Queen and Mother: Mary I the woman behind the legend

Written by Peter Stiffell

When we discuss England’s first queen regnant the history books and documentaries usually first recall the break with Rome, the struggle of a princess against her autocratic father, and the burnings. Yet Mary I’s reign is not seen in the same regard as her father or half-sister despite Henry executing c.72,000and Elizabeth hanging, drawing, and quartering around two hundred Catholic priests. Though Geoffrey Elton once described Mary as ‘arrogant, assertive, bigoted, stubborn, suspicious, and (not to put a fine point upon it) rather stupid’, he seemed to miss the point of being a monarch in sixteenth century England. To be a successful ruler divinely ordained one had to be arrogant, assertive and stubborn.[1]  The arrogance and stubbornness of Henry VIII’s religious policies point to this fact; he broke with Rome to remove one wife for another. Yet less than four months after Catherine of Aragon died Anne Boleyn famously went to the block. However, in recent times Anna Whitelock’s Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen, Valerie Schutte’s Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications, Melita Thomas’ The King’s Pearl and Alexander Sampson’s Mary and Philip: The Marriage of Tudor England and Habsburg Spain are but a few recent works to reevaluate Mary’s character and reign.

It is time for history to recognize the other side of Mary, the caring, fun loving woman who would create the precedent for English female monarchy. She was taught the usual subjects for a woman of her rank, and her skillset shows a cultured and talented woman. Mary was an excellent musician playing virginals, regal (a small portable organ) and the lute. According to the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Michiel, she excelled at the lute.[2] Mary also had a cheeky side to her; on one occasion, she placed a bet where the wager was a breakfast.[3] If we examine her portraits, Mary is the only Tudor to smile in them. I know I can talk endlessly about Mary so I will concentrate on some key contemporary discussions about the Queen’s character, and the allegorical comparisons made by her courtiers. For what better way to understand Mary than through those who actually knew her.

In some ways, the individual most responsible for comparing Mary with any allegorical or iconographical comparisons is the Cardinal Reginald Pole (the future Archbishop of Canterbury and Papal Legate). In one of Pole’s early letters to the new queen on the 2nd October 1553 he writes that ‘her most virtuous Highness […] (virtuosissima Madama) [had a] light of religion and piety, as it were in a lantern, during such stormy times’.[4]  Almost immediately, Pole calls Mary the shining lamp which will lighten England from its darkness; a direct reference to Mary’s Catholicism against her brother’s (Edward VI) Protestantism. Following Pole, Giovanni Michiel in his 1557 report on England calls Mary ‘a feeble light buffeted by raging winds for its utter extinction, but always kept burning and defended by her innocence and lively faith’.[5] This image of light does suggests a link back to Christ and his mother the Virgin Mary; a simple yet significant comparison. With both Pole and Michiel’s use of light as a way of describing Mary, it does open questions regarding Mary’s portraiture; was Mary seen as Christ’s light? Was Mary the light of Catholicism in its darkest hour? For her Catholic contemporaries this is the case as seen in the engravings and medals produced. Mary looks to the heavens while a light shines on her. Her medals include the allegorical figures of Peace and Union to symbolize her peaceful reign and to bring England back to the European stage with her marriage to the Habsburg Empire. These images solidified Mary’s place as a Catholic monarch and provided the promise of children.

Frans Huys, 1555, BM. 1948,0315.10.11
Nicolo Nelli, (1568) BM O,7.189


Jacopo Nizolla da Trezzo (1554) Mary Regina (obverse);
Allegory of Peace (obverse) Victoria and Albert Museum

We have read just one of the many religious comparisons Mary’s subjects made between the Queen and the Virgin Mary. The Virgin is the epitome of motherhood and the link between Mary and the iconography of the Virgin is only recently being examined. Let us look at more of Mary’s character as a mother. Usually Mary is regarded as a failure for her ‘phantom pregnancies’. Though Mary did not produce a natural heir, she was still the mother of her people. Often Elizabeth I is remembered as the mother of England, but Mary was the first to allude to this title. Her Guildhall Speech in London 1554 during Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion is known to have happened whereas Elizabeth’s Tilbury Speech has been debated.

‘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’.[6]

Mary was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and granddaughter of Isabella of Castile; strong willed queens ran in Mary’s blood. As Isabella conquered Granada (1492) and Catherine had her victory at Flodden (1513), Mary used her ability as England’s queen to stir her subjects in supporting her against Wyatt. (Wyatt was against Mary’s marriage to Prince Philip of Spain). This speech cemented Mary’s place as queen and mother. Though she acknowledged that she was not a mother in the physical sense, she as Queen was the mother of her people. Her spousal ring was the symbolic symbol of marriage to England; Mary at her coronation was married to her kingdom.  The portrait by Hans Eworth (below) shows Mary both as monarch and as England’s wife; the gown, the placing of her hands and the inclusion of her jewellery indicate Mary’s queenship, motherhood and fertility.


Hans Eworth, (1554), ‘Mary I (1516-1558), Queen of England and Ireland’ [Oil on oak panel], 104cm x 78 cm. London: Society of Antiquaries
 Royal walkabout

Mary’s friend Jane Dormer records another case in which Mary’s motherhood emerges. When the queen visited Pole at his house in Croydon, she would visit the local residents in disguise to understand the daily needs of her people. This is the first royal walkabout yet there was no pomp nor fanfare. This devious yet kind nature shows Mary as a queen who sincerely deeply cared for her people and wished to know the truth.  One on occasion she visited a collier (a coal miner or merchant) and his wife, she sat down with him and shared their meal. As the conversation went on, the collier told Mary that the Queen’s men had not paid him. Mary responded, “Friend, is this true that you tell me”. [7] After confirming the incident, the man prayed for Mary’s intercession for he believed she was one of the Queen’s ladies. Mary promised she would intercede and told the man to return to where he went at nine or ten o’clock the next morning and his payment would be waiting for him. Once the queen returned to court, she called for her comptroller Sir Robert Rochester and ‘gave him such a reproof for not satisfying the poor men’ and demanded that the men be paid or Rochester would feel her wrath. This is a scene fit for film. As you will probably have guessed, Rochester ensured the collier and his colleagues were paid, but was confused on how Mary had known about the incident. Dormer and the other ladies explained what the queen had done.

Dormer recalls other visits Mary made, stating that if a family had many children the queen would grant alms, comfort them and find an apprenticeship for both boys and girls. There are at least two occasions where she did this; she helped a carpenter and a husbandman’s widow. Yet throughout all of this Mary did not say who she really was. This is the Mary we must remember, a woman who deeply cared for her subjects. How many monarchs or modern day leaders can we really say do ‘walkabouts’ or visit those less fortunate for sincere reasons? This was no publicity stunt.

Yet, Mary did not help her people privately, but as monarch was duty bound to help in a more formal way. The Curing of the ‘Kings Evil’, which was performed during Holy Week (the week preceding Easter), was a religious and healing ceremony where the monarch’s divine powers were able to ‘cure’ sufferers of scrofula. In 1556, Marco Antonio Faitta discussed in his correspondence that Mary performed the ceremony on Good Friday

‘where she caused one of those infirm women to be brought to her, and kneeling the whole time she commenced pressing, with her hands in the form of a cross, on the spot where the sore was, with such compassion and devotion as to be a marvel, and whilst she continued doing this to a man and to three women.’[8]

Faitta was present at the ceremony and recalled that

‘her Majesty struck me as affording a great and rare example of goodness, performing all those acts with such humility and love of religion, offering up her prayers to God with so great devotion and affection, and enduring for so long a while and so patiently so much fatigue; and seeing thus, that the more her Majesty advances in the rule of this kingdom, so does she daily afford fresh and greater opportunities for commending her extreme piety, I dare assert that there never was a queen in Christendom of greater goodness than this one’[9]

For Faitta, Mary performed the ceremony with as much devotion as could be possible; she truly cared for her people. The image below shows Mary performing her role as a healer and mother by touching the sufferers.

Mary touches a scrofulous boy. (Pigment on vellum) English School; Westminster Cathedral Library c.1553-58


As England’s first queen regnant Mary had to provide an image of motherhood. The correspondence between her courtiers which I have briefly discussed show that Mary’s motherhood was alluded to. Though Mary could not leave a natural heir, she created an image of motherhood through her actions. By becoming the Catholic savior, the intercessor and the healer, Mary created an image harking back to the Virgin. Jane Dormer’s account shows us a queen who deeply cared for her subjects and delivered on her coronation promise to protect her countrymen. Whether that was during times of violence or during peaceful times Mary put the ordinary people first. What I have attempted to show is that Mary cannot be regarded as the bloodthirsty monster or religious fanatic any longer Though modern ethics would question her policies, heresy at the time was perceived as a crime against God and thus the punishment needed to be fitting. What I have shown is the other side of Mary, a queen who deeply cared for her people and had the hopes of Catholic Europe on her shoulders.

About the Author

I am a first PhD student at the University of Kent exploring the iconography of Mary I. I am particularly looking at Mary’s portraits and her image via material culture. You can follow me on twitter @PStiffell for anything Mary related and to see some unknown images of her.


Further reading


Clifford, H., The Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria (London: Burns and Oates, 1887)

Foxe, J., The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (1570 edition) (The Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield, 2011) Available from: http//www.dhi.ac.uk/foxe

Madden, F., Privy Purse Expenses of the Princess Mary, Daughter of King Henry the Eighth, afterwards Queen Mary: with a Memoir of the Princess, and notes (London: William Pickering, 1831)

Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts, relating to English Affairs, existing in the archives and collections of Venice, and in other libraries of Northern Italy, vol. V. 1534-1554. ed. Rawdon Brown (London: HMSO, 1873)

Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 6, 1555-1558. (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1877)



Elton, G., Reform and Reformation: England, 1509-1558 (London: Edward Arnold, 1977)

Thomas, M., The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his daughter Mary (Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2017)

Sampson, A., Mary and Philip: The marriage of Tudor England and Habsburg Spain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020)

Schutte, V., Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Whitelock, A., Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2009)

[1] Geoffrey Elton, Reform and Reformation: England, 1509-1558 (London: Edward Arnold, 1977), p.376

[2] MS. Lands. 840, A.f.156; Frederick Madden, Privy Purse Expenses of the Princess Mary, Daughter of King Henry the Eighth, afterwards Queen Mary: with a Memoir of the Princess, and notes (London: William Pickering, 1831), p.cxxxix

[3] Madden, Privy Purse Expenses, p.cxli

[4] Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts, relating to English Affairs, existing in the archives and collections of Venice, and in other libraries of Northern Italy, vol. V. 1534-1554 ed. Rawdon Brown (London: HMSO, 1873), p.420

[5] 884. Giovanni Michiel to the Doge (1557), Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 6, 1555-1558 ed. Rawdon Brown (London: HMSO, 1877)

[6] John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (1570 edition) (The Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield, 2011), p.1618 [1556] Available from https://www.dhi.ac.uk/foxe/index.php?realm=text&gototype=&edition=1570&pageid=1618 (accessed 14/07/21)

[7] Henry Clifford, The Life of Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria (London: Burns and Oates, 1887), p.65

[8] 473. 3rd May London Marco Antonio Faitta to Ippolitio Chizzola, Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 6, 1555-1558. (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1877)

[9] Ibid.

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