Can We Give Mary Tudor a Break? (Guest Post)



Guest post by Juliana Cummings

She is known as one of the most evil women in history and is responsible for burning more protestants at stake than any other English Monarch.  There are alcoholic drinks and children’s sleepover games named after her, but in all fairness was Mary Tudor, the first Queen regnant, evil?

Born on February 18, 1516, Princess Mary would be the only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. By the time Mary was born, Katherine and Henry had already lost several children, either through miscarriage or stillbirth.  And while Mary was a healthy baby, she was still a girl, not the long-awaited prince of Greenwich Palace.

Mary was brought up Catholic, and like her mother, Mary’s  faith would become unshakable during the hardest days of her life.  Mary was instructed by her mother to attend mass several times a day and also to be sure she knew her prayers.  Mary was not only spoiled by her mother but she was the apple of her father’s eye. Despite the fact that she was not a boy, she was the most loved little girl in all of England.

However the ruby cheeked, red-haired Mary was often used as a pawn by her father in securing the English throne. At only two years of age,  she was betrothed to the young son of King Francis l of France. But the marriage contract was broken after three years. At six years of age, she was betrothed to her 22-year-old cousin, Charles V of Spain, with the promise of a large dowry.  This too fell through and it was even suggested that she marry King Francis l himself. Happily for Mary, this did not happen either.



In 1525 Mary was sent to live at Ludlow Castle of the age of nine under the tutelage of Lady Margaret Bryan. It was common practice for royal children to be brought up away from court.  It was also around this time that Henry VIII was becoming increasingly frustrated with the fact that he still did not have a male heir. Queen Katherine was six years older than The King and it seemed that her child-bearing days were coming to an end.  

When The  Lady Anne Boleyn walked into King Henry’s court in 1526, it would ultimately mean the end of the royal marriage. Anne, a lady in waiting to The Queen, was young and beautiful and attracted the eyes of not only several men of the court but The King himself. Anne gave Henry even more reason to end his marriage with Katherine. She would deliver him a son once she became Queen.  

Henry was a very religious man and he  turned to The Bible for guidance. A chapter in the book of Leviticus 20:21 stated that if a man married his brother’s wife, “it was unclean and they shall be childless”.  Before becoming Henry’s Queen, Katherine had been the bride of Henry’s older brother Arthur for only four months when he passed away. This was enough to convince Henry that his  marriage to Katherine had been no marriage at all and he that he should have the right to divorce her. It also convinced him that his daughter Princess Mary, was now a bastard.



Over the next several years, Henry and Anne continued to have an open and lucid affair directly under the nose of Queen Katherine.  And in June of 1527 Henry told Katherine he was ending the marriage and demanded his advisers petition the Pope for a divorce.

There was no love lost between Mary Tudor and Anne Boleyn. Mary saw Lady Boleyn as the great whore who was determined to ruin her mother.  Over the next year Henry’s advisers carried forth their attempts to persuade The Catholic Church to give him his divorce. When Anne Boleyn became ruthless in her attempts to dethrone Queen Katherine, Mary’s feelings turned to pure hatred.

Queen Katherine’s attempts at trying to save her marriage, even with The Catholic Church on her side, were in vain.  In the summer of 1529, a frustrated Henry VIII sent Queen Katherine away for good. And Princess Mary never saw her mother again.  After four years of fruitless attempts at convincing Rome to give him a divorce, Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself head of the new Church of England. He then married Anne Boleyn, who was already pregnant with his child, in a small ceremony.  Queen Katherine was demoted to Dowager Princess of Wales while Princess Mary was stripped of her titles. And Anne Boleyn now reigned as Queen of England.

In September of 1533, Queen Anne gave birth to a daughter;  Mary’s half sister, Elizabeth. Despite the treatment she received by her father and her new step-mother,  Mary could not bring herself to hate the Princess Elizabeth. She found herself looking after her and enjoying the child’s curiosity and obvious intelligence.  But she could not and would never refer to Anne Boleyn as Queen. The only Queen in Mary’s eyes, was her mother Katherine. Anne was an avid supporter of the Protestant Reformation and in Mary’s eyes, this was absolute heresy.  Her refusal to call Anne Queen enraged Henry and he and Mary didn’t speak for over three years as a result. To make matters worse, the quick-tempered Anne saw Mary as a threat and would continue to criticize her in front of The King.



When her beloved mother fell ill, Henry refused to let Mary see her.  Katherine died in January of 1536 and Mary’s world fell apart. Her mother had been her strength and their love for each other had only deepened while separated . Now Mary was utterly alone with only her devotion to Catholicism to comfort her.

After three short years of marriage, Anne Boleyn had not given The King a son as promised. She quickly fell from The King’s favor and was accused of adultery, incest, conspiring against The King, and being a witch.  She was charged with high treason and executed on May 19, 1536.

We can imagine that Mary Tudor was probably not losing sleep over the fact the her step mother was dead. It’s been said that she simply stated “Is it done?” and nodded with approval when told that the execution had been carried out.  But perhaps she had some sympathy for her half-sister Elizabeth, who was also then declared a bastard and stripped of her title in the same way Mary had been.

Henry VIII would go on to marry four more times in his life.  Jane Seymour, his Queen just days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, played an important role in trying to repair Henry’s relationship with his daughters. After Mary begrudgingly signed a document, agreeing to recognize  her father as head of the The Church of England and to adhere to all his wishes, The King welcomed her back to court. This was done in large part to Jane’s gentle persistence. Queen Jane would also deliver Henry the one thing he had longed for; a son. In October of 1537, Prince Edward was born. Henry was elated. But sadly, Queen Jane fell ill from infection and died only 12 days after the birth. Mary was made Godmother to her half-brother and also served as the head of the family at the Queen’s funeral.



Henry’s fourth and fifth marriages were short-lived and Mary often acted as the royal hostess at court.  But it was Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, who was responsible for bringing the family even closer together. Catherine also convinced The King to rewrite the line of succession, which would now include Mary and Elizabeth should Edward die without a son.

Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving his kingdom to nine-year old Edward VI. Edward was too young to rule alone and his uncle Edward Seymour, The Duke of Somerset, acted as regent.  Like Edward, The Duke was intensely devoted to Protestantism. Protestantism was quickly being established all over England.

But Mary remained passionately faithful to Catholicism and during her brother’s reign she spent most of her time away from court where she was free to practice Mass in her private chapels.  The religious differences between Mary and Edward continued and she refused to bow to The King’s demands that she abandon her faith.

Edward had not been a healthy child  and suffered from frequent lung infections and coughing fits. When he fell seriously ill in July of 1553, he turned his father’s rules for the succession upside down.  He knew he was dying and he feared that his sister Mary, who was to inherit the crown, would restore England to Catholicism. Edward rewrote the succession, and instead of Mary and Elizabeth, he placed his very protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor.  Mary was summoned to London to see her dying brother but feared this was a trap to capture her. She fled to East Anglia where she had a strong Catholic following.

When King Edward died on July 6th, 1553, Lady Jane, a scared and self-conscious girl, took the crown.  At this time a letter had arrived for the privy council from Mary, claiming her right to the throne. Support for Lady Jane dwindled as support for Mary grew. Jane Grey was charged with being a traitor and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

On August 3rd, 1553, Mary paraded through the streets of London with almost 1000 nobleman.  The streets were filled with the English people who wanted their rightful Queen. Mary had Henry Tudor’s bloodline and the support of the Catholics.  She was crowned Queen of England on October 1st, 1553. As Queen, Mary was faced with a difficult decision. Did she really want to sign the execution warrant of an innocent girl? Jane Grey was just a child and in Mary’s eyes, didn’t deserve to die for being used politically.  But unfortunately after deliberating with Parliament, Mary saw no choice but to have Lady Jane and her husband executed.

When Mary Tudor took the throne she was 37 years old and not very attractive.  She had not inherited her father’s height but was short with a bulky stature. She was considered an old maid instead of a young, virtuous bride. But Mary knew that in order to be an effective Queen, she needed a Catholic husband.   In July of 1554, Mary married Prince Philip of Spain. Mary was quite smitten with Philip, however, he didn’t share the same affections. He noted that Mary was very plain-looking and was not arousing to the pleasure’s of the flesh.

Mary was also determined to set right the wrongs that her brother had caused.  She carried much of this out by way of execution. Several leaders of the Protestant church, including Thomas Cranmer,  who was the moving factor in Henry’s divorce from Katherine, were imprisoned and executed. Mary also declared the marriage of her parents valid and abolished all of her brother’s religious laws.  Mary also had the Heresy Acts, which were repealed by her father and brother, revived. Under these laws, Queen Mary l would execute almost 300 protestants by burning them at the stake.

Being burned at the stake was considered one of the most gruesome deaths one could endure.  If you were lucky you would die from inhaling carbon monoxide before actually burning to death.   The people of England did not look upon their Queen favorably for her choice of revenge on protestants.  The burnings were so unpopular that even Mary’s husband and his advisers condemned them.

In September of 1554, Mary’s menstrual cycles stopped. She was also plagued with nausea and had started to gain weight. Despite Mary’s history of irregular cycles, her court doctors confirmed that she must be pregnant.  Mary’s abdomen continued to swell as she awaited the birth of her child but spring of 1555 came and went without any signs of The Queen going into labor. By July of that year, rumors started to spread that Queen had never been pregnant. The swelling in her stomach started to recede and Mary was convinced that God was punishing her.  Her husband Philip left England to join his army in fighting the French and Mary was heartbroken.

Philips returned in 1557 and Mary soon believed she was pregnant again.  However no baby was born this time either and Mary’s health was declining.  She suffered migraines, fatigue and stomach pain and passed away at age 42 in November of 1558. Because she had no heir, her sister Elizabeth inherited the throne.

As we look back on Mary Tudor’s life, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for her.  As a child, she was cast aside by her father and stripped of her titles after watching a bitter struggle between her parents.  She was filled with such hatred for her step mother that it all but consumed her. And Mary suffered the pain of knowing that her mother would die alone. The migraines that plague Mary as  a young woman would continue into adulthood and leave her in bed for days. After seeing her father denounce her beloved Catholic Church, she was ousted by her own brother and forced to leave England for safety. When Mary did take the crown, perhaps she was already filled with such bitterness over the cards she had been dealt. And although being burned at the stake was horrific, it was still the choice of execution for heretics over much of Europe.  And as a woman who desperately wanted to marry, her own husband made it clear that he wasn’t at all physically attracted to her. This must have been so hard for Mary because Philip would be the second major male figure in her life to mistreat her. And after two false pregnancies, it’s not hard to imagine how Mary turned into the bitter, miserable person she did. For someone who was born having everything, she quickly learned that things could change in the blink of an eye.

So, what if Mary had a life filled with the love of both her parents, free from illness and abandonment?  Could she have possibly been a different kind of ruler? However to this day, she still remains the infamous “Bloody Mary”.

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10 thoughts on “Can We Give Mary Tudor a Break? (Guest Post)

  1. An interesting post, thank you. I have been reading various biographies on Philip for a project recently (my focus is Habsburg…). I do agree fully that several 16th-century ladies need a fresh look at whatever material that is there. The other day I was looking into Margaret of Parma, and I realised that most of the research about her is somewhat dated. All these ladies (Tudor and other) could do with a passionate researcher (professional or not), if only to rescue them from oblivion. And because they have a story to tell. Thankfully we can rely on good work done on 16th C ladies like Margaret of Austria, Elisabeth I, Mencia de Mendoza and a few others. Researchers who have the courage to sift through the debris of past times, can read between the lines ŕnd present an balanced picture have all my admiration! So thank you again for your post!

  2. Mary was required by the people she ruled, still mainly Catholic and by the general attitudes of the time to take a hard line against heresy, which was considered extremely dangerous. Having said that death by fire was a cruel death, although hanging drawing and quartering for treason was no picnic either. People accused of the crimes of heresy were not always executed. Punishment included penance, prison and even being confined to a religious order. People may only face the death penalty for serious heresy on a second or third arrest, after they had previously recanted and if they recanted again, this normally saved their life. The most famous exception to the latter was the case of Thomas Cranmer, who was also guilty of high treason. He was also held to have been responsible for the country being converted to the reformation in the first place and obviously he was responsible for the divorce of Katherine of Aragon and Henry Viii when Mary was just seventeen. Whether she took revenge on Cranmer is subjective, because we cannot know her mind, but it certainly has started some lively debate. I believe there is evidence to suggest she wasn’t bitter and he was proceeded against over a three years period through various legal stages. His appeal to have his case heard in Rome was allowed and his various changes of mind occurred to gain better conditions of his less than strict imprisonment. There is, however, controversy over his final set of recanted declarations, which on the face of it, accepted what the government wanted, but in fact he had made changes to them. His last submission should have been made in public the day he was due to die but he withdrew it and made a brave declaration of faith. This was because Mary had signed his death penalty in any event and he probably thought stuff it. He went to his death bravely. Mary had a personal book of prayer which had been given to Katherine Parr by Cranmer which still contained a letter of dedication to her by the Archbishop and she kept it all of her life. Mary also practised a evangelical form of Catholicism and was not as traditional as her mother. Her Church sought and encouraged preaching, teaching and renewal and was one of beautiful and lively liturgical ritual. Although she brought in legislation in her first Parliament, the enforcement of the English heresy laws were delayed for some time to encourage people to understand what was happening and to return voluntarily to the Catholic Faith. A campaign of publication and education and preaching followed. The laws and unfortunate enforcement which started in 1555 are not unusual as it was standard practice in most parts of Europe and under every Tudor monarch. However, what is stunning is the number, 280 in just a few years. That I believe more than anything hurt Mary’s reputation as well as the horrible depiction of the executions by John Fox under Elizabeth I.

    Heresy is a crime which was feared as a direct attack on the authorities of Church and State and the local community. It was prosecuted in the main by local magistrates in parishes under their jurisdiction and with little or no involvement of the crown. In certain high profile cases we know Mary was involved, but the law mostly allowed local prosecutions to attend to themselves. The death by fire, and I apologise for this idea, was believed to be not cruel but was to cleanse the soul of the sinner being punished in the hope they would repent and avoid the more painful fires of hell. Yes, of course this is barbaric, all forms of execution were and a number of even petty crimes could carry the death sentence well into the 1800s, the reaction was sometimes sympathy, sometimes it was silence, some people actually baited the victims. The harsh reality was that the majority of people found this acceptable and Mary would have been hard pushed had she attempted tolerance.

    Now I don’t believe she was evil but a number of life events made her more determined perhaps to prosecute and hopefully succeed in making England Catholic again. Mary even compromised, restoring the religious orders and some Church land but not wholescale taking back land already plundered from its new owners. I believe Mary had a sincere, active and deeply personal religious faith and did care about her subjects. She reformed the social care and she reformed fiscal policy. She also reformed naval financial organisation. She was actually very popular and it’s an Elizabethan myth that she wasn’t loved or mourned. The loss of Calais was right at the end of her reign and probably saved the English crown a small fortune. Earlier we took place in one of the greatest victories on French soil, the Battle of Saint Quentin. She restored the authority of the crown and established the gender neutral succession. Elizabeth would never have been accepted had Mary not done so and fought for her rightful place as Queen. Mary was far more merciful to rebels and traitors than most of her fellow monarchies, her father or her siblings. She pardoned most of those involved with the Jane Grey affair until the Duke of Suffolk rebelled a second time and only executed the unfortunate Jane reluctantly. She pardoned the majority of ordinary people and even some leaders in the Wyatt Rebellion, taking pity on 500 condemned prisoners in one day. Her reign saw pageantry and tournaments and the review of the Gentleman Pensioners and the arts and even exploration as it did later on. Elizabeth I was lucky to come to throne at 25,_ not 37, when her menstruating had become unpredictable. Her age did see a flowering of the arts and literature and discovery and architecture, but it also saw the persecution of Catholic subjects and Puritan none conformist groups and crippling wars with Spain and Ireland. It was not a golden age for all. Mary has to be judged on a balance of everything and original source evidence, not propaganda. I am pleased to see a number of historians have done just that in recent years. Linda Porter, Anna Whitelock and Professor Edwards provided well documented and balanced reassessments of her life and reign and it is wonderful to find great articles like this one which do the same.
    LynMarie Taylor

    1. The problem isn’t mary burning protestants. The problem is that the Catholic church has turned her into a goddess and that you praise her at all your Masses!

  3. Let’s give her a break. Everyone but her mother did her wrong. And even her dying wish, to be laid beside her mother was not given to her. Poor woman.

  4. She did bad things no denying it,but Elizabeth did many killings and evil things too. A book on Irish history said that King Henry VIII was despicable to the Irish but Elizabeth was worse.
    Both daughters had a terrible childhood. Maybe both would have turned out nicer and happier.
    Marion

  5. She never left England at all. Too bad she didn’t because then she could have visited Spain or Austria.

  6. I don’t think I’ve ever read that she is considered evil, or has been so for some time. Embittered perhaps, and certainly both ill-advised and not capable of knowing that, yes. Essentially, in over her head. But not malicious.

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