Mary and Reginald: What could have been?

Guest post by Samantha Wilcoxson for Tudors Dynasty

Queen Mary I has gone down in history as ‘Bloody Mary’ thanks to her persecution of Protestants and rebellions against her choice of husband. We may think that marrying the man of her choice is the lesser crime through our modern worldview, but sixteenth century Englishmen were far more concerned about having a Spanish ruler than returning to Catholicism. What if Mary had made a different choice?

When Mary became queen, one of the first issues that she was required to address was her marriage. Though several betrothals had come and gone throughout her thirty-seven years of life, neither her father nor her brother had wished to legitimize her position by giving her a spouse. Finally, the decision was up to Mary herself. She chose Prince Philip of Spain, which turned out to be a disaster.

Philip was the son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and nephew of Catherine of Aragon. The family connection and shared faith made the match desirable to Mary, and she refused to listen to any advice to the contrary. She was warned that people would not accept Spanish rule, but Mary insisted that she herself would rule England and the child she was hoping to bear would follow her.

Of course, Mary failed to bear an heir and Philip led English troops against the French, just as had been feared. Mary had lacked the foresight and political acumen to discern how poor of a choice Philip was for her. But who else could she have chosen?

One popular candidate for Mary’s hand was Edward Courtenay. This York cousin had been imprisoned since the Exeter Conspiracy of 1538 but was released upon Mary’s accession in 1553. Mary was hesitant to marry a man who had spent his formative years in prison and was a decade younger than herself regardless of how much Bishop Gardiner, who had been imprisoned at the same time, encouraged the match. Courtenay was found flitting around the edges of conspiracy often enough to be sent away to Padua where he died in 1556.

Another possible suitor was brought from Italy to assist with Mary’s counter-reformation. Cardinal Reginald Pole was another distant cousin of Mary’s on the York side of the family. His mother, Margaret Pole Countess of Salisbury, had been Mary’s governess and a close friend of Catherine of Aragon. The mothers had proposed that the two be betrothed when they were much younger, but Henry had not been interested in making the match. He had likely seen the pairing as too much of a threat to his son’s rule, but, with Edward dead, Reginald could have been the ideal choice.

Had Mary been wed to Reginald, the counter-reformation could have gone on much as it had, but without the sideshow of rebellions against Spanish rule. Englishmen expected Mary to return her kingdom to the old faith and rid it of heretics. They would have known it when they supported her against Lady Jane Grey, but they had not expected her to marry a foreigner. With Reginald at her side instead of Philip, the 284 burnings would have been a footnote in history, no more notable than actions taking place throughout Europe as rulers struggled to cope with the Reformation.

That being said, it may be assuming that history would change too much because of one wedding instead of another to say that Mary could have born a son with Reginald as she failed to do with Philip. Instead, the couple likely would have died childless, and still on the same day, November 17, 1558. England would have been saved events such as Wyatt’s Rebellion but would still see the accession of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Sometimes, there is no way of avoiding fate.

About the Author:

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Samantha Wilcoxson is the author of the Plantagenet Embers Trilogy. An incurable bibliophile and sufferer of wanderlust, she lives in Michigan with her husband and three teenagers. She lives in Michigan with her husband and three children. You can connect with Samantha at or on Twitter @Carpe_Librum.

Purchase her newest book, Queen of Martyrs: The Story of Mary I (Plantagenet Embers Book 3) on

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7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Courtenay seems to be the uncertain factor. She seems to have liked his mother, most probably because of the old connection with her mother. It has been too long ago since I read on Mary and I can’t recall if anyone commented on how she felt about him (if she ever hinted on that). Sadly for this question, my research was not on Courtenay, but on one of Mary’s ladies, Jane Russell. So, I have a lot of notes concerning her, and on the Spanish marriage, because Jane was in the faction favoring that match.
    I have no idea what kind of person Courtenay was, and if he could have been the right person to influence Mary’s tactics. People paint her black (and yes, she did provide some of the black paint herself), and her sister is gilded. The ogre versus Gloriana. The interesting question is how Mary would have done, had she become queen in 1547….

    • I think she felt Courtenay was beneath her. He was at least 10 years younger, like Philip, but had been in the Tower since his father’s execution as part of the Exeter Conspiracy in 1538. Therefore, he was also immature, having spent his formative years imprisoned. By blood he was a good candidate for either Tudor princess, but they both quickly dismissed him, which raises questions about his personality in my mind. He had been in the Tower with Gardiner, so his faith would have been acceptable to Mary, but clearly something else wasn’t.

  2. Although Pole would have been a more acceptable candidate than Philip ever was, I am not too certain if the result would have been better. Pole was too much a ‘popish’ person. By the time Mary came to the throne religion had found too much of a new form and it would have been just as difficult to return to the pre 1533 period. Pole does not strike me as the right man to succeed. Besides, the support for Mary was partly because she was the rightful heir, King Henry’s daughter, not because she was a Roman Catholic. So I cannot agree that we would not have seen Wyatt’s rebellion of any rebellion of the same kind. To my mind, by 1553 it was too late to turn back the clock.

    • You certainly could be right, though I don’t think as many people of Mary’s day were as opposed to Catholicism as we like to think. But it was fun to look at some of the what-ifs surrounding Queen Mary.

      • Hm… I can agree with that, people often over estimate protestant movements during the 16th century. But being religious on a day to day basis does not necessarily mean being a Roman Catholic all the way. I think that by 1553 Pole was so much out of touch with English reality, that he would not have been a good choice. Besides that, he was too much a ‘popish man’. Mary had too much of a blind spot for her Habsburg cousin Charles. Which ultimately meant she was not that good a choice either. Which is sad in many ways, because she was much better than people think. We have a tendency to judge her too harsh. If someone asks which Mary I talk about, I may say: the one that is known as Bloody Mary. But actually, I hate saying that. She is Mary Tudor, Mary I, but naming her Bloody is a shame. She never deserved that…

        • I completely agree! I hate having to resort to that nickname in order to make someone understand who I’m referring to!

          Soooo….what if she had married Edward Courtenay?

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