By the age of 27, Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of King Henry VIII, had known five stepmothers. Her father had famously separated from her mother, Catherine of Aragon, leaving Mary the only living child of their union, and he later remarried five more times. And although Mary always remained close with her mother, the same cannot always be said for her relationships with the stepmothers who followed.
Anne Boleyn, the first to follow Catherine of Aragon in becoming Henry VIII’s queen, was by many accounts Mary’s least favourite stepmother, and these two shared the worst relationship. By 1527, and possibly even earlier, the event that would have the most significant impact on Mary’s life had already been set in motion, when it became clear that Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine because she had not borne him any living sons. Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting to the queen and mistress to the king, was ready to fulfil this duty – but only as Henry’s wife. Mary became a pawn in the bitter battle as Catherine appealed to Henry to stay in their marriage as they shared “so sweet a princess for their daughter”.
Henry refused Catherine and moved forward with his annulment, on the basis that Catherine had been previously married to his older brother, Prince Arthur, and their subsequent union was incestuous. Henry and Anne (who by now was pregnant) married on 25 January 1533, and five months afterwards Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine was declared invalid by Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury. Mary was deemed illegitimate and stripped of her succession rights, and her mother was forbidden to see her.
The fall from grace and title was complete. Mary became a lady rather than a princess, and she and her father were frequently separated, often at the insistence of Anne, creating both a physical and familial rift between father and daughter.
Henry and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, was born on 7 September 1533, a development that did not make Mary’s relationship with Anne any less hostile. Mary was now required to acknowledge Elizabeth as a legitimate princess and Henry’s heir, something she would not do. As a result, Mary was placed in Elizabeth’s household, under the watchful eye of Anne’s uncle and aunt, Sir John and Lady Anne Shelton. Even so, Anne frequently complained that Mary was not being surveyed closely enough. On one visit to Elizabeth in March 1534, Anne demanded that Mary come see her and “honour her as Queen”. Mary agreed to see Anne, but refused to acknowledge any queen other than her mother.
On 7 January 1536, Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, died. Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn was in the early stages of her second pregnancy. Anne, fearing that Henry’s affections for her might decline now that Catherine was dead, reached out to Mary, offering to be “like another mother” to her. Mary flatly refused, stating that “there was no daughter in the world who would be more obedient to her father in what she could do saving her honour and conscience”. On the day of Catherine’s burial, Anne went into premature labour and gave birth to a stillborn son. Catherine had perhaps been Anne’s greatest protection from Henry becoming disaffected of his second marriage and seeking another partner who could give him a son; as long as Catherine was alive, Henry could not divorce a second time and risk having three living wives.
After Catherine’s death and Anne’s miscarriage, the cracks in Henry and Anne’s relationship became wider, until Henry realised he would be more satisfied with a new, unopposed third wife. Anne was executed on 19 May 1536, charged with treason. The day before her execution, Anne sent lady-in-waiting Lady Kingston to Mary to ask for forgiveness. She should, wrote 19th-century historian John Lingard in A History of England, “throw herself in like manner at the feet of Lady Mary, and beseech her to forgive the many wrongs which the pride of a thoughtless, unfortunate woman had brought upon her”.
Reconciliation and friendship
Just ten days after Anne’s execution, Mary had a second stepmother, Jane Seymour, only eight years Mary’s senior. Jane encouraged a reconciliation of the bitter relationship between Mary and Henry, although Henry refused to return Mary to favour until she signed an oath of submission. On 22 June 1536, Mary signed a statement agreeing that the marriage of her mother and father was never valid, that she was legally a bastard, and that her father was Supreme Head of the Church of England. Though surely a cruel blow to the loyalty she held for her mother, the oath meant that Mary could finally regain her own household.
Once Mary and Henry were reconciled, it is thought that Jane wrote to Mary, though only Mary’s response remains. In it, the princess thanks the queen consort for her “motherly joy”, offers to serve her obediently, and signs the letter as “your Grace’s most humble and obedient daughter and handmaid”. Jane attended Henry’s subsequent meeting with Mary, the first in years, and gave her a diamond ring as a sign of affection. Mary spent Christmas 1536 with her father and Jane at Greenwich.
During her 17-month tenure as queen, Jane showed kindness to Mary and the two became friends. Upon the eruption of the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising in some of England’s northern counties against the Reformation, Henry recalled both Mary and Elizabeth to court, where Jane watched over them. Jane even took an interest in meeting with an imperial ambassador to discuss Mary’s potential marriage to the brother of the king of Portugal. While the women were close in age, it seems as though Jane did engage in motherly activities toward Mary.
In May 1537, Jane’s pregnancy was announced. Mary became one of the queen’s attendants, reciprocating her friendship by sending her quails and cucumbers to satisfy her cravings. After Edward’s birth on 12 October, Mary stood as his godmother in the Chapel at Hampton Court Palace. Jane died twelve days later, and Mary served as her chief mourner and rode behind her coffin from Hampton Court to Windsor.
Henry’s fourth marriage took place on 6 January 1540 to Anne of Cleves, who was less than one year older than Mary. Although the marriage only lasted six months, during that time Mary and Anne formed a friendship that would last until Anne’s death in 1557. In June 1543, Mary visited Anne at Richmond Palace and in June 1544, Anne sent Mary a gift of Spanish silk. Anne later rode with Elizabeth directly behind Mary upon her entry to London for her coronation as Mary I in 1553. Nevertheless, only one year later Mary’s councillors suspected Anne of being involved in Wyatt’s Rebellion (a Protestant insurrection that broke out under the leadership of Sir Thomas Wyatt), although nothing came of the accusations. Mary and Anne remained friendly, although the latter never returned to court. Mary, did, however, make sure that Anne was buried in Westminster Abbey, befitting her position both as former queen and ‘Beloved Sister’ (as she had been pronounced) to the king of England.
Mary gained her next stepmother on 28 July 1540, when Henry married Catherine Howard, who was between five and eight years younger than Mary (estimates on Howard’s date of birth vary), and a cousin of Anne Boleyn. The relationship between Mary and Catherine was fraught, likely due both to Catherine’s age and her ties to Anne Boleyn. There is evidence that in December 1540, Catherine asked Henry to remove two of Mary’s attendants because Mary did not show her the same respect that she had given to Catherine’s two predecessors.
While Mary’s relationship with Catherine was not as directly tense as it had been with Anne Boleyn, Mary’s position at court did improve greatly after Catherine’s death in 1542, having been found guilty of treason for adultery. Without any wife in the way, Henry was able to enjoy a peaceful relationship with his daughter.
By February 1543, Katherine Parr had joined Mary’s household. Katherine was only four years older than Mary and her mother was previously a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, who also served as her godmother and namesake; Mary and Katherine may have even known each other as children. Henry began visiting Mary more frequently so as to see Katherine, and the ageing king entered into his sixth and final marriage on 12 July 1543.
Both Mary and Elizabeth attended the wedding at Hampton Court. Mary and Katherine’s good relationship did not change after Katherine married Henry, although it is unlikely that Mary truly considered her a stepmother in the same way that Elizabeth and Edward did.
Several letters exist between Katherine, Elizabeth, and Edward, where Elizabeth refers to herself as “your most obedient daughter” and Edward notes he is Katherine’s “loving son”. In only one letter, dated 9 August 1548, Mary does sign as “your highness’s humble and assured loving daughter”. Most likely, Mary and Katherine had mutual affection for one another, and perhaps even a sisterly bond.
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Nevertheless, there is evidence of a strong bond. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported that Katherine “favours the Princess all she can” and remarked on how the two women were almost always together. Katherine was certainly a driving force in restoring both Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. She was an attentive stepmother for all three of Henry’s children, from overseeing their educations to having their portraits painted. Katherine even enlisted Mary to translate the Gospel of John for her English-language edition of Erasmus’s Paraphrases on the New Testament.
No more than eight years younger than all of her stepmothers (with the exception of Anne Boleyn) and a fierce defender of her mother’s right as well as her own legitimacy, Mary likely never regarded her father’s last five wives as motherly figures. Even when she adopted the daughterly language of deference, she likely did so because it was appropriate protocol rather than a true reflection of her feelings. That said, evidence suggests that Mary did enjoy a close relationship with Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Parr.
As a stepdaughter, Mary would surely not always have been easy to get on with, but she survived a very uncommon, even dangerous situation: constant competition with five others to be the most prominent royal woman in England.
Valerie Schutte has authored and co-edited many titles on queens of Europe, including Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications: Royal Women, Power, and Persuasion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in February 2021