If people haven’t got her confused with Mary Queen of Scots, the defining trait of Mary Tudor is the burning of 300 Protestants that occurred during her turbulent five-year reign from 1553 to 1558. The nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ has stuck since her reign, as Elizabeth I’s reign made effective use of Protestant propaganda, and Mary’s reign was brandished as a cruel period that dragged England into the darkness, saved by Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne.
Rather than being labelled as one of ‘The Most Evil Woman in History’, Mary’s reign should be understood, taking into account her damaging childhood, being split from her mother, a father who threatened her life, and her right to the crown having to be fought for, after her brother tried to remove her from succeeding to the throne.
Born in 1516 and daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was the couple’s only surviving child, a fact that proved to be a considerable strain on the royal marriage. Despite showing great affection towards his daughter, Henry VIII desperately wanted a son and heir, as a daughter would not serve to stabilise the Tudor line.
This concern was not unfounded, as the last time a woman succeeded to the English throne it had plunged the county into a civil war known as the Anarchy, which lasted from 1135 to 1154. The heir to the throne Matilda had her throne seized by her cousin Stephen, the conflict ending with Matilda’s son being named heir to throne. Undoubtedly this plagued Henry VIII’s mind, so all hope was on Catherine to provide a male heir. If she could give birth to surviving daughter, surely a son would follow?
Unfortunately, for Catherine, Mary and Henry, Catherine only had two more pregnancies, having a miscarriage and a daughter that only lived for a few days. As Catherine got older, it was unlikely she could provide Henry with an heir, meaning it was now in Henry’s interest to have another wife.
This was when Mary’s life would change forever, never forgiving the actions against her and her mother, or of those advisors she believed were corrupting her father. Henry’s supposed realisation that his marriage was invalid was due to a passage in Leviticus that claimed “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”
Henry saw “childless” as having no male heirs, and as Catherine had been married to his brother Arthur shortly before marrying Henry upon his death, this convinced the King that he had been living in sin and had to have the marriage annulled to clear his conscience.
When Mary was around 10 years old, however Henry also had a new motivation for divorcing Catherine. He had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, a lady in waiting to Catherine and part of an ambitious family that wanted to see their fortunes rise, especially after Henry had an affair with Anne’s sister and soon discarded of her. Raised in the French court, Anne was an unconventional beauty, who was intelligent and smart enough to know how to master the games at court. She refused to consummate her relationship with Henry or be his mistress at first, only doing so if she would become his wife. Henry and Anne were besotted with each other, and spoke openly on religious and political matters. This relationship would change the course of English history, and leave Mary with a fierce hatred for those that tore her family apart.
Once Henry’s determination to divorce Catherine increased a papal legate was sent to England to determine that matter in court in 1529. Henry wanted the pope to annul the marriage, but the Great Matter was made even more difficult by the influence of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and Catherine’s nephew. A strong Catholic ruler, Charles openly spoke in favour of Catherine and his hold over the Pope may have affected the Church’s inability to give Henry what he wanted. The court could not come to a conclusion, and the English people were open with their support for Catherine and Princess Mary.
Henry decided to break from Rome and establish himself as the Head of the Church of England, influenced by writers that Anne had helped introduce him to that claimed that only God was above the King, and shouldn’t have to bow to the orders of the Pope when Kings themselves are appointed by God.
Catherine was sent away to live in Wales and forbidden to see or write to Mary. Mother and Daughter’s refusal to agree to the divorce, one that would make Mary a bastard and out of the line of the succession, and the powerful supporters the pair had angered Henry enough to keep them apart. This was a devastating blow to Mary and Catherine, and Mary lost the mother she so desperately needed. It was a heartless move from Henry, due to his paranoia that Catherine and Mary could team up and wage war on England with support from Catherine’s nephew abroad.
In 1533, Henry had his marriage to Catherine annulled by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, who soon gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth. Henry had broken from Rome and now Mary was bastard, known as the ‘Lady Mary’. To add insult to injury, May was sent to Elizabeth’s household, her own one being dissolved, to wait upon her new half-sister. The poor conditions she suffered under meant she was often ill, and despite begging to see her mother, Henry refused. Mary’s main friend at this time was Eustace Chapuys, Ambassador to Charles V at Henry’s court who was devoted in championing Catherine and for Mary’s place in the line of the succession.
Mary’s refusal to accept Anne as Queen or the annulling of her parent’s marriage, only caused Anne to see Mary as a threat, not only to her, but Elizabeth’s place in the line of succession. Anne did attempt to make peace with Mary, promising to reunite her with Henry (who she hadn’t seen for years at this point) if she accepted her new place, but Mary like her mother, remained stubborn but true to what she thought was right. She reportedly told Anne that
“she knew of no Queen in England except her mother, but if Madame Anne Boleyn would speak to her father on her behalf, she would be much obliged”.
Mary would always see her mother as Queen, and was devastated upon her death in January 1536, still not being permitted to see her when she was so ill. Despite this, 1536 also saw a change in Mary’s fortunes. Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped-up charges of treason and adultery, and two weeks after her death Henry had another wife, Jane Seymour.
Jane Seymour was a Catholic, and had served as a lady in waiting to Catherine and Anne Boleyn, and was among Mary’s supporters in placing her back in the line of succession. Despite this new figure of motherly support, and even though Anne Boleyn was gone, Henry was still furious with his daughter’s pride and refusal to accept his position as the Head of the Church of England. Mary’s life was threatened, and she had no other choice but to sign a document, accepting the annulment of Henry and Catherine’s marriage, and therefore her illegitimacy, and recognising England’s separation from Rome.
From this at least, Mary was reconciled with her father, and back at court with her own household once more. When Jane gave birth to Henry’s longed for son Edward, Mary became his god mother, and like Henry was distraught when she died weeks after giving birth.
Henry’s next marriage to Anne of Cleves proved to be unsuccessful, and after 6 months the marriage was annulled, Henry found her unattractive and moved on to his next wife, Katherine Howard. Mary’s new step mother was younger than she was, and despite being from a Catholic family, Mary was not impressed with Katherine and the two did not get along well.
After her execution for adultery in 1542, Henry’s new wife Catherine Parr was successful in bringing the family together, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward all spending time together. Despite their religious differences, Mary had great respect for Catherine Parr. By this point, both Mary and Elizabeth had been placed back in the line of succession, though were both still considered illegitimate and bastards.
After Henry died in 1547, Edward came to the throne at the age of 9, with his uncle, Edward Seymour being Lord Protector. Mary’s relationship with Catherine Parr suffered, as Catherine married again to Thomas Seymour, six months after Henry’s death which Mary thought disrespectful.
Mary had a strained relationship with Edward during his reign, England turning fully Protestant and making radical changes that Mary and other Catholics disapproved of. One Christmas Edward’s attempt to pressure Mary over her obedience left her in tears. Edward’s uncle was executed for treason in 1549, but the power over Edward simply transferred from one ambitious man to another, this time to the Duke of Northumberland. When Edward became severely ill, a plan was drawn up to prevent Mary from taking the throne and to keep England Protestant, making their cousin Lady Jane Grey heir to the throne. The Earl of Northumberland married Jane to his son, hoping to have control over the new Queen. When Edward died, Jane was proclaimed Queen, to the country and Mary’s surprise.
However it was not to last. Mary quickly rallied support, and even those who were not Catholic supported her, as a Tudor and the daughter of Henry VIII. People were not quick to accept an unknown teenage girl as Queen, and the government underestimate how much support Mary could gather, and after nine days, Jane (who herself supported Mary’s right to the throne), was no longer Queen.
England now had a Queen. Mary rode triumphantly into London, with great celebrations occurring. The English people supported Mary when she came to the throne, and she rode into London with her half-sister Elizabeth, as well as Henry’s VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who had maintained a relationship with Mary and Elizabeth after her divorce with Henry.
Mary instantly began restoring Catholicism, re-establishing England’s loyalty to Rome and the Pope in 1554 and undoing all of the Edwardian reformation. However Mary would soon face conflict, due to her determination to marry Phillip of Spain which would soon prove a challenge to her authority, due to Wyatt’s rebellion in 1554. Mary had been betrothed to a few suitors in her childhood, but the engagements were broken off. A husband was seen as a crucial way to secure her reign and to provide heirs, even though Mary was 37 when she came to the throne. Philip of Spain, son of Charles V was an ideal match in Mary’s mind. Catholic, and from Spain a country close to her heart due to her mother, as well as Spain being a strong political power proved compelling reasons for the match. Charles V, her mother’s nephew (who had once been engaged to Mary himself despite the age difference) was someone Mary could trust, and she wrote to him throughout her life and reign. However the engagement did not receive a warm welcome from the English people. Thomas Wyatt and other rebels rebelled against the marriage, concerned over the foreign influence of Spain on the county’s politics. As Philip would become King, people were worried that he would have all the power and not put England’s interest first. Wyatt’s Rebellion sought to remove Mary and place Elizabeth on the throne, and Mary had to act to prevent this opposition going further. Giving a speech at the Guildhall in London, Mary gave a powerful message of loyalty to her subjects:
I am your Queen, to whom at my coronation, when I was wedded to the realm and laws of the same (the spousal ring whereof I have on my finger, which never hitherto was, not hereafter shall be, left off), you promised your allegiance and obedience to me…. And I say to you, on the word of a Prince, I cannot tell how naturally the mother loveth the child, for I was never the mother of any; but certainly, if a Prince and Governor may as naturally and earnestly love her subjects as the mother doth love the child, then assure yourselves that I, being your lady and mistress, do as earnestly and tenderly love and favour you. And I, thus loving you, cannot but think that ye as heartily and faithfully love me; and then I doubt not but we shall give these rebels a short and speedy overthrow’.
The rebellion was stopped, but not without casualties. Elizabeth was interrogated in the Tower of London, despite not having a part in the plot but couldn’t escape without suspicion as the rebels wished to place her on the throne. Lady Jane Grey’s father was also involved in the rebellion, and despite not wishing to do so, Mary ordered the execution of Lady Jane Grey, who alive remained a symbol of a Protestant rule and figurehead that people could rally around.
The marriage to Philip went ahead, and Mary was happily in love with her new husband. For Philip however, the marriage was strictly political. Mary twice believed she was pregnant, but both turned out to be phantom pregnancies.
Her short reign coincided with poor harvests, outbreaks of influenza meant that the English people were starving and full of discontent.
Mary’s determination to make England Catholic led to 300 Protestants being burned for heresy, though many recanted their faith and converted to Catholicism. One of these was Thomas Cranmer, who had annulled Henry and Catherine’s marriage and left her illegitimate. Mary refused to accept his conversion and ordered him burnt, though he soon took back his conversion and was burnt at the stake, Mary never forgiving him for the role he played in her unhappiness.
The final nail in the coffin of her reign was the loss of Calais, the last territory England held in France. Philip, despite leaving England during his marriage to return to Brussels, returned to ask Mary for English military support in the battles between France and Spain, which left England defeated, and with a significant loss of England’s political power. People in England were outraged at the defeat, and only proved critics right of the negative Spanish influence.
By 1558, Mary’s fell ill and began to weaken. Naming Elizabeth her successor, she asked Elizabeth to keep England Catholic, though Elizabeth refused. Mary died and Elizabeth became Queen.
Though Mary had requested to be buried with her mother, this was ignored and she was buried in Westminster Abbey, a fact that always saddens me
A short and seeming unsuccessful reign, Mary has been harshly judged in history, and I wish that she had been represented in a more sympathetic light, not excusing her actions against Protestants but understanding how her childhood and cruel treatment led to her fierce devotion to her religion and the memory of her mother.
I got invested in Tudor history while studying for my A Levels, watching The Tudors and doing my own research outside of the course lead to me realising how one-sided and sexist so much of my teachings had been in history, women simply being painted as angels or heartless villains. After becoming interested in Henry’s wives and learning how interesting these complex women were, I discovered more about the other Tudor women, especially Mary. The lack of positive media portrayals haven’t helped reform her image, except for The Tudors. Whatever valid criticisms there are of the show in general (and there are quite a few), the show did the best portrayal of Mary on-screen, showing how defining her childhood was in forming her character, and the abuses she suffered that only strengthened her devotion to Catholicism. The show is worth watching if you want to see a multi layered and revisionist interpretation of the years that shaped Mary’s life.
Her reign is too often compared to Elizabeth’s, despite only ruling for five years to Elizabeth’s 47. Had Mary’s reign been longer, it might have proven more successful. Mary should not be entirely written off, as for all the lengths that Henry VIII had gone to, in a desperate attempt to prevent a woman from taking the throne, it all came to nothing. Mary was the first Queen of England, who proved without a doubt that a woman could rule and be a successful monarch in implementing policy.
“She was a king’s daughter; she was a king’s sister; she was a king’s wife. She was a queen, and by the same title a king also”– Spoken by the Bishop of Winchester at Mary’s funeral.