Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Unpopular Tudor

by Samantha Wilcoxson

On February 18, 1516, the Tudor court celebrated the birth of Princess Mary. After struggling to give her husband an heir, Katherine of Aragon was thrilled with the healthy baby regardless of her gender. King Henry VIII was pleased to have evidence of their ability to procreate, even if he would never grow comfortable with the idea of this little girl as a future queen. While Mary is at best ignored and at worst villainized in modern discussions of the Tudor era, she was looked upon more favorably during her own lifetime.

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.

Queen Mary I has become known as Bloody Mary, and one cannot deny that almost 300 Protestants were burned for heresy during her reign. But there is so much more to this devout woman who endured much hardship and heartbreak during her brief life. She is remembered much less positively than her sister, Elizabeth I, who also executed and imprisoned people over disagreements on faith. Others suffered simply because they had not pleased Elizabeth. Their father ruled in much the same way. Why then has Mary become the unpopular Tudor?

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
The young King Edward refused to go that far. As his once close relationship with his eldest sister disintegrated, he badgered her about the mass being held on her estates and imprisoned some members of her household, but he would not take legal action against Mary herself. The most significant step he took against her was his Devise for the Succession, written when he suspected that he was dying.

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.

Mary quickly and effectively took the throne with little resistance. Once John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, left London to lead Queen Jane's forces, support fell away as if a dam had collapsed. The people would have Mary as their queen, and many of the older generation among them also welcomed the return to traditional faith and worship. The immediate concern upon Mary's accession was not her religion but her marriage plans.

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.

It was in the name of ensuring her people's salvation and rescuing them from heresy that Mary reinstituted burnings in 1555. In the 16th century, salvation was not a private issue as it is today. Monarchs saw it as their duty to care for their subjects on this earth and to provide them with worship that gave them the hope of heaven. All across Europe, leaders were struggling with what this meant in the face of the Reformation. Mary was determined that reformist heresy would not damn her people to hell, and her hope was that, by punishing a few, she would save the masses.

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.

The rebellion failed, but Mary found herself tested. She had thus far shown mercy to Lady Jane, despite the usurpation, but her father had been involved in the rebellion. The Duke of Suffolk was beyond saving, but Mary did not concede to sign Jane's death warrant until she was convinced that Philip would not come until known traitors were dealt with. In a eerie replay of Edward of Warwick's execution to clear the way for Mary's mother, Jane went to her death to please the Spanish. To soothe her conscience and demonstrate mercy where she could, Mary forgave 400 rebels who had been sentenced to hanging.

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.

Additional Reading
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

Samantha Wilcoxson is the author of the Plantagenet Embers Trilogy. A incurable bibliophile and sufferer of wanderlust, she lives in Michigan with her husband and three teenagers. You can connect with Samantha on her blog or on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads


  1. This is an interesting post, but I would take issue with the point that Mary was superior to the rest of her family because she had fewer people killed. Her reign was the shortest of all the Tudors. I'm sure that if she had reigned as long as her sister did England would have been a bloodbath. It wasn't just the numbers that she killed that blackened her name, but whom she had killed. One of her victims was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Monarchs who execute their archbishops tend not to be remembered terribly kindly.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, April. I hesitate to certainly state anything that might have been in history. After all, isn't it those unpredictable twists and turns that cause us all to love studying it? In this case though, I do not believe that the burnings would have continued long, even if Mary had survived longer. We have to keep in mind that these events were not driven by vengeance as our modern mindset thinks they must have been. Mary was concerned before all else with salvation. That is why churchmen, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, were punished. Who had greater power to spread heresy that would damn people to hell? Before Mary died, it was already becoming evident that this wasn't actually working as well as predicted. Instead, Reginald Pole, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, had created a book of sermons that was designed to help priests draw people back to the old faith. Pole himself was also not a supporter of such heavy punishments for heresy, and would not have been likely to see it continued if ineffective. He had spoken out many times against the Inquisition, and, though he was almost elected pope, he also was investigated by the Inquisition himself for his nonconformist views. However, what would have really happened if either Mary or Reginald survived beyond November 17, 1558, remains a mystery.

  2. I sometimes think that one reason why Elizabeth never married was that it was just too hard to pick someone the English would accept. Mary showed what happened when a female monarch chose a "damned furriner" while choosing a local meant, as you said, raising a family higher than was wise - and it meant marrying an inferior, a subject. That didn't matter so much when a king raised a subject, though there was still the problem of raising a local family with her(cough cough Woodvilles)and a foreign princess was chosen for political alliances. But not the other way around. And the religion thing. Most foreign princes at that time were Catholic. It would have been too messy. And the spouse would be called king. The people would NOT like that.

    1. I agree. While Elizabeth's decisions brought about the end of her family's dynasty, she had watched poor marriage decisions and the problems they brought on throughout her life.

  3. Excellent post. It's hard not to see a history through a modern lens but we challenge ourselves when we approach it from a different perspective. I can believe that she felt that she was fighting for their soul even though her means were extreme. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thank you, Cryssa. I think we can get even more out of historical studies if we try to see it from the points of view of the people who lived it.

  4. I do consider the execution of Lady Jane to be murder. She was the choice of Edward; but,she was also a puppet. What could she do without supporters? Mary of Scotland was a threat, Jane was not. Henry II also had the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered (maybe -- it is still a bit questionable). However, I am not a proponent of any religion that forcibly closes off the minds of mankind. This definitely includes Christianity of any persuasion. To make ridiculous claims of singular salvation and then murder people who disagree with a particular dogma is immoral. No amount of mental gymnastics can justify it.

    1. Yet that is just the type of mental gymnastics required if we are to truly understand people of another age. We will never agree with everything they did, but if we never try to understand their motives then what is our goal in studying history?

  5. As someone who writes about the Scottish reformation I have to agree with Samantha. However much it may upset our modern sensibilities, religion dominated life and death and what we would now consider evil deeds were done in the name of faith & salvation. Writers of HF have to present these facts, however uncomfortable, or risk sounding inauthentic.

    1. Thank you, Marie. I'll have to look up your books as well.

  6. Excellent post. I have always had great sympathy for Mary Tudor. Her life was a series of highest highs and lowest lows, with few opportunities to gain a feeling of balance, in my opinion. What always struck me was her desire and her effort to spare Jane Grey; it would have been so easy (indeed the expected thing) to have executed Jane immediately.

    1. Thank you, Lauren. Mary is rarely given credit for her merciful acts. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. :-)


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