Misremembering Mary I: History’s Largest Misconceptions about England’s First Crowned Queen

Guest post written by Johanna Strong

Mary I, England’s first crowned queen regnant (1553-1558), is often popularly remembered as either a tragic figure or as a tyrannical one. While traditional histories such as G.R. Elton’s focus on the religious persecution undertaken throughout Mary’s reign, others attempt to soften her character by narrating her phantom pregnancies and the frequent absences of her husband, Philip II of Spain. Both of these approaches and styles of biography, however, fail to provide a complex view of Mary.

She is more complicated than simply being ‘Bloody Mary’ or ‘Tragic Mary’; she was the precedent for all future regnant queenship – that is queens in their own right and not by virtue of marriage to a king – in England and her reign served as the basis for propaganda of many later English and British monarchs. Recent revisionist histories such as Melita Thomas’ The King’s Pearl, Alexander Samson’s Mary and Philip, and Sarah Duncan’s Mary I portray a more complex figure of England’s first crowned queen regnant. In these works, Mary’s identity as queen is reconciled with her identity as an early modern woman in a way which makes her appear more human to the reader. It is on this foundation of revisionist histories which I build in my own doctoral research at the University of Winchester.

It’s often difficult to get me to stop talking about Mary once I start, so I’ve limited myself here to addressing the three biggest misconceptions that I’ve come across when researching my favourite queen. By no stretch of the imagination, though, can I say that I’ll be touching on all aspects of any of these misconceptions. Instead, I’ll be focusing on a few particular points for each. The first misconception is that Mary was ‘Bloody Mary’; the second, that her reign was ultimately a step backwards for England; and thirdly, that her time on the English throne was generally insignificant in the larger scheme of English and British history, particularly when contrasted to her successor Elizabeth I’s.

1) Bloody Mary

My biggest historical pet peeve is people referring to Mary I as Bloody Mary. This nickname strips Mary of the complexities which surrounded her reign and of her own identity as a person, and it serves to flatten Mary into a stereotype. The use of this moniker suggests that Mary ought to be remembered only for the religious persecution against her Protestant subjects which she oversaw. On the other hand, it suggests that none of her contemporaries were ‘bloody’ when in fact this is simply not the case.

Most often, Mary is used as a comparison for her sister and successor Elizabeth I, so it is only natural that I address that pairing. Mary is Catholic, a wife, and a potential mother while Elizabeth is England’s Protestant Virgin Queen. Their religious policies, however, are rather similar, though they were implemented in vastly different ways. Almost as soon as Mary came to the throne in July 1553, she set about returning England officially to the Roman Catholic Church, from which her father Henry VIII had broken when he sought his annulment from Mary’s mother Katherine of Aragon. At the same time, Mary worked to remove any heresy which persisted in England. Heresy, in this case, was – in its simplest form – any Christian practice which was not in keeping with the tenets of the early modern Roman Catholic Church as it existed at the time. Marian religious policies were thus tightly focused on separating religion from politics, with those contradicting religious laws being punished not as traitors but as heretics. The punishment for heresy was execution by burning as opposed to execution by hanging or beheading, which was traditional for those condemned of treason.

Elizabeth’s regime, on the other hand, conflated religion and politics. Largely a consequence of Elizabeth’s excommunication in 1570 and the ongoing perceived threats posed by her Catholic subjects to Elizabeth’s stability on the throne, non-conformity to the Church of England became, in itself, a sort of treason as opposed to heresy. Any acknowledgement of the Pope as the temporal Head of the Church was, in the Elizabethan regime’s eyes, an acknowledgement that the Church of England was not the true English Church and that Elizabeth did not hold temporal authority over the Church. As such, acknowledgement of the Pope’s authority became synonymous with challenging Elizabeth’s, and was therefore an act of treason. Heresy was thus, in Elizabeth’s reign, conflated with treason and heretics were executed not for heresy but for treason.

As a result, it’s impossible to compare the execution of heretics in Mary and Elizabeth’s reigns because the definition of a heretic was so drastically different. The fact that Elizabeth reigned for forty-five years in contrast to Mary’s five also complicates this comparison. While Mary is remembered for executing religious dissidents under heresy laws, Elizabeth’s executions were, in some ways, justified in early modern minds because these same religious dissidents were transformed into traitors. Elizabeth could thus be equally termed ‘Bloody Bess’, but because these executions were recorded as the death of traitors history has judged these executions less harshly.

2) Mary’s Reign as a Backwards Step for England

The second large misconception about Mary’s reign is that it was a step backwards for England or that it was an anomaly for the country. In fact, this perception is largely based on hindsight which provides us with the knowledge that, after Mary’s death, England returned officially to Protestantism and continued to actively challenge Catholic or quasi-Catholic authority in England.

Shortly after Mary’s death, Elizabeth and her counsellors introduced the Elizabethan Settlement which was a via media – or a middle road – between Catholicism and Protestantism. In the early years of her reign, Elizabeth and her advisors took a middle-ground approach to religion, attempting to allow for some variation in Christian practice. There was, therefore, not a concerted swing towards Protestantism as we see later in Elizabeth’s reign, when her excommunication and Catholic plots increasingly forced Elizabeth and her counsellors to punish non-conformity. It was largely only when Catholicism began to pose a larger threat to England and to Elizabeth’s stability on the throne that Mary, her reign, and her Catholicism were portrayed as being anti-English.

During Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603), Mary’s regime was often called upon by popular writers as a touchstone of the perceived tyranny of Catholicism. Elizabethan writers such as martyrologist John Foxe used Mary’s reign to depict early modern Catholicism as an ongoing threat to Protestant English national identity. In his Acts and Monuments (more popularly known as the Book of Martyrs), Foxe glorifies the Protestant martyrs who died throughout history, with the largest part of his work dedicated to those who were executed during Mary’s reign. Given that England, by the time of his last publication, had firmly returned to Protestantism, Foxe had the ability to look at Mary’s reign in hindsight, knowing as he did that England had again turned away from Catholicism. It is largely as a result of this hindsight that he was able to critique Mary’s reign in a way that he would not have been able to if Elizabeth had decided to tolerate Catholicism in her realm.

Later, in 1624, during the reign of James VI of Scotland and I of England, John Reynolds published his Vox Coeli, or Newes from Heaven, a play centred around a discussion of the Spanish Match, which proposed a marriage between the future Charles I and the Spanish Infanta Maria. In it, Mary I speaks on behalf of Spain, encouraging the Spanish Match despite the rest of the historical royal figures of England being opposed to it. As a result, Mary is depicted as being on Spain’s side in the discussion when she should, as a result of her queenship over England, be supportive of what was best for England. Given the play’s historical background of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – which hoped to assassinate James VI/I by an explosion set by Catholic conspirators as he opened Parliament – and the growing conflict which would lead to the Thirty Years’ War, Mary and her Catholicism were natural ‘enemies’ to England and the English State. Much like the Elizabethan Foxe, Reynolds’ perspective is largely due to hindsight, knowing that Catholicism was growing as a threat to English national and monarchical stability during James’ reign and that Protestantism continued to be the official religion of the nation.

3) Mary as an ‘Insignificant’ Historical Figure

Finally, Mary is often depicted in the traditional English historical narrative as being little beyond an example to Elizabeth I of how not to be an English queen regnant. In reality, Mary serves as much more than a negative precedent.

Elizabeth I is often remembered as England’s unmarried Virgin Queen, but Elizabeth participated in quite a few marriage negotiations throughout her reign. Importantly for our discussion of misconceptions of Mary, though, is the fact that the Elizabethan regime based these marriage negotiations on those which had been agreed with Spain when Mary married Philip II in July 1554. Mary had successfully maintained her position as sole ruler of England despite being married and it was this example which formed the basis for Elizabeth’s own approach to marriage, though she ultimately never married.

Further, in religious terms, Mary cannot be seen as insignificant to the ongoing development of the early modern Catholic Church, particularly during the Counter-Reformation, also known as the Catholic Reformation. Mary’s own Catholicism was quite progressive compared to Continental Catholicism, being largely informed by the latest humanist scholars. Portions of Mary’s own practice were introduced during the Council of Trent (1545-1563) when the Catholic Church re-defined its doctrine and practice, partially in response to the Protestant Reformation. Of course, I cannot argue that it was only Mary’s Catholicism which influenced the Council of Trent, but it is telling that she was on the progressive end of the Church when so often she is portrayed in the traditional English historical narrative as a ‘backwards’ Catholic tyrant.

Ultimately, Mary I is often represented in a way which serves to reinforce the Protestant identity both of England (and later Great Britain) and of the English and British monarchy itself. Consequently, the traditional historical narrative portrays her as a tyrant and as a bitter queen who acted in a ‘bloody’ way. In reality, however, these perceptions of Mary as bloody, as backward, and as insignificant are untrue and indeed damaging to the memory of England’s first crowned queen regnant and it is time to put them firmly to rest.

Further Listening:

I warned you that once I get started talking about Mary I can’t stop, so here are some podcast episodes in which I further discuss Mary’s legacy! I would also recommend Thomas, Samson, and Duncan’s work, which are highlighted in this post.

“Winchester and Westminster: How did these Churches Forget Mary?”, 30 December 2020, https://www.winchesterheritageopendays.org/hampshire-histbites-episodes/2020/12/7/coronation-marriage-burial-mary-i-in-westminster-abbey-and-winchester-cathedral

“Continuing our Quest to Discover Mary I’s Connections to Winchester and Beyond”, 6 January 2021, https://www.winchesterheritageopendays.org/hampshire-histbites-episodes/2020/12/21/continuing-our-quest-to-discover-mary-is-connections-to-winchester-and-beyond

“Remembering Mary I: The Role of Memory in the Creation of Mary I’s Legacy”, 13 January 2021, https://access.historyhit.com/history-indoors/season:1/videos/mary1

About the Author

Johanna Strong is a second-year PhD candidate at the University of Winchester, researching the way in which Mary I is remembered in the English historical narrative during the Tudor and Stuart eras. She is looking particularly at the religious, political, and gendered reasons for Mary’s portrayal in the Elizabethan and Stuart historical narrative. If you’d like to hear more about Johanna’s research, head to the Team Queens blog (www.teamqueens.org), Winchester Heritage Open Day’s podcast website (https://www.winchesterheritageopendays.org/hampshire-histbites-episodes), or History Indoors’ YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/historyindoors). Johanna’s research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada) and has been featured on Dan Snow’s History Hit.

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