Monday, January 27, 2020

Something about Mary

by Judith Arnopp

Anthonis MorMuseo del PradoMadrid, 1554 - Public Domain

Mary was the eldest of Henry VIII’s children. In her infancy she was lauded as a princess, the king referred to her as his ‘pearl’ and she was afforded every honour due to a Henrygirl in her position. Her mother, Catherine of Aragon, after suffering numerous miscarriages and still births was growing old. and her fertile years were at an end. As her fertility died, so did Henry’s love for her.

Anne Boleyn was everything the queen was not; young, fertile, witty and entrancing and Henry was unable to resist. In the years that followed, Mary and her mother’s status was brought into question, the marriage declared illegal and Mary was branded illegitimate. Teenage years are often difficult. Our emotions are in turmoil as we struggle to come to terms with the adult world. Imagine the thirteen year old Mary, isolated from those she loved, separated from her mother and compelled to deny the validity of her parent’s marriage and condemn herself as illegitimate.

Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery - Public Domain

In 1533 Henry and the now pregnant Anne Boleyn were married – seventeen-year-old Mary was heartbroken, the hurt intensified when she was sent as a servant to the household of her new sister, Elizabeth.

I would imagine there are difficulties for anyone accustomed to being the apple of their father’s eye when suddenly supplanted by the arrival of a new sibling but Mary was not just replaced in her father’s affection but in every aspect of her former life. Her titles were stripped, her property removed and her status demolished along with any hope of ever becoming queen. Her father’s love must have seemed like some distant dream, and since her nebulous status made her all but unmarriageable her future looked bleak.

Yet, she seems to have borne no ill-will toward Elizabeth. The same cannot be said for Anne however, whom Mary refused to acknowledge as queen and declared she knew no queen of England other than her mother. The Spanish ambassador, Chapuys, began a rumour that Anne was plotting to poison Mary, a rumour (if it were a rumour) that undermined Mary’s security even further.

During my studies of Mary, I discovered an isolated figure, never more so than during this traumatic period. She was not allowed to see her mother again and was inconsolable when Catherine died in January 1536, just four months before Anne Boleyn herself went to the scaffold. With Anne’s demise one might have imagined Mary’s trials were at an end but although her new step-mother, Jane Seymour, went out of her way to reunite Mary and Henry and persuaded the king to bring her back to court, Mary’s humiliation was not over. Henry insisted she accept him as head of the church in England, renounce papal authority and acknowledge Henry and Catherine’s marriage was invalid and she herself illegitimate. One would imagine that this was a very high price to pay for paternal love that should have been her due.

Henry VIII Holbein - Public Domain

Even after Mary returned to court and her household was reinstated and she was reunited with her lifelong friend, Susan Clarencieux her life continued to be difficult. As the dissolution of the monasteries intensified, Mary saw the church she saw as the ‘true church’ all but demolished. She had to sit quietly while monks and nuns were punished. Henry was no longer the golden king of Mary’s infancy but became increasingly ruthless, a trait that grew worse after Queen Jane died shortly after childbirth, providing Henry with Edward, the son he’d longed for.

After the execution of her fifth step-mother, Katherine Howard, Mary was invited to act as hostess at court until the king married his final wife, Katheryn Parr. For a short time the royal family were reunited and almost ‘normal’ or at least as normal as the Tudors ever managed. Encouraged by Parr, Henry welcomed all three of his children back into the fold and, although they remained illegitimate both Mary and Elizabeth were reinstated in the line of succession, after Edward. It was only a brief respite for Mary, who under her brother’s strictly Protestant rule, was to suffer further subjection and torment.

All things considered, there is little wonder that Mary grew into a troubled adult, and ultimately became as harsh a ruler as her father. Of all the women I have studied and written about in my novels, Mary strikes me as the most pitiful. She wasn’t friendless; the people loved Mary from her cradle to her deathbed but for much of the time were afraid to show it.

Edward VI Attributed William Scrots - Public Domain

From infancy she suffered trauma that would have broken most people. But Mary stood firm for as long as she could under constant pressure from her father and his councillors, her brother and his protectors and never ceased to champion her religion. Isolated and terrified, she stood for what she believed was right and, once the crown was finally within her grasp, she did not hesitate to step up to the mark and fight for it.

In a premeditated act, the Duke of Northumberland persuaded Edward to name his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir in Mary’s place. Having previously married Jane to his son, Guildford Dudley, Northumberland clearly planned to manipulate her and rule in her stead. But Mary was having none of it and rallied an army at Framlingham Castle where support for Northumberland quickly crumbled.

Mary’s reign has been largely regarded as a failure and from our perspective it is easy to see how she earned the title Bloody Mary. As queen, Mary married against the will of the people. She failed to understand the desire of the populace to worship in the manner of their choosing. She failed to provide an heir, suffering phantom pregnancies and dying before her innovative plans for England came to fruition. Yet some of those plans were promising.

She began many policies that have since been laid at Elizabeth's door: reforms to the economy, naval expansion and colonial exploration and had her reign been longer, she may have been remembered very differently. Her success is always measured against Elizabeth's yet Mary had just five years against Elizabeth's forty-four. As with her father, Mary is remembered for her very worst acts yet there was much more to her than religious persecution and brutality. I do not seek to whitewash her actions but to consider the events of her life as she saw them, and it cannot be denied that Mary flew the Tudor banner bravely. She was stalwart, stubborn and loyal. She was sometimes unwise, she was overly passionate and she could be harsh but despite everything, she was loved by her people.

Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth. National Portrait gallery - public domain

Judith Arnopp is the author of twelve historical fiction novels, her latest being in The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England available on Kindle, in Paperback and soon on audible.

To find out more please visit her website


  1. I found it very rewarding to study Mary's life. It would be great if more people looked more deeply into her story.

  2. Fantastic article. I'll definitely check out this book.

  3. Thank you Danielle, if you do read it, I hope you enjoy it. I found Mary quite difficult too study - I found her plight terribly sad. She was born into such splendour, to such celebration yet by the time she was a teenager she was so isolated. Even after she came into her own she never seemed to really grasp happiness. Of all the troubled Tudor women I have written about, Mary is the saddest.


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