Mary Tudor: brutal but brilliant

For centuries, Mary Tudor has been portrayed as a heartless zealot with the blood of hundreds of Protestants on her hands. But, argues Alexander Samson, behind the grisly caricature stands one of England's most accomplished monarchs

Anthonis Mor's portrait of Mary I from 1554

“A horrible and bloody time.” That’s how the 16th-century Puritan preacher John Foxe described the reign of Mary I. And it’s a verdict that’s stuck. For much of the past 450 years, Mary has been widely cast as a malevolent force in English history. She’s the cruel reactionary who burned Protestants at the stake; the Catholic traitor who served England up on a plate to her grasping Spanish husband. And perhaps worst of all, she’s the jealous half-sister who plotted the future Elizabeth I’s downfall – thus almost denying England one of its greatest reigns. When historians describe the 16th century as a glorious chapter in English history, more often than not they don’t have the five years that Mary occupied the throne in mind.

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Of course, not everyone has shared this negative assessment of England’s first queen regnant. In her influential 12-volume Lives of the Queens of England (1842–48), the historical writer and poet Agnes Strickland offered a more sympathetic assessment of Mary, informed by a return to primary sources.

Three major biographies following on the heels of the 450th anniversary of Mary’s death (in 2008) also attempted to redress the balance, praising the queen for her intelligence, astute policies and refusal to be dominated by court favourites.

But such reappraisals have failed to turn the tide of opinion. For her attempts to resuscitate Mary’s reputation, Strickland was dismissed as a “papistical sympathiser”. As for the more recent efforts to fight Mary’s corner, they were unceremoniously thrust aside in 2010 by a London Dungeon exhibition entitled Killer Queen: Bloody Mary. Not only were visitors to the dungeons ‘treated’ to the smell of burning flesh, Tube adverts for the show featured a digital poster of Mary that morphed into a screeching zombie – one deemed so frightening that the Advertising Standards Authority chose to ban it.

Mary Tudor attempts to cure a scrofula-sufferer
Mary attempts to cure a scrofula-sufferer with her touch. The queen was often in step with the desires of her people, says Alexander Samson. (Image by Bridgeman)

So why has the image of a bloody, fanatical Mary won out so conclusively over more sympathetic appraisals of the Tudor queen? To a great extent, the answer lies in religion. For centuries, historians have celebrated the Protestant Reformation in England (begun by Mary’s father, Henry VIII, and extended by her siblings Edward VI and Elizabeth I) as a movement of national liberation. Mary’s role in the whole saga is often portrayed as that of a wicked Catholic witch – one who threatened to strangle this glorious chapter in English history at birth. The re-Catholicisation of England under Mary is seen consequently as a temporary reverse on the road to Anglican triumph, a backward-facing and reactionary undermining of hard-won sovereign independence. It is this fact, above all others, that has fed Mary’s dark reputation.

But cut through the stereotypes and the propaganda, and examine what Mary actually achieved, and I believe that a far more positive picture of Mary’s reign emerges – that of a conscientious woman who blazed a trail for female rulers, and established England as a serious player on the world stage. In fact, if any of the Tudor kings and queens can lay claim to the title ‘illustrious’, then I would argue that it’s Mary.

Herculean daring

That Mary was able to secure the throne at all was a remarkable achievement. When her brother, the fervently Protestant Edward VI, died on 6 July 1553, her future hung in the balance. Edward had disinherited his Catholic sister from the succession, and the powerful Duke of Northumberland – supported by a well-provisioned army – was preparing to make his move for the throne. When Northumberland had the Protestant Lady Jane Grey (a relative of Mary’s) proclaimed queen on 10 July 1553, Mary found herself firmly on the back foot. But she soon turned the situation to her advantage, gathering a small but loyal group of followers around her, assembling a military force at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, and turning up the pressure on her opponents. Northumberland soon crumbled and, on 1 October, Mary was crowned queen in Westminster Abbey. It was, wrote one of the new queen’s supporters, a feat “of Herculean rather than womanly daring”.

If one image has come to define the woman who reigned England for the following five years, then it is perhaps Anthonis Mor’s portrait of Mary from 1554 (shown on page 29). One art historian has described the queen’s gaze in the painting as fanatical, gargoyle-like and frightening. But this is certainly not a characterisation that the diplomat Annibale Litolfi would have recognised. Having met Mary, he noted that she was “not at all ugly as in her portraits, and that her lively expression, white skin and air of gratia, even rendered her beautiful”.

Mary’s Catholic regime has been portrayed as a temporary blip on the road to Anglican triumph

As for the idea that she was dour and austere, this is belied by an anecdote relayed by Juan Hurtado de Mendoza, a servant of Philip of Spain, in which, we’re told, that Mary laughed so hard at a joke that she spluttered for breath.

This is a mere vignette but it offers us a glimpse of Mary’s fun-loving side. Here was a woman who loved fashion, gambling, hunting, entertainments and chivalric pursuits.

If the accusation that Mary was devoid of humour is groundless, then so is the image of a queen hopelessly out of step with the desires of her people. Few doubt now that the majority of the population in England welcomed Mary’s restoration of traditional religion following the moves towards Reformation rolled out under her father and brother over the past two decades.

Mary’s religious programme was supported by a highly effective campaign of preaching, public religious ritual and a rapid restocking of the material fabric of churches. Bells and hymns echoed through the streets as many parishes signalled their solidarity with the queen’s traditional beliefs.

But this was not a reactionary resumption of hardline Catholicism. Mary’s reign witnessed a movement away from pilgrimage and the cult of saints, pointing the way for the reinvigorated Catholicism of Europe in the late 16th century. It is worth remembering that the Great Bible – the first complete translation of the Bible into English, authorised by Henry VIII – was never officially withdrawn under Mary. What’s more, monastery lands confiscated by her father were not returned to the church but remained in the hands of their new owners.

In fact, Catholic restoration must be counted among Mary’s greatest achievements, reversing in five short years the wholesale theological changes of a generation. The longevity of England’s Catholic recusant community after her reign – during the Protestant administration of Elizabeth I and beyond – is due, in no small part, to the effectiveness of Mary’s religious policies.

Timeline: Mary Tudor’s turbulent life

18 February 1516

Mary is born in Greenwich. She is the only child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (pictured above), to survive infancy

23 May 1533

Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine is declared invalid five months after he marries a second wife, Anne Boleyn. Mary is deemed illegitimate and stripped of her succession rights

28 January 1547

Henry VIII dies and is succeeded by his son, as Edward VI (above). Mary repeatedly defies her fervently Protestant half-brother by refusing to renounce her Catholicism

6 July 1553

King Edward VI dies, aged 15. Lady Jane Grey, a Protestant relation of Mary’s, is proclaimed queen four days later

3 August 1553

Having gathered a military force in Suffolk and outmanoeuvred her rivals, Mary rides into London in triumph, accompanied by her half-sister Elizabeth. Lady Jane Grey is imprisoned in the Tower of London

1 October 1553

Mary is crowned queen by her lord chancellor, Stephen Gardiner, at Westminster Abbey

12 February 1554

Lady Jane Grey is executed on Mary’s orders. Her fate is sealed by the so-called Wyatt rebellion against Mary’s rule, in which her father is implicated

18 March 1554

Mary has her half-sister, Elizabeth (pictured above), imprisoned in the Tower of London, after it’s alleged that she too supported the Wyatt rebellion. Yet lacking firm evidence of her sister’s guilt, Mary refrains from ordering Elizabeth’s execution

25 July 1554

Despite the reservations of some of the most powerful figures in the English court, Mary marries Philip of Spain at Winchester Cathedral

April 1555

Thanksgiving services are held in London after erroneous rumours spread that Mary has given birth to a son. Mary, it seems, has experienced a false pregnancy

21 March 1556

Thomas Cranmer, former archbishop of Canterbury, is burned at the stake. He is one of more than 280 ‘heretics’ executed during Mary’s reign

17 November 1558

Mary dies, aged 42, during an influenza epidemic. The English crown passes to her half-sister, Elizabeth

Blood on her hands

One area in which we can’t exonerate Mary, however, is the campaign of persecution that earned her the title ‘Bloody Mary’. Her savage clampdown on religious dissent claimed at least 284 victims over four years – the majority of whom were burned at the stake.

At one time, historians sought to distance Mary from the persecution of Protestants, blaming it on Spanish influence, embittered conservatives or unscrupulous counsellors. Such arguments are undermined by the fact that witnesses at the later trial of Bartolomé Carranza, one of the architects of the Catholic restoration, attested to the queen’s personal involvement in discussions with both him and Cardinal Reginald Pole concerning religious policy and theology. And there’s little escaping the fact that the burning of dissenters was particularly intense in England.

In fact, the only defence you could offer Mary is that she was far from the only European monarch to persecute dissidents. The Council of Blood in the Low Countries claimed a thousand lives in just over seven years, while more than 200 Catholics were put to death under Elizabeth I. In short, all rulers were under an obligation of intolerance and burning ‘heretics’ was a ubiquitous practice. What’s more, recent scholarship has suggested that, by the end of Mary’s reign, high-profile victims were declining markedly and dissidence apparently weakening. Mary’s campaign of persecution may have been brutal, but all the suggestions are that it had the desired effect.

Getting her man

If Mary’s ardent Catholicism was – in the eyes of generations of Protestant polemicists – her greatest crime, then her choice of husband only made matter worse. Mary’s marriage to Philip, the future king of Spain, exposed her to a barrage of criticism: that she had little agency in the marriage; that it was an entirely loveless marriage (for more on this, see box right); that Philip’s true aim in marrying Mary was to incorporate England into his Spanish Catholic empire.

None of these arguments entirely stand up to scrutiny. Mary was certainly no passive onlooker during the marriage negotiations, bargaining hard and exaggerating the weakness of her position in order to extract greater concessions and more favourable terms. She certainly desired the union, too – and demonstrated as much when facing down opposition from parliament and her lord chancellor, Stephen Gardiner. “If she were married against her will she would not live three months,” she declared.

Mary Tudor and her husband, Philip of Spain
Mary and her husband, Philip II of Spain, shown in a painting from 1558. Eyewitness accounts suggest that the two were often seen dancing and joking together in public. (Image by Bridgeman)

Yet opposition to the marriage continued to simmer – and, in early 1554, it exploded into a popular uprising, led by the Kentish politician and landowner Thomas Wyatt. Soon the rebels were growing in number and heading for London: Mary’s administration found itself in an existential crisis.

But this was a challenge the queen proved herself more than capable of meeting. As the revolt gathered momentum, Mary delivered a speech at the Guildhall that galvanised resistance to the uprising among Londoners. Casting herself as the mother of the people, she declared: “I cannot tell how naturally the mother loveth the child, for I was never mother of any… if a prince or governor may as naturally and earnestly love her subjects, as the mother doth the child, then assure yourselves, that I, being your lady and mistress, do as earnestly and tenderly love and favour you.” Denied Londoners’ support, Wyatt’s rebellion was doomed to fail. He was captured and executed, his head and limbs placed on public display. Soon, both houses of parliament had approved the marriage treaty.

Another charge directed at Mary and Philip’s marriage is that it effectively turned England into a vassal state of a foreign power. This, too, ignores the evidence. Philip respected Mary’s superiority over him in England and had no intention of subverting the constitution or the law of the land. He demonstrated this in a letter to his father in November 1554, in which he declared that: “I am anxious to show the whole world by my actions that I am not trying to acquire other peoples’ states, and your Majesty I would convince of this not by my actions alone, but by my very thoughts.”

If Philip and Mary had produced an heir, a dynastic inheritance uniting England and the Low Countries would have created a northern European powerhouse to eclipse France and perhaps even Spain itself. This is hardly consistent with the idea of a weakened nation falling under the shadow of overweening Spanish power.

In fact, after four years of their co-monarchy, Mary seemed more secure on the throne – and Philip more popular – than ever. A global influenza pandemic hit England in 1557–58, affecting as much as half the population in some parts of the country. Despite the high mortality rate, the regime weathered the storm without major social protest.

Four years into the co-monarchy, Mary was more secure on the throne – and Philip more popular – than ever

But the stability of Mary’s regime was every bit as much the result of her personal qualities as her choice of husband. From a young age she demonstrated her conscientiousness, marking the running totals of her privy purse expenses at the top of each page in her own hand from her time as Princess of Wales. When she came to power, it was no different. The Venetian ambassador noted early in her reign that she rose at daybreak, prayed, heard Mass and then conducted business incessantly until after midnight. In 1555 one of her closest collaborators, Reginald Pole, future Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to Philip that she was spending much of the night dispatching state affairs, despite the costs to her health.

This thirst for hard work helped produce four proclamations addressing the Great Debasement of the coinage, all issued in Mary’s first year on the throne. The Muscovy Company – the first English joint-stock company in which the capital remained in use, instead of being repaid after every voyage – also received its royal charter during Mary’s reign. It would become a cornerstone of the nation’s growth as a force in global trade

Ultimately, though, Mary’s greatest achievement may have been to provide a model for her younger sibling, Elizabeth, to follow. Mary and Elizabeth had a troubled relationship (reaching a low point in 1554, when Mary had Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower). Yet the older sister set down the statutory foundations of female rule on which the younger sister built, offering a prototype of strong, independent, royal government, and an assiduous and involved monarch, unswayed by the powerful male courtiers who surrounded her.

Female powerhouse

Mary died in 1558, before she could build on her early successes – and her accomplishments have been all but crushed under the weight of negative stereotypes. In fact, if you’re searching for a neat emblem of where Mary stands in modern conversations on British rulers, then you need look no further than the current British citizenship test. Her father, Henry VIII, features in 15 per cent of questions on Britain’s “long and illustrious” history. As for Mary, she doesn’t merit a single mention. What’s more, while a street and tube station have been named in her honour in Madrid, not a single major monument pays tribute to the queen in England.

This does her a huge disservice. It’s high time that the real Mary I was written back into history; that we celebrated her role in running a highly efficient administration, in broadening England’s global horizons, and in setting a precedent for her more fortunate and long-lived sister. For 450 years, confessional differences have had a huge – and detrimental – influence on Mary’s reputation. Surely we should now challenge these stereotypes and recognise that Mary wasn’t just ‘bloody’, but also saintly and wise.

Alexander Samson is a reader in early modern studies at University College London. His latest book, Mary and Philip: the Marriage of Tudor England and Habsburg Spain, was published by Manchester University Press in January

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This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine