Mary Tudor: A Catholic Tudor Queen
An Original Essay by C.W. Gortner
Mary I of England is without doubt one of history’s most reviled and misunderstood figures—a queen who overcame tremendous odds to win her throne in 1553 yet who managed by her death in 1558 to have deeply divided her realm, responsible for a savage persecution that terrorized her realm. She ruled only five years but so terrible is the memory of her deeds that she has earned the sobriquet of “Bloody Mary”, a name for which she is still known today.
Mary was the sole surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain. Catherine was sent to England to marry the Tudor heir, Prince Arthur, but his sudden demise left her a widow. Catherine claimed the marriage had never been consummated, and her impoverished isolation in the years that followed stoked the ardor of the new heir, Henry, who, upon his coronation, wed Catherine despite a six-year difference in their ages. Catherine and Henry were married for twenty-four years; stalwart and devout, indubitably in love with her husband, Catherine endured numerous miscarriages and the death of an infant son before finally giving birth to Mary in February of 1516.
As Henry’s sole heir (for despite his later obsessive quest for a son, a daughter could inherit his crown) Mary was adored by her parents. Historical sources recount numerous occasions when the handsome king displayed his fair-haired daughter to his court, showing off her skill with music and graceful charm. But Henry’s disillusion with his aging, now-barren wife catapulted him into a tumultuous affair with one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting, the ambitious Anne Boleyn, who would settle for nothing less than marriage. Thus, at the age of fifteen, Mary’s entire world was turned upside down, her status yanked out from under her as she watched her mother, clinging to her title and rights, exiled to a remote manor, where Catherine died in appalling conditions and in fear for the safety of the daughter she’d been forbidden to see. Anne Boleyn also vented her spleen, forcing Mary to serve Anne’s infant daughter by Henry, Princess Elizabeth, and even, sources claim, plotting to have Mary killed. The cataclysm unleashed by Henry’s passion for Anne changed England forever, resulting in a nascent reformation that would in time make Protestantism the official faith, even as Anne waged desperate battle to protect herself and her child. In 1536, Anne lost her battle and was executed on trumped-up charges; within weeks Elizabeth joined her half-sister Mary as a bastard daughter of the king.
Mary’s struggles continued while Henry married four more times. Steadfast in her Catholicism, the faith in which she’d been reared and which her mother had exhorted her to uphold, she finally gave into her father’s demands to acknowledge him as Head of the Church—an act that haunted her for the rest of her life, as she felt she’d betrayed her mother’s trust and her own belief that the only true church was the Catholic one. In those years, she developed an often uneasy relationship with her half-siblings, Elizabeth and their brother Edward, born of Henry’s third wife, both of whom had imbued the radical spirit of the Reformation.
Various suitors for Mary’s hand came and went; at the age of thirty-seven, when many women were considered unmarriageable, she found herself in the hunter’s snare once more when John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, usurped her claim to the throne upon Edward VI’s death and set his daughter-in-law, Jane Grey, in her place. Often neglected and ignored, prematurely aged by self-imposed seclusion, Mary displayed her innate Tudor ferocity, eluding her pursuers to amass an army and march on London. She may have been a Catholic spinster but the people cheered her as the rightful queen and rallied to her cause. She was crowned in the summer of 1553, sending Jane Grey, Northumberland and his sons to the Tower. Many of the new queen’s advisors, including the wily Imperial ambassador, Renard, urged Mary to execute her prisoners but she consented only to Northumberland’s death, promising release in time for Jane and the Dudley sons. Even in questions of religion she expressed caution, citing her people’s hearts could only be won back in stages. Nevertheless, one of her first acts was to overturn the annulment of her mother’s marriage to Henry VIII, casting further doubt on Elizabeth’s legitimacy.
The advent of her marriage to Philip of Spain, son of the Hapsburg emperor and Mary’s cousin, Charles V, who had long been a scion of support, if not actual assistance, changed everything. Suddenly, Mary saw the possibility of happiness bloom before her: the chance to be love and be loved, to become a wife and mother. As Renard pressured her to deal with all remaining threats to her faith and crown, including Elizabeth, whom he believed was the active figurehead of Protestant opposition, the deep-seated wounds inflicted on Mary since adolescence flared anew. She remembered her hatred of Anne Boleyn, her helpless horror over her father’s zeal to amass the Church’s wealth and abolish its power, her heartrending sorrow at the separation from, and death of, her mother, and the long years of humiliation. The past could be absolved, she believed. Everything that had gone wrong could be put to right, if only she roused the strength that Catherine of Aragon had shown; the unstinting fervor that her maternal grandmother, Queen Isabella, had employed to unite Spain. She saw herself as a savior, who must do whatever was required to bring about her people’s return to the Catholic fold.
Caught in a maelstrom of her own convictions, Mary precipitated her tragedy.
It is too simple to condemn her as a monster, though she behaved in a monstrous way. Her execution of Jane Grey and subsequent burning of over two hundred Protestants, among who were Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, and Bishops Ridley and Latimer, blackened her name and left her country in chaos, the smoke of the pyres only clearing once she took to her deathbed after a false pregnancy that may have been uterine cancer. She left behind a realm ravaged by political and religious dissension, widespread famine and penury. The loss of England’s last possession in France, the city of Calais, was a blow Mary declared would be found engraved on her heart. Even in her final hours, she was beset by those who implored her to condemn Elizabeth—an act she refused. In doing so, Mary unwittingly accomplished in death what she had failed to do in life: She gave England back its hope, in the form of a virgin queen, whose unparalleled grandeur and longevity would define an era.