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Queen Mary I on Screen

When compared to the countless portrayals of Queen Elizabeth I, her half-sister Mary is often consigned to the fringes of film and television, with mere minutes of screen time allotted to her, despite the extraordinary life that she led. Only in Showtime's "The Tudors" does she actually have a substantial role to play, with significantly more airtime than her two half-siblings. As the series closes with the death of her father however, the years of Mary's life in which she truly comes into her own are not shown. Mary will next been seen on screen in "Becoming Elizabeth", the fourth historical drama series by Starz following The White Queen, The White Princess and The Spanish Princess. She will be played by Romola Garai and as the series focuses on the end of King Edward VI's reign and the turbulent upheaval that followed his death, it is likely that Mary will play a prominent role, which I am incredibly excited to see. In this blog I will look back on some of the most notable depictions of Mary, and explore why she is often portrayed in such a negative light.

Queen Mary I features in a number of historical films and television series, but is almost always portrayed as a supporting character in the wider Tudor dynasty. These portrayals are also often less than sympathetic. She is shown as weak, volatile, lacking style and as a religious fanatic. Any sense of fun or light-heartedness is never really explored. She first appeared in an English speaking role in the 1936 film "Nine Days a Queen", which as the name would suggest is primarily about Lady Jane Grey. Much like the more well known "Private Life of Henry VIII" starring Charles Laughton, the film is very much a product of it's time. It is overly romanticised and Mary's role, played by Dame Gwen Davies is limited to basically two short scenes. After becoming queen, she meet's with Jane Grey and immediately tells her that she and her husband Guildford Dudley will die. None of the initial clemency that we know Mary was keen to extend to Jane is depicted. Instead she comes in during the last fifteen minutes of the film and sanctions the death of an innocent sixteen year old girl. The very next scene is the execution, and no more of Mary is mentioned. We are left to feel that her actions are cruel, cold and without great thought. In 1969 film "Anne of the Thousand Days" Mary, played by Nicola Pagett, is fleetingly seen at the bedside of her ailing mother, Katherine of Aragon. We know this meeting did not take place, and Mary is shown with dark brown hair which is also inaccurate. The portrayal is over in a matter of seconds.

Stills of Mary in these two films can be seen below.

In 1970 the BBC released the first it's three miniseries focusing on the Tudor dynasty. Starting with "The Six Wives of Henry VIII", the series, as the name suggests, focuses on the many Queens of King Henry, with an episode dedicated to each. Despite being the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, Henry's longest marriage by some length, Mary is basically left out of the series. She appears fleetingly in the episode dedicated to her mother and next appears as a young woman in the Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr episodes. She has little dialogue and as such not much can really be said of her portrayal. The following year a film "Henry VIII and his Six Wives" was released, starring Keith Michell who had played the King in the BBC miniseries. In this Mary is given a bit more airtime, being shown as a little girl who is adored by her father and then later returning to his court and assisting with the upbringing of her siblings. Alas not much dialogue is allotted to her, but in keeping with similar productions of its time, significant accuracy was given to the costumes. If only modern day Tudor retellings were as committed to costume accuracy - yes I am throwing shade at you "The Tudors" and "Reign".

Mary as seen in both of these productions can be seen below.

In 1971 the BBC released its second Tudor miniseries, titled "Elizabeth R", starring Glenda Jackson in the eponymous role. The vast majority of the first episode focuses on the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, making it one of the few depictions of Mary of significant note. "Elizabeth R" was met with acclaim and particularly accuracy was paid towards the costumes and hair. The casting of Daphne Slater in the role of Mary was well chosen, as she was small, of slight frame and possessed piercing grey-blue eyes. Her hair, albeit a wig, is the correct auburn shade that matched with Mary. In short, Daphne looked the part. Mary was known for being particularly short, painfully thin and with eye's that were so piercing they were described as "burning those upon whom she looked". Whilst it is refreshing that so much of the episodes airtime is given to Mary, the actual depiction is not particularly generous. Mary is shown as weak, feeble and jealous. Most unkindly, she is shown as extremely foolish when it comes to her marriage and endures a particularly humiliating wedding night. She sit's in bed wearing garish make up, almost clown like, waiting on her new husband to join her. When he does eventually come into her chamber Mary is fast asleep, dribbling down her chin. No sooner has Prince Philip met her that he makes it clear how taken he is with her despised half-sister. Mary grows ill, despondent and irascible. The episode concludes with her death and Elizabeth's accession to the throne. That this depiction is one of the most well rounded portrayals of Queen Mary I highlights the sheer brevity of meaningful representations of her seen on screen.

Daphne Slater as Queen Mary I can be seen in some stills from "Elizabeth R" below.

In 1986 Queen Mary I was seen for the first time in an English speaking film since 1936's "Tudor Rose", ironically in a film about the very same subject - Lady Jane Grey. "Lady Jane" was Helena Bonham Carter's film debut, in the leading role of ill fated nine days Queen, alongside Cary Elwes as her husband Lord Guildford Dudley. Mary is played by Jane Lapotaire and unlike the earlier film about Jane Grey, this performance provides more for Jane to work with, although her screen time is not extensive. Mary is shown as wanting to give clemency to her cousin, when during a meeting between the two women she recognises that "its not your fault, perhaps it showed a want of prudence, but you are very young" and later shows genuine sadness when it becomes clear that she will have to proceed with ordering Jane's execution. The film shows Mary's triumphant ride into London upon acceding to the throne, something never shown elsewhere, as well as her fierce piety and desire to be married to Prince Philip. The costumes worn by Mary are sumptuous and greatly resemble many of the portraits of the Queen, although the collars are extremely sharp and pointy, perhaps a deliberate move to show the strength in which Mary now stands in comparison to the simple nature of Jane Grey's attire.

Stills of Jane Lapotaire from "Lady Jane" can be seen below.

In 1998 Shekhar Kapur's critically acclaimed film "Elizabeth" was released. A superb film covering the early stages of Elizabeth I's reign, it starts with the burnings of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. They are executed on the orders of Mary I, played by the sublime Kathy Burke, although sadly it's an extremely one sided portrayal. From the outset "Elizabeth" is extraordinarily pro-Elizabeth and anti anything Mary, non-English or Catholic. The films sequel "Elizabeth The Golden Age" was met with a much more mixed critical response, with some calling it blatantly anti-Catholic. This aside, "Elizabeth" is an incredibly good film. The first twenty minutes focuses heavily on the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. Mary's court is dark and foreboding. Everything from the muted colour pallet, imposing architecture and lack of light is deliberate - we are supposed to not like anything to do with Mary. Everything about her court suggests darkness and cruelty. She is shown as bloody, naïve and almost mentally ill. Even her husbands body language suggests abhorrence to his wife. Her court is portrayed, quite simply, as evil. Conversely, our first introduction to Elizabeth is the polar opposite. She is seen dancing in a sunlit field, clad in bright colours, free of worry, surrounded by friends and adored by her favourite, Robert Dudley. When arrested by Mary's henchmen, we are immediately made to feel sorry for Elizabeth. When Elizabeth comes face to face with her sister, Mary abandons all pretence of decorum and rants "When I look at you I see nothing of the King, only that whore, your mother. My father never did anything so well as to cut off her head". Elizabeth bravely retorts that the King was also her father, at which point Mary marginally softens. Shortly after, Mary dies, bloated, sweaty and repulsive. Kathy Burke's acting is of course superb, as are the costumes, but it's undoubtedly a one sided depiction, and as ever it's Mary that suffers.

Kathy Burke as Queen Mary I can be seen below.

In 2007, Showtime released the first of its four season long series "The Tudors". The series tells the story of King Henry VIII and his court, his wives, his friends, his enemies, his children. It is frothy, silly and at times utterly ludicrous. The show did draw in huge viewership and brought the Tudor dynasty to the notice of a whole new audience, but as something of a snob (sorry!) I found it a hard watch. It is history dumbed down, with bad costumes, over-acting and an over reliance on sex, although it wasn't nearly as bad as the utterly ridiculous "Reign". With that said, Mary's character is one of the better things about the show. Mary is finally given a starring role. In the early stages of season one we see her as a little girl pushing over the Dauphin of France (much to her father's amusement) and she grows into a vivacious, caring and dedicated young woman, portrayed wonderfully by Sarah Bolger. She does display flashes of the cruelty that would come to categorise her reign, but broadly this is a much more sympathetic depiction. One of the things that I actually loved about "The Tudors" was that it highlighted Mary's popularity with the common people, particularly those in the north of England. It also wonderfully conveyed Mary's sense of duty to her father and the realm, as well as her decorum. This is most overtly displayed against the frivolous behaviour of the Kings fifth Queen, Katheryn Howard. In the episode in which the royal family travel north, Mary has a major starring role in the activity conducted during the visit, and it couldn't be plainer from the looks from her father that he is extremely proud of his daughter. I rather suspect this would have been true of the real Henry and Mary, who despite all their ups and downs were, after all, father and daughter. Another thing that "The Tudors" does well is highlight just how explosive Mary's early life was. From the breakdown of her parents marriage, to her treatment at the hands of Anne Boleyn and then being jilted by her first crush, this series finally gave Mary a platform to exist before the archetypal "bloody Mary" came along. For that reason alone, it is arguably the most well rounded portrayal of Mary, even if the broader series itself was less than accurate.

Sarah Bolger as (the then) Lady Mary can be seen below.

Joanne Whalley appeared as Mary in the 2005 miniseries "The Virgin Queen". As this two-parter depicts the entirety of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, Mary's inclusion is rather limited. She is shown as spiteful and paranoid, with little to no love for her half-sister. Costuming of the series was broadly quite strong although they depict Mary wearing battle armour, an odd choice as Mary was never known to sport such a look. As with most portrayals of the Queen, not much can be said on it, as she is shown in much the same way as earlier depictions, with little to no redreaming qualities. In 2015, perhaps one of the greatest (if not the best) historical miniseries of all time hit the small screen, Wolf Hall. A six part masterpiece which covers the rise of Thomas Cromwell and his role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, it includes Mary in a supporting role, standing alongside her ailing mother, Katherine of Aragon. Katherine is played by none other than Joanne Whalley, giving Joanne the distinction of being the only actress to play both mother and daughter, albeit in different productions. As ever, it's not a hugely sympathetic depiction, although one does feel sorry for the young Mary, which is something. The best word to describe Wolf Hall's Mary would be weak. She is shown as sickly, vacant and timid. She clearly suffers from gynaecological ailments, being overcome with pain and whispering to her mother in Spanish "My woman's disorder". This was actually accurate, as it was well known that Mary had an extremely irregular menstrual cycle and would often complain of pain in her tummy. Although not allotted much screen time, the audience is clearly meant to feel sympathy for young Princess, who is depicted as almost pitiable.

Joanne and Lily Lesser who portrayed the young Mary are seen below.

This brings me to the end of the exploration of Queen Mary I on screen. In my opinion Mary is one of the most unfairly maligned characters from history, with film and television playing a major role in the ongoing distaste for her as a character. Obviously the Marian persecutions have left an enduring bad taste in the mouths of many, for good reason, but in her own way Mary genuinely believed that she was doing the right thing. To her and those of her creed, protestant heretics were a very real problem, and she acted decisively to quell their influence. In a man her actions would probably be viewed as, if not heroic, at least justifiable. This 500 year hangover has greatly influenced her depictions on screen. It is easy to forget that she was actually the very first Queen regnant that England had ever seen, and many of the policies that she set out were merely appropriated by Elizabeth when she came to the throne. Much like Princess Margaret, Sarah, Duchess of York and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Mary suffers from being by default "the baddie". If one side has to be the very embodiment of goodness, grace and splendour (Elizabeth I, Diana, Princess of Wales and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) then their chiefest female competition is by immediate default viewed as the "bad girl". Most, if not all portrayals of Elizabeth I are done through the lens of portraying Elizabeth as the better ruler. Mary is thus, by default, bad. I do not doubt for one moment that her court was probably a more sombre place to exist than that of her half-sister, but this doesn't mean that she was devoid of character, humour and intellect. I welcome the day that Mary get's a fair shot in the eyes of modern day historians and historical fans alike. Until such a time that television and film executives change their narrative however, I fear she will continue to be known by that most damning of monikers, "Bloody Mary".

Written by Adam Pennington

1st October 2021.


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