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Life of the Week: Queen Mary I

This week marks the anniversary of the death of the first queen regnant of England, Mary I, and the accession of her half-sister, Elizabeth I

Published: November 17, 2015 at 9:36 am
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For centuries, Mary Tudor has been known as a Catholic tyrant who burned nearly 300 people during her short, five-year reign. However, in recent years, historians have attempted to re-evaluate Mary’s reputation, and have argued that Mary deserves more recognition for her work than previously thought.


Here, we look back at the queen’s life…

Born: 18 February 1516 at the Palace of Placentia, London

Died: 17 November 1558 at St James's Palace, London

Remembered for: Being the first queen regnant of England and for burning nearly 300 Protestant men, women and children during her reign.

Ruled: 1553-1558

Family: Mary’s father was Henry VIII and her mother was Catherine of Aragon. After Henry’s divorce from Catherine in the 1530s, Henry married five more times. Mary had one half-sister, Elizabeth, and one half-brother, Edward. She also had an illegitimate half-brother called Henry Fitzroy, and it is possible that she had other illegitimate siblings that were not publically acknowledged by Henry VIII.

Mary married Philip of Spain (later King Philip II of Spain) in July 1554. The couple had no children, so Mary was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth.

Her life: Born in 1516, Mary received an impressive education from a young age. She was able to speak Spanish, French and Latin, and contemporaries commented that she was a remarkable dancer, and often showed off her talents to ambassadors when they visited Henry VIII at court.

When Mary was nine years old, Henry VIII sent his daughter to Wales with her own personal court to act as a royal representative. With this newfound position, many believed that Mary would succeed her father, despite being a girl.

However, by the end of the 1520s, Henry VIII had become frustrated with having no male heir to succeed him. The king hoped to get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled in order for him to marry someone else and produce a male heir. During her parents’ divorce proceedings, Mary was forbidden from seeing her mother.

By 1533, Henry successfully divorced Catherine, made himself the head of the Church of England and married the noblewoman Anne Boleyn. As a result, Mary lost her title as ‘princess’, and was given the lesser title of ‘the Lady Mary’. After Anne gave birth to a baby girl called Elizabeth in September 1533, Mary was declared as illegitimate by an Act of Parliament and was removed from the line of succession. Mary was then forced to join Princess Elizabeth’s household, but frequently stated that she was too ill to attend court in order to avoid the new queen.

After Anne Boleyn’s fall from power and execution in May 1536, Mary was invited back to court. However, Mary, who was a staunch Roman Catholic, refused to accept her father’s position as the head of the Church of England. Eventually, Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIII’s chief minister – persuaded Mary to submit to Henry’s will and she returned to court during the late 1530s. Mary was then returned to the line of succession in 1544, where the Act of Succession stated she would ascend the throne if her younger brother Edward, who was born in 1537, were to die without issue.

After Henry VIII died in 1547, Edward ascended the throne at the age of nine. Mary and Edward had a tempestuous relationship as they differed greatly in their religious views – Edward was a Protestant, while Mary was a Roman Catholic. Shortly before his premature death in 1553, Edward VI removed both Mary and Elizabeth from the succession in favour of his cousin, the Protestant Lady Jane Grey. After Edward’s death in July 1553, Jane was proclaimed queen in London. Despite this, many did not recognise her as such, and saw Mary as the next legitimate heir.

Receiving the news of her brother’s death, Mary fled to Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, where she gathered her supporters and members of the local gentry. Mary then assembled troops and prepared to fight for her crown. In what many historians recognise as the only successful coup d’état of the 16th century in England, Mary demonstrated that she held great popularity with the public and proved that she was the legitimate heir to the throne. On 19 July 1553, Mary overthrew Lady Jane Grey and was officially proclaimed queen. Contemporary accounts state that people celebrated in the streets and bells were rung across the country.

‘An Allegory of the Tudor Succession’, 1572. Mary is on the right of her father, Henry VIII. Her husband, Philip, stands beside her. (Photo by National Museum & Galleries of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

‘An Allegory of the Tudor Succession', 1572. Mary is on the right of her father, Henry VIII. Her husband, Philip, stands beside her. (Photo by National Museum & Galleries of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Mary was 37 and unmarried when she ascended the throne. She knew that in order to prevent her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth from succeeding her, she needed to marry and produce an heir to secure a Catholic succession. As a result, Mary and her closest aides quickly negotiated a marriage to the Catholic Philip of Spain – the heir to the Spanish throne.

However, members of Mary’s council and the public did not approve of this match. Prior to Mary and Philip’s marriage, in early 1554, a group of rebels assembled in London to demonstrate their retaliation to the marriage, led by prominent Protestant landowner Thomas Wyatt the Younger. Mary refused to hide away from this rebellion, and confronted the rebels by making an extraordinary speech at the Guildhall in London. Mary rallied the rebels to support her and asserted her authority as their anointed queen. As a result, the rebels dispersed, and Wyatt was later executed at Tower Hill. Despite these protestations, Mary married Philip of Spain on 25 July 1554 at Winchester Cathedral.

By the end of 1554, Mary was convinced that she was pregnant and preparations were made in the birth chamber at Hampton Court. In April 1555, bells rang and bonfires were lit around England as news spread that the queen had given birth to an heir. However, Mary was not pregnant. Despite this, she continued to claim that she was pregnant, and stayed in confinement until August 1555. After her physicians convinced her that she was in fact not pregnant, Mary eventually returned to court.

During her reign, Mary revived the heresy laws, which stated that a person who did not follow the faith of the realm would be burned to death. During three years of Mary’s reign, nearly 300 men, women and children were burned at the stake across England for not converting to Catholicism, including Thomas Cranmer, who had been the Archbishop of Canterbury during Henry VIII and Edward VI’s reigns.

However, Mary did make great advances during her reign. She restored the navy, renewed the coinage and increased crown revenue, and also established new hospitals, improved the education of the clergy and increased the authority of local government. Despite this, many of her achievements have been overlooked.

In 1557, England was dragged into a war with Spain against France. This was a disastrous campaign for Mary’s troops and England officially lost possession of Calais in January 1558, which was its last stakehold in France.


Soon after this, Mary’s health deteriorated and she died, possibly from cancer, on 17 November 1558, aged 42. Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth succeeded her. Mary was then buried in Westminster Abbey, despite claiming she wanted to be buried next to her mother in Peterborough Cathedral.


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