Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen

Derek Wilson on a queen who is hard to understand, harder still to like

Author: Anna Whitelock
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Reviewed by: Derek Wilson
Price (RRP): £20

Anna whitelock concludes, “In many ways Mary failed as a woman but triumphed as a Queen”. Most historians, including myself, would submit that just the opposite is true. For courage, fortitude and patience under adversity Mary Tudor had few peers. As a ruler, most of her policies and plans ended in frustration and disappointment.

Whitelock tells the story in a clear, concise, no-nonsense manner. Mary was born in 1516, the only surviving child of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. She was a girl and, therefore, a disappointment to her father. Henry had been brought up to believe that the Tudor dynasty had been chosen as a vehicle of God’s blessing on England but Mary was all Katherine had to show for seven pregnancies. Therefore the marriage and its outcome had to be disavowed.

Mary entered her teens as the bitter, interminable divorce proceedings instituted by Henry were gathering momentum. Rejection by her father and the cruel treatment meted out to her mother scarred her for life.

She was 17 when Henry’s second queen, Anne Boleyn, gave birth to Princess Elizabeth and she became a non-person, the Lady Mary, required to dance attendance on her infant half-sister. Her resentment at her treatment took on a religious hue when Henry rejected, not only her mother, but also the pope. She refused to abandon her own traditional faith and continued this disobedience when entreated to do so by her, equally bigoted, brother Edward VI.

As queen, Mary believed herself to be the agent of Counter-Reformation. She promised the Emperor Charles V, “I will correspond in every way which it may please your Majesty to command, thus fulfilling my duty as your good and obedient cousin”. Her twin aims of restoring England to papal obedience and tying it firmly to the Habsburg cause (symbolised by her marriage to Charles’s son, Philip of Spain) were incompatible with successful government.

Burning Protestants alienated much public opinion – as did costly military involvement with Habsburg ambitions. It took a remarkably short time for widespread sympathy and rejoicing at her accession to degenerate into resentment and loathing. Mary’s end was tragic – deserted by her husband, self-deluded over her pregnancy, her foreign and domestic policies in tatters, her country still divided over religion.

Any biographer who attempts a life of Mary Tudor is handicapped. It is difficult for a secular age to understand what made this woman tick and, without that understanding, her policies appear negative and unproductive. Whitelock’s book is well researched and based on the available documents. It delineates carefully the public queen but tells us little about the private woman.

She may, as Whitelock insists, have preserved the Tudor dynasty and demonstrated that women can rule but such achievements do not balance well with putting the English crown in pawn to Spain and giving England an unpleasant taste of the Inquisition. The woman we can, at least, sympathise with, but not the queen.

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