concept of Empire was based on Dante's Monarchia. This book, written sometime around 1308-1318, placed the judicious revival of Roman Law by Frederick II (Holy Roman Emperor 1220–1250) in a broader picture. In a world riven by strife between the papal powers and secular authority, Dante proposes a single spiritual ruler, the pope, and a single temporal ruler, the emperor, embodying a divinely ordained political structure. The emperor should be a universal ruler of the world, and Dante argued that the Roman Empire was divinely ordained, and served as a model for Holy Roman Empire. Such a universal monarch could establish universal peace and help humanity realise an earthly paradise. Using Fredrick II's concepts of Necessitas, Justitia and Providentia Dante depicted a secular world governed by reason, restoring the imagined universality of Roman rule, above any nationalistic sentiments and unifying Christendom.

As Charles V upon becoming the Holy Roman Emperor (1520) embarked on military campaigns which led to him taking first Francis I of France (1525) and then Pope Clement VII prisoner, there was a revival of interest in Dante's political thought. Mercurino Gattinara, Louis of Praet and Alfonso de Valdés, for example, were courtiers of Charles V who promoted the idea that the Emperor was reviving the Roman Empire. The painting of Charles V by Titian also presents him in a heroic role reminiscent of of roman imperialism. Likewise Ariosto's Orlando Furioso glorifies the reign of Charles V's ancestor and namesake Charlemagne and also the founder of the Holy Roman Empire. Ariosto includes a prophetess, who describes how God kept the lands unknown to Romans aside, waiting for a new emperor to arise as world ruler, i.e Charles V himself. In this, Ariosto was mobilising the Matter of France behind this revival of the Roman Empire. The Matter of France was one of the three elements of Western European medieval literature alongside the Matter of Britain and the Matter of Rome. Ariosto's Orlando Furioso was translated into Scots in 1590 and English in 1591 - specifically ayt the behest of Elizabeth I.

After England's break with the papacy became stabilised in the reign of Elizabeth I, the intellectual ingredients were there for the adaption of the Imperial ideal for shoring up the regime through replacing the Matter of France with the Matter of Britain and promoting the English throne in to the centre of world history. However, this process departed from the medieval understanding of Empire as it was rooted in scientific advancement, particularly in the areas of navigation and geography. Dee has a curious position - on the one hand a magician, yet on the other a scientist. Nevertheless he played a key role as an adviser to most of the explorers around the court of Queen Elizabeth, providing an English translation of Euclid as well as developing the concept of the British Empire.

Creation of a British Identity

The "Winchester Round Table" in the Great Hall. The design was painted in 1522

During the middle ages a British identity was developed around the legendary figure of Brutus of Troy. Paralleling Virgil's Aeneid, Brutus was a Trojan who founded London before the Roman conquest of Britain. Originating in the ninth century Historia Brittonum the legend was amplified by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whereby Brutus, as son or grandson of Aeneas, linked Britain to the history of Rome and its Empire. These legends then went on to extol the exploits of the legendary King Arthur.

The Tudor dynasty traced their ancestry to Rhys ap Tewdwr, a former Ruler of the Britons, and the Tudors consolidated a British identity around their rule. Nine days after the Henry VII seizure of the thrown at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Caxton published Morte d'Arthur, Thomas Malory's story about chivalry based on the exploits of King Arthur and his Round Table. Henry VII named his first son Arthur, however he died in 1502, aged 15. Although the term Briton had come to mean Welsh, through the Matter of Britain, the British identity became a vehicle for an expansionist vision challenging the supremacy of the Holy Roman Empire, particularly after the Church of England had broken with the Church of Rome and the protestants in Flanders had challenged the Hapsburgs in 1566 with the Beeldenstorm.

Just as the the British identity was developed as an ideology around the court, Brythonic communities under the English crown had their political and cultural autonomy eroded. Firstly Welsh Law was harmonised with that of England through Henry VIII's Laws in Wales Acts passed between 1535–1542. Then in 1549, the Duke of Somerset led an army to impose the English language Common Prayer Book on the Cornish speaking inhabitants of Cornwall. This reflects the change in the way people thought of and related to these materials. In the Low Countries and England the merchant class had been emerging as a powerful force since the Fourteenth Century. They were developing what came to be called "Bourgeois society" and the economic system known as capitalism. Part and parcel of this was the development of the nation state, a canon of national literature, an increase in grammar schools, as the former Cathedral Schools were largely swept away with the dissolution of the monasteries. The impact of printing, along with the bible reading which was an essential part of protestantism, ensured that there was a spread of literacy and that people developed new ways of relating to written texts. Likewise the theatre evolved, particularly in London, with a new strata of professional actors who wanted to be treated on a par with merchants. Medieval theatre was being superceeded by Renaissance theatre. It was in this context that William Shakespeare came to have such a remarkable impact on the development of Modern English, perhaps alongside William Tyndale, who translated much of the Bible. The British Identity which emerged with the British Empire was as much a product of modernism, as a vehicle for its spread and acceptance. The renaissance enabled the Englishman and those he conquered to be "reborn" as Britons.

Rise of Protestantism

Lady Jane Grey is executed

England went through changes, especially during Henry VIII's reign. Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon had not produced a son. So he wanted to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn. Henry had already got special dispensation to marry Catherine, who was the widow of his brother Prince Arthur. Henry tried to get his first marriage annulled, but Pope Clement VII would not allow this. He was at that time prisoner of Charles V, Catherine of Aragon's nephew. Henry proceeded to Mary Ann Boleyn in secret. While the divorce was contrary to the principles of Catholicism some protestant theologians also condemned it. The divorce and the consequent excommunication of the King by the Roman Catholic Church was as much a product of Realpolitik as theology. Thus, in 1534 Henry VIII founded the Church of England as a protestant church. Although Henry sanctioned the destruction of images of the saints, he was not an ardent protestant. His main concern was to have a legitimate heir to the thrown. In this sense he can be regarded as a Politique, i.e. a ruler more concerned with affairs of state than religion. Nevertheless, he did sanction the publication of the Great Bible in 1539. When he died in 1547, he was succeeded by his son, Edward VI. But, Edward was only nine years old. This meant that he was too young to restrain the ardent protestants. In 1549, Thomas Cranmer introduced the Book of Common Prayer. This, for the first time, brought together both the daily cycle or prayers and other special liturgies written in the English language. This lead to a the Prayer Book Rebellion in Cornwall, where the population spoke Cornish. The defeat of the rebels - backed by the Roman Catholic church - accelerated the demise of Cornish and the political integration of England. However in 1553, Edward VI died. An attempt was made to keep a protestant on the throne. Lady Jane Grey became Queen of England for 9 days. However, popular support swung behind Mary I, the daughter of Henry VIII by Catherine of Aragon - and a Catholic and she successfully seized the throne. In 1554 she married married Philip II, son Charles V and later King of Spain. Mary shared his ardent catholic views, and during her brief reign of five years, she persecuted the protestants, burning such notable clerics as Thomas Cranmer himself. She died in 1558 without producing an heir, and so ending the attempt to draw England into the dynastic network of the Hapsburgs. Mary was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth I, the daughter of Ann Boleyn. As her claim to the thrown rested on the validity of Henry's divorce, she espoused the protestant cause and spurned Philip II proposal of marriage. Thus began a reign of 45 years during which England's aspiration for a British Empire really took shape. She was a pragmatist as regards religion. She became head of the church of England but did not involve herself directly in religious controversy. The more radical puritans were held in check by the Elizabethan religious settlement, which created the basis for Anglicanism as the state religion. The Church of England became the national church fulfilling a political role as much as religious. The Act of Uniformity made attending church compulsory, and Catholicism was treated more as a political than a religious problem. This became heightened after Elizabeth was excommunicated in 1570. Elizabeth's reign was marked more by the political support of the protestant cause - something which was intermingled with the commercial interests of the growing band of merchants in London and their trading endeavours in the Low Countries and North Western Germany (such places as Emden and Hamburg). Englishmen fought, and Philip Sydney died there (Battle of Zutphen, 1586). However with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, protestantism's continuation in England was assured.

Development of Financial Structures and Trade

First flag of the East India Company

During the Tudor era there was a steady rise in agricultural prices, particularly following the debasement of the currency by Henry VIII. Landlords were hard hit by this. Some coped by instituting more ways of getting money from the land. There were large scale enclosures of open land in central England, and the sale of land resulting from the dissolution of the monasteries added to transformation of English agriculture. Many tenant farmers were evicted, and land was given over to sheep, producing wool. The sale of English wool in Flanders had entailed the political and economical involvement of the two countries in each others affairs for some time. However, increasingly, the wool was worked up to cloth in England, often with Flemings relocating to England. The Merchant Staplers, enjoyed a monopoly over the export of wool through Calais - which was still in English hands until 1558. However following its loss, the Merchant Adventurers grew in prominence, engaging in the wool trade elsewhere. English merchants had been learning from the business techniques of the low countries for generations. However, drawing from his experiences in Antwerp, Thomas Gresham developed the Royal Exchange in 1571. This was modeled on the bourse in Antwerp. The Levant Company was founded in 1581. It developed Factories - i.e. trading centers in the already-established commercial centers, of Aleppo, Istanbul, Alexandria and Smyrna, all within the Ottoman Empire. Although initially a joint-stock company, the company evolved into a regulated monopoly . However by 1600 the East India Company was founded, which was to become a major factor in the development of the British Empire. By allowing merchants to share the risk on long distance journeys to India and the Far East, it made access to the highly profitable spice trade viable for a business man who otherwise would have been too scared to risk every thing on one venture. One area in which English merchants were involved from an early stage was the Slave trade. Elizabethan sea dogs such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake were prominent in combining this with piracy. In London itself, over half the city had belonged to the monasteries. With the dissolution of the monasteries, the city was transformed. With the technological developments in ship building and the navigational arts, the more worldly mentality of protestantism, all the ingredients were present to propel the merchants of England, and London in particular, into a prominent position in world trade. Attempts were made to develop colonies in North America, notably by Sir Walter Raleigh who was involved in the Roanoke Colony.

Developments in Science and Technology

Digges' Pantometria

There was a world wide spread of science during the period of the Tudor dynasty. Printing was a major factor in this. Although metal movable type had been in use for over 200 years in China and Korea, Its development in Europe in the fifteenth century. William Caxton brought this technology to London from Flanders in 1476. The new trade flourished. The first blast furnace in England was developed in Buxted, the Weald during 1491. The Weald became a centre for iron trade, peaking in 1590. The iron was especially useful for making canons for the growing English fleet. Thomas Gresham made arrangements for the proceeds of the Royal Exchange to fund Gresham College whereat the professors had to provide public lectures. Established in 1597, this college filled the need for public education in the new sciences, there being no university in London at the time. Much of the intellectual life was conducted through the Inns of Court, which housed the lawyers in premises very similar to the Oxbridge colleges. The period saw such people as John Dee emerge. Not only did he write the forward to Henry Billingsley's English translation of Euclid's Elements in 1570, but followed this up by publishing General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation in 1577. Meanwhile the physician William Gilbert, not only promoted the new Copernican view that the earth revolved around the sun, but also started the development of an understanding of electricity and magnetism. Another Copernican, Leonard Digges is credited with developing the telescope and the theodolite. He published Pantometria in 1591. The printing press allowed for the mass production of these works, being either written in English or of scientific works translated into English. The streets of London were also transformed as coaches took to the street of the growing city, a development regarded by some as a Dutch import. Although England was not always at the fore front of scientific innovation, there developed a culture which was ready to adopt a range of new technologies which often appeared elsewhere. During this period, the Dutch are credited with many new technologies. Just a few miles from England across the channel, the Dutch shared in the rupture with religious constraint imposed by the Roman Catholic Church. From being isolated on the fringes of Europe, the European discovery of the Americas placed England in a position to become a centre of new technologies, and other new ways of thinking which laid the basic foundations of Science.

Other Resources


Natural Science 14-17th century

Creation of Naval Power

The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover, a painting that commemorated King Henry's voyage to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, painted in 1540.

In 1495, Henry VII had the first drydock in Europe built at Portsmouth: five royal warships were built during his reign. This included two which were the new four-masted carracks. Henry VIII continued expanding and developing the English Navy as a standing armed force of the state. He had a series of great ships built,such as the Mary Rose, the Peter Pomegranate and the Henri Grâce à Dieu. These were purpose built warships, equipped with gunports, making them more effective than the converted merchant ships which had previously been used. Henry VIII also built a series of coastal defences known as the Device Forts first in 1539 and then again in 1544. In 1542 he established the Council of the Marine to oversee administrative affairs of the naval service. During the reign of Edward VI and Mary I, the development of the Navy was not a priority. However, with the return of protestantism under Elizabeth, once again there was a growing concern that England should be able to defend itself through its navy. In 1563 Lord Burghley (William Cecil) introduced Cecil's Fast, which imposed punishments for eating meat during lent and on certain other days of the week. This was imposed - not for religious reasons, but to ensure the population consumed enough fish that an adequate number of seamen could earn their living. Thus it would be possible to maintain sufficient ships and crews who could defend England in time of war. John Hawkins became treasurer of the Royal Navy in 1578 and was responsible for developing English seapower to a level that the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was possible. He worked with Mathew Baker on the production of the English race-built galleons, where the fore- and aft-castles were lowered, making a more maneuverable ship than the galleons of the Spanish fleet. While the English victory over the Spanish Armada ensured the continuation of both English independence and protestantism, the ongoing The Anglo–Spanish War (1585–1604) did not have such a conclusive effect. While the English continued to defend not just England but also their acquisition of Ireland, they were unable to establish naval supremacy. The English Armada failed in 1589, and the sporadic war made it hard for the English to develop North American colonies, while they only contained but failed to disrupt the Spanish colonial empire in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, during Elizabeth's reign, the English fleet grew from strength to strength. Much of her navy were actually privateers, private vessels kitted out for combat with letters of marque authorising them to attack the monarch's enemies. The combination of technological innovation in ship building, a coterie of explorers around John Dee and Richard Hakluyt, the advent of printing which allowed information to be circulated more easily and a fluid relation between the state's Royal Navy and the fleet of merchant ships in private hands all served to help England to project itself across the world and establish itself as a maritime power. The Dutch also around this time developed an independent state based on maritime trading across the North Sea from England at the mouth of one of Europe's biggest rivers, the Rhine. There was a significant sharing of know-how between these two emergent nations. During the Tudor period, the English and Dutch shared the protestant religion, and both found themselves often at war with the Spanish Empire. This provided the context for the emergence of England as a naval power.

Other Resources


Key Individuals






  • Berleth, Richard: The Twilight Lords, (1978); (reissued 1994), Barnes & Noble Books, ISBN 1566195985
  • Yates, Frances: Astraea : The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, (1975)

See also