Thursday, November 17, 2016

The End of an Era: The Deaths of Queen Mary and Cardinal Pole

by Samantha Wilcoxson

On this day, many will celebrate the beginning of the Elizabethan age with the accession of Queen Elizabeth I. Few will mourn the passing of her sister, the less politically savvy and much misunderstood Queen Mary I.

Queen Mary I
That she is often referred to as 'Bloody Mary' is a testament to just how little is known of the older daughter of Henry VIII. This nickname is one that was applied to her long after her death, after decades of Elizabethan propaganda had painted their chosen image of Mary. In truth, Mary was welcomed with open arms by her subjects after the death of her brother, Edward VI. When Mary died on November 17, 1558, her dream of an England restored to Rome died with her. 

Mary's greatest partner in reviving Catholicism in England had been her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole. He, severely ailing himself, heard the news that his queen had died in the morning and lay dead himself before the end of the day. These two pillars of the counter-reformation fell as one and left the faith crumbling under Elizabeth's rule.

Both Mary and Reginald had faced challenges for most of their lives, and largely due to the same person, Mary's father King Henry VIII. His favor had been showered upon each of them in their early years but revoked when it no longer suited the tempestuous king. Each learned that standing up to Henry VIII led to years of heartache, and, in Reginald's case, required one to evade assassination attempts.

Mary had spent a charmed childhood as the only child of Katherine of Aragon. Queen Katherine's many attempts to give Henry another child failed, and she was content to make Mary his heir in a way that Henry was never completely comfortable with. Still, Mary was raised as if she might become queen, while Henry was alert to better options.

Henry's quest sent him on his infamous course through six wives and resulting in only one young son before he died. Mary was content that her brother should be the one to rule, despite his youth. She was a conservative woman with traditional beliefs, and did not consider that her right to rule might trump Edward's. However, when Edward died tragically young, she did not feel the same way about her cousin Lady Jane Grey.

Mary remembered her mother's dream for her (and the Act of Supremacy) when Jane attempted to usurp her throne. Thousands rallied to Mary's side, and she was declared queen with little bloodshed within a fortnight of her brother's death. Mary had been born a princess, made a bastard, and enthroned as the Queen of England. Her primary work as queen would be to restore England to Rome and rid her kingdom of heretics. To help her in this, she called upon her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole.

Reginald was the son of Mary's former governess, Margaret Pole Countess of Salisbury. He had been recognized as a child with great academic abilities, and Henry VIII had been happy to support him in his education. When Mary's trouble began, so did Reginald's. Instead of garnering support for Henry's plans to set aside Katherine and free himself to marry another, Reginald wrote De Unititate denouncing the king's actions and encouraging him to reconsider his responsibilities as God's anointed. Henry never did take constructive criticism well.

By 1541, Henry had ordered the executions of Reginald's mother and oldest brother, Henry Pole Baron Montague. Assassins had been sent to rid the king of Reginald as well, but those efforts proved unsuccessful. With Mary's accession, Reginald was finally free to return to his homeland, but he found it much changed by Edwardian reforms.

Together, Mary and Reginald hoped to repeal those reforms and secure the salvation of Mary's subjects by returning England to what they believed was the true faith.

Mary had already seen the mass restored as soon as she gained her crown in 1553. When Cardinal Pole arrived near the end of 1554, it was the restoration or removal of heretics that was left to deal with. Many Englishmen had been content to take up the mass and faith that they remembered from their younger days. However, younger people had only known the Church of England and were not as certain that they desired change. Both Mary and Reginald believed that these Protestants would embrace Catholicism once they had heard preaching of the truth.

Reality was not quite so simple. In 1555 the burning of heretics began in the hope that those who faced such punishment might repent and those who witnessed it would wish to be saved. It was a widely held belief at the time that even those who burned were given a foretaste of hell in the flames that they might repent before death and avoid the eternal fires. It is difficult to wrap the modern mind around this concept, but the focus was on the eternal and salvation considered one's primary concern.

Burning of Latimer and Ridley
The intent was to select heretics whose work it was to lead others astray for this punishment. Vociferous and well-known Protestants, such as Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, were chosen in the hope that their deaths or recantations would most effectively turn others to Catholicism. No one expected many burnings to occur, and many who recanted were spared.

While some counselled Mary to increase punishments and others encouraged her to put an end to them, the public outcry became a blend of those who believed in the religious reforms and those who were horrified by Mary's choice of a husband. Philip of Spain was widely unpopular in England because people assumed that England would eventually be made one more kingdom held under the Holy Roman Emperor when Philip's father, Charles V, died. People were still uncertain about a woman's ability to rule in her own name, and it was suspected that Philip would have his way with Mary and England. The two complaints became joined in many minds, and a protest against Philip was a refusal of Catholicism.

Added to Mary's problems were her own poor health and lack of heir. She had believed herself to be pregnant twice, but both proved false. It is likely that Mary was truly suffering the symptoms of uterine cancer, for shortly after her second phantom pregnancy, she died.

On the morning of November 17, 1558, an ailing Cardinal Pole received the news that his cousin, his queen, his partner in the counter-reformation had passed away peacefully in her sleep shortly after happily stating that she saw little children singing to her. This seems to have been more than Reginald could bear. He died about 12 hours later, bringing an end to England's reconciliation with Rome.

Elizabeth's Entry into London
Mary's sister, Elizabeth, quickly took charge with the determination of one who has been simply biding their time until they could do so. She, along with John Foxe, ensured that Mary became remembered as 'Bloody Mary' for the 280 burnings that had occurred during her reign. Despite known inaccuracies, the pictures painted by Foxe, such as Latimer allegedly saying to Ridley as their fires were lit, 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England as shall never be put out', continue to serve their purpose in blackening Mary's name.

Elizabeth refused to fulfil Mary's last wishes that her debts be paid and that money be given for the establishment of a soldiers' hospital in London. Mary had also requested that her mother's remains be placed next to her own, which Elizabeth also refused. Instead, in 1603, it was Elizabeth who shared Mary's tomb. The sisters would likely both be disappointed with this arrangement.

Mary had survived adversity and hardship, endured a self-serving father and loveless marriage, yet succeeded where no woman before her had. As England's first Queen, she rose above the ambitions and manipulations that many in the Tudor court were obsessed with. Her first and foremost concern was the salvation of her subjects. She bravely pursued this goal, and, even if she did not succeed in restoring England to Rome, she did leave to her sister a kingdom which she had proven could be ruled by a woman.

As are many who live at the end of an era, Mary has been greatly misunderstood and unfairly maligned by those who followed her and did not share her beliefs. By her contemporaries, she was well loved, as is evinced in this lament written for her funeral.

How many noble men restored and other states also
Well showed her princely liberal heart, which gave both friend and foe. 

As princely was her birth, so princely was her life, 
Constant, courtise, modest and mild; a chaste and chosen wife. 

Of mirror of all womanhood! Oh Queen of virtues pure!
Oh constant Marie! filled with grace no age can thee obscure.

Additional Reading

The First Queen of England by Linda Porter
Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock
Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor by Eamon Duffy
Reginald Pole: Prince and Prophet by Thomas Mayer

Photo Credits

Mary I: Cassell's History of England
Reginald Pole: National Portrait Gallery, London
Latimer and Ridley: Foxe's Book of Martyrs
Elizabeth's Entry into London: Cassell's History of England


Samantha Wilcoxson is a first generation American with British roots. She is passionate about reading, writing, and history, especially the Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties. Her novel, Plantagenet PrincessTudor Queen: The Story of Elizabeth of York has been recognized as a Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice. The Plantagenet Embers series continues with Faithful Traitor: The Story of Margaret Pole and will conclude with Queen of Martyrs: The Story of Mary I in 2017.

Samantha has also published two middle grade novels, No Such Thing as Perfect and Over the Deep: A Titanic Adventure.

When not reading or writing, Samantha enjoys traveling and spending time at the lake with her husband and three children. You can connect with Samantha on her blogTwitterGoodreadsBooklikes, and Amazon.


  1. Mary was a sad figure. I wouldn't have wanted to live in her England, but from this side of history I can feel sorry for her. As I recall, she didn't execute Lady Jane Grey until after there was a rebellion on her behalf. She would have known that while the girl lived, she'd be a focus for discontent. Poor Jane, though! She was used. She was a brilliant scholar who would have loved to be left alone with her books. I think if she'd been Catholic she might have become an abbess and lived happily.

    I have read that Mary had loyal servants and was loyal to her women.

    1. Yes, you are right about Jane and Mary. Mary refused to have Jane executed for the usurpation, and it was not until Jane's father took part in rebellion again that Mary reluctantly gave in to her councilors' advice rather than pardon Jane as was Mary's desire. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Really enjoyed this. A wonderful piece. And you picked up on Mary's marriage! Often understated - especially its implications. Because it made Philip of Spain (legally) the King of England. Unless there was a section in the marriage contract I don't know about!

  3. Thank you, Peter. The marriage treaty was carefully written to not give Philip too much power, but people were reasonably afraid of what the reality of the arrangement would be since having a female ruler was a new concept to Englishmen at the time. Mary definitely underestimated the fallout of her marriage decision, and it cost her dearly. Maybe things would have gone better if she had married Reginald instead.


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