Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen

Readers quiz John Edwards on one of England's most controversial monarchs

Publisher blurb: “Mary is a hugely significant figure not just for English history, but European history generally. Yet our vision of Mary’s long term importance and religious views has changed radically over the last 20 years and the time is right for an authoritative biography which addresses this. Edwards demonstrates that Mary’s culture, religious beliefs and politics were throughout her life Spanish and many of her actions were designed to heal the rift between England and Spain which had been caused by the divorce of her parents. Edwards also presents a reappraisal of the Elizabeth-Mary relationship and how that has determined Mary’s reputation ever since.”

As part of our new reader book club, BBC History Magazine gave people the chance to read Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen and put their questions to the book’s author, Dr John Edwards, modern languages and faculty research fellow in Spanish at the University of Oxford. Here’s what they had to say…
You mentio
n Mary’s friendship with the Protestant Anne of Cleves. Why has this often been overlooked by historians?

Jennifer Shelden, Leicester

John says: I think there are two reasons. One is that after Henry VIII took against Anne and divorced her, she ceased to be of interest to English and national history, although she was well-treated financially at the time. The other, more important in relation to Mary, is that most historians still don’t appreciate how fluid religious beliefs and loyalties were, in England and on the Continent, until the 1560s.
Anne’s brother’s territories, in northwestern Germany, were sandwiched between Catholic Habsburg lands and those of princes who had already rejected Rome, making caution the best policy. What Anne shared with Mary was a reforming humanist idea of the Church which could lead individuals to either side of the denominational division when it became set later. Also, the two women seem simply to have got on well!
Was it the rich patriarchal society often associated with Henry VIII that made you focus on one of the first bloodthirsty and formidable queens of our time?
Laura Ford, Birmingham
John says: My main reason for accepting the commission to write about Mary was that I wanted to re-examine her life and achievement in a realistic rather than a ‘Eurosceptic’ context, which has traditionally allowed her to be considered, falsely in my view, as an entirely English figure, even though she was half-Spanish and deeply attached to her relatives on the Continent, and to their religion.
In particular, having spent many years researching and publishing on the reigns of her Spanish grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, I did indeed regard the successes and failures of women rulers, in a male-dominated European political system, as a vital and fascinating issue. Mary was undoubtedly ‘formidable’, and by modern ideals (though often not practice) ‘bloodthirsty’, but the maxim that a woman must be twice as good as a man to succeed may well apply to her. Had she lived longer, we would have had a better idea of how successful she was.
Leaving aside the fact that Henry Fitzroy died in 1536 (Henry could not foresee this), why did Henry not declare Fitzroy his heir and thus solve all the succession problems?
Patrick Herbage, County Lough
John says: Here we tackle the character of Henry rather than his daughter, and the question of the succession in the 1520s has been much debated by historians. The answer involves both the king’s character and the values of the political class at the time, in England and on the Continent.
For one who has rightly achieved a reputation for arbitrary violence, not to say cruelty, Mary’s father was also prey to indecision, especially in personal matters. Anne Boleyn would often rebuke him for this, when she saw him as too subservient to Catherine, even while trying to divorce her. Also, despite his series of wives, Henry seems to have seen himself (whatever others may have thought) as a highly moral and devout Catholic – so the illegitimacy of his son was a major problem.
Since the whole of the rest of Europe saw Mary as Henry’s only legitimate successor, and might have intervened militarily with papal backing, making Fitzroy his heir would certainly not have solved the English succession problem. Hedging his bets by sending Mary to Wales and Henry Fitzroy to the North of England, with more or less equivalent powers and neither as formal heirs, was a practical, if weak, temporary solution.
What would Mary have needed to do differently in order to have been viewed more favourably by history?
Alan Taylor, Wokingham
John says: Counter-factual questions are always dangerous, of course, but to answer this one it is necessary to peel away the last 450 years or so of English history. Had Mary lived longer, there would still have been the problem that she could not produce an heir to the English throne or to the Habsburg domains, which would have made huge difficulties for Philip. If she had continued her existing policies after 1558, England would have remained a Catholic power, though sometimes in conflict with the papacy, as Spain was, and her religious persecution might have ended too, although there is a danger in underestimating the extent to which Protestant ideas had taken hold in England by the time she came to the throne.
In the long run, England might have gained from the Spanish empire, rather than having to fight to get into it, and friendly relations with both Spain and the Dutch might have avoided the bloodshed of the Netherlands revolt. ‘History’, with England integrated with Continental Europe, would probably then have viewed Mary as a successful Catholic ruler. In the short reign that was given to her, it is hard to see that she could have done much differently, as marrying an English subject, such as Edward Courtenay, would have created its own problems.
Are there any indications in the sources as to what Mary’s and Philip’s reactions were to each other when they first met?
Alan Taylor, Wokingham
John says: One should always remember that 16th-century royal marriages were political and dynastic, rather than romantic, and indeed emotional attachment of partners was commonly regarded by the politically wise as a liability. Philip seems to have viewed his relationship with Mary in this conventional way. He really wanted to marry Maria of Portugal, but obeyed his father’s orders in the interest of the Habsburg dynasty.
In these circumstances, as I note in the book, the couple seem to have got on well once they met, in July 1554, and the Spanish sources are particularly informative about this. Philip abandoned his earlier propensity for partying, and amazed everybody, including his father, by behaving kindly and considerately to Mary, until Habsburg interests prevailed again, as they always would, when she failed to give birth and he left for the Continent. Unfortunately, Mary seems to have broken the rules by genuinely falling in love with her husband, thus bringing on herself much pain and suffering, and a sad, lonely death.
Is it ironic that for all Mary’s support and work to give the pope authority in England, she found herself supporting her husband in wars against the pope?
Charlene Hale, County Durham
John says: It is indeed ironic that Mary should have been dragged into conflict with Pope Paul IV, though one should remember that Catholic rulers had frequently, in previous centuries, come into conflict with the Papacy.
The main reason for this was that medieval and Renaissance popes not only ruled directly a large chunk of central Italy, but also claimed to be God’s representatives as head of Christendom, with the right to intervene anywhere in Catholic Europe – and in the New World of the Americas. Thus once the pope was a pathological enemy of the Habsburgs, Mary and England were bound to be dragged into conflict.
In a way, Mary’s approach to France is even more interesting. It seems clear that she and her English advisers did not want to renew the financially destructive wars with the old enemy, the French, that had been vainly prosecuted by her father, Henry VIII, but once again the Habsburg interest, involving competition with France for European hegemony, prevailed, and England’s last French possesion, Calais and its Pale, was lost.
Next month we’ll be looking at Ralph Taylor’s Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague by Keith Wrightson.
It’s not too late to join the BBC History Magazine reader book club – find out more at