Mary I: the forgotten trailblazer

Anna Whitelock explains how the popular perception of 'Bloody Mary' hides a pioneering monarch who achieved great things during her reign...

Queen Mary I of England and Ireland. Her legend speaks merely of burning Protestants, yet her time on the throne featured many great achievements, not least establishing that a woman had the right to reign. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Mary was the Tudor trailblazer. Never before had a queen worn the crown of England. She won the throne against the odds, preserving the Tudor line of succession and establishing precedents for female rule. Her significance has long been overlooked.

Until recently Mary has been the forgotten Tudor – overshadowed by her famous sister, Elizabeth. She has been condemned as one of the most reviled women in history. ‘Bloody Mary’ is regarded as a bigoted, half Spanish tyrant whose reign was an unmitigated failure notable only for the burning of nearly 300 Protestants and her unpopular marriage to Philip of Spain.

Mary was of course never meant to be queen, and her father, Henry VIII, had gone to great – infamous – lengths to guard against her accession. While Henry finally acknowledged Mary’s claim to the throne in the last years of his reign, Edward VI ignored his father’s will and, determined to preserve a Protestant church, wrote his Catholic sister out of the succession. Upon his death in July 1553 Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen. Ten days later and against extraordinary odds, Mary won her rightful throne. The scale of her achievement is often overlooked. Mary had led the only successful revolt against central government in 16th-century England and was the only Tudor, save for Henry VII, who had to fight for the throne. She had eluded capture, mobilised a counter-coup and in the moment of crisis proved courageous, decisive and politically adept.

Setting precedents

Yet despite her triumphant accession, Mary’s status as England’s first crowned queen was a matter of great speculation and uncertainty. Many questioned whether indeed a woman could wear the crown. The language, image, and expectations of English monarchy and royal majesty were unequivocally male. So, in the following months the practice and power of a queen regnant were hammered out. It was a debate over which Mary presided and her decisions would become precedents for the future. The status of a queen regnant was laid out in a highly significant statute passed in the parliament of April 1554: “An Acte declaringe that the Regall power of thys realme is in the Quenes Maiestie as fully and absolutely as ever it was in anye her mooste noble progenytours kynges of thys Realme.” The act made Mary’s queenship equal to that of a king in law.

And so in statute, in ceremony and in ritual, Mary drew on the precedents of her male predecessors and fashioned them for queenship. There was no guidance for the coronation of a woman as a ruler in her own right but Mary’s ceremony invested her with all the power exercised by her ancestors. Mary notably revived the tradition of touching a sufferer of scrofula (known as the king’s evil) and followed other practices such as blessing cramp rings (also used for healing) as well as washing the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. Such rituals had never been performed by a woman and were considered priestly acts that only God’s representative on earth, a male monarch, could perform.

Although inhabiting what was traditionally a male world of monarchy, the personality of the monarch continued to be the key to the determination and execution of policy. The Marian regime was, in short, an emphatically personal monarchy. Mary was closely involved in government and the key policies of the reign – the marriage, the reunion with Rome and war with France. Far from being distanced from politics and policy making as has been claimed, Mary was at its heart. As the Venetian ambassador described, she rose “at daybreak when, after saying her prayers and hearing mass in private, she transacts business incessantly until after midnight”.

Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain has long been seen as a failure, exemplified by the loss of Calais, England’s last territory in France in 1558. In spite of this, Mary’s marriage can be seen as a calculated and successful political act. She chose a husband distant from English disputes and intrigues and his powers were carefully circumscribed by legislation and a highly favourable marriage treaty. While more work needs to be done on the role in government of Philip and his Spanish entourage, Mary did remain legally and effectively sole queen throughout her reign.

Mary defeated a rebellion against the Spanish marriage, again securing popular support in a moment of crisis. She refused to leave London and, in a speech at the Guildhall, attacked Thomas Wyatt, the rebel leader, as a wicked traitor, defended her religion and choice of husband, and called on Londoners to stand firm in support. “I doubt not but we shall give these rebels a short and speedy overthrow.” The rebels were compelled to lay down their arms and to sue for mercy. In her speech Mary promised to submit the treaty before the people for ratification – a step her male predecessors had never taken.

Mary’s reign is of course most noted for the burning of nearly 300 men, women and children. While this cannot and should not be expunged from accounts of her reign, it is important to consider the wider context and her religious policy more generally.

The restoration of Catholicism was neither inept nor backward-looking. Cardinal Reginald Pole succeeded in reinstating the papacy and launched an effective propaganda campaign through pulpit and press and, as has been recently argued, the most notorious aspect of the reign – the burnings – proved devastatingly effective. If Mary had lived or if she had managed to produce a Catholic heir, there seems little doubt that England would have been successfully recatholicised and the historical judgement on Mary would have been very different.

Mary ruled with the full measure of royal majesty and achieved much of what she had set out to do. Her reign redefined the contours of the English monarchy. She made it possible for queens to rule as kings and established the gender-free authority of the crown.

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Anna Whitelock is a lecturer in early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London. She wrote Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen (Bloomsbury, 2009).