Queen Mary Tudor.

Queen Mary Tudor.Getty

Who was Mary Tudor and why was she the world's most unhappy Queen? We uncover the facts and information on her life and ask but just how did Queen Mary I go from a much-revered successor to a figure of hate in five short years? 

In the late summer of 1553, Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of King Henry VIII, was swept to the throne on a tidal wave of popularity greater than any English monarch had ever experienced. Her progress from Framlingham to London, which began in the last days of July, was a triumph punctuated in village and town after town by wildly cheering crowds. The new Queen, the first to rule England in her own right, left behind her a trail of rejoicing and festivity, and when she entered London through Aldgate on 3rd August the streets thundered with a clamor of cheers and the fervor of loyalty. That night saw dancing in the streets; the pealing of bells and toasting and merrymaking were still in full spate when dawn broke on 4th August.

Yet, only five years after England erupted in this outpouring of joy, Mary died detested and reviled throughout the country. No slander was vicious enough to express how completely the English had recoiled from their Queen, nor how much they abhorred everything she was and everything she stood for.

How could such love turn to such hate in so short a time? How could such shining promise for a glorious reign produce such a legacy of loathing? The answer begins with the juxtaposition of two unfortunate factors. Mary, the only surviving child of the second Tudor King Henry VIII and his wife Catherine of Aragon, was the heir to a throne held mainly by that ever-tenuous right, the right of conquest.

Henry VIII's love for Mary, and for Anne Boleyn 

In 1516, the year Mary was born, thirty years had passed since the end of the Wars of the Roses and the final victory won at Bosworth by her grandfather, the first Tudor King, Henry VII. Thirty years, however, were not enough to calm the great upheavals caused by that catastrophic civil conflict, and until well into the reign of Mary's father, members of the previous Plantagenet dynasty still survived to pose a threat to the Tudors' throne. These were violent, volatile times which a Queen could not easily control, and in these circumstances, Henry VIII became convinced that only a male heir could hope to succeed him smoothly and preserve and pass on the Tudor crown.

Henry's worries about the succession did not prevent his being an indulgent and often boastful father. He spoiled Mary continually, never missed a chance to show her off at court, heaped gifts and honors on her and gave her a luxurious household of her own before she was three. No one, including Mary, was left in any doubt that Henry thought her 'his treasure and that of his Kingdom and the paramount princess of all time'. Naturally, Mary soon came to adore her father and to bask in the boisterous love he so often and so openly displayed.

It was not until about 1525 that Mary's horizons began to cloud and her pampered life began to alter. In that year, Catherine of Aragon was a sad and faded 40, and after numerous gynecological mishaps, it seemed unlikely she would have more children. At this time, Henry became infatuated with Anne Boleyn, a nubile, ambitious 18-year-old, who was one of the ladies-in-waiting to Catherine. Together with Henry's concern over the succession, these two situations combined to produce the most controversial and most influential marriage break-up in history.

Mary watches her parents marriage dissolve 

Mary was not, at first, directly involved in the titanic struggle that developed between her parents after 1527, when Henry first asked Catherine to agree to divorce and she refused. The Pope was called in to arbitrate, but he, too, refused to dissolve the marriage. The upshot was that Henry outlawed papal power in England, made himself Head of the English Church and granted himself the desired decree. In January 1533, Henry married Anne Boleyn, and the following September she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.

Through understandably furious at the child's inconvenient gender, Henry determined that Elizabeth should replace Mary as his heir, and it was this that brought Mary into the front line of the family warfare. Until now, Catherine had been the main target. Nagged on by the malicious Anne Boleyn, Henry bullied, threatened and terrorized his first Queen, but the effort was a total waste of time and temper. Catherine remained adamant. She would not declare her marriage void. She would not pronounce her daughter illegitimate. She would not renounce her title of Queen. Henry, therefore, turned his armament on what he supposed to be a more pliable victim. A shock awaited him.

King Henry VIII of England by Lucas Horenbout (c. 1526)

King Henry VIII of England by Lucas Horenbout (c. 1526)

Although Mary lacked the guile and steel so characteristic of the Tudor family, she did have a large amount of Tudor stubbornness. Worse, her essentially loving and artless nature prompted her to return soft answers to Henry's outburst of wrath. When he stripped her of the title of Princess in October 1533 and demanded she acknowledges her demotion, she insisted, at first, that her father was too noble to conceive such a cruel idea. Mary soon learned otherwise, for Henry stormed and raged and threatened dire consequences if she did not do what he wanted. Nevertheless, Mary went on resisting and at one point answered her father's threats with a request to kiss his hand.

Mary's relationship with Henry VIII explodes

Eventually, this mixture of fond goodwill and perverse pigheadedness proved the fuse to Henry's powder keg. His fury and vengeance exploded into calculated sadism. At his command, Mary was refused food, stayed locked in her room for long periods of time and went short of warm clothing. Rumours were deliberately filtered through to her that Anne Boleyn meant to have her poisoned, tortured or raped. At the same time, Henry stepped up his demands, and Mary was badgered with repeated orders to recognize him as Supreme Head of the English Church. This was, in some ways, the most shattering command of all, for Mary was an extremely devout Catholic, with unshakable reverence for the Pope and all he represented.

The days when she was Henry's treasure had vanished, and before long it took its toll on her. Mary's affectionate nature became warped. She learned to meet all opposition with implacable defiance, and to distrust all Englishmen. Half Spanish by birth, Mary became more than half-Spanish in sympathy, and by the time the persecution ended in 1536, her personality was already irreparably scarred. In that momentous, eventful year, Catherine of Aragon died, Anne Boleyn was executed on 30th May, and Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour. A fortnight later, he won his war with Mary.

Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon

On 15th June, Mary signed a document admitting that her parents' marriage had been unlawful, that she herself was illegitimate, and that she recognized Henry as Supreme Head in Earth under Christ of the Church in England. Exactly why Mary gave in, no one really knows. Grief at her mother's death, relief that the hated Anne Boleyn was gone, sheer exhaustion, ill health, all or any of these might have explained it. What is certain, though, is that afterwards, Mary was consumed with a sense of sin. In her own eyes, she had committed treason against all she most deeply believed to be right and true. She had offended God, and the crime had to be expiated. To the zealous, guilt-ridden Mary, that meant one thing, avenging the insults Henry had dealt her beloved Catholic Church.

Mary's faith grows stronger 

The 11 years that remained of Henry's life, and the subsequent six-year reign of King Edward VI, his son by Jane Seymour, served to harden Mary's resolve to the proportions of a crusade. In breaking with Rome, Henry had meant to be Catholic without the Pope, an arrangement that suited his highly chauvinistic subjects. However, Protestant influences seeped through the breach and began to alter the pattern of English religious life even before Henry died in 1547. Henry recognized and reluctantly accepted the trend and had young Edward educated as a Protestant. After Edward became King, at the age of nine, the trend escalated, and an increasingly confused populace was presented with Protestant prayer books, Protestant ceremonial, married Protestant clergy, plain Protestant communion tables, plain Protestant church windows, and several other strange innovations.

As a result, the old Catholic religion went underground. Mass was celebrated in private houses, carefully shaded candles were lit before statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints, and revered Catholic relics were concealed in doublets, cloaks, hats, and hose. The heroine of secret Catholicism in England was, of course, Mary, the most defiant Catholic in the country. She was also the most vulnerable.

With a Protestant Privy Council exploiting to the full the minority of a Protestant King, Mary was again in considerable danger. Her hidden safeguard was her cousin, Charles, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in Europe. The danger that Charles might invade England if Mary came to harm was crucial in preserving her life and personal liberty.

Nevertheless, it did not stop the Privy Council from harassing her continually over the matter of celebrating mass. Characteristically, if mulishly, Mary insisted on making a public ceremony of this most careful Catholic rite, despite several pleas from Charles himself that she be more discreet. Since Mary's person had to be treated as sacrosanct, the Privy Council used members of her household as whipping boys: several of her chaplains and officials were imprisoned for popish practices, and others lived in constant peril of arrest. Mary never hesitated to protest at this persecution and countered all the Council's threats with regal contempt. Her defiant courage gave a great boost to her popularity and, not surprisingly, Mary soon acquired the status of a champion in the eyes of the beleaguered English.

They had greatly sympathized with her despotic father, and now, some 20 years later, they regarded her as a bastion against the tyranny of the Privy Council and of King Edward's power-mad Protector, the Duke of Northumberland. These feelings expressed themselves in emotional demonstrations on Mary's behalf, and whenever she appeared in public, she was mobbed and cheered by enthusiastic crowds.

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey

The greatest demonstration of all occurred in 1553 when King Edward died at the early age of 15, and Northumberland attempted to put a puppet of his own on the throne as Queen. The puppet in question was Northumberland's daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, who was also a great-granddaughter of Henry VII. The unfortunate Jane, however, spent her nine-day reign in the Tower of London, where Northumberland had placed her for safe-keeping while he carried through his coup d'etat. The people, their sense of fair play deeply outraged, would have none of it. Few doubted that Henry VIII's older daughter had the better claim to the throne of England and one after the other, towns, villages and districts throughout the land rejected Jane and declared for Mary. Cold feet set in among Northumberland's cronies who were with Jane in the Tower, and on 19th July some of them escaped while Northumberland was absent. Shortly afterward, Mary's accession was publicly proclaimed from Tower Hill.

Mary is named queen and everything starts to crumble

Public joy at this outcome verged on the hysterical. Great was the triumph here at London, wrote one chronicler. The number of caps that were thrown up at the proclamation is not to be told. Money was thrown out at windows for joy. The bonfires were without number and ringing of bells, besides banquettings and singing in the streets for joy.

Two weeks later, when Mary entered London, the people greeted her in a similar mood as the embodiment of the Tudor magic they revered and the Tudor courage they admired. It was not, as yet, apparent that the lustrous image they had of this particular Tudor was flawed by the long years of adversity that had lined her face and stiffened her mind.

The tragic truth soon emerged. Mary made the fatal mistake of presuming that the nationwide support she had received implied acceptance of everything she stood for. Gripped as she was by this unshakable conviction, Mary ignored vital facts that would have been obvious to a shrewder, more emotionally balanced person.

Of these, by far the most important was the fact that the English had for many years' harboured two pet hates, the Pope and foreign (particularly Spanish) influence. The unwary Mary outraged both these prejudices. She began by openly declaring her intention of restoring the English Church to the jurisdiction of Rome. Her initial methods were an example, persuasion and a certain amount of emotional blackmail which exploited her subjects' genuine love for her. This gentle arm-twisting failed completely to woo the stubborn English. Only ten days after Mary's triumphal entry, there was a riot in London's Horsemarket when Mass was publicly celebrated there. Two days later, an anonymous pamphlet was circulated branding Mary and her government as detestable papists who were out to poison the people.

The arrival of Prince Philip of Spain

Already, though, Mary was well on the way to giving her subjects another cause for fury. She proposed to marry 26-year-old Philip of Spain, the son of her cousin Charles and the premier Catholic Prince of Europe. Not until very much later, and too late, did Mary realize the realities behind Phillip's offer of marriage? It was a political move, designed to keep England as an ally against Spain's great enemy, France.

Image of Mary I of England, 1516-58 and Philip II of Spain

Image of Mary I of England, 1516-58 and Philip II of Spain

For the cold-hearted Philip, marriage to the English Queen, who was 11 years older than himself, involved great personal sacrifice: he was repelled by what seemed to him a scrawny, neurotic woman on the verge of crabby middle age.

Mary, unfortunately, was love struck. All she could see in Philip was a husband who would love her and give her a child to rear as a truly Catholic heir to the Tudor throne. This brilliant vision blinded her to the violent protests of her subjects, to whom a Spanish King, the role Philip would inevitably assume, was complete anathema.

London begins to revolt against Mary 

Once more, London was the scene of riots. Catholic priests were beaten up and threatened, and in January 1554 a full-scale rebellion erupted in Kent. Fifteen thousand armed men, led by Sir Thomas Wyatt, marched on London with demands that Queen Mary enter the Tower and that four Privy Councillors be handed over as hostages for her promise to marry an Englishman. By the time the rising was thwarted, on 7th February, pitched battles had stained London's streets with blood and Mary herself had nearly been killed when the rebels attacked Whitehall Palace and bombarded the windows with arrows. Afterward, Mary's Protestant half-sister Elizabeth was implicated in the rebellion and was clapped in the Tower for a time. This provoked yet another furor of protest, for as Mary's popularity plunged, Elizabeth's soared.

None of this shook Mary out of her starry-eyed dreams, and on 25th July 1554, the universally detested Spanish marriage took place in a splendid ceremony at Winchester. A few weeks later, Mary began to show all the signs of pregnancy, and on 28th November, a service was held at Whitehall to give thanks for the Queen's quickening. The proud and ecstatically happy Mary sat richly appareled and her belly laid out that all men might see she was with child. To the Queen, this pregnancy seemed to denote miraculous deliverance from all the hardship and difficulty that had marked her life. Her subjects had different ideas.

However, in early 1555 the unpalatable prospect of a child of the Spanish marriage took second place to a dangerous turn in Mary's efforts to restore the Catholic faith in England. Soon after the formal ceremony of reconciliation with Rome on 30th November 1554, the medieval heresy laws were revived. They came into effect on 20th January 1555 and brought an end to Mary's attempts at gentling her people along the path to the only true faith. This meant that Protestant heretics now faced the hideous penalty of death by burning at the stake, a not uncommon proceeding in that age of dogmatic religion. The stake and the fire were, in fact, more or less accepted as an occupational hazard for religious dissenters, but during Mary's reign in England, they took on quite another and a far more horrific connotation.

Protestants are burned at the stake 

The first Protestant heretic to be publicly burned in Mary's reign was John Rogers, a religious scholar, who died at Smithfield on 4th February 1555. Rogers was, of course, a professional establishment figure, as were the two Protestant bishops who followed him to the stake in the same month. The five laymen who were burned in London at the end of March were, however, of quite a different status. The deaths of these ordinary humble Englishmen unleashed a flood of fury, and the storm rose in intensity with each successive burning of such people as artisans, housewives, farmworkers and other lay folks.

Prince Philip of Spain

Prince Philip of Spain

These people, in fact, comprised the majority of the 300 or so men and women who died at the stake in the next three years. They bore the brunt of the persecution mainly because they were too humble or too poor to emulate richer Protestants who had escaped abroad. What is more, most were branded heretics only through their own pitiable ignorance, the effect on simple, uneducated minds of too many years of violent religious change. The idea soon grew that these heretics were dying not for the Protestant religion, but because submitting to Catholic authority meant betraying England and turning it over to foreign and papal influence.

Mary's popularity wans & Phillips leaves 

It was this notion, and it did not lack foundation, that was the main source of the public uproar, and the fuel behind the near-riot which occurred at one burning in Essex when eight heretics died. In London, the main site of the executions, churches were robbed, priests were assaulted, sedition was rampant and blasphemies were rife. Spaniards were attacked, robbed beaten up. Virulent pamphlets made their appearance vilifying Mary, Philip, the Privy Council, Parliament, and the Catholic religion.

In the course of all this, the last shreds of Mary's popularity vanished, to be replaced by disgust. Her pregnancy, which turned out to be a phantom, became a national joke. There were plots to murder her. One William Fetherstone, who was later mutilated and whipped as punishment, claimed to be Edward VI returned to assign his harridan half-sister to Hell.

With anarchy raging around her, even Mary had to admit that the false paradise she had built for herself was crumbling away. The child she longed for had never existed. The faith she hallowed was loathed and slandered by her subjects. Elizabeth, the half-sister she hated, was enjoying a peak of popularity. And perhaps more bitter than any of these, her adored husband was tiring of her and itched to leave England. Philip left on 3rd September 1555, to escape the cloying attentions of his aging wife. From her apartment at Greenwich, Mary watched Philip step aboard the state barge, tears flooding down her face. Except for a few months in 1557, she never saw Philip again, and even then, he returned only to pester her for money to help finance a war against the Papal States.

After Philip left again in July 1557, Mary persuaded herself that she was once more pregnant. It was all she had to cling to, as she faced more rumours of murder plots, more threats of revolt, more furor over the burnings and a new indication of her subjects' total disenchantment: the new religion was defiantly and openly practiced again, and the Catholic churches once filled by fear or resignation were empty. As if this were not enough, the French took advantage of Philip's preoccupations to seize Calais, early in 1558. This last English possession in France was something of a symbol to the public, and its capture was greeted with howls of rage and resentment.

By the end of October 1558, having kept up the fiction for over a year, Mary was finally forced to concede that her second child had been as much a myth as the first. She also realized that despite her constant pleas and prayers, Philip would never come back to her. Mary's failure as a woman, Queen and Catholic could hardly have been more complete. By mid-November, her spirit had broken and she was dying. Her last days were embittered by the knowledge that already the embryo of a Protestant, anti-Spanish court was gathered around Elizabeth, her successor.

When the news spread that Mary's end was near, Londoners prepared once more to celebrate, and when she expired, just after 7:00 a.m. on 17th November, joyous bells pealed out all over the city, and there was dancing in the streets.

Time did little to mute the hatred and loathing in which Mary was held. For decades afterward, the anniversary of her death was regarded as a holiday and a festive occasion. Soon, there grew the specter of Bloody Mary, a cruel, vengeful Queen, shackling her people to a religion they despised and a foreign power they detested. Today, the image still remains of a ghoulish female, reveling in the gore of the Protestant martyrs. It will, no doubt, persist, despite any proof that Mary might have been more misguided than murderous, and more foolish than fearsome. For if anyone was ill-starred it was Mary Tudor. Few monarchs of England have been so completely robbed of achievement by Nature. Yet, at the same time, few did quite so much and so diligently to compound their own misfortunes and seal their own fate.

* Originally published in 2006.