The Troubled Life of Mary I of England


Birth: 18 February 1516, Greenwich Palace
Father: Henry VIII
Mother: Katherine of Aragon
Accession: 19 July 1553
Coronation: 1 October 1553
Husband: Philip II of Spain (m. 25 July 1554)

Preceded by: Edward VI
Succeeded by: Elizabeth I

The Pearl of the Realm

In history, Mary Tudor is best known as “Bloody Mary.” She was so much more than what history painted her to be as a ruler. If we go back to the beginning of her life we’ll be able to get a better understanding of who she was and what shaped her to be the ruler she became later in life.

Born 18 February 1516, at Greenwich Palace, Mary was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. By 1516, her  mother had already lost four children, and the arrival of a healthy child was news for celebration. With that being said, let’s be completely honest and talk about the fact that Henry VIII was still greatly disappointed that Mary was not a boy. He was already frustrated that he and his queen had not produced a male heir for the throne of England.  Katherine of Aragon was already thirty years old – not too old to conceive more children but the fact that she had only produced one healthy child over the past seven years was worrisome for Henry.

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Mary was raised as Princess of Wales at  Ludlow Castle. She was very much her mother’s daughter. By all accounts Mary was an attractive, fresh-faced girl who excelled at her studies. She was fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian and her mother’s language, Spanish. Mary also loved music; She loved to sing and dance and could play the lute and virginals. She would make a great wife and queen consort some day. Queen consort? At the time there were no expectations of a female ruler of England and Mary should’ve been married off at a young age to a new or existing ally to help strengthen her father’s position. But as we know that did not happen.

When Henry VIII grew tired of waiting for Katherine to produce an heir his attentions turned to one of her Ladies in Waiting, Anne Boleyn.  Henry’s favor towards his only surviving child fell along with his marriage to her mother, Katherine the Queen when Anne Boleyn came into the picture. Anne made Henry believe that he could produce a male heir with her, and not Katherine.

Henry fought for an annulment from Katherine of Aragon on the grounds that she had consummated her first marriage with his brother, Arthur Tudor (Prince of Wales) on their wedding night. However, a papal dispensation had been obtained so Henry could marry his brother’s wife (and continue to have Spain as an ally) – so why would he argue the consummation at this point? Henry wanted to be free of Katherine so he could conceive a male heir.  He blamed Katherine for this not happening during their marriage. He claimed that since she consummated her marriage with Arthur (which she always denied) that God did not agree with their marriage or he would have provided them with a son and heir.

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The ”King’s Great Matter,” as they called it (his fight for annulment) lasted roughly six years. This says a lot about his personality and his desire and determination for a male heir. Henry was willing to toss away a wife (whom he loved dearly at one time), and a daughter that he adored, for his cause.

When Henry eventually broke from Rome, so did his relationship with his daughter. He married his mistress Anne Boleyn and Mary fell from favor quickly. At the age of 17 she went from being Henry’s “pearl of the realm” to being cast aside like her mother and declared a bastard/illegitimate. She was to be called Lady Mary. I can only imagine what this would have been like for Mary.  How could a father completely abandoned his daughter for something she had no control over? She must have felt abandoned and alone with only her mother to comfort her.

Mary and Katherine’s relationship grew stronger after the estrangement from Henry.  They were both fighters and wanted everyone to know that they were indeed the rightful Queen and Princess of England in God’s eyes- regardless of what Henry declared. This was a thorn in Henry’s side and went against everything he was fighting for.  After he married Anne Boleyn many of his subjects still believed that Katherine was the rightful Queen of England and was treated unjustly by Henry, and the same went for Mary.

During the reign of Anne Boleyn both Katherine and Mary feared for their lives. As long as they were alive they were a threat to Anne’s reign.  They were never sure how it would happen but they believed that Anne would try to have them poisoned. What a fretful time for them both – with the constant fear of attack. Mary fell frequently ill over the years and her doctors stated they believed it was due to the ill-treatment by her father and Anne.

When Princess Elizabeth was born in September of 1533 Lady Mary was sent to her household in Hatfield to be a Lady-in-Waiting to her half-sister. This demotion would have been considered a slap in the face to someone who still considered herself Princess of Wales. She was accustomed to having her own household of ladies and tutors and never had she imagined being part of another’s household, let alone her half-sister, daughter of the woman she despised. Imagine the resentment she had for her Elizabeth at this time.

When Mary refused to accept Henry as the Head of the Church of England he banned her from seeing her mother. When either Katherine or Mary would fall ill they had requested the King allow them to see one another – he would refuse. What an awful thing for someone to do, just because he feared what would happen if they were together. Eventually Katherine died without ever seeing her precious daughter again.  How jaded would one become towards their father if they had been denied by him to see their dying mother?

As any princess would, Mary imagined marrying a prince (or a king), having babies and being happy someday. After seeing what her mother went through I believe she was all the more desperate to start her own family and find happiness again.

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After Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace Henry extended an olive branch to Mary. If she would accept him as the Head of the Church of England (and annulment of her parent’s marriage) he would return her to favor once again. Mary refused. It wasn’t until Mary’s cousin, Charles V persuaded her to do so that Mary finally signed the Act of Supremacy. This was something that Mary regretted the rest of her life because it went against everything she truly believed in.

When Henry married Jane Seymour he welcomed his daughter back to court. She was given a household befitting her position as his daughter and was included in court festivities. At the time there were even rumors of a possible marriage in her future. It seemed at this point that Mary’s fortunes had begun to change.

Jane Seymour had been a lady in the household of Katherine of Aragon and had great respect for Lady Mary and her mother.  When Jane gave birth to Prince Edward Lady Mary was by her side. Jane felt so close with Mary that she named her Prince Edward’s godmother.

Mary continued to be by Jane’s side after she passed away in 1537 by being her chief mourner. After Jane’s death Henry could not escape the fragility of life and the uncertainty of the succession. He named his son Edward his successor, then Edward’s sons – if Edward had no sons then it would pass to his sister Mary and then to Elizabeth.  Finally Mary was given the respect she always deserved!

When Henry VIII died in 1547 her Protestant brother Edward became King of England. Mary despised the fact that her brother was a Protestant and left court to live elsewhere to practice her Catholic faith. This was a smart move by Mary. She had learned from her past. Edward and Mary had a good relationship beside the fact that they had opposite religious beliefs.

Before Edward died, after reigning only seven years, he attempted to change the Act of Succession to keep England a Protestant country. He did this by removing his sisters and naming Lady Jane Grey as his heir along with any of her future sons. As we know from history this did not go over well.  The English people regarded Mary very highly and knew she was meant to be Queen of England by Henry VIII’s Act of Succession.  After only nine days, Jane Grey was deposed as queen (though never crowned) and Mary had finally taken her rightful place on the throne of England.  She became England’s first true Queen Regnant.

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After Mary’s coronation she understood the importance of marrying and having children. Mary was adamant in returning England to what it was before her father changed everything and broke from Rome. What she considered the true religion. At 37 years old, Mary was nearing the end of her child-bearing years and believed she had to return her country to the true faith – the Catholic religion. If she had children they would indeed continue to carry-on the true religion on her behalf.

When it came to choosing a potential suitor Mary had a short list. Among them was Edward Courteney (one of her favorites) and Reginald Pole – the son of Margaret Pole (Mary’s former governess and niece to Edward IV & Richard III). When Mary sought advice from Charles V, whom she had once agreed could choose a husband for her, he suggested his only son, Philip II of Spain. He would, upon the death of his father, become King of Spain. Spain would prove a strong ally for England.

Mary was attracted to the portrait of Philip and liked the idea of a Catholic husband. Her subjects were not as keen to the match since he was a foreign ruler whom they feared would try to rule England himself, especially if Mary died before him as she was ten years his senior. The only way that the council would approve the marriage is if Philip was only King of England for the duration of their marriage and that he would be unable to make any proclamation or sign any treaty on his own. England would also be under no obligation to support Spain in any acts of war. The benefit for Philip in this deal? Any English subject who did not obey Philip would be guilty of treason.

Mary and Philip were married on 25 July 1554, at Winchester Cathedral, only two days after they first met in person. Philip could not speak any English so Mary would speak Spanish with him.

In September 1554, only a few months after their wedding Mary believed she was pregnant. She had stopped menstruating, had gained weight and suffered from nausea in the mornings – all signs of pregnancy. In July 1555, Mary’s stomach receded and it soon became evident that she was not pregnant.  This was most likely a false pregnancy, perhaps induced by Mary’s overwhelming desire to have a child, or from illness. In August, soon after the disgrace of the false pregnancy, which Mary considered to be “God’s punishment” for her having “tolerated heretics” in her realm, Philip returned to Spain to command his armies against France in Flanders. Mary was heartbroken and depressed by the departure of her new husband who she loved deeply.  It would seem that Mary was not meant to be happy and to have a family.

Philip returned for a visit to England in the spring or summer of 1557 and soon after Mary believed she was pregnant again. This would also result in a  false pregnancy. In May 1558, Mary fell ill and nine months later, on 17 November 1558, she died.  On the very same day Reginald Pole, a man she had considered a potential husband, died from an influenza outbreak.

Mary had been in pain, possibly from ovarian cysts or uterine cancer.  Philip, who was in Brussels at the time wrote to his sister: “I felt a reasonable regret for her death.”

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Mary’s attempt to form a happy family of her own would sadly never happen. She loved Philip deeply but it doesn’t seem that he reciprocated those feelings.  I take some solace from the fact that she had some amazing women in her life who showed her love and kindness – if only some of the men in her life had done the same. As the first female ruler of England she did an adequate job – you might say she proved that a woman could rule a country.  With that she was a success.

Further Reading:

John, Judith; A Dark Side to History: Tudors
Doran, Susan; The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603
Soud, David; Kings and Queens of Great Britain

EnglishHistory.Net (Mary l)
Wikipedia (Queen Mary l)

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10 thoughts on “The Troubled Life of Mary I of England

  1. Why is it that everyone sticks up for Anne Boleyn? I mean, she caused so much pain for Katherine and Mary! She openly announced that she wished “all Spaniards were at the bottom of the sea!” Between her malicious intent towards them, and her poisoning Henry’s mind against them, I can’t believe that people are so sympathetic towards her, and so quick to denounce the people that she affected!!!!

  2. I would also like to comment on the way Anne Boleyn is so frequently blamed for Mary’s misfortune. This is about as unfair a charge as possible, since it was Henry and Henry alone who was responsible for this! Anne was hunted and stalked by Henry and she did at first resist him. But in the end she gave in and why shouldn’t she. She had every right to expect marriage from someone so powerful and determined to have her. If it had not been her it would no doubt have been someone else. And I disagree that Mary was a success. I think she was a failure. She isn’t called ‘Bloody Mary’ for nothing. Elizabeth’s was known as ‘Good Queen Bess’ on the other hand. I think it was a blessing that Mary could not have children. Imagine a spawn of Mary and Phillip of Spain ruling England instead of Elizabeth!

  3. In spite of how sad her life was growing up, I find it very hard to feel sorry for this woman who sent so many to an unbelievably cruel and painful death. How can that not be described as evil??? I know Elizabeth was no angel either, but Mary seemed so set on slaughtering as many people as possible simply for their religious beliefs! And as for her sad earlier years, there were thousands of people in England’s lower classes who were probably sad all their lives because they had nothing. Or maybe they just didn’t have time to be sad, trying to simply survive in a very dangerous and stressful time!

  4. Can you please reference a source that supports that Anne “made” Henry believe anything.
    I have read several sources that htat not only cite the possibility that Henry was considering divorce well prior to Anne being in the picture, but that also mention that the doctors had informed Henry that Catherine would not be able to bear children. Also while I don’t think I have ever read it straight out Henry doesn’t read (in recorded history anyways) as someone who was made to think anything, but could be manipulated, though manipulation only seems to have worked when the thing being sold to Henry was something he wanted before entering the conversation. Below is an example of a source that shows that we simply don’t know what event prompted Henry to seek a divorce.

    “No one is sure when Henry decided that his marriage to Catherine had to end simply because the evidence does not exist that can pinpoint an exact date. There were rumours in court of Henry wanting a divorce as early as 1520 but this was probably nothing more than mere court gossip based on no fundamental facts. Physicians, either in 1524 or 1525, told Henry that Catherine was unlikely to give birth again – so these dates may be correct. By 1527, he had become infatuated with Anne Boleyn – so this year may be when he decided that a divorce was needed. The truth is that historians simply do not know. What can be stated is that when Henry decided that his marriage to Catherine should end, he was not a man who was willing to change his mind”http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/tudor-england/henrys-divorce-from-catherine/

    1. I think that once he read William Tyndale’s ‘The Obedience of a Christian Man’, and paired that with Leviticus 20:21, he felt that his inner thoughts had been justified, and that he was ‘obligated’ to divorce Katherine for the good of his conscience. Obviously he didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly decide to divorce her; I think it was a lot of little things that meshed up into one great problem. Anne supplied Tyndale’s book to Henry and he supposedly read it and said ‘This is a book for all kings to read’. There was Anne Boleyn, his desire for a male heir, his belief that his marriage to his brother’s widow was wrong (and technically, it was, because he’d had to get a papal dispensation to marry her in the first place — by the time he wanted to divorce her, there was a new pope), plus the fact that breaking with Rome had a lot of benefits for Henry, mainly the money from dissolving the monasteries, and the absolute power it would bring to him.

    2. My apologies, I wrote this blog (Oct 2015) not long after starting my site and I do not recollect my source for the statement that Anne made Henry believe she could give him a male heir. With that being said, I strongly believe this was part of Henry wanting to divorce Katherine and marry Anne. Henry’s desire for a male heir was so great that I don’t doubt that Anne convinced him she could give him the son he longed for.

      Do you disagree that Henry had a strong desire for a male heir?

  5. I sincerely doubt she was fluent in Greek – I’m assuming ancient Greek is meant.
    Nobody was, not even Elizabeth who studied Greek with her tutor every day, I once read.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I have dedicated myself to Mary, and I strongly agree with the argument that Mary was not evil, but rather deeply sad. Her religion was the only thing she could hold onto and have control over; despite it being threatened multiple times in her life, she kept to her faith. People know about the heresy executions but no one really considers how sad her life was. Had she been treated differently, especially by Henry, things would have been so different.

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