Five Things You Didn’t Know About Mary I (but probably should)

Mary Tudor (aka Mary I, aka Bloody Mary) is the Person of the Month over on the Tudor Times website.  I did a podcast episode on her about a year and a half ago, and I wanted to revisit this much-maligned woman.  So here, for your reading pleasure – some random facts about Mary I that might make you rethink the stereotypical picture of her that we normally see.

  1.  Mary wasn’t really all that bloody.
    The perception is that Mary was this bloodthirsty queen who took revenge on all those who supported Anne Boleyn over her mother, Katherine of Aragon, by burning every Protestant she could find at the stake.  In fact, she started out her reign wanting to win people back to the Catholic faith through education rather than force.  And it was her Protestant sister Elizabeth who used torture at a higher rate than any other time in English history, in an effort to prosecute recusant Catholics. If it wasn’t for Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and the propaganda machine spun by the victors (the Protestants), we might see her very differently.  Yes, she burned heretics.  That was the standard punishment for heresy – it made the victim think about the fires of hell that they would be shortly suffering, and make them rethink their stand.  The hope was that the fires would make them change their mind in time so that after death they could go to heaven.  So in that sense, it was actually a rather thoughtful form of punishment.  Finally, the official punishment for heresy from the church was death, but the church wasn’t allowed to put anyone to death, so all death sentences fell to the secular government to carry out.  In that respect, Mary was only acting on what the church dictated.
  2. She was actually a pretty moderate Catholic.
    While she did reconcile with Rome, she knew that the politics of the time wouldn’t allow her to redistribute all the Church lands that had been taken by her father, Henry VIII, in the Dissolution of the Monasteries and given to high ranking nobles.  So while she would have loved to have re-founded all of those monasteries and churches that had been dissolved, she didn’t.  The nobles kept their land, and she probably felt guilty about it, but she played politics and compromised.
  3. Elizabeth’s victory over the Spanish Armada wouldn’t have been possible without Mary
    After years of the Royal Navy falling into disarray as Henry VIII aged, and his son didn’t care very much, Mary took an active interest in rebuilding the Navy and making it the Armada-defeating machine that it became.  It was actually very much down to her husband, Phillip II of Spain, who saw the potential of the island nation having a strong navy.  Of course, that decision would come back to bite him in the ass thirty years later when Elizabeth gave him a firm thumping, but the final decision rested with Mary.  You’re welcome, Elizabeth.
  4. She was charismatic.  
    In the first year of her reign there was a rebellion, Wyatt’s Rebellion, which was precipitated by Mary’s impending marriage to the Catholic Phillip of Spain.  All of the Protestants were afraid of what would happen if Phillip became King, and they tried to overthrow Mary.  She gathered her forces at the Guildhall in London, and gave a speech that was as moving and uplifting as any Elizabeth gave.  It’s been recorded as:
    I am your Queen, to whom at my coronation, when I was wedded to the realm and laws of the same (the spousal ring whereof I have on my finger, which never hitherto was, not hereafter shall be, left off), you promised your allegiance and obedience to me…. And I say to you, on the word of a Prince, I cannot tell how naturally the mother loveth the child, for I was never the mother of any; but certainly, if a Prince and Governor may as naturally and earnestly love her subjects as the mother doth love the child, then assure yourselves that I, being your lady and mistress, do as earnestly and tenderly love and favour you. And I, thus loving you, cannot but think that ye as heartily and faithfully love me; and then I doubt not but we shall give these rebels a short and speedy overthrow.”

    I can picture her, sitting on her horse, talking about being married to her subjects (the same metaphor Elizabeth would so successfully use) and having everyone cheer for her.  She must have felt so confident in their loyalties then, and her own success.  Sadly, it wasn’t going to work out that well for her, long term.

  5. She was a woman
    I know this is obvious, but it’s important to remember that for decades her sole importance was as a marriage pawn.  Negotiations for her marriage began when she was still a toddler.  She was engaged before she was even ten, but then the engagements all fell through when she was declared a bastard.  Then she has to fight her way into the throne because the Protestants dreamt up a plot to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne rather than Mary.  Finally she has the chance to marry and have a child and her bloody nobles all throw a fit because her chosen mate is a Catholic.  Then she finally marries, and is a blushing bride in her late 30’s (which is pretty old for the time period) and she wants so badly to have children and is thrilled when she gets pregnant right away.  And it turns out it’s a phantom pregnancy, so even though the doctors say she’s pregnant, she goes into confinement and is excited to become a mother, and then she’s not.  She finally died, probably of ovarian cancer, when she was only 42.

    But even through all of that, she was still the first woman to rule England in her own right, with all rights of any King.  If she hadn’t been followed by her sister, who ruled for 45 years, fought off the Spanish, and ushered in this Gloriana period, who knows what we would have thought about her.  Elizabeth had a chance to learn from the mistakes of Mary, and given what she had to work with, Mary actually did exceptionally well.  The first woman to rule on her own, having had to fight for her crown after being declared a bastard.  It’s quite tragic that history has been written so that we barely remember all of the greatness of her, because there was clearly quite a lot.

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