Mary's early childhood was charmed. She was beloved by both parents and praised by those visiting her father's court for her beauty and precociousness. Henry may not have wished for Mary to inherit his kingdom, but he understood her value as a potential wife. He was proud of his daughter and ensured that she received an exceptional education.
Henry VIII's Great Matter and Queen Katherine's fall from favor is often offered as a reason for Mary's actions during her reign. However, this reasoning fails to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of Mary Tudor. Rather than vengeance, she was motivated by her belief that it was her duty to shepherd her people in the faith.
Mary may have struggled to have her father recognize her as legitimate once he had set aside her mother, but her more serious issues began on the accession of her brother, Edward VI. Henry's Church of England had, by and large, been Catholicism with Henry at its head rather than the Pope. Those who advised the young Edward had something rather different in mind. Mary held as steadfastly to her faith as one might expect of the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, causing some to call for her arrest. The most bold encouraged Edward to have her executed, whether for treason or heresy made little difference.
|Edward VI's Devise for the Succession|
Edward had never taken the step of legitimizing either of his half-sisters. Therefore, Mary and Elizabeth were still legally bastards throughout his reign, though still his heirs based upon the Act of Succession made law by their father's Parliament. Had Edward lived longer, he likely would have had this rescinded with the succession altered to fit his own desires, but when he died in July 1553 only his will had been updated.
Bypassing both sisters and his cousin, Frances Grey, who were the next three in line according to the Act of Succession, Edward attempted to leave his crown to Lady Jane Grey, Frances' daughter. Neither Edward nor his council foresaw the popular support that went to Mary instead. There was little love for Queen Jane, for few knew her. However, many remembered the widely celebrated Princess Mary and saw her as the true heir of her father and brother.
Many betrothals had been proposed over the years, but Mary remained single at age 37. As queen, the bearing of an heir was paramount, but everyone remembered her mother's sad childbearing history. Mary needed to be married quickly but to the proper spouse. In a country that had never before been ruled by a woman, Mary's choice of husband was a scary prospect. Any English subject she chose to marry raised his family up astronomically, but marriage to a foreign prince could be even worse.
Despite much encouragement for her to accept the suit of Edward Courtenay and the York blood flowing through his veins, Mary chose a cousin from her mother's side of the family, Philip of Spain. Philip's father, Charles V, had long been a great supporter of Mary and her mother, and Mary trusted him more than almost any other. When he offered his son, she quickly accepted, but the rest of the country feared that England would become part of the Holy Roman Empire of which Charles was king.
This outcry against Philip became fused with the younger generation's reluctance to accept the old faith. Had Mary better understood her subjects, she may have made a different decision, for she was as dedicated to serving her country as her sister would later be credited for. Her misjudgment was severe, causing Protestant uprisings against Philip and all he stood for.
Burning as a punishment is horrific to the modern mind. To the 16th century mind, it was a foretaste of the fires of hell that encouraged the sufferer to repent and therefore be saved from the eternal fires. Those punished might be saved at the last minute, and those who witnessed would be forced to reconsider their beliefs. Mary believed that she was doing her duty to her people and her God in her attempts to end heresy.
Her contemporaries, by and large, agreed with her. Some became enraged when local authorities in charge of fulfilling Mary's commands used their power to punish rivals rather than heretics, but Mary's actions were widely accepted. Were it not for the biased writing of John Foxe and efforts of her own sister after Mary's death, the Marian burnings would scarcely be a notable historic event. In truth, fewer were executed by Mary than her fellow Tudor monarchs.
The rejection of Catholicism in England has become connected with the negative view of Queen Mary, so that, even today, people remember her more as Bloody Mary than the first Queen Regnant of England. The lack of sympathy with which she is viewed and misunderstandings of her abound, but Elizabeth significantly benefited from her sister's example.
Lesser known than the persecution of heretics and false pregnancies of Mary's reign are her acts of mercy and ability to inspire loyalty of her people. During Wyatt's Rebellion in 1554, an uprising determined to stop Mary's marriage to Philip, Mary refused to leave London and gave a rousing speech to the people of the city, encouraging them to stand by her and oppose the rebels. They did.
In her speech, Mary used words that would later be employed by her sister.
What I am loving subjects, ye know your Queen, to whom, at my coronation, ye promised allegiance and obedience, I was then wedded to the realm, and to the laws of the same, the spousal ring whereof I wear here on my finger, and it never has and never shall be left off.
I cannot tell how naturally a mother loveth her children, for I never had any, but if the subjects may be loved as a mother doth her child, then assure yourselves that I, your sovereign lady and your Queen, do earnestly love and favour you. I cannot but think you love me in return; and thus, bound in concord, we shall be able, I doubt not, to give these rebels a speedy overthrow.
I am neither so desirous of wedding, nor so precisely wedded to my will, that I needs must have a husband. Hitherto I have lived a virgin, and I doubt not, with God's grace, to live still. But if, as my ancestors have done, it might please God that I should leave you a successor to be your governor, I trust you would rejoice thereat; also, I know it would be to your comfort.
While this one act of mercy saved more men than all those who had died for heresy, it is not acts such as this that Mary is remembered for. Neither is she given credit for demonstrating to her younger sister that a woman could indeed rule. Elizabeth learned from Mary's mistakes and made many of her own, leading to the end of the Tudor dynasty. She ensured her own reputation as Gloriana, in part by blackening the name of the sister who preceded her. Mary may be the unpopular Tudor, but her story is one that inspired her sister to greater glory and might deserve to be more sympathetically remembered today.
Catholic England under Mary Tudor by Eamon Duffy
Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock
The First Queen of England by Linda Porter
Edward VI: The Lost King of England by Chris Skidmore
All images in the public domain through Wikimedia Commons
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