Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Birth of "Bloody Mary"

By Nancy Bilyeau

Bloody Mary is the name of a drink that always contains booze and tomato juice and sometimes contains a dash of Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, lemon, salt, black pepper or a vigorous celery stalk. In 1939, the newspaper This New York reported breathlessly, “George Jessel’s newest pick-me-up that is receiving attention from the town’s paragraphers is called a Bloody Mary: half tomato juice, half vodka.”

Bloody Mary is also the name of a macabre children’s game. Find a mirror, turn out the lights, and call out her name three times. When you switch on the light, Bloody Mary herself will appear in the mirror—the ghost of a woman wrongly accused of killing her own children.

And, most significantly, Bloody Mary is the moniker for Mary Tudor, the oldest child of Henry VIII. At the age of 37, she courageously took the throne by force after her half-brother Edward altered the act of succession. Young Edward wanted his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, to follow him, not his Catholic sister. But Mary raised an army and overthrew Jane’s fragile government. Her five-year reign is not considered a success. She married a Hapsburg prince—the marriage was very unpopular—and had a phantom pregnancy (maybe two). England experienced bad harvests every year during her reign. A war with France ended in disaster: the loss of Calais.

 Those new to the 16th century sometimes have trouble keeping the “Mary”s straight. There is Mary, Queen of Scots, the beauty who married three times, lost her throne and was eventually executed by Elizabeth I. She was romantic. The Mary I write about in this post is the other one—the “Bloody” one who, in her zealousness to turn England back into a Catholic country had 284 Protestant martyrs burned at the stake. While more than 300 Catholic martyrs died during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Mary is the one who carries the reputation of being a merciless, bigotry-filled killer.

How that reputation evolved over the centuries is very interesting.

Mary Tudor was a woman of her time. While that may seem obvious, she was followed by a half-sister who was in some ways ahead of her time. Mary took a husband to secure the succession by having children, as every monarch was expected to do. Elizabeth refused to marry. Mary upheld the Catholic religion and did not recognize the opposing point of view. Elizabeth famously said, “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith, all else is a dispute over trifles.” Mary and Elizabeth, while close when young, distrusted each other by the time Mary took the throne. The relationship went downhill from there. When Elizabeth succeeded, she did not honor Mary’s request to be buried with her mother, Katherine of Aragon, and rarely spoke well of her older sibling.

But it wasn’t Elizabeth who ensured that Mary would be detested for centuries. The first person to push her toward infamy—hard—was John Foxe, the Protestant author of The Book of Martyrs. Most English people did not witness the burnings of condemned heretics. But thanks to Foxe’s widespread book, first published in 1563, the horror of being burned at the stake was made starkly clear. These descriptions make for harrowing reading, then and now.

It was Foxe who wrote, “The next victim was the amiable Lady Jane Gray, who, by her acceptance of the crown at the earnest solicitations of her friends, incurred the implacable resentment of the bloody Mary.” But the nickname did not take hold then—in fact, it did not spring up until a century later.
The succession crisis over James, Duke of York, directly led to the vilification of Mary Tudor. Fear that James, who converted to Catholicism, would succeed his brother, Charles II, gripped much of England. Should a Catholic become king, one politician warned, the kingdom would see persecutions as “bloody or bloodier than the ones in Mary’s reign.” An anonymous ballad in 1674 declared that after Edward VI died “Then Bloody Mary did begin/in England for to tyrannize.” She was used as a threatening memory of tyranny and death and slavish devotion to the Pope. This was the genesis of Bloody Mary.

            The revolution of 1688 put a Protestant on the throne and the Act of Union in 1707 ensured that a Catholic could never rule England. But paranoia about Jacobite risings led to more and more denunciations of Mary I. Today historians agree that, no matter what one thinks of her later reign, Mary was an attractive young woman, well educated and exceptionally talented in music. She loved fine clothes, jewelry and gambling. She was a devoted godmother and generous friend right up until her death. But in the lowest point of Mary’s historical reputation she was depicted as not only bloodthirsty and tyrannical but also stupid and hideous.

Here is how an 18th century historian describes the Tudor queen: “Mary was not formed to please, she had nothing of the woman in either her history or her behavior; she was stiff, formal, reserved, sour, haughty and arrogant, her face plain and coarse, without any soft features to smooth its roughness or any insinuating graces to shade its defects. Everything in her looks, her air, her carriage and manner, was forbidding…scarce ever was there a person so utterly void of all the agreeable qualities.”

            A century later, no less a figure than Charles Dickens attacked Mary with ferocity. In A Child’s History of England, Dickens ranted: “As BLOODY QUEEN MARY, this woman has become famous, and as BLOODY QUEEN MARY she will ever be justly remembered with horror and detestation in Great Britain. Her memory has been held in such abhorrence that some writers have arisen in later years to take her part and show that she was, upon the whole, quite an amiable and cheerful sovereign! ‘By their fruits ye shall know them,’ said OUR SAVIOR. The stake and the fire were the fruits of this reign, and you shall judge this Queen by nothing else.”

            It is not until the 20th century that attempts were made to draw a more balanced portrait of Mary. Last year saw the publication of Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives, a collection of scholars’ essays co-edited by Susan Doran and Thomas S Freeman. On the first page, the editors say, the purpose of the book is to reveal an “educated, resourceful and pragmatic queen.” One of the essays (bravely) takes on the issue of the martyrs: “The burning of 284 religious dissidents is morally unjustifiable from a twenty-first-century perspective. It is important to remember, however, that the values of the 21st century are not the values of the 16th century, and that in the 16th century the execution of obstinate heretics was almost universally regarded as a necessary duty of a Christian ruler.”

            Will the real Mary Tudor finally emerge from the shadows, thanks to books like this one? I look forward to new perspectives on the oldest daughter of Henry VIII. The screams of the dying martyrs of the 1550s can never be silenced.  But the time may have come for Mary’s name to stand alone—and for  “Bloody” to be no more.

UK cover/Orion
US cover/S&S
            The Lady Mary Tudor is a character in The Crown and The Chalice, a series of historical thrillers published by Simon & Schuster and now on sale in North America, the United Kingdom and Germany. The Chalice is available for $1.99 on amazon and Barnes & Noble for the month of February. The third and final book in the trilogy, The Tapestry, will be published March 24th.
            For more information, go to


  1. Fasinating posts. AS a child the game bloody mary terrified The blood shed in the name of religion is both a interesting and depressing subject. As for Mary...sadly i don't think she will able to shake the name bloody mary...her crimes cannot easily be overlooked.

  2. One of the most difficult things to overcome is the modern tendency to try to apply 21 century values to earlier eras. Thank you for this article!

  3. One aspect of this reputation is that it takes a long time for the academic changes in historical method and bias to filter down to the popular level. The biographical studies of the past few years have had little impact on the reading public's general notion of the first Queen Regnant of England. See my review essay published on First Things:
    Thanks for a great and well balanced post.

  4. Katherine MarcellaMarch 22, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    I think the title was well-earned. If my math is correct,
    Mary I executed about 4.43 Protestants per month
    Henry VIII + Elizabeth I executed about 1 Catholic every 3.35 months.

    Most of those executed under Mary were burned at the stake. Most of those under Henry VIII and Elizabeth were beheaded or executed in a more humane way.

    In any case, I do not believe that is way sovereigns should be judged because each sovereign has very different threats they encounter.

    I refuse to give any credit to Mary no matter how nice she was a child and teenager, because she was a very poor Queen, accomplishing nothing much of any use to the country. Her main concern was forcing the country to be Catholic again, when the country clearly did not want to be. And I simply cannot like anybody who believes she can't get pregnant because God is mad at her for not executing enough heretics. I think she is heinous and totally deserves being called Bloody Mary.

    If the soubriquet fits, wear it!

    1. I think you need to study history more closely before judging monarchs who lived more than 400 years ago. The 'soubriquet' doesn't fit at all. How can you state that being beheaded or hung, drawn and quartered is a more humane way of killing people for their religious beliefs? It's all persecution. Have a look at the number of people who were killed under her brother's reign thanks to Somerset and Northumberland after the rebellions - thousands! But we live in different times and have different notions of morality. In actual fact Mary passed a few laws to remedy the disastrous policies under Henry and Edward: 20 August 1553 a proclamation issued ‘Ordering Reform of Gold and Silver Coin.’; September 1553 a proclamation issued ‘Announcing Payment of Edward VI’s Debts, Renouncing Subsidy’. She was only queen for 5 years and she was the first queen regnant in England at a time when female rule was not welcomed. She had to struggle to obtain her accession to the throne thanks to to the machinations of Northumberland, and against all the odds she succeeded. I think she was a pretty admirable women for her time, despite her religious zeal. Selective history is not scholarly and simply inaccurate.

    2. Typing correction: 'woman' not 'women'.

    3. Truly, eviscerating priests, hacking off their genitals and stuffing them in their mouths, drawing and quartering victims hoping to prolong a death as long as possible so the victim can witness it, nailing body parts to doorways and mounting heads on pikes, does not amount to any form humane treatment. I think the effort to claim the moral high ground here on either side is a little indefensible.

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone! Mary stirs up emotion even now , that is one of the reasons I am so fascinated by her. I too feel that the harshness of history has singled Mary out. Burnings are a truly horrific death. But the Carthusian Martyrs, tortured, starved and then executed by Henry VIII by being disemboweled while alive--I think they might have something to say about inhuman ends. All deaths in the name of religion upset me greatly and one of my challenges as a historical novelist is to attempt to get into the minds of those who lived long ago and try to understand.

  6. I believe if Mary had been queen for a longer period of time, she would have had the time to do other things to put her on the historical map for other reasons. Henry was much more bloodier than his daughter, and he didn't have the commitment Mary had, he punished protestants one day, catholics the next day, etc.

  7. The Protestants, via Northumberland, had broken the ice for having a female on the throne with Jane Grey, so they could hardly use that as a rallying cry. As for all the torture and burnings, it was a claim of the Church, probably ringing through people's heads daily, that God was going to burn people forever in Hell- especially heretics, no doubt. So that may have had a huge influence on the way strongly religious monarchs handled their heretics. And I can certainly understand Mary's resentment.

    1. Jane Grey was only queen by name for 9 days. There was no coronation and she was not acknowledged universally. In fact, she didn't want to be queen at all, and recognised Mary's right to the succession. Mary is now regarded as England's first queen regnant.
      This shouldn't be about our current religious agendas. I am an atheist, and I am not of either Protestant or Catholic background. I just like to be objective and as accurate as possible about the truth.

  8. Fascinating essay. I look forward to seeing a more realistic portrait of Mary emerge. In reading THE CROWN I was surprised at your depiction of Mary in the novel, since I had read that she was ugly, stiff, etc. I loved the scene with Mary, there was such dramatic tension. I hope there will be a sequel to THE CROWN!

  9. Part of the reason that "Bloody" Mary is looked upon so poorly is bad press. Mary had protestants burned as heretics because of their religion and threat to the (Roman) Church. Elizabeth had Catholics executed as traitors and threats to the English Kingdom. Elizabeth was more politically adept is her handling of such and had a longer time to establish (and rewrite) how history would perceive her.

    Mary also had the ill-grace, from the English viewpoint, of loving her mother's homeland and marrying a Spanish prince, who -many feared- would try to become king of England.

  10. Definitely something to add to my reading list. Good historical fiction can be as rare and valuable as a perfect emerald, and I am always looking for the green glow of accurate research, careful depiction, and creative nerve.

  11. Interesting, isn't it? How Mary got the terrible reputation, when Elizabeth and her father killed many more innocent people, and for more selfish reasons. I cannot wait to read The Chalice! I loved Innocent Traitor, by Allisor Weir, and obviously, The Crown. I think that people miss that similarities and choose the arguments instead, when it comes to religion. Good grief! Just try to get along!

  12. Interesting, isn't it? How Mary got the terrible reputation, when Elizabeth and her father killed many more innocent people, and for more selfish reasons. I cannot wait to read The Chalice! I loved Innocent Traitor, by Allisor Weir, and obviously, The Crown. I think that people miss that similarities and choose the arguments instead, when it comes to religion. Good grief! Just try to get along!

  13. Wow! Really?! Typing corrections?! Don't even read this blog if all you are going to do is judge the typing corrections. Get some depth…

  14. Funny how Mary gets the bad reputation when her own father is the one who formed his own personal religion on the selfish terms of wanting a divorce or annulment from the church, just so he could marry the girl he was committing adultery with! He had shut down many more monasteries and martyrd many more martyrs than even his daughter Mary did, except his was to try and justify his adultery! nice try! i can't wait to read The Chalice! The Crown was great!


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