The Tudors: Mary I (1553-1558)

The reign of Mary I is perhaps best summarized by Winston Churchill: “The woman who now became Queen was probably the most unhappy and unsuccessful of England’s sovereigns… Mary had all the obstinacy of the Tudors and none of their political sense. She was now on the threshold of her dreams – a Catholic England united in intimate alliance with the Catholic Empire of the Hapsburgs” (257-258).

Mary was a sickly child but she was born with the prospect of one day becoming Queen. She was the first child to survive from Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Her lofty hopes of succession were soon dashed when Henry voided his marriage to Catherine in 1533. Before the marriage was voided, various European princes were lined up as potential suitors for Mary. They immediately withdrew themselves from consideration once Mary was disinherited. She was humiliated and reduced to a mere lady-in-waiting for her younger half-sister, Elizabeth. Mary’s frustrations with her father grew, which is why it was a surprise when Henry VIII declared on his deathbed that Mary would be second in line to the throne if Edward should die. Suddenly, Mary’s political ambitions were reignited.

Mary I by Antonis Mor in 1554

Mary was a fervent Catholic (unlike her father). During the reign of her younger half-brother, Edward, Mary openly defied his religious proclamations by wearing traditional garb and hearing mass in Latin. She despised the new Protestant decrees of the nation. When Edward VI died in 1553, Mary battled the weak forces of the Lady Jane Grey who attempted to claim the crown for the Grey family, and Mary easily won. The hearts of the people were with the Tudors. Mary rode to London accompanied by her half-sister, Elizabeth, along with some 800 noblemen and together they reclaimed the throne for the lineage of Henry VIII. The rebellion of the Lady Jane Grey (the “nine days queen”) was quelled and she was imprisoned in the Tower of London never to be seen again. Mary’s Queenship was solidified.

At the time, Catholicism was still widely popular throughout England despite the aggressive reformations undertaken by Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI. Mary dreamed of a Counter-Reformation against the new Protestant heresy. She was of a strict Spanish-Catholic blood inherited from her mother, Catherine of Aragon. The central issue for Mary in her early reign concerned a suitable marriage, and if Catholicism was to be reinstated as the custom of the land, Mary needed to produce an heir. She promised to marry Emperor Charles V’s son, Philip II of Spain (Charles V was the Holy Roman Emperor of the Hapsburg family). However, Philip of Spain was highly unpopular in England. He was a foreign king who was entangled in foreign wars on the Continent. An English rebellion was ignited in Kent against the prospect of King Philip. In 1554, Thomas Wyatt (son of the famous English poet Thomas Wyatt the elder) led a revolt against the marriage of Queen Mary to Philip. Mary and her allies quickly quelled the rebellion and immediately began persecuting Protestants throughout the region. The crackdown included the execution of the imprisoned Lady Jane Grey and her family, hundreds of Protestant martyrs including Thomas Cranmer (the architect of Henry VIII’s religious reforms and the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury), and even Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth was implicated. Amidst the chaos, many Protestants fled to exile in mainland Europe. The era was so vicious that English historian, John Foxe, wrote a popular book called the Actes and Monuments (later known as the “Book of Martyrs”). It documented the many agonizing deaths of hundreds of Protestants who were burned at the stake or otherwise tortured to death. The book was highly popular and it did a great deal to damage the Queen’s popularity. It became the second-most read book in England next to the Bible, forever labeling Queen Mary as “Bloody Mary.”

At any rate, with threats of rebellion laid to rest Philip II of Spain landed in Southampton on July 20, 1554. Five days later Philip and Marry were married at Winchester Cathedral. For the ceremony Mary deliberately chose a traditional plain gold wedding band and she publicly swore the traditional woman’s oath: “to be bonny and buxom in bed and at board.” The ceremony was nostalgic -it reminded people of older, simpler times. It carried the hope that the old ways would return again to England. But if English Catholicism was to survive, Mary would need to quickly give birth to a child. Mary was thirty-seven years old and Philip was ten years her younger (his incentive for the marriage was to solidify England as an ally in his war with France).

Perhaps Mary’s greatest failure in this respect is best summarized by Winston Churchill: “In vain the Queen strove to join English interests to those of the Spanish state. She had married to make England safe for Catholicism, and she had sacrificed what little personal happiness she could hope for to this dream. As the wife of the King of Spain, against the interests of her kingdom, and against the advice of prudent counsellors… she allowed herself to be dragged into war with France, and Calais, the last possession of the English upon the Continent, fell without resistance. This national disgrace, this loss of the symbol of the power and glory of medieval England, bit deep into the hearts of the people and into the conscience of the Queen” (260).

Shortly after her wedding Mary claimed to be pregnant amidst public rejoicing, but her pregnancy was soon revealed to be mere fantasy. At age thirty-seven, she became a public laughingstock with fanciful theories spreading among the common people that she was impregnated with a monkey or a lapdog. She also had a second phantom pregnancy that further eroded her credibility. For the rest of her short life Mary remained delusional about being pregnant.

Ultimately, Mary never gave birth to a child, her health began to fail her, Parliament defied her wishes for a Counter-Reformation, and her council was rife with disloyalty following the embarrassing loss of Calais in France (the last remaining English stronghold in France). Her husband, Philip, fled to the Netherlands aloof and disappointed with both his alliance to England and his marriage to Mary. In November 1558, Mary’s health gave out and she died of influenza. The death of Mary killed any hope of a Catholic future in England. Thus with the shadow of Henry VIII looming large, two of his children had taken up the crown, both with wildly opposing religious views, and both styles of governance had led to extremism, rebellion, and policies that imperiled the monarchy. The future was uncertain as Elizabeth took the throne.


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, and David Starkey’s Crown and Country.

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