We view the past through our own moral lens, often finding ourselves at odds with the views of people long gone. When we find that our modern sensibilities contradict the opinions of past communities we should ask ourselves why that is. Are we more enlightened? Are we better people? Or are we simply basing our modern opinions on (likely biased) information that has lost context over time?
Historical figures are often portrayed as romanticized heroes or treacherous villains. Rarely do we acknowledge that at times they could actually be both, or GASP neither. It is important to realize that truth is often much less black and white, that these were real people and they lived lives with day-to-day details that went largely unrecorded. It’s in the details that we tend to find the “whys” behind many decisions (particularly bad ones) that were made long ago. However, it’s the consequences of these decisions that determine whether a person will go down in history as a hero or a villain.
History provides us with countless villains, many of whom are truly deserving of such a title. This story is about a woman who has gone down in history as such a villain. But was she really as evil and cruel as they say? That is for you to decide.
Portrait of Mary I of England by Hans Eworth, 1555-1558
You may know her as Mary I or “Bloody Mary,” the English queen who beheaded Lady Jane Grey, imprisoned Good Queen Elizabeth and put hundreds of Protestants to death.
Mary’s story starts with Henry VIII. You know, THAT Henry, the one with all the wives. King Henry’s first wife was Catherine of Aragon, the widow of Henry’s older brother. This little detail would prove to be a serious issue in Mary’s life.
Mary Tudor was born February 18, 1516 to doting parents and was baptized and raised as a Catholic. She was known to be a precocious child and incredibly intelligent. She performed on the virginals before the age of 5 and could translate Latin by the time she was 9. She could speak Spanish, French and Italian and could also play the lute. She was highly gifted and educated, thanks mostly to her mother Catherine who was her Latin tutor.
As early as the age of 2, Mary had been betrothed to various nobles for political purposes (such as Francis I of France, Charles V of Spain and Henry Duke of Orleans). Marriage for a royal was typically a diplomatic arrangement or a way to connect powerful families and kingdoms. In Mary’s case, all of the promised marriages in her youth were dissolved due to ever-changing alliances, particularly with France. Mary was well aware of her betrothals or at least it could easily be assumed she was based on the love letters she sent to young Charles V when she was only 9 years old. Charles would soon find a better match and Mary would be promised to someone else. It’s unclear how she actually felt about constantly being used as bait during negotiations. We could assume it hurt her feelings and caused much disappointment, but this was such a typical part of royal life (particularly for a girl) that perhaps she didn’t actually mind.
In 1525 Henry declared Mary Princess of Wales and she lived at the court in Ludlow while she waited for her marriage arrangements to be solidified. It was during this time that her life began to fall apart.
Henry was not very pleased with Catherine’s inability to bear him a son who would be his heir to the throne. He wanted nothing more than a male heir and since Catherine couldn’t have any more children, the only way to get a son was for someone else to give him one. So he set out to annul his marriage to Catherine using his wife’s previous marriage to his dead brother as his main argument. He claimed incest but the Pope wasn’t buying it. The result was a very long tumultuous break from the Roman church and the establishment of the Church of England. All this to legalize his divorce from Catherine.
In the meantime Henry had become infatuated with Anne Boleyn, the sister of a woman he had an affair with in 1525. Some speculation surrounds how long Henry had been having an affair with Anne (possibly earlier than 1527) and how big a role their relationship played in his original decision to leave Catherine. Henry secretly married Anne just before the birth of their daughter Elizabeth in 1533 and, according to the laws of his new established church, officially declared his 20 year marriage to Catherine null and void, making Mary an illegitimate child. Mary lost her title of Princess of Wales, her societal rank and her place in the line of succession. Her mother Catherine was cast out of court and reduced to living as a Dowager far away from the royal family.
Mary, then 17 years old, was forced by Anne to be the infant Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting (basically a glorified personal assistant). It is said that Anne hated and even abused Mary and encouraged Henry to do the same. She often ranted about her step-daughter in letters, but this frustration could have been attributed to a lot of factors including the fact that almost everyone preferred Mary over her. Legend has it she even plotted to poison her step-daughter, but this was based on the probably unreliable writings of a pro-Catherine Imperial Ambassador who refused to call Anne by any name other than “concubine.” Mary, on the other hand, struggled to adjust to her new life as the companion to her high-ranking infant half-sister and couldn’t have been very easy to get along with. She was a teenager, after all.
It is unclear just how cruel Anne was to Mary but they didn’t get along and Mary was undoubtedly mistreated. There is a lot of conflicting information out there about Anne, but we do know for sure that she had a nasty temper and that Henry blatantly ignored his first daughter to focus on his new wife and baby Elizabeth. English society treated illegitimate children differently than they did others so even though many people didn’t agree that Mary was actually illegitimate, they had to treat her as if she was.
Lady Mary Tudor by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536
Mary had been raised a devout Catholic and struggled to acknowledge her father as the head of a new Anglican church. Her stubbornness (however justified) certainly did her no favors! Upon refusing to publicly declare her illegitimacy and renounce her Catholic faith, Mary’s life was made miserable and her life threatened on more than one occasion. Perhaps worst of all, she was permanently banned from seeing her mother. Even through illness she was denied any visits or correspondence. Mary was heartbroken in 1536 when she was not even permitted to visit her dying mother one last time, despite Catherine’s pleas to say goodbye.
To make the heartache of her mother’s passing even worse, Henry and Anne dressed in yellow the next day (a color said to symbolize joy) and *celebrated Catherine’s death with festivities.
*Note: Like many details from this era, there is some conflicting information due to the unreliability of original sources. Most reputable historians do believe the king and queen rejoiced while those who had secretly remained loyal to Catherine mourned.
Stepmother the Second
By mid-1536 Anne and Henry’s relationship had soured and suddenly all hell broke loose. Anne had failed to bear Henry a son and was suspected to have been cheating on him with…a lot of people, including her brother.
Nobody really knows for sure if Anne actually had affairs with any of the suspected men. It’s pretty doubtful she slept with her brother, historians seem to agree about that at least. People had been calling her a whore for years and it’s anyone’s guess whether she really was as promiscuous as she was made out to be. Probably not. Regardless, she was beheaded. And five of the accused (again, including her brother) were executed. Maybe she really did cheat, maybe Henry just wanted to get rid of her, maybe it was a combination of both. We will probably never know the truth.
The day after Anne’s execution Henry was engaged to Jane Seymour. Jane wasn’t nearly as controversial as Anne, and she at least tried to be a force for good in Mary’s life. Jane insisted that Henry work things out with his daughter, but he was only willing to do so on one condition: Mary was to finally acknowledge him as head of the church and declare her parents’ marriage invalid and herself illegitimate. She did so and it was incredibly painful, as it basically went against everything she believed in. She did want to make amends, but there is some evidence she was also threatened to have her head beat against a wall if she didn’t. You can read her letter to Henry HERE.
Mary I by Master John, 1544
With Mary and Henry’s relationship mended to a degree, she was given a place to live and things were uneventful for a little while other than suspicion toward her for remaining a Catholic. Jane was so kind to her, was known to encourage Mary to walk beside her rather than behind. When Henry’s first and only son Edward was born in 1537 she was named godmother, which was an enormous honor. She took care of her little sister Elizabeth (also now considered illegitimate by Henry’s laws), just four years old at the time. There was never any issue with Mary when it came to Edward’s right to the throne. Sadly, only 12 days after Edward’s birth, Jane died of complications. Another loved one lost.
Three more Stepmothers
Above: Henry VIII’s Wives, circle of Richard Burchett, 1854-1860
As time went on, Henry married three more times, all of whom Mary got along with relatively well. The first, Anne of Cleves, actually became a close friend. They remained friends after her father’s divorce shortly after, which had everything to do with Henry not finding Anne very attractive and the couple just didn’t like each other. The second, Catherine Howard, was more of a truce than a friendship. It was disappointing to everyone when Catherine was executed for infidelity. The last wife, Catherine Parr, was like a sister to Mary. They got along very well and were very close in age. Mary was finally treated like a princess, even though her title was never restored to her.
During this time Henry continued to mess with Mary’s marriage situation. He could never agree on a dowry and was unwilling to marry her off to a foreign prince in case there were future issues with claims to his son’s throne. It was such a disappointing period for Mary, who had always longed for marriage and children. She dealt with her disappointment by focusing on books and her music. Still, her depression manifested itself through various physical illnesses. During this time there was a renewed interest in further severing ties between England and the Roman Catholic church. Henry’s policies and the destruction of monasteries displaced many nuns and monks during the late 1530’s. Mary was known to personally give them charity.
In 1547, Henry died and 9 year-old Edward VI became king.
Edward VI and the Lady Jane Debacle
Entire books have been written about the events leading up to Mary Tudor becoming Queen of England. To save time, here’s a shortened version to give you the jist:
Portrait of Edward VI by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1543
During Edward’s reign, Mary continued to experience issues with her family and his advisors because of her Catholic faith. There is no reason to believe Edward and Mary didn’t get along personally, but he was unwilling to allow anyone who wasn’t Protestant to rule over England. It didn’t help that, due to his age, many political decisions were made by a Privy Council led by Protestant relatives and nobles. Edward was very interested in religious matters and during his reign he banned Catholic mass altogether and demanded all religious ceremonies be held in English and not Latin, among other things. Even though Henry VIII had cut ties from Rome many years earlier, he had never gone so far as to completely eliminate Catholic ceremonies and doctrine or to fully establish Protestantism as the official church of England.
By the time Edward was 15 he was gravely ill and knew he had to figure out who was going to take over when he was gone. With the help of his Privy Council and John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, he reworked the line of secession to eliminate Mary and Elizabeth as heirs. The point was to remove anyone who wasn’t a Protestant, not to mention a “bastard,” which put his second cousin Lady Jane Grey next in line.
When Edward died in 1553, Jane became Queen according to Edward’s “Devise of the Succession.” Not many people were very happy with that and the country quickly headed toward civil war. What made the whole thing worse was the sneaky way the Duke of Northumberland managed the succession. The king’s death was announced late so that Jane could get to the Tower to be crowned before Mary could get there or anyone could put a stop to it. Meanwhile, he gathered his forces of 3,000 men to pursue and attack Mary to prevent her from gaining enough support to upset his plan for Jane. This did not work out because Mary had so much support for her right to the throne that she was able to gather her own (much larger) army to protect her. When the Privy Council realized what a mistake it had made they switched sides and declared Mary the rightful heir, ending Jane’s 9 days as Queen. Jane, the Duke and others were convicted of treason and the Duke was executed while Jane’s life was spared. Later, after some major issues caused by Wyatt’s Rebellion in 1554, Jane Grey and her husband (as well a large number of nobles) were executed.
It is important to note that Jane had escaped death before thanks to Mary, despite the usual punishment for a woman convicted of treason being execution. However, after the rebellion Jane was deemed a threat despite not actually being directly involved. It was she the rebels were fighting for anyway. Mary ordered Jane to be beheaded but it was definitely not something she was happy about. The reality was that Mary had to choose between executing Jane and some rebellious nobles or executing hundreds of commoners who took part in the rebellion. So off went Jane’s head at the age of 16.
Recommended reading: Debunking the Myth of Lady Jane Grey
“Entry of Queen Mary I with Princess Elizabeth into London in 1553” by John Byam Liston Shaw, 1910
It was also around this time that Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth (then just 20 years old) was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Letters had been intercepted that implied that Elizabeth knew about the plot to overthrow Mary before the Rebellion in 1554. To keep Elizabeth out of the way until after Mary’s coronation and marriage, she was imprisoned for two months before ultimately being released.
Mary gets Married
Mary, now 37, had just become Queen of England and was still not married. She was new to governing a country and relied heavily upon the advice of her trusted cousin Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain (who had been also been a confidant and friend to her mother Catherine). Mary knew that in order to keep her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth from being next in line for the throne she would need an heir. And because she was so heavily invested in returning England to the Catholic church she would need to find a Catholic husband right away. And politics aside, Mary had always wanted to be a mother.
Charles V suggested that she marry his son Philip II, who was only 26. Mary’s options were few at this point and she trusted Charles enough to risk her popularity with the people to consider marrying a foreigner. And the people were VERY unhappy with her decision to marry Philip II in July of 1554, which was one of many factors that led to the ill-fated Wyatt’s Rebellion (mentioned above).
Philip II by Titian, 1550
To make matters worse, Spain was at war with France and remained so for quite some time. Combining the kingdoms of Spain and England definitely put a strain on England’s relationship with France. Despite the ongoing treaty declaring England’s neutrality in the entire ordeal, Philip II’s involvement in Spain’s conquests ultimately did force Mary to get involved when she didn’t really want to. The details of Spain and France’s issues are complex, but probably the most unexpected outcome was the Pope’s decision to side with France. One of the main reasons Mary allied with Spain in the first place was to bring England closer to the Catholic church!
Sadly, Mary’s relationship with Philip was not a great one. She was by all accounts devoted to him but the feeling was not mutual, especially when she failed to get pregnant. He spent the vast majority of his time in Spain or in Brussels, only briefly coming back to England in 1557 to directly involve England in the war against France. After that, he left and never came back.
Mary’s Bloody Reign
When Mary took over the throne back in 1553 she wanted to mend England’s broken relationship with Rome and the Catholic church. This meant repealing Henry VIII’s edicts and replacing them with laws more in line with the old religion. Among those laws were the strict heresy laws approved by the Pope. Enforcing the heresy laws meant executing hundreds of Protestants as heretics.
Despite Mary’s initial proclamation that she would not force her subjects to convert to her religion, between 1555 and 1558 over 280 Protestants were burned at the stake. Protestants were given a choice: exile, repentance/conversion to Catholicism or death. Hundreds chose exile, but those who did not were imprisoned and ultimately killed. Women and men alike were burned to death, most of them just average people (young and old) who posed no significant political threat. Around 30 others died of illness in prison.
Mary I of England by Antonius Moro, 1554
These executions destroyed what was left of Mary’s image and changed public perception of the Catholic church for the worse. From this time forward, Queen Mary I of England became known as “Bloody Mary.”
Death of the Queen
During her marriage, Mary experienced a couple “false” pregnancies. She desperately wanted to have children and each time the failure to conceive affected her deeply. After Philip left England for good in 1557, she was wracked with grief not only for the loss of her husband but for the final realization that she would never become a mother.
Mary had been ill for quite some time but always pushed through it to do what she needed to do as Queen. However, she finally succumbed to illness and died on November 17, 1558 at the age of 42. Historians believe she may have been suffering from uterine or ovarian cancer.
Prior to her death, Mary had requested her mother’s body to be moved and buried with her in Westminster Abbey. But like so many other things in her life, her final request was ignored and she would ultimately be buried beneath her sister Elizabeth in 1603.
It is easy to see why Mary was vilified for her decision to execute innocent people strictly based on their religion. More so considering that she herself had experienced persecution for her religious beliefs. Based on what we now know of her personality and life experiences, it seems a bit out of character for her to suddenly seek revenge or inflict trauma on her people in such a drastic way. She was always known to be very good to the poor and was surprisingly merciful on multiple occasions (amid considerable political strife she released Lady Jane, Jane’s scheming father and Elizabeth from prison, among others). Yet the number of people who were executed during her 5-year reign pose a direct conflict to many reliable accounts of her character. There are three possible explanations for this conflict:
- One possible explanation is that Mary enforced heresy laws purely out of necessity. Because of her marriage to Philip II amid Spain’s long-established Spanish Inquisition, punishing Protestants with death if they refused to accept Catholicism or exile was the only way to remain on good terms with the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope.
- The second explanation is the religious idea at the time that burning at the stake (symbolically experiencing the ‘fires of Hell’) is a heretic’s best/last chance at salvation or redemption. There is no justification for murdering hundreds of innocent people in such a gruesome way, but perhaps understanding the religious context of the day may explain how Mary could have justified or condoned doing such a thing.
- The third (and most prevalent) explanation is that Mary was simply a cruel and spiteful woman. A lifetime of sorrow, abuse, disappointment, family strife and illness stripped her of her humanity or any goodness she might have started out with.
Even without the tarnished reputation after the executions, Mary’s public image and legacy was already doomed because of her heavily contested right to the throne and illegitimacy, her religious beliefs, her publicly protested marriage, two phantom pregnancies, an unintentional war with France (resulting in the loss of an entire region) and the following popular and prosperous reign of “Good” Queen Elizabeth I.
The question now remains: Was Mary a villain or a victim of historical bias?
All information was gathered from the websites and pages below. A variety of unlisted sources were also used for the purpose of cross-checking for accuracy.
Queen Mary I. Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project
The Anne Boleyn Files
The Elizabeth Files
Letters of Princess Mary to King Henry VIII
Queen “Bloody” Mary I Tudor of England. King’s College History Dept.