The only surviving child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary I was effectively bastardised when her father divorced her mother in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII claimed that the marriage had been incestuous and illegal, as Catherine had been married to his late brother, Arthur.
Following the birth of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I), in September 1533, an Act of Parliament declared the 17-year-old Mary illegitimate and removed her from the succession to the throne (though she was reinstated by the 1543 Third Act of Succession and by Henry’s will). Mary was denied access to her mother, who had been sent by Henry to live away from court, and never saw her again.
A Catholic at any cost
Mary was later named heir to the throne after her younger half-brother Edward – but only after she had agreed to recognise their father as head of the church. Nevertheless, Mary remained a devout Catholic. She and her brother had a tempestuous relationship as they differed greatly in their religious views. When, aged nine, Edward VI inherited the throne in 1547 and confronted Mary’s Catholicism, she declared that she would rather lay her head on a block than forsake her faith.
The orchestrator of an extraordinary coup d’état
The first queen to rule England in her own right (rather than a queen through marriage to a king), Mary acceded the throne following her brother’s death in July 1553 in what Anna Whitelock describes as “an extraordinary coup d’état”. Edward had written Mary out of the succession and instead named his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey as heir to the throne, but Mary enjoyed widespread popular support and days later, on 19 July, she was proclaimed queen.
Writing for BBC History Magazine in December 2014, Anna Whitelock argued: “The scale of [Mary’s] achievement is often overlooked. Mary had led the only successful revolt against central government in 16th-century England. She had eluded capture, mobilised a counter-coup and, in the moment of crisis, proved courageous, decisive and politically adept.”
A bloody queen
Mary I is remembered for attempting to reverse the Reformation and return England to Catholicism. As her reign progressed, Mary “grew more and more fervent in her desire”: she restored papal supremacy, abandoned the title of Supreme Head of the Church and reintroduced Roman Catholic bishops.
Mary also famously revived old heresy laws to secure the religious conversion of the country – heresy being a treasonable offence. Over the next three-and-a-half years hundreds of Protestants – most accounts say around 300 – were burned at the stake.
A phantom pregnancy
Aged 37 and unmarried when she ascended the throne, Mary knew that in order to prevent her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth from succeeding her, she needed to marry and produce an heir. Mary’s decision in July 1554 to marry Philip of Spain, who in 1556 was to inherit that nation’s throne from his father, Charles V, was “politically expedient”, says Anna Whitelock.
In her December 2014 article written for BBC History Magazine, Whitelock wrote: “The marriage treaty was as ‘favourable as possible for the interest and security and even the grandeur of England’, with Mary’s legal rights as queen preserved and Spanish influence kept to a minimum.”
In January 1554 Mary faced – and later defeated – a Protestant rebellion led by landowner Thomas Wyatt that aimed to prevent the match with Philip. Wyatt was later executed at Tower Hill. Mary imprisoned her half-sister Elizabeth at the Tower of London in 1554, suspecting her of involvement in Wyatt’s plot against her. Elizabeth was later released into house arrest in the country.
A peculiar episode in Mary’s reign was her phantom pregnancy of 1555. On 30 April “bells rang, bonfires were lit and there were celebrations in the street, following news that Mary I had given birth to a healthy son. But in reality there was no boy, and eventually all hope of a child died out.” The marriage was childless and Philip eventually deserted Mary, spending most of his time in Europe.
A highly impressive queen
Historians have long focused on the negative aspects of Mary’s five-year reign, branding her a religious bigot and a military failure, but in recent years Mary has been largely reappraised.
Anna Whitelock says: “Mary’s accession had changed the rules of the game, and the nature of this new feminised politics was yet to be defined, yet in many respects Mary proved more than equal to the task. Decisions over the details of the practice and power of a queen regnant became precedents for the future. In April 1554 Mary’s parliament passed the Act for Regal Power, which enshrined in law that queens held power as ‘fully, wholly and absolutely’ as their male predecessors, thereby establishing the gender-free authority of the crown.”
Mary also restructured the economy and reorganised the militia, rebuilt the navy and successfully managed her parliament. By securing the throne, Mary ensured that the crown continued along the legal line of Tudor succession.
Not such a military failure
Mary is remembered for her unsuccessful war against France that led to the loss of Calais, England’s last possession in France, in January 1558. But before the loss of Calais, Mary enjoyed military successes. For example, in August 1557 English and Spanish forces captured Saint-Quentin, an action in which some 3,000 French troops were killed and 7,000 captured, including their commander Anne de Montmorency, the constable of France.
A Westminster burial
Mary died on 17 November 1558, possibly from cancer, leaving the crown to her half-sister Elizabeth. Mary is buried beneath Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey. King James I arranged for Elizabeth I to be dug up from elsewhere in the abbey three years after her death and moved into Mary’s grave.