The First Tudor Queen
A portrait of Mary I of England, painted by Antonis Mor in 1554. The portrait is now at the Museo del Prado in Spain.
Ah...Queen Mary Tudor. Bloody Mary. The nick-name says it all. How her subjects viewed her. How history remembers her. But it could have been so different.
Mary had connections. Serious connections. She descended from two of the royal houses of Europe. England, of course, although the Tudors were still considered the upstarts in European royal circles. But also, Spain. Or more accurately, she descended from the royal houses of Aragon and Castille.
Mary’s beginnings could not have been more privileged. And, indeed, her story should have been a happy one. She would become the first anointed queen regent in England’s history. She would begin her reign with the love and support of her subjects. She would eventually marry a man she loved.
So what went wrong?
Let’s start with the “if onlys” to Mary’s story.
- If only her mother had produced a male heir
- If only her mother had accepted Henry VIII’s terms of divorce
- If only her father had arranged an honorable, noble marriage for her
- If only her father had not become the tyrant he did
- If only she, herself, had produced a male heir
If only even one of these things had happened for Mary, she might not have become the despised monarch she was. Our modern mindset might rightly view the tragedy of her reign through the lens of her traumatic youth. Her father was a despot, and she was one of his chief victims. But let’s start in happier times.
Mary I's Birth and Childhood
Life started well enough for Princess Mary.
She was born February 18, 1516 at Placentia Palace to Henry VIII of England and his Queen, Catherine of Aragon. She was to be their only surviving child. But nobody knew that yet. What they did know was that Mary descended from two of the royal houses of Europe, and her future looked very bright.
Mary's grandfather, King Ferdinand and her grandmother, Queen Isabel, were together called the Spanish Kings. Their marriage united the royal houses of Spain, creating a unified country that would become a world superpower. Their armies defeated the Moorish armies and drove them from Spain. They financed the voyages of Christopher Columbus and others that helped establish European dominance in the new world. As far as renaissance kings go, they were the real deal. They were Spanish, they were royal, and they could kick butt. That was Mary’s family. Oh, and did I mention her cousin, Charles V, was the Holy Roman Emperor? While Mary never met any of these people personally, they were family, and their power and influence would save her more than once against her tyrinnical father, and English Reformists who would rather she not be their sovereign.
A wedding portrait of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille, the parents of Catherine of Aragon and grandparents of Mary Tudor. Their marriage joined the two countries into a unified Spain. Together they drove the Moors from Spain and financed Christopher Columbus' voyages to the New World. Known as the Spanish kings, their power and influence and that of their heirs helped protect Mary Tudor against the wrath of her father and the schemes of Protestant Reformists in England. The portrait is by an unknown artist.
Princess Mary’s lineage was undisputedly royal. And while not the male child they had wanted, Mary was welcomed and loved by both her parents. Her birth came early in the royal marriage and it was still considered feasible, and probable, that Queen Catherine would yet produce a male heir.
The Princess was given all that might be expected for a royal princess of England, including her own household and an excellent education. She was shown-off at court by her father, who even arranged a treaty for marriage between Mary and the Dauphin of France when she was just four years old. That, of course, never happened. But lots of other things did.
Mary Tudor's Extended Family
And so Mary’s childhood passed pleasantly. For the first 17 years of her life Mary was an only child, and by default the heir to the throne of England. Her mother didn’t have a problem with this. After all, her mother had led armies against the Moors. Henry, however, had a big problem with this. He felt England would not accept a female ruler and he wanted a son. That caused a bit of tension in the marriage.
Mary had serious royal connections, a fact that would save her more than once. Mary was the grandaughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille. Together these two had united Spain, driven the Mores from their country, financed Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World, and established one of Europe's first super powers.
Catherine of Aragon conceived many times during her marriage to Henry VIII, but sadly only Mary survived to adulthood. The other pregnancies ended in miscarriage, stillbirth or infant mortality. The constant pregnancies took their toll on Catherine. She aged beyond her years, put on weight, and turned more and more toward her religion for solace.
What was a king to do? If you’re Henry VIII, you divorce the old wife and marry a younger, vivacious one. Enter, Anne Boleyn.
Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn produced the Princess Elizabeth. At the end of this marriage, which ended in Anne Boleyn’s beheading for treason, he married again. His marriage to Jane Seymour produced his long awaited male heir, Edward, though doing so claimed his wife’s life.
From these marriages, Mary now had two half-siblings, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Edward.
A portrait of the Tudor family by an unknown artist. The portrait of Jane Seymour, shown seated with Henry VIII and their son, Prince Edward, was done posthumously. Mary is shown standing on the left, and Elizabeth on the right. The painting is part of The Royal Collection and currently resides at Hampton Court Palace.
Mary and Her Siblings
The fact that Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had replaced Mary’s own mother as queen,and that Elizabeth’s status as princess and heir, replaced her own, made sisterly affection difficult. Mary’s title was reduced to Lady and she was declared illegitimate. These sisters were from the beginning set in opposition to each other, the rise of one naturally causing the fall of the other. They were not destined to like each other, and they didn’t.
Mary’s relationship with her brother, Prince Edward, was not much better. Although her step-mother Jane Seymour, Edward’s mother, did much to bring Mary back into good graces with her father, she did not live long enough to improve Mary’s family relationships or her status at court.
Edward, like Elizabeth, was raised in the new (protestant) religion, while Mary remained loyal to her mother’s Catholic faith. As Edward became more and more devoted to the Reformist religion, his division with Mary grew more pronounced. During his kingship she was often in mortal danger for her beliefs, as she had been during much of her father’s reign.
A Royal Education
Mary was trained in all the traditional female pursuits, such as spinning and needlework. But being born a noble woman, she was also well educated in scripture and in the humanist tradition of grammar and rhetoric, as both her parents had been.
Mary was taught and could speak several languages, including English, Latin, French and possibly Spanish, her mother’s native tongue. Like her father, Mary was musically gifted, and was encouraged by both her parents in developing this talent.
Although she tended to be sickly, particularly after her parent’s divorce, Mary was somewhat athletic, and enjoyed riding and hunting, an interest she shared in common with her father and half-sister. Mary was also religiously devout, often attending mass several times a day. Her devotion to the Catholic faith never wavered, even in the face of great persecution.
Mary’s Fall from (His Majesty’s) Grace
Mary was first and foremost raised to be a royal bride. Although not a son, Mary was still valuable to her father. With her royal pedigree, Mary was a bargaining chip in Henry’s ongoing diplomatic endeavors.
Mary was throughout her youth betrothed to different European royals as it suited her father’s needs. All of these betrothals dissolved as Henry VIII’s political ambitions and alliances shifted. When the marriage between her parents ended, Mary’s fate changed dramatically.
When Catherine of Aragon died, Henry refused Mary the right to attend her mother on her deathbed, or to even attend her funeral.
With no twinge of conscience, Henry declared his marriage to Catherine invalid based on the fact that she had first been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur. It was against canon law to marry a brother’s wife. Catherine swore that the marriage had never been consummated, and the Pope had given the necessary dispensation for their marriage. But, their marriage had produced no living sons. Henry saw this as a sign that God was unhappy.
Her mother’s refusal of a quiet divorce from the king caused problems for many, not least of whom her daughter. Regardless of her protestations, Queen Catherine was put aside for the King’s new love, Anne Boleyn. Catherine’s refusal to “go away quietly” caused the king to go through drastic maneuverings to obtain one legally. This became known as the King’s Great Matter.
When the Pope refused to grant his divorce, Henry split from the Church of Rome, established the Church of England, and named himself as Supreme Head of the Church. As head of his own church, Henry was granted the divorce he wanted by his hand-picked, archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
If her parent’s marriage had never been valid, then Mary was illegitimate. She was declared as such by the king and parliament. She was refused visits and communications to or from her mother. She would eventually be stripped of her household and servants and forced to live in the Princess Elizabeth’s household and to give obeisance to her. Her new illegitimate status now made a European royal marriage nearly impossible.
When Catherine of Aragon died, Henry refused Mary the right to attend her mother on her deathbed, or to even attend her funeral. There were legitimate reasons for this. Henry feared that pro-Catholic factions would help Mary escape to her Spanish relatives. Spain had the military strength to attack England, overthrow Henry, and put Mary on the thrown in his place. Most of Europe stood firmly behind the Pope, and Henry would have had no support in defending his crown. So although his actions were cruel, at least this time there was a reason behind his madness.
Despite the desperate economic and social position Mary now found herself in, she never forsook her mother’s cause and proved she had the mettle––and the stubbornness–– of her Tudor father. She was pressured repeatedly to swear to her father’s Oath of Supremacy, naming her father as supreme head of the church.
Doing so went against her Catholic beliefs and would likewise validate her parent’s divorce and her own illegitimacy. Her refusal to swear to the oath enraged her father. It was the intercession of her friends, and mainly the influence of Thomas Cranmer, that saved her life at this time. And some powerful Spanish relatives didn’t hurt either.
Mary's Spanish Relations
With her mother dead, and out of favor with her father, Mary turned to her mother’s relations to sustain her. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was her mother’s nephew and her first cousin. Charles V’s support of her cause was a major factor in Henry VIII’s tolerance of his daughter’s defiance. Refusing the Oath was considered treason and many close to the king died for it, including such men as Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, his own grandmother’s confessor. She was swimming in dangerous waters and relying on the support of those as powerful in European politics as her father to save her.
A portrait by the artist Titian of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (also Charles I of Spain). Charles was Holy Roman Emperor during Mary's difficulties with her father and during her own reign of England. A first cousin to Mary, it was his power and influence in Europe--and especially the threat of his army--that largely kept Mary protected. He was the one person in Europe who would have had the ability to invade and possibly defeat England. Fortunately for England, he was distracted with his other duties, but he could rattle sabers when he wanted to which was to help Mary immensely during her lifetime. When Mary ascended to the throne of England, Charles promoted the marriage to his son and heir, Philip II of Spain.
During both her father’s and brother’s reigns, there were persistent rumors of plots to sneak Mary out of the country, raise armies for her cause, and invade England based on her claim to the throne. Charles V would have been the one capable of pulling it off. But he had enough on his plate, running the Empire and all, and seemed to have no interest in taking on England. He would, however, prove through the years a loyal, if somewhat disinterested, supporter of Mary’s.
When she ascended to the throne, her loyalty to her Spanish relations and supporters would become even more pronounced, much to the unhappiness of her subjects.
Mary's Reconciliation with Henry VIII
Fearing her vulnerable position, Mary was encouraged by many, including the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to submit to her father’s oath. With the help of Thomas Cranmer, she was able to submit an apology in writing to her father. She took her father’s Oath of Supremacy, and although relations with her father thawed slowly, she was eventually restored to her position at court.
Due to the influence of Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, Mary and her siblings were all brought together under one roof. It was the first time that all of Henry’s children had shared a common household. Catherine Parr would remain a friend and valued mentor to all of the Tudor children.
Catherine Parr’s efforts also helped secure Mary and Elizabeth’s restoration to the line of succession. Mary’s illegitimate status, however, would never be revoked.
When Catherine Parr became Henry's sixth wife, she used her influence to help unite his family. Mary was brought back to court and managed to repair relations with her father. She and Elizabeth were also restored to the line of succession. This portrait was done by Master John in 1544, and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Mary's Ascension to the Throne
Upon King Edward VI’s death, Mary became the legal claimant to the English throne. Despite their illegitimate status, Henry VIII had restored both Mary and Elizabeth as his heirs with his Succession Act of 1543. This act had been ratified by parliament and made law.
But under Edward’s rule England had become a Protestant country and Mary was still Catholic. Those in power, especially the Lord Protector Northumberland, had a vested interest in keeping her out of power. The Duke of Northumberland, as Edward’s advisor and Lord Protector, had gained wealth and power during Edward’s reign. He wasn’t leaving without a fight.
As with the death of Henry VII and Henry VIII, Edward VI’s death was kept secret until those closest to him could decide on their next move. Usurping a dynasty was dangerous work. But Northumberland had almost everything in his favor. He had the compliance of the council, the blessing of the king, and a viable, if unwilling candidate for the throne: Jane Gray.
Northumberland’s conspiracy centered on the claims of Jane Gray. Jane was the eldest granddaughter of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s youngest sister. Mary’s offspring had been named as heirs to the throne following Henry VIII’s own children. Jane was protestant, had a rightful claim to the throne, and unlike Mary, her legitimacy had never been in question. She was also conveniently married to Guildford Dudley, Northumberland’s son.
Known as the nine day queen, it is fair to say that Jane Gray never had any personal desire to rule England. She was a puppet of her father-in-law’s ambition. He was able to convince the council of his scheme, placing Jane on the throne, based on Mary’s (and Elizabeth’s) illegitimacy. Illegitimate or not, Mary had been named as successor by her father and parliament. The council’s claim was weak, but earnest. Under Mary, England would surely return to a Catholic country. None of them wanted that.
On their side they had entrenched power, a legal, if weaker, claimant to the throne, a vast network of compliant nobles, and a plan. They also had Edward VI’s signature on his last will naming Jane Gray as his successor.
The conspirators moved quickly after Edward VI’s death and succeeded in bringing Jane to London before Mary being informed of her brother’s passing. London had become a protestant town, even if the outer areas of England hadn’t, and London was the seat of power. Most people in power wanted to maintain the current religion and would not have questioned an unchallenged usurpation. Likewise, although objecting through diplomatic channels, France and Spain were busy with their own wars and would not have done much to assist Mary with her claim.
All was in the conspirators' favor. And they would have succeeded but for one obstacle: Mary.
The unfortunate Jane Grey. Named as his successor by Edward VI (and against her will) Jane was the victim of ambitious and unscrupulous Protestants who feared England returning to the Catholic church under Mary. When the first plot to put her on the throne was defeated, Mary showed great leniency toward Jane, as she did many others who were involved. When a second plot centered on Jane was discovered, Mary could no longer ignore Jane's threat. Jane never wanted the throne for herself, but it was obvious she would continue to be the focus of Protestant conspiracies to dethrone Mary. Pressured by her Spanish relations, Mary sentenced Jane to death. She was beheaded on Tower Green.
Mary Tudor Claims Her Throne
While Northumberland and his allies conspired to install Jane Gray on the throne, Mary was up to her own conspiring. She had either been tipped off to the plan or had suspected its occurrence, and she and her supporters were ready to head off such maneuvers.
When Northumberland’s men came to announce her brother’s death, she refused to leave with them. Smart move. Had she fallen into Northumberland’s hands, she would not have been unable to raise the support among her nobles that she desperately needed, and her cause would have been lost.You would, instead, now be reading about Queen Jane’s reign.
Mary left directly for a nearby estate where her supporters quickly gathered. As soon as Mary declared for the throne, two things happened: Recusant Catholic nobles came out of the woodwork--quickly raising an army on her behalf, and the Northumberland conspirators began jumping ship. Those who had declared for Jane, now declared their support for Mary.
Welcomed by London
Mary and her army marched toward London, and boy were they were happy to see her. She entered the city, accompanied by her sister Elizabeth, triumphant and unopposed. Surprised by her courage and her broad support, Northumberland and the conspirators had lost their nerve. Mary hadn’t.
By challenging the usurpers and claiming what was rightfully hers, Mary proved herself a Tudor, brave and unflinching in the face of adversity.
Many of her supporters in this cause were Protestants, who objected to her religious practices. But their support proved once again, as they had with her father and would again with her half-sister Elizabeth, that English nationalism was stronger than its religious leanings. In this case, they probably lived to regret it.
Clemency and Vengence
After the fanfare of her entrance into London, Mary set about to cleaning up after the coup. Who to forgive and who to punish?
The sheer number of conspirators made leniency necessary. There were just too many to execute all of them--the normal punishment for treason. Most of the nobles begged for forgiveness, and she gave it.
Northumberland was not among the lucky. He was executed, but his son and daughter-in-law, the hapless Queen Jane, were spared…for now. The two were kept in the Tower of London while Mary decided what to do with them. Jane, she knew, was an unwilling participant in the plot. Nevertheless, she had a legitimate claim to the thrown and would remain a focus of future Protestant conspiracies.
Several months later, a second rebellion, called Wyatt’s rebellion, surfaced in protest of Mary’s Spanish marriage. Jane was again the focus of this rebellion’s call for new government, and her father was a chief conspirator. While Jane was not involved, her danger to the throne was obvious. Mary executed both her and and her husband, Guilford Dudley. Jane went to the block on February 12, 1554, barely 16 years old.
One more victim in Tudor dynastic struggles.
Mary’s Early Reign
Mary’s coronation took place on September 29, 1553. True to expectations, Mary’s first order of business was reuniting England with the Catholic Church. She restored the Catholic mass in England’s churches and renounced her father’s Oath of Supremacy. She even went so far as to assemble parliament for an unprecedented ceremony at which the Pope granted national absolution for England’s split with Rome. The Pope, once again, became supreme head of the church in England. Richard de la Pole was summoned home from his 26 year exile to become Mary’s Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mary’s second order of business was finding a husband.
Marriage to Philip II
A portrait of Mary with her husband, Philip II of Spain. Done in 1558, the portrait was painted by Hans Eworth and is currently part of the Bedford Collection at Woburn Abbey.
Nothing soured England’s good will toward the Queen more than her decision to marry Philip II of Spain. For Mary it was an easy choice. She believed it was her godly duty as a woman to marry and bear children. Bearing children was also a dynastic duty, as England was quickly running out of heirs.
Mary did not want to marry an Englishman. Doing so would raise a subject to be her equal (a notion her half-sister would share), as well as create division among the nobel houses of England--of which there was already plenty. And so she looked to the royal houses of Europe for a husband. Spain was a natural choice for her, as she had always maintained close ties with her mother’s Spanish relations, chiefly Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and father of Phillip II.
But was good for Mary was not good for England. His father had maligned the Holy Roman Emperor during his reign, and his propaganda had taken root. Much of England disdained the Emperor; That their Queen would marry his son was repugnant to them. The truth is, foreign relations with Spain had not been good since the double-dealings of Ferdinand during the reign of Henry VII. The two countries disliked each other and the two courts distrusted each other.
And so, Mary’s honeymoon with England came to an end. Her marriage was popular with no one, including perhaps, her husband. But Mary was determined, and managed to get the support of parliament and her council, albeit reluctantly and only after several diplomatic hurdles had been addressed.
To begin with, the marriage posed several problems for England. England entered any foreign marriage, except one with Scotland, as the weaker nation. This was the same trouble faced by all the Tudors, with the possible exception of Elizabeth.
Coupled with that, a female regent, like Mary, was weaker to a male regent. The council, and the people, were worried about ceding power to Spain. The council worked hard on this, wording the marriage treaty to specifically exclude Philip from authority in England. He could only act with Council and Parliamentary approval, and while his heirs might rule England upon Mary’s death, he never would.
Eventually the marriage was approved. Mary got her way. And the results were disastrous for England.
The Wyatt Rebellion
In response to the Spanish marriage, a second rebellion, led by Thomas Wyatt, surfaced in 1554. Wyatt raised a force to descend on London and remove Mary from power. He enlisted the support of several protestant nobles, including Henry Grey, Jane Grey’s father. He had also arranged for French ships to guard the coast, preventing any Spanish intervention.
Unfortunately for Wyatt, his fellow conspirators were unable to garner the amount of support that he had. Royal forces had been tipped off to the plot and many supporters simple lost their nerve. Still, Wyatt continued and might have been successful, if not, once again, for an unnerved Mary.
When he arrived at the city walls of London, Wyatt was met with unexpected resistance. Despite being in imminent danger, Mary had refused to leave London. It was likely her presence there that turned the tide against the rebellion.
Mary did not retreat or hide inside the Tower of London. Instead she appealed to her subjects directly. Mary addressed the people of London from Guildhal, assuring them that her marriage to Philip would not take precedence over her “marriage to the realm.” She was persuasive, a Tudor gift, and was able to win over the crowd. The people of London rallied behind their queen and the rebellion died at the gates of London. Mary retained power.
Her inclination to clemency, however, had run dry. The rebels were executed, including Henry Grey. His involvement also secured his daughter’s fate. Though not involved in the rebellion due to her imprisonment in the Tower, she had obviously become a focal point for rebellious plots, and thus a danger to Mary’s power. Jane Gray was executed on February 12, 1554, on Tower Hill. Her body was laid to rest in St. Peter ad Vincula, the same church that buried Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard.
Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth was also arrested at this time and held in the Tower of London, and later under house arrest in the country. Her involvement in the plot could never be proved—Wyatt himself absolved her of any involvement from the scaffolding of his own execution––and Mary was eventually forced to release her. Lucky Elizabeth, and England, that she had never been the focus of either of the rebellions to unseat her sister.
The Phantom Pregnancies
During her marriage to Philip, Mary endured two phantom pregnancies. The first “pregnancy” occurred shortly after her marriage. Mary went as far as to be confined with her ladies, many of whom doubted her pregnancy, but nonetheless supported their queen, ever hopeful. As the false pregnancy went well past its due date, everyone began to lose hope, and even the queen, eventually, had to admit there would be no baby.
No one then, or now, has determined why Mary suffered these phantom pregnancies. It is possible they were both psychological afflictions of someone who desperately wanted to be a mother. Modern theories suggest she had some type of ovarian or cervical tumor or cyst (which would also explain her early death). Another theory suggests Mary suffered from congenital syphilis, a disease she would have contracted from her mother at birth. This might also account for her childhood sickliness and why none of Catherine’s other children survived.
Whatever the reasons, Mary’s first phantom pregnancy became quite a talking point in European courts. If there had been a pregnancy, the baby would have become heir to both England and Spain, and possibly many of Charles V’s other lands in Europe and the New World. The union between Mary and Philip would then become a very powerful one.
But Mary was 37, had never been healthy and her mother was a woman who had been unable to bear healthy children. Her pregnancy was always suspect to the Spanish and when Mary failed to produce a child she became a court joke throughout Europe.
Philip had been a gentleman up to this point. He was not attracted to his much older wife, but he had obviously fulfilled his dynastic duty by sleeping with her. And he stayed close to her even when her confinement went well past any reasonable deadline. But when no baby came, Philip left England to pursue other business, leaving his bride to fend for herself in an increasingly hostile environment.
Philip would return again when he needed Mary’s help, and this reunion would produce a second phantom pregnancy. One that would end tragically for Mary.
Philip and Elizabeth
During Mary’s confinement, Philip performed the important duty of thawing relations between Mary and Elizabeth. Philip is largely credited with convincing Mary to release Elizabeth from her house arrest, where she had been kept since being released from the Tower. Philip brought Elizabeth back to court, restored her status in the realm, and established a friendship with her. He quite possibly saved her life after Wyatt’s Rebellion and his influence did much to soothe his wife’s obvious hatred and mistrust of her half-sister.
Much speculation occurred over Philip’s attentions to Elizabeth, who was much younger and attractive than her sister. But gossip on this matter is much ado about nothing.
For her part, Elizabeth was too smart to become involved in a romantic entanglement with her sister’s husband. She had learned her lesson on this matter from her youthful flirtation with Admiral Seymour, one that had led to his execution and her arrest and interrogation. She had escaped that time, and she would not risk her reputation again, especially at a court that did not favor her.
For Philip’s part, his attentions to his sister-in-law were strategic. Pregnancy for 16th century women often ended in death, so when his sickly wife became pregnant, he was logically looking for a way to maintain influence in England if she did not survive childbirth. The Privy Council had taken great lengths to ensure Philip would never rule in England. If his wife died and baby survived, he could not even be named regent. He needed to protect his interests.
Thus, Elizabeth. It is quite possible Philip tried to establish a relationship in hopes of creating a second English marriage with Elizabeth—either for himself or one of his brothers. Philip and Elizabeth would of course need a Papal dispensation to marry, but his father was the Holy Roman Emperor , so doing so would have been easy.
More likely, Philip was just trying to create an ally in England, regardless of his marital status. If Elizabeth was to rule next, he would need her as a friend against the French. Regardless of his intentions, Philip became an important ally for Elizabeth in Mary’s court and she was always grateful for his kindness to her––even when their relationship took quite a different turn during her reign.
A portrait of Philip II of Spain done by Giacomo Antonio Moro, showing Philip about the time he was married to Mary.
When Philip returned to England, he came asking for men and money. On one of his almost endless military quests, Philip had managed to declare war on both France and the Pope. Doing so had put him deeply in debt and he needed England’s checkbook.
Blindly in love, Mary was eager to support her husband, someone she had wrote almost daily during his long absence(an unrequited habit). It was her council that should have known better.
Convincing them wasn’t easy, but the queen prevailed. Philip’s chief opponent in the matter was Archbishop de la Pole, who refused to even meet with Philip because of his war with the Pope. Unfortunately, in de la Pole’s absence the council submitted to their queen. They agreed to send troops and financial aid with Philip.
As could have been predicted, the war was disastrous for England. English troops were untrained and were no match for the French troops that handily defeated them. Even worse, England lost Calais to the French. Calais, located on the northern tip of France, had been the last English outpost in France. Losing control of this important port city was a bitter blow to England and Mary. It had been both a strategic and symbolic holding for the English. Losing Calais, especially in such an ill-fated war, did as much to turn public opinion against Mary as the burnings.
Despite English losses, Philip protected himself. Nearly bankrupt, he awarded post-war trading contracts to the Low Countries, one of his Spanish holdings, and not to England. The English, who were now in debt themselves thanks to Philip’s war, felt used. Anti-Spanish sentiment at court were at an all-time high. It was at this time that Mary announced her second phantom pregnancy.
The Beginning of the End
Philip and Mary had evidently slept together sometime during his second trip to England. Maybe. Philip never publicly questioned the possibility of her being pregnant, but he probably didn’t believe it as he never returned to England to be by his wife’s side.
Almost no one believed in Mary’s second pregnancy. When she went into her confinement for this second child, she never came out. With no baby, she simply slipped away into sickness, depression and ultimately death. Mary would die in November of 1558. She had been unpopular with her subjects for some time, but it was the last year of her life in which Mary sealed her legacy. She was about to become known to history as Bloody Mary.
If Mary picked up one bad habit from her Spanish husband, it was the practice of religious persecution. This was the era of the Spanish Inquisition and thanks in part to the influence of the Spanish Holy Roman Emperor, burnings were an accepted and widely practiced punishment in Europe for religious heresy. Until now, England had resisted this practice.
Having said that, Mary certainly was not the first or last English monarch to burn a heretic at the stake. Mary’s own grandfather and father had used this method to rid themselves of unwanted heretics. But burning heretics in England had until this time been used sparingly and mostly to make a point. As long as heretic societies kept to themselves, the establishment was usually willing to just look the other way. When a leader or member of such a society made public accusations or demonstrations, burning such a heretic was meant to send fear into the recusant societies and to bring them in to line publicly, if not privately.
It should also be noted, that Mary had a reputation throughout her life as being a kind and generous person. She was a loving and devoted friend, who cared for her ladies, her council and their families. Her Christian kindness was renowned.
That’s what makes the end of Mary’s life all the more tragic.
As happens with many devoutly religious people, Mary’s zeal for her own beliefs clouded her humanity. There were perhaps personal scores to settle when it came to the persecution of reformist priests. But Mary’s passion for her crusade went beyond that.
Mary’s burnings began early in her reign, shortly after returning England to the Catholic fold. Like her father, she spared no one, not even respected clergy. Among her first victims were Thomas Cranmer, her father’s and brother’s Archbishop of Canterbury. She also condemned other Protestant leaders, such as Bishop Latimer.
Like most of her era, Mary believed that God punished humans for lack of belief or for acting in discordance to his will. As Mary saw it, England was being punished for its prior heresy, and for the ongoing heresy of Protestant recusants.
In the years 1557 and 1558 a series of devastating events took place in Mary’s personal life and within her realm:
- No heir had been born
- England suffered military defeat in France
- A failed harvest resulted in near famine conditions
- Worse than normal epidemics swept across England
Mary saw these as omens, and stepped up her burnings. The last two years of her life, Mary became almost obsessed with finding and punishing Protestants.
Over the course of her reign, there were over 300 recorded burnings of heretics, far outnumbering all the other Tudors put together. There’s no doubt the burnings damaged Mary’s popularity with her people. The burnings were never popular in England, not even with the priests. As the policy continued, the burnings had to be moved to inconspicuous locations and done at night so as to avoid riots.
This print, from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, depicts the burning of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, two popular Protestants who were sentenced to death by Mary I. The burnings were very unpopular, and eventually had to be done at night to avoid rioting crowds. Mary burned over 300 Protestants during her reign.
Shortly after Mary’s second phantom pregnancy ended in disappointment, she fell ill, mostly with depression, and never recovered. Abandoned by her husband, unable to produce an heir, and emotionally distraught at the results of Philip’s war, Mary seemed to simply withdraw and let go of the burdens of her life.
The loss of Calais was a particularly heavy burden for Mary. On her deathbed she confessed to her ladies, that “upon my death they shall open my heart and find Calais.”
Mary’s lingering illness before death gave the court, council and country plenty of time to ready for Elizabeth. Nobody, except the hardcore conservative faction on the council, and her inner circle of ladies, was really sorry to see Mary go. She had become unpopular and unlucky. Her policy of burning heretics had turned the people, and even much of the clergy, against her. England was ready for a change. The reformers would have their queen after all.
Mary I's Legacy
Upon her death Mary had arranged to have all her jewels packed and delivered to Elizabeth. In her will she made three requests to Elizabeth:
- Take care of her ladies
- Pay off her debts
- Maintain the true, Catholic faith in England
Elizabeth would do none of these. Finally rid of a sister who had imprisoned her and disliked her, this was Elizabeth’s day, and she would have it her way.
It could be argued that Mary’s historical unpopularity is partly due to comparison to Elizabeth’s popularity. Perhaps because Elizabeth came last, she got the last word. But Mary did much to undue her own reputation. You just can’t burn 300 people for no better reason than that they disagree with you, and expect to be popular.
At 43 she died young, even for the 16th century. She died, perhaps, of a broken heart. The loss of Calais, the lost love of her husband, the inability to bear a child, and yes, the burnings. These are Mary’s unfortunate legacy. All of it together would seal her fate as one of England’s most unpopular monarchs. The moniker Bloody Mary says it all.