Mary I had been waiting almost her entire life for her wedding day. At 38, she was an old bride by contemporary standards, but as morning arrived on 23 July 1554, she was excited at the prospect of meeting her husband. Not even the driving rain outside could dampen her enthusiasm.


Arranging her clothes with careful hands, her ladies smiled to see Mary’s happiness, thinking it was about time that she was fulfilled as a woman. She might have inherited the throne at last, despite all the obstacles of succession and religion, but Tudor culture dictated that the primary function of a woman was to be a wife and mother. Even a queen. Especially a queen.

Diplomatic tool

Born in February 1516, Mary Tudor was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. As a result, she was launched upon the marriage market early, being engaged first to the infant son of Francis I of France at the age of two and then to her cousin Charles, Holy Roman Emperor, at six.

With Mary as a tool of her father’s policies, these betrothals sealed his diplomatic alliances, and she was afforded the name and status of Queen of France, and later, Empress. They gave the little girl hopes of a glittering future partnership. Yet both these arrangements came to nothing, and despite interest from the Dukes of Bavaria and Cleves, Mary remained unmarried into her thirties.

Finally, as queen, she was able to take the decision into her own hands, even though her contemporaries considered her almost too old to marry.

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Mary was not too old, however, for the powerful feelings she developed after exchanging letters and pictures with Philip, son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles.

Philip’s portrait was painted by Titian and sent to England, depicting a young man with shapely legs in white hose, black and gold armour, and prominent eyes. It pleased the lonely queen very much. Philip’s Catholicism was an added bonus, as Mary hoped to undo recent Protestant reforms and restore older methods of worship in England, continuing her mother’s legacy. The proposed groom had already been married once, to Maria of Portugal and, promisingly, had fathered a son.

Yet Mary’s enthusiasm for the marriage met with resistance in her council, reflecting the English suspicion of foreigners, let alone one who intended to rule them. An anti-Spanish rebellion broke out in early 1554, led by Sir Thomas Wyatt, but the rebels were quickly suppressed and Mary invited Philip to England with assurances of his safety.

Sir Thomas Wyatt dictating terms to Queen Mary in the council chamber of the White Tower
Sir Thomas Wyatt dictating terms to Queen Mary in the council chamber of the White Tower (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

She sent a large diamond to welcome him, “after the custom of the country,” and he had sent one in return, albeit much smaller than hers. It was a diamond, nonetheless, and delivered with all due ceremony and reverence, but their comparative sizes were to prove symbolic of the affection each partner invested in the match.

He was dressed in an embroidered suit and his tight, colourful hose showed off his calves and thighs. Mary was delighted

On 23 July, 1554, Mary Tudor met Philip Habsburg. He had landed at Southampton only four days before, and then travelled through the pouring rain to Wolvesey Palace, seat of the Bishops of Winchester.

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The rooms had been hung with gold and silk tapestries to welcome him. He proceeded to Mary’s lodgings and knocked upon the door: opening it, she found herself face to face with a lean, imposing man of 27, sporting a full beard, heavy brows above large, dark eyes, and a prominent, full mouth. He was dressed in an embroidered suit and his tight, colourful hose showed off his calves and thighs. Mary was delighted.

For Philip, though, the meeting evoked different emotions.

He saw a short, thin woman approaching 40, dressed in black velvet and jewels, with a functional, rather than beautiful, face. Always very status-conscious, Philip was sensitive to Mary’s superior rank. He was still only the son of the emperor, and would not become king of Spain until Charles abdicated in 1556.

As a gesture of equality, Charles bestowed upon his son the Kingdom of Naples, but in real terms, this did little to level the stakes.

However, suppressing this inversion of the usual gender dynamic, Philip’s behaviour in public was impeccable. Leaning forward to kiss Mary, in compliance with the English custom, his manner betrayed a man who was highly conscious of protocol, decorum, and the service he was doing his country.

Philip’s personal response, though, was one of disappointment. As his minister Ruy Gomez de Silva commented, the queen was “a very good creature, though rather older than we had been told” and if she were to adopt Spanish fashions, “she would not look so old and flabby.” This did not prevent the diplomatic Philip from sitting hand in hand with Mary, and he “remained for a time in pleasant conversation,” very “tactful and attentive.”

The wedding arrives

The next day, 24 July, was the day before the wedding. Mary sent her tailor to Philip with two suits in the French style, one of crimson brocade, another in rich brocade adorned with gold thread, pearls and diamond buttons. French fashions were prominent at the English court, but they differed substantially from Spanish costume.

Philip did not object to the gift, nor having his outfit chosen for him, nor the assumption that he would conform. Such coordinated outfits were common among royalty, to make an outward show of their unity and, particularly in this case, to demonstrate Philip’s willingness to be “Anglicised”.

That afternoon in the hall, the couple kissed formally, and walked together through the rooms before talking “pleasantly for some time”. All the signs were auspicious for the forthcoming nuptials, and onlookers declared it had been arranged by God.

Mary and Philip were married on 25 July, in Winchester Cathedral. It was St James’ Day, the patron saint of Spain, a respectful tribute to the new arrival. Separately, the couple processed along a raised platform into a chapel with hangings of gold and purple, where the Bishop of Winchester heard their vows.

In addition to the gold mantle adorned with pearls that Mary had sent him, Philip also wore the collar of the Order of the Garter, embedding him further in English royal tradition. Chairs had been placed for the royal pair on the main dais, where they would sit to hear Mass; once again, Mary's higher status was reinforced, as her chair was more prominent. Philip was pronounced king of England, but only in jure uxoris (by right of his wife) due to Mary's status.

After the ceremony was concluded, the queen demonstrated her piety by remaining with her eyes fixed upon the sacrament for an hour, prompting one Spaniard to comment that she was a "saintly woman." Philip, however, was not necessarily looking to marry a saint.

To the blare of trumpets, the newlyweds walked under a canopy connecting the cathedral to nearby Wolvesey Palace. A banquet was laid out in the great hall, hung with brocades and tapestries, where several hundred English and Spanish guests were “admirably served, in perfect order and silence”. This was followed by dancing, where Philip partnered Mary in a German composition, before they separated and each retired to their own chambers, according to custom. That evening, Philip was led in procession to Mary’s bed, which was blessed by the bishop, before the crowd of well-wishers receded.

“What happened that night,” one anonymous source recorded, “only they know. If they give us a son our joy will be complete.” Four days later, Cardinal Pole wrote to the emperor that he had “heard privately that your son, the king, was received in the Kingdom of England with great and universal satisfaction and content, and that the marriage was happily consummated.”

Mary was delighted with her husband and swiftly fell in love. She proved an affectionate, doting wife, deferring to Philip’s advice and wishes whenever protocol allowed. She encouraged him to attend council and envisioned herself as the mother of a happy family.

For all his polite diplomacy, though, Philip was uneasy. This was partly due to the discrepancy in their status, which would see him marginalised by Mary’s advisors, but also the anti-Spanish feeling in England. Imperial servant Simon Renard noted the language barrier, and that “the English hate strangers,” finding a group of them challenging. Several Spaniards “have already been robbed” and billeted in “bad and insufficient lodgings.”

Philip had been “forewarned” that it would be wise to win favour with the English people as a means of keeping the nobility in check. He was praised by his companions for the good impression he had created upon them, and the “graciousness of his bearing towards one and all”.

It was considered that the royal couple were already so fond of each other, that it must grow into a perfect union. The emperor praised his son for showing Mary the love and respect she deserved. De Silva added that “the queen is very happy with the king, and the king with her” and that Philip “strives to give her every possible proof of it, in order to omit no part of his duty.”

And yet, duty was Philip’s overriding emotion. As Mary’s love for him deepened, he remained respectful, but did not reciprocate her feelings. A reserved and proud man, he was deeply discontented at having been denied a coronation and was not given an English patrimony, forcing him to rely upon his Spanish funds. Yet his father’s advice, and Mary’s queenship, kept him at her side, attentive yet frustrated in the subservient role he found himself.

Within months of the wedding Mary believed herself to be pregnant and excitedly prepared for the arrival of her first child. Philip, however, expressed private doubts.

In April, Mary took to her chamber in anticipation of the birth. But as the weeks passed, instead of going into labour, Mary’s bloated stomach subsided and she finally emerged, childless, from the birth chamber in early August. Humiliated and disappointed, Mary’s false pregancy and swollen stomach were probably the result of infection or, perhaps, wishful thinking.

An absent husband

After becoming King of Spain in 1556, Philip spent long periods of their brief marriage abroad, during which time Mary experienced a second phantom pregnancy. Increasingly, the queen retreated into her faith as her only comfort.

Philip was pursuing his military campaign in the Netherlands when Mary fell ill and died, in November 1558. She was only 42. Hers was a sad demise; lonely, deserted and without the loving spouse and children she had longed for. Philip’s kingship of England immediately expired with Mary, as her younger sister, the Protestant Elizabeth I, succeeded to the throne.

Keen to retain his English influence, Philip now saw a new opportunity in the person of the red-haired, 25-year-old queen. He made a proposal of marriage to Elizabeth, but amid her procrastinations, turned instead to a Valois princess of the same name.

Relations between England and Spain would remain amicable for decades, before breaking down irrevocably in the late 1570s. The promise of the Anglo-Spanish marriage of 1554 went unrealised.

Mary I's 'other Philip' – Anne of Cleves' cousin

The closest Mary came to marriage before Philip of Spain was with his namesake, Philip, Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg.

Thirteen years her senior, he was a member of the Wittelsbach family, a cousin of Anne of Cleves and had distinguished himself against the Turks, earning the name of “the Warrior.”

In the late 1530s, when Henry VIII was seeking Protestant allies, Philip travelled to England with the express purpose of winning Mary’s hand. She was then 23. They met in the beautiful gardens at Eltham Palace in December 1539, where he presented the then princess with a diamond cross set with pearls, and she thanked him through an interpreter. She spoke no German and he knew no English, but they shared a little Latin, and a few kisses.

He offered marriage “if his person pleased her”, but she was wise enough to reply she would obey her father’s wishes on the matter. The court expected to hear the nuptials announced. But Henry had never intended to give his eldest daughter to Germany and despite three later visits, Philip was only permitted to see Mary once more.

He was sent home empty-handed, but England continued to dangle Mary before him for another five years. He never married, and died in 1548.


Amy Licence is an author and historian, whose books include Woodsmoke and Sage: The Five Senses 1485–1603: How the Tudors Experienced the World (The History Press, 2021)