In the shadow of her infinitely more famous and successful sister Elizabeth I, it's easy to overlook the fact that Queen Mary I was England's first reigning female sovereign. Wedged between the colossal historical figures that were her father and half-sister, Mary like her younger brother King Edward VI, is often viewed as more of a supporting act than central figure in the great Tudor dynasty. She is perhaps most widely known to us by the damning moniker of "bloody Mary", a nickname brought about by the nearly 300 protestants burnt at the stake during her short reign. This dogmatic attempt to stamp out Protestantism in England has become known as the Marian persecutions and has all but destroyed her reputation. Her relative inconsequentiality in English history has left much of her story untold, but is it possible that all Mary really needed to solidify her position as a great ruler was more time?
Born on the 18th February 1516, Mary was Catherine of Aragon's fifth pregnancy and the only one to survive in to adulthood. Her successful birth was a great comfort to the King and Queen who believed that healthy sons would then follow. A sixth pregnancy did occur, but sadly the child was another girl, born at eight months who lived for just a few hours after birth. By the time Mary was around nine years old, it was clear that Catherine of Aragon was entering the menopause and would not provide the King with a healthy male heir. Contemporary portraits of Henry and Catherine can be seen below.
Despite the King's clear disappointment in not having a son to succeed him, he was known to dote on his daughter and on the face of it treated her as his true heir. In 1525 she was sent to Wales and had her own court set up in Ludlow Castle. She was known as the Princess of Wales and given all the expected royal prerogatives that were normally reserved for the Prince of Wales. Many commented that she was her father in miniature, with a very fair complexion, vivid red hair and pale blue eyes. She would spend three years presiding over the Council of Wales before returning permanently to the court in London in 1528. Despite her sex, Mary did provide something to her father that a brother could not - she was a phenomenal bargaining chip. As the sole daughter of the King and Queen, Mary was one of the most eligible women in Europe. Throughout her childhood, Henry negotiated several future marriages for his daughter, all of which to strengthen ties with overseas territories, particularly France. When she was as young as two years old she was promised to Francis, infant on of King Francis I of France. This was retracted after three years at which point she was then promised to her 22-year-old cousin, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Over the next few years, Mary would be contracted to marry members of the European royal houses on five separate occasions, none of which came to fruition.
It was around this time that the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon began to break apart. Anne Boleyn was firmly on the scene and a seven year long legal battle took place to separate Henry from Catherine and place Anne on the throne. Despite her apparent strength in childhood, by the early 1530's it was becoming clear that Mary was sickly, with highly irregular menstruation and severe bouts of depression. Mary's treatment at the hands of her father was particularly cruel in the wake of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Mother and daughter were banned from seeing each other and Mary also had to suffer the humiliation of being deemed illegitimate, lose her title of Princess and be sent to join the household of her infant half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of her despised stepmother Anne Boleyn. Mary did not see nor speak to her father for three years and was refused permission to visit her mother in her final days. When Catherine died in January 1536 Mary was said to be inconsolable.
Following Anne Boleyn's downfall in May of 1536, Mary's life took a definite upturn. Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour urged the King to make peace with Mary, which he said he would on the sole basis that she recognised him as head of the Church of England, repudiate papal authority and acknowledge her parents marriage as unlawful and thus by extension her own bastardy. As a fervent and highly traditional Catholic, this was a huge problem for Mary. She was eventually bullied in to signing a document acknowledging the above, but refused to even read what was said and prayed that she would not be damned to hell for her actions. This action did at least provide a safe return to court and mollify her father. Whilst Mary was never formally made legitimate again, she along with her half-sister Elizabeth were reinstated in to the line of succession in 1544. A portrait of Mary from 1544 can be seen below alongside a portrait of Edward VI in the third year of his reign.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, Mary's half-brother Edward succeeded as King Edward VI. At only nine years old, Edward's reign was mostly ruled by powerful members of his council, most notably his Uncles, Edward and Thomas Seymour. As ardently protestant as Mary was Catholic, Edward's reign was marked by an attempt to establish absolute Protestantism throughout the country. Mary's point blank refused to give her up religion, especially the central act of the Catholic mass. As sister to the King, this was not only problematic for Edward on a personal level, but gave the many Catholics still in hiding across England a figurehead around which they could gather.
Despite all Henry VIII's hopes, Edward would not prove to be his great successor and died on the 6th July 1553 at the age of just fifteen, having ruled for six years. When it was becoming clear to Edward that he would die before having children of his own, he made the monumentous decision to overturn the succession act set out by Henry VIII and in doing so remove his sisters from the line of succession. It appears that Edward correctly guessed that Mary would immediately reinstate Catholicism in England, something he simply couldn't countenance. Edward produced his own "Devise for the Succession" in which he stipulated that should he die childless then the Crown would descend through the male heirs of Lady Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII's younger sister, Princess Mary. The issue however was that there were no male heirs from Jane Grey, and when it became clear that none would arrive before Edward's death, he changed the wording in his device for the succession to read "the Lady Jane and her heirs male". With the addition of just two small words, Lady Jane Grey became Edward's chosen heir and was hastily proclaimed Queen of England on July 10th 1553. The machinations that put Jane on the throne were primarily at the behest of her father-in-law John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland. The reign was of course very short lived. Just nine days later, Mary had garnered sufficient popular support from across England and when the royal council turned their back on Dudley, his support collapsed. Jane was deposed on July 19th 1553 and she, her husband Guildford and John Dudley were all imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Mary rode triumphantly in to London on the 3rd of August 1553 on a wave of popular support. Her half-sister Elizabeth rode alongside her as well as a procession of over 800 nobles from across the country. Her first act as Queen was to order the release of prominent Catholic's who had been imprisoned by her brother including Stephen Gardiner and Edward Courtenay. She issued a proclamation that she would not force her subjects to follow her own draconian approach to Catholicism, but it would appear these were empty words. Very soon leading Protestant churchmen were rounded up and imprisoned, most notably Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer. One can imagine a certain vindictive pleasure in imprisoning Cranmer in particular, given his support of Anne Boleyn and actions which saw her mother's marriage be labelled invalid. She was initially disposed to forgiveness on the part of Lady Jane Grey, believing her a pawn at the hands of her more powerful relatives. John Dudley was given no such clemency and was executed on the 22nd August 1553, just nineteen days after Mary first entered London as Queen. A portrait of Lady Jane Grey can be seen below alongside an image of Mary entering London, accompanied by Elizabeth.
Mary was crowned Queen of England by Stephen Gardiner, now Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor on October 1st 1553. By now she was 37 and still unmarried. She therefore set to finding a husband as soon as possible with the aim of solidifying her rule by producing a legitimate heir, which would also in turn block her half-sister Elizabeth from inheriting the throne in the wake of her death. Mary believed that she could only marry a man of equal status to herself, which immediately made a match with an English suitor impossible. She chose instead to strengthen ties with the most powerful Catholics in Europe by marrying the son of Charles V, Prince Philip of Spain, who also happened to be her second cousin. This marriage is considered to be Mary's greatest mistake. Despite many of her subjects still adhering to the old Catholic faith, the marriage was deeply unpopular with the English people, who believed that England would be swept in to the rule of Charles V and become nothing more than an outpost of Spain.
Soon rebellion broke out against the Queen, led by a Kentishman called Thomas Wyatt. His intention was to place Princess Elizabeth on the throne, which also saw support from the Duke of Suffolk, father of Lady Jane Grey. The rebellion was soon crushed and Wyatt executed, but also had a devastating impact on Jane Grey. Faced with the fact that she would always be a rallying point for insurrection, Mary unwillingly signed the death warrant of Jane Grey, her husband and father. All were beheaded in the precincts of the Tower, Jane Grey being just 16 years old.
The most famous portrait of Mary I by Antonis Mor can be seen below alongside a portrait of Philip of Spain that was sent to Mary to mark their betrothal.
Soon the English Church was returned in full to Roman jurisdiction and with it the heresy acts were revived. What followed is of course infamous. In the wake of the change of law, Mary began a campaign of executing Protestants who refused to recant and re-join the Catholic faith. Around 800 Protestants had already fled in to exile but those that remained behind would suffer the agony of burning alive at the stake. It appears that Mary took particular pleasure in bringing down Thomas Cranmer. During his imprisonment he recanted his Protestant faith and re-joined Catholicism, an action which would normally have absolved him from further punishment, but Mary was unrepentant. She refused to give him a reprieve and he was subsequently burnt at the stake. On the day of his execution he dramatically retracted his recantation and thrust the hand which had signed it in to the flames first, crying out "that unworthy hand". In total 283 were executed for their beliefs which did nothing to improve Mary's popularity, which had dwindled considerably since her marriage. Despite the public outcry and the warnings of further revolt, Mary continued with the policy she had set out. This significantly exacerbated anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic feeling amongst her subjects.
Beyond the unpopularity of her marriage and religious policy, Mary had further issues which despite being beyond her control would make her reign even more unsuccessful. The five years that she was on the throne were consistently wet. Persistent rain caused major flooding across the country which then led to famine. Her already controversial marriage did nothing to improve commerce within England either. Spain had set up an enormously successful trade deal with the New World but England saw zero benefit from this and Mary refused to allow English piracy on Spanish trade routes.
Her situation was no further improved by the fact that her marriage had not resulted in any children, something that would have at least provided some justification for the deeply unpopular union with Philip. Mary had been sure that she was pregnant on at least two occasions. In September of 1554, Mary stopped menstruating and began to gain weight. Soon her doctors confirmed that they believed her to be pregnant. By April of the following year a birth was expected to be imminent. By June no baby had arrived, Mary's belly retracted and worst of all, Philip left England to command his armies in a war against the French. Many believe that Mary had suffered from pseudocyesis, also known as a 'false pregnancy'. Following Philip's return to England in 1557, Mary had thought that once again she was pregnant, but as before this would turn out not to be true. In this instance however it appears that what she was feeling was in fact the early stages of either cysts on her ovaries or uterine cancer. By May of 1558 Mary had become increasingly frail. She managed to hold on for a few more months, eventually succumbing to influenza on the 17th November 1558, dying at the age of 42.
As I have outlined above, the actions taken by Mary during her short reign had an enormously detrimental impact on her popularity and the overall success of her reign. Is it possible however that Mary's policies failed not because they were overtly wrong or ill thought out but that she simply reigned for too short a time to truly establish them? Her actions against Protestants are of course unforgivable, but equally this was an era of deep rooted religious belief. Mary in her own way thought that she was purging the world of sin, and that those who she sentenced to death represented a great danger to her realm and law-abiding subjects. Across Europe a well executed Catholic Counter-Reformation was going on led by Jesuit priests. Had the Jesuit's been allowed in to England then some of the action taken against Protestants would have been on their shoulders and not her own. The natural disasters that affected her reign were so beyond her control that it seems unfair to lay the blame at her feet. Had she gone on to reign for 30 more years this would probably have been forgotten once the weather turned in her favour. Her inability to have children and the overall unpopularity of her marriage did nothing to help her, but equally you can't help but think, what choice did she have? She had to marry an equal, and with Philip being constantly out of the country and her beyond typical childbearing years it's not really surprising that she didn't fall pregnant. What I think most people overlook is that despite the broadly ineffectual nature of her reign, some of the things that Elizabeth I would go on to be lauded for such as naval expansion and colonial exploration were actually started by Mary. Had she reigned for as long as her sister, perhaps she would have gone on to achieve just as great things?
I have long found Queen Mary I one of the most fascinating and arguably pitiful characters from Tudor England. On the whole I think she had an exceptionally sad life. The cruelty she felt at her fathers hands and the enormous turbulence that blighted her childhood would be enough to destroy even the strongest amongst us. During that time Mary's sole comfort was her faith. Is it any wonder therefore that when she felt her religion was being destroyed and she had the power to reverse it that she acted so decisively? Her life was extraordinary, often for all the wrong reasons, but as I have outlined above in many respects I think she could have improved her standing as a monarch of England had she had a bit more luck and lived longer. Even in death Mary is grossly undermined - she is buried alongside her half-sister Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey, but unlike Elizabeth no great marble effigy exists of Mary, instead she is mentioned almost as a side note on a plaque at the base of the tomb.
For the very first woman to reign in England as sovereign in her own right, even if unpopularly, this burial seems like a gross insult to her memory.
Written by Adam Pennington
26th November 2020.