Biography Of Mary Tudor: Beyond "Bloody Mary"

Biography of Mary Tudor: Beyond “Bloody Mary”

In the tapestry of English history, few figures are as controversial and misunderstood as Mary Tudor. Often remembered by the nickname “Bloody Mary,” her reign is frequently characterized by the religious persecutions that defined her attempt to restore Catholicism in England. However, reducing Mary’s legacy to this single aspect does not do justice to the complexity of her life, her reign, and the turbulent times she navigated. This article aims to peel back the layers of history, offering a more nuanced view of Mary Tudor, exploring her early life, ascent to the throne, policies, and the impact she left on England.

The Early Years of Mary Tudor

Mary Tudor (b. 1516; d. 1558) was the only surviving child of King Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary was a pretty, precocious child who was highly educated in languages, science, music, philosophy, and theology. She was also taught the skills that highborn women of the time were expected to have, including dancing and fine needlework. As Princess of Wales, she had her own court at Ludlow Castle, where she was essentially brought up by the Countess of Salisbury, the mother of Cardinal Pole.

After several miscarriages, three stillborn children, and two who died in early infancy, Catherine of Aragon went through menopause, and King Henry knew for certain that she would never provide him with the male heir he so desperately needed. Eighteen years of marriage and so many pregnancies had cost Catherine her figure and her looks. Henry had become enamored of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, and wanted to have his marriage to Catherine annulled so that he could marry Anne, who he hoped would give him more children, especially sons.

Henry petitioned Pope Clement VII to have his marriage to Catherine annulled on the grounds that it violated the biblical injunction (Leviticus 20:21) against a man marrying his brother’s widow. The punishment specified in Leviticus for violating that law was that the marriage would be childless. Henry convinced himself that Catherine’s inability to give him sons, or any children at all other than their somewhat sickly daughter Mary, was a fulfillment of Leviticus.

Clement delayed his ruling on Henry’s petition because he was the prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was Catherine’s nephew. After nearly seven frustrating years, Henry achieved his objective by breaking altogether with Rome and declaring himself the “only supreme head” of the Church of England, a claim later enacted into law by Parliament. In January of 1533, after learning that Anne Boleyn was pregnant, Henry secretly married her to avoid the risk of having a son born out of wedlock. Four months later, his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine “null and absolutely void” and pronounced his marriage to Anne “good and lawful.”

Between 1532 and 1534, Henry pressured Parliament into passing several laws, including the Act of Succession, which confirmed the succession through the children of Anne Boleyn. The Princess Mary was declared illegitimate, as Henry claimed his twenty-four-year marriage to her mother had never been lawful.

After Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was born, Mary, now seventeen, was stripped of her title of princess, and the members of her household, including the Countess of Salisbury, were dismissed. She was moved to Hatfield, where she was required to serve as her infant half-sister’s lady-in-waiting. Two of Anne’s female relatives were appointed, ostensibly to attend Mary, but in reality to spy on her.

Anne was intent on persecuting Mary and alienating the king from her. She became enraged if Henry even mentioned wishing to visit his elder daughter, and she demanded that Mary surrender all of her jewels to Elizabeth, who, as Henry’s “true heir,” had more right to them.

Part of Anne’s reason for trying to drive a wedge between Henry and Mary was undoubtedly her perception that Elizabeth’s right to the throne would remain precarious as long as Mary existed as a rival claimant. But part of her reason must have been sheer vindictiveness, a character trait Anne Boleyn was famous for. Like her mother, Catherine of Aragon, Mary refused to swear the oath attached to the Act of Succession. By swearing the oath, Catherine and Mary would be acknowledging that Catherine’s marriage to Henry had been unlawful, that Anne’s marriage to him was lawful, that Mary was illegitimate, and that Elizabeth was the true heir to the English throne. They would also have denied papal supremacy and recognized Henry as the supreme head of the English Church. Catherine and Mary were stubborn, brave, and deeply religious. They would not swear an oath that violated their religious principles and that cast such a shadow over their honor.

Henry, no doubt at Anne’s urging, separated Catherine and Mary. At one point, when Mary was so desperately ill that it was feared she would die, Catherine begged Henry to allow her to go to Mary. Henry refused unless Catherine took the oath, which she would not do. Later, when Catherine’s own health began to deteriorate, Mary was not allowed to see her, either. Catherine died in 1536 without ever seeing her beloved daughter again.

Throughout these persecutions, Mary suffered repeated bouts of severe illness, mostly gastrointestinal, and almost certainly brought on by the terrible stress she had to endure. She also had to worry about the very real possibility that Anne, growing impatient, might have Mary, Catherine, or both poisoned. And then there was the threat of execution that hung over her like the sword of Damocles. Anne did her best to persuade Henry to have his daughter executed. She might have prevailed, too, except that by the time Elizabeth was born, Henry had already begun to tire of his demanding new queen. Nor did Anne ever provide him with a son, a fact that greatly undermined her influence with the king.

Mary would not be reconciled with her father until well into his third marriage. His third wife, Jane Seymour, worked tirelessly to persuade him to bring Mary to court. Finally, on the advice of her cousin, Emperor Charles, who assured her that there would be no blot on her soul for doing so under duress, Mary signed a letter of submission that adhered to all of the terms of the oath. Only then would her implacable father receive her at court.

Mary became close friends with her new stepmother, for she and Jane Seymour were near in age. At Mary’s urging, even the four-year-old Elizabeth,” out of favor since Henry had sent her mother to the scaffold,” was brought to court for the Christmas season that year.

More than two years after Jane Seymour died following the birth of a son, Henry married Anne of Cleves, the sister of Duke William of Cleves, the leader of the Protestant states of western Germany. Henry’s chief councilor, Thomas Cromwell, had arranged the Protestant alliance to counterbalance the imminent alliance of the two great Catholic powers, Spain and France. When the Catholic alliance fell through, Henry was left with a wife he did not like and an embarrassing alliance with Lutherans, whom he considered to be heretics.

Although Henry had his marriage to Anne of Cleves annulled after only six months, Mary had become close friends with her, and the two remained close even after Henry repudiated Anne and took a fifth wife. Mary even converted the Lutheran princes to Catholicism, and they remained friends until Anne died in 1557 at the age of forty-two”just a year before Mary herself died in 1558, also at the age of forty-two.

Throughout Mary’s life, negotiations went on to have her betrothed to a candidate from one or another of the great houses of Europe. In 1518, when she was two, she was betrothed in a proxy ceremony to the Dauphin of France, heir to King Francis I. In 1520, that arrangement was broken, and she was betrothed to her adult cousin, the emperor Charles V. Charles later broke that betrothal, but when Queen Claude of France died, King Francis I offered himself as a husband for the young princess. These were just the first of a series of similarly fruitless negotiations and betrothals. The purpose of royal marriage at that time was to establish political and military alliances. The wishes of the affianced parties were seldom even considered.

Despite decades of such negotiations, beginning at the time of her birth, Mary Tudor was still unwed when she ascended the English throne in 1553 as Mary I. Her main concern as queen was to return her country to the Roman Catholic fold. But Mary lacked the character traits that might have enabled her to achieve a tactful, graceful restoration of the Roman Catholic allegiance. Furthermore, as the first woman to rule England in her own right, she also faced the problem that women were generally considered unfit for the role of sovereign.

With the cooperation of Parliament, Mary repealed the treason acts passed by Edward VI and Henry VIII. During Edward’s reign, extreme Protestant laws concerning church doctrines and worship were also passed. Those, too, Mary had repealed. Cardinal Pole returned from his exile in Rome to help undo the acts passed by Henry’s Parliament that had disbanded the monasteries and transferred their land and wealth to the crown. The Restoration Parliament was even persuaded to restore the rights and the authority of the Pope over the Church of England.

But the church’s former properties had been doled out by Henry to ensure the loyalty and support of the nobles and the gentry, and they were not about to surrender their possessions to the church. Pope Julius III wisely compromised on the issue: in return for full restoration of papal authority in England, he confirmed the secular possession of the church’s former properties.

Mary’s first serious misstep was her marriage to the Emperor Charles’s son, Philip of Spain. The English did not want to be a junior partner in another Spanish alliance. Charles’s far-flung empire was ungovernable. It devoured wealth and armies, for he was forever defending his possessions on widely separated fronts. An alliance with Spain was bound to prove costly to England, and there was little advantage to be gained from it.

The marriage actually provoked open hostility and rebellion among her subjects. The most serious uprising originated in Kent. It was led by Sir Thomas Wyatt, son of England’s leading poet. As Wyatt and over four thousand rebels advanced rapidly toward London, Mary gave a rousing speech that persuaded thousands of Londoners to fight for her. The rebels were defeated, and Wyatt and other rebel leaders were executed, but unrest continued for the remainder of Mary’s reign.

Wrongly convinced that her sister Elizabeth was involved in Wyatt’s rebellion, Mary had her imprisoned for a time at Woodstock Palace. Her suspicion of Elizabeth continued to alienate the sisters for the rest of Mary’s life.

Philip, Mary’s husband, was eleven years her junior. He spent fourteen months in England, but it seemed clear that the queen, who was already thirty-seven when she ascended the throne, could never bear children, though she had two false pregnancies. In 1555, she announced that she was pregnant, mistaking the symptoms of menopause for those of pregnancy. Another time, she mistook a case of abdominal swelling for pregnancy when, in fact, it was a growth of some sort,” perhaps an ovarian cyst or a malignant tumor.

Philip returned to England briefly in 1557 to win England’s support in a war against France. Involvement in this unsuccessful war cost England Calais, her last possession in France from the Hundred Years’ War.

Pronounced resistance to Mary’s Acts of Restoration finally directed Mary’s wrath against Protestant preachers and theologians. Several of England’s leading Protestant bishops were tortured and burned at the stake as heretics, including John Hooper, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer. Even Thomas Cranmer, who had been Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry and Edward, was burned at the stake as a heretic. Over three hundred Protestants died in the Marian persecutions, and eight hundred more fled to Germany and Switzerland. The slaughter of rebels and Protestants during Mary’s reign earned her the hatred of her English subjects, who dubbed her “Bloody Mary.”

Mary Tudor, Queen Mary I of England, died in 1558 at the age of forty-two. She was alienated and lonely, despised by her husband, and hated by her own people. 

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.