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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Portraits of a Queen: Mary I of England


Mary Tudor was the daughter of Henry VIII and his wife Katherine of Aragon. She was born in 1516 and was their only surviving child. After many years of trying for more Katherine recognized that she was unable to have more children. This was about the time when Henry grew restless and brought Anne Boleyn into the life of his daughter and devoted wife. Mary’s life would never be the same.

She went from being her father’s “Pearl of the Realm” and his Princess Mary, to being declared illegitimate and losing the love and affection from her father. Her life was indeed sad and unfortunately it was that way until the very end.

These portraits are in no particular order.

Provenance: By descent through the family of the Earl Carlisle, M.C., Naworth Castle, Cumbria


attributed to Lucas Horenbout (or Hornebolte) watercolour on vellum, circa 1525 NPG 6453


Flemish School; Mary Tudor (1516-1558); Museums Sheffield;
Flemish School; Mary Tudor (1516-1558); Museums Sheffield;


Charlecote Park © National Trust


British School; Princess Mary Tudor; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology;
British School; Princess Mary Tudor; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology;


British (English) School; Mary I (1516-1558) (Mary Tudor); National Trust, Knole;
British (English) School; Mary I (1516-1558) (Mary Tudor); National Trust, Knole;


Blickling Hall
Blickling Hall


by Master John oil on panel, 1544 On display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery NPG 428


by Hans Eworth, oil on panel, 1554
by Hans Eworth oil on panel, 1554 NPG 4861


after Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro) oil on panel, 1555 NPG 4174
after Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro)
oil on panel, 1555
NPG 4174


Mor, Antonis; Queen Mary I (1516-1558); Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service;
Mor, Antonis; Queen Mary I (1516-1558); Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service;
after Unknown artist plaster cast of a medal, (16th century) NPG D36118
after Unknown artist
plaster cast of a medal, (16th century)
NPG D36118
after Jacopo da Trezzo, gilt electrotype of medal, (circa 1555)
after Jacopo da Trezzo gilt electrotype of medal, (circa 1555) NPG 446(1)


British (English) School; Mary I (1516-1558); Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge;
British (English) School; Mary I (1516-1558); Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge;


Hans Eworth (circa 1520–1574?) – Dickinson Gallery, London and New York


after Unknown artist line engraving, 1554 or after NPG D17821
after Unknown artist line engraving, 1554 or after NPG D17821
by Franz Huys, after Unknown artist, line engraving, circa 1555
Portrait of Mary I of England, signed "HF 1554" (originally "HE"), Society of Antiquaries of London LDSAL 336, oil on oak panel, 1040 x 785mm (41 x 31 inches)
Portrait of Mary I of England, signed “HF 1554” (originally “HE”), Society of Antiquaries of London LDSAL 336, oil on oak panel, 1040 x 785mm (41 x 31 inches)
by Francis Delaram, published by Compton Holland, engraving, circa 1600-1627
by Francis Delaram, published by Compton Holland, engraving, circa 1600-1627


after Hans Holbein the Younger line engraving, circa 1700 NPG D17826
after Hans Holbein the Younger line engraving, circa 1700 NPG D17826


Antonis Mor – Museo del Prado Catalog no. P02108 [2]
Antonis Mor (1512–1516–c.1576) (after) Trinity College, University of Cambridge


British (English) School; Imaginary Portrait of Mary I (1516-1558) (Mary Tudor); National Trust, Blickling Hall;
British (English) School; Imaginary Portrait of Mary I (1516-1558) (Mary Tudor); National Trust, Blickling Hall;


after Unknown artist mezzotint, 18th century NPG D17823
after Unknown artist mezzotint, 18th century NPG D17823


by Unknown artist oil on panel, 1597-1618 On display in Room 1 at the National Portrait Gallery NPG 4980(16)


by Bart Vazquez, after Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro) stipple engraving, 1793 NPG D20392
by Bart Vazquez, after Anthonis Mor (Antonio Moro) stipple engraving, 1793 NPG D20392


by Francesco Bartolozzi, after Hans Holbein the Younger stipple engraving, published 1796 NPG D24878
by Francesco Bartolozzi, after Hans Holbein the Younger stipple engraving, published 1796
NPG D24878


by Émile Desmaisons, printed by François Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Unknown artist; hand-coloured lithograph, 1834; NPG D34627


Anglesey Abbey © National Trust


Nostell Priory © National Trust
Gerlach Flicke - 1555 - Miniature of Queen Mary I (Durham College)
Gerlach Flicke – 1555 – Miniature of Queen Mary I (Durham College)


Mor, Antonis; Mary I (1516-1558); National Trust, Petworth House;
Mor, Antonis; Mary I (1516-1558); National Trust, Petworth House;
Mor, Antonis; Queen Mary I of England (1516-1558); Paintings Collection;
Mor, Antonis; Queen Mary I of England (1516-1558); Paintings Collection;
Mary's Funeral Effigy
Mary’s Funeral Effigy

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Princess Mary Acknowledges Herself Illegitimate


While reading this confession by Mary, one can’t help but imagine how difficult it was for her to write this to her father, King Henry VIII — there must have been a level of unknown fear for her to acknowledge the King as the Head of the Church of England when she so wholeheartedly wished to continue to follow Rome. She is also acknowledging the annulment of her parents, which in turn denies her the title of Princess.

This letter is something that Mary always regretted writing because it went against her conscience. However, it may have been advantageous for Mary when the King married Jane Seymour and Jane worked hard to reinstate Mary as Princess.

Lady Mary’s Letter to Henry VIII

Written: 22 June 1536

The confession of me, Lady Mary, made upon certain points and articles written below; in which I do now plainly and with all my heart confess and declare my inward sentence, belief and judgement, with due conformity of obedience to the laws of the realm; so, minding for ever to persist and continue in this determination without change, alteration or variance, I do most humbly beseech the king’s highness, my father, whom I have obstinately and disobediently offended in the denial of the same up to now, to forgive my offences therein, and to take me to his most gracious mercy.

First I confess and acknowledge the king’s majesty to be my sovereign lord and king, in the imperial crown of this realm of England; and do submit myself to his highness and to each and every law and statute of this realm, as it becomes a true and faithful subject to do; which I shall also obey, keep, observe, advance and maintain according to my bounden duty with all the power, force and qualities with which God had endued me, during my life.

I do recognize, accept, take, repute and acknowledge the king’s highness to be supreme head on earth, under Christ, of the church of England; and do utterly refuse the bishop of Rome’s pretended authority, power and jurisdiction within this realm, formerly usurped, according to the laws and statutes made on that behalf, and by all the king’s true subjects humbly received, admitted, obeyed, kept and observed.

And I do also utterly renounce and forsake all manner of remedy, interest and advantage which I may by any means claim by the bishop of Rome’s laws, processes, jurisdiction or sentence, at this time or in any way hereafter, by any manner of title, colour, means or cause that is, shall or can be devised for that purpose.

I do freely, frankly and for the discharge of my duty towards God, the king’s highness and his laws, without other respect, recognize and acknowledge that the marriage formerly had between his majesty and my mother, the late princess dowager, was by God’s law and man’s law incestuous and unlawful.

Your Grace’s most humble and obedient daughter and handmaid, Mary.


Hanson, Marilee. “Letter of Princess Mary to King Henry VIII, 1536 – Primary Sources”, February 22, 2015