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The 16th Century


The 16th century was a period when literature, theatre and the arts flourished. The writings of Christopher Marlowe and the plays of William Shakespeare performed at the Globe Theatre were part of this change and development.


The Tudors ruled from 1485 to 1603 in what was certainly an exciting period of history. Henry VIII’s desperate need for a healthy son and heir led to his well-known divorces and to the separation of England from the Church of Rome.



Some of the key events during the 16th century were:

1509 Henry VIII began his reign
1534 Church of England was formed
1536 Closure and destruction of monasteries began
1547 Edward VI was crowned king
1553 Mary I was crowned queen
1558 Mary was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I
1564 William Shakespeare was born
1570 Sir Francis Drake set sail for the West Indies
1588 Spanish Armada was defeated
1591 First performance of Shakespeare’s plays


Henry VIII succeeded his father to the throne in 1509. As Henry’s older brother Arthur had died, Henry was obliged to marry his brother’s wife, Catherine of Aragon. They had one child, a daughter Mary. Henry’s obsession with producing a male heir eventually led to him seeking a divorce from Catherine which the Pope refused.

This led to the separation of England from the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation. The Protestant Church was formed but it took decades to become properly established.

Henry VIII had six wives in all, and only produced three children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. All three eventually succeeded him to the throne of England in due course.

Henry’s favourite home was Hampton Court Palace which was actually built by Thomas Wolsey for himself but Henry persuaded Wolsey to give it to him.

During his reign, Henry VIII built up a powerful navy to defend England. On his death in 1547, his son Edward VI was crowned king at the age of nine, but he died just six years later. Queen Mary I, then ruled for five years. Upon Mary’s death in 1558, Elizabeth was crowned Queen Elizabeth I in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey. She was 25 years old.

At this time explorers and sailors began taking on new challenges. Expeditions were organised to find new trade routes and the explorers returned from newly discovered places with gold, spices, exotic plants and silk.

Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the best known explorers. He was born in Devon and led many expeditions to the Americas and brought back new finds such as tobacco and potatoes.

Sir Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon and among his many sailing adventures he became the first Englishman to sail around the world in the Golden Hind. His raids on Spanish ships which he plundered for silver and treasure apparently more than paid off the national debt at that time!

Understandably the Spanish were not happy with his attacks and in 1587 they prepared an armada to attack England. Drake sailed into the harbour at Cadiz and wrecked the ships there. The Spanish regrouped and sailed for England in 1588 where he again defeated them.

The 16th century is often referred to as the "Golden Age" and the second half of the century under Elizabeth I was certainly a time of development and discovery. William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon during this era and many homes linked to his life including Hall’s Croft, Mary Arden's House and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage can be toured. They have been sympathetically restored to show typical 16th century life.

Other treasures which can be experienced from this era include visiting the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s warship which sank off the coast of Southampton. It has since been salvaged, preserved and opened to the public at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and museums.

Other 16th century attractions include Sulgrave Manor, a modest manor of its time and the grander Tudor mansion of Kentwell Hall in Sudbury, Suffolk.

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