If Lady Jane Grey is considered to be England’s most tragic queen, Mary Tudor must rank a close second for hers is very much a story of rejection. Rejected by her father, her brother, her husband and ultimately by her country.
The eldest surviving child of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was born at Greenwich Palace on 18th February 1516 and was baptized at the Friary Church there. Although Henry was pleased to have fathered a child, he was disappointed that it was a girl for he desperately needed a male heir to continue the Tudor dynasty. He told courtiers, “By God’s grace the sons will follow.” Henry and Catherine had at least eight other children, including three boys, all of which were either miscarried, stillborn or died in infancy. It was this failure to produce the heir Henry so craved that led to his separation and eventual divorce from Catherine and resulted in an unhappy childhood for Mary.
Possibly because of tensions in her home life, Mary developed into a strongwilled child, some would say precocious. She was initially educated by her mother and Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, and was later tutored in astronomy, geography, mathematics and science. She excelled at languages, studied Greek and spoke Latin, French, Italian and Spanish fluently. Like her father, Mary was musical and could play the virginals before her fifth birthday, and learned to play the clavichord and lute. For relaxation, Mary enjoyed needlework and embroidery, and she loved dancing. At the age of 11 she took part in several entertainments at Greenwich Palace for the French ambassador, dancing as an Icelandic maiden and later, richly dressed in a costume of crimson and gold, as an ancient Roman lady.
Almost from birth Mary was a pawn in the marriage stakes to strengthen relations with other countries. At the age of just two she was engaged to the French Dauphin, although Cardinal Wolsey later changed his mind and the young Mary found herself betrothed to Charles V of France instead. She was five years old, he was 23! With no dowry offered, Charles V backed out of the arrangement. James IV of Scotland was then suggested as a possible husband, but the idea was abandoned.
When she was 10, Cardinal Wolsey tried to arrange a marriage between Mary and 32-year-old Francis I of France. Henry of Orleans was also considered, before Wolsey turned his attention to England and suggested that Mary marry Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond. As the Duke was an illegitimate son of Henry VIII with his mistress Elizabeth Blount, the union between a girl and her half-brother proved too much even for the Tudors. Then the son of the Duke of Norfolk was proposed, but also rejected. Love did not appear to be a requisite and poor Mary seemed to have no say in her choice of future husband. Having first been engaged at the age of two, Mary did not actually marry until she was 37.
Caught up in her father’s marital problems, Mary found herself rejected by him when he separated from Catherine of Aragon. When the marriage was nullified, Mary was declared illegitimate and even had to give up her title of Princess. Henry VIII’S second wife, Anne Boleyn, saw Mary as an enemy. When Anne gave birth to a daughter in 1533, Mary was rejected still further.
Instead of being treated royally, Mary was now considered to be nobody. She was given the smallest room at Hatfield House and was almost a servant, acting as a nanny to her half-sister, Princess Elizabeth. Anne Boleyn’s sister, Lady Skelton, took control of all that Mary did and was instructed to beat her if she disobeyed orders. Not surprisingly, Mary became ill. “While my father lives I shall be only the Lady Mary,” she said, describing herself as “the most unhappy lady in Christendom”. So severe was the attitude towards her that if anyone wrote a letter to her addressing her as “Princess” Mary, they were sent straight to the Tower. Knowing that her own life could be in danger, the young Mary learned to act with humility at this time.
When Catherine of Aragon was dying at Kimbolton in 1535, Mary was forbidden to go and see her. She was not allowed to go to the funeral, or to accept a bequest in her mother’s will.
After Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536, Henry married Jane Seymour who was sympathetic to Mary’s situation. Mary, then aged 20, tried to initiate a reconciliation with her father, but was told that first she had to agree that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was illegal and also to accept Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Mary’s religious conviction was essential to her and she was drawn to the old Catholic faith and believed in the supremacy of the Pope, which was completely at odds with her father’s position.
Initially Mary refused to accept Henry as Head of the Church, but eventually relented. Many people were being executed at this time for their faith, including some close to Mary,
and she feared that she might also lose her head. Strong willed, however, she could not relinquish her Catholic leanings and upset the King when he heard that she had “entertained a group of dispossessed nuns”. The Duke of Norfolk said threateningly that were he Mary’s father, he would knock her head against a wall “until it was as soft as a baked apple”.
Mary was to remain something of an outsider within the Royal Family until Henry VIII married for the last time. His sixth wife, Catherine Parr, took pity on Mary, and was said to have treated her like a sister and tried to pour oil on troubled waters. As a result, a statute of 1544 put Mary back in line of succession after her brother, Edward, but she still seemed to be considered illegitimate.
After Henry VIII’S death in 1547, the new King Edward VI was determined to maintain his father’s Protestant stance and the Catholic Mass was outlawed. This caused friction with Mary, who told her brother that her faith would never change. In 1549 she was informed that she could not hold a private Mass even in her own home.
When Edward died at the age of 15 on 6th July 1553, two days later it was revealed that the powerful Duke of Northumberland had persuaded the young King to name his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor instead of Mary. Mary had been rejected once again. Jane was taken in an elaborate procession by state barge to the Tower of London on 10th July where her accession was officially announced.
Mary was in Suffolk when Jane was proclaimed Queen and sent a letter to Parliament stating that she was the rightful heir to her half-brother King Edward VI. Lady Jane Grey’s husband, Guildford Dudley, sent a reply signed by 20 councillors confirming that Jane was now Queen of England.
Mary set out for London, staying overnight at Sawston Hall near Cambridge, then owned by the Roman Catholic Huddleston family. She was forced to leave early in the morning disguised as a dairy maid when news reached her that the Duke of Northumberland’s soldiers and a group of Protestant supporters were approaching, with the aim of taking her prisoner. When they discovered that they had been thwarted, they set fire to Sawston Hall, destroying a large part of it. “Let it burn,” said Mary, “I shall build a finer one there.” This she did, granting a licence for stone to be used from Cambridge Castle. It is now a Grade I listed Tudor manor house and, not surprisingly, has one of the finest priest holes in England where the Catholic Mass could be said in secret.
It soon became clear that Lady Jane Grey was not the popular choice of the people and there was much greater support in England for a true daughter of King Henry VIII. On 13th July Mary’s supporters proclaimed her Queen and marched towards London, where she was met by the Lord Mayor at Aldgate and received a rapturous welcome from the people. She went on to the Tower of London to be met by Roman Catholic prisoners who had been incarcerated during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Mary immediately ordered their release. In their place, the hapless Lady Jane Grey found herself imprisoned: a girl who never wanted the crown. Mary officially became Queen on 19th July and her reign dates from then.
On 30th September Queen Mary rode to Westminster, a spectacle that is described in the 16th-century Holinshed Chronicles. Mary was “in a chariot of cloth of gold, wearing a gown of purple velvet trimmed with ermine, her crown so heavy with jewels that she was faine to beare up her head with her hand”. Her Coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on 1st October, when she became the first crowned Queen to reign over the whole of England. Significantly, the service was conducted by a Roman Catholic bishop. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, had been arrested, later to be tried for treason.
As monarch, Mary had a number of achievements which included reforming England’s financial position and making improvements to the roads, but it is for issues with the church that she is largely remembered. One of her first acts was to dismiss all the advisers that had surrounded Edward VI and brought in her own supporters. At her first Parliament she rescinded all Edward VI’S laws concerning the Protestant church, restored the Mass and made the Book of Common Prayer illegal.
As an unmarried monarch, the question of her marriage was soon high on the agenda and Mary was given a list of six possible suitors. She was 37 and it seemed as if people had been trying to find her a husband for her entire life.
She eventually settled on Philip, son of her cousin Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.
Philip was heir to the Spanish throne, a widower who was 11 years younger than Mary. He was said to be a zealous Catholic and just what she needed by her side if she was ever to make England a Catholic country. Parliament urged her to opt for an English husband, fearing that the union would be a threat to England’s independence, but Mary stubbornly refused. She did make one concession with Parliament that if she died childless, Philip and his heirs would not have any claim to the throne and he was refused the title King of England.
Mary’s choice of husband did not go down well and there was hostility prior to the marriage to Philip of Spain. Her popularity with the English people plummeted and children even threw snowballs at visiting Spanish envoys that winter. There was a rebellion led by Sir Thomas Wyatt in January 1554, when 15,000 people marched in protest from Kent to Southwark, with Wyatt at the head to oppose the Queen’s marriage.
Mary refused to be cowed and went instead to London’s Guildhall, where she made a dramatic speech. “I am come in mine own person to tell you what you already see and know,” she said. “I mean the traitorous and seditious assembling of the Kentish rebels against us and you. They pretend to object to the marriage with the Prince of Spain…. good subjects, pluck up your hearts and like true men stand fast against these rebels and fear them not, for I assure you I fear them nothing at all.”
Her advisers urged her to go to the safety of Windsor Castle, but Mary refused and defiantly watched from the gatehouse of St. James’s Palace as the rebels marched past.
In the ensuing Battle of Fleet Street, the rebellion was quashed on 7th February and Wyatt and over 100 men were executed. The Queen even had her own sister Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower of London for fear that she supported the rebellion, but when no evidence could be unearthed Mary had her moved to Woodstock Palace until the fuss had died down. When it became known that Lady Jane Grey’s father had been one of the rebels, Mary also signed the death warrant of Jane. The innocent girl was executed on 12th February, along with her husband Guildford Dudley.
Philip arrived at Southampton ahead of the marriage in a howling gale and torrential rain. Although he told the deputation that greeted him in London that evening that he had come to live in England as an Englishman, he addressed them in Latin as he did not speak any English!
Mary married Philip on 25th July 1554 in Winchester Cathedral and the couple honeymooned at Hampton Court. On marriage Mary adopted the title Queen of England, France, Naples, Jerusalem and Ireland. When Philip acceded to the Spanish throne in January 1556, Mary also became Queen of Spain.
Although the couple appeared content in public, it was an unhappy relationship and through the marriage she lost the affection of the English people. With an eye for the ladies, there was soon gossip of Philip’s liaisons in London with what were described at the time as “females of low condition”. A ballad of the day lampooned his dalliances:
The baker’s daughter in her russet
gown, Better than Queen Mary without her
One of the reasons for the couple’s unpopularity in England is that Philip had a reputation for having nonCatholics tortured to induce them to give up their Protestant beliefs.
After her marriage, Mary did indeed revive an old law which allowed people to be burned at the stake as punishment for heresy and some 300 Protestants suffered this dreadful fate. Not surprisingly, the Queen became known as “Bloody Mary” as a result. The first to suffer was John Rogers, a married Prebendary at St. Paul’s Cathedral. His family were forced to watch the execution in the hope that the priest would see them and renounce his Lutheran faith. He did not. In fact his family supported his martyrdom and cheered him on his way out of this world.
Notably, Mary had three bishops put to death in Oxford: Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, often referred to as the Oxford Martyrs. A gruesome reminder is a sunken cobbled cross, set into the road at the western end of Broad Street in Oxford, marking the exact spot where the bishops were executed. There is also a Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford, a stone monument in the shape of an Eleanor Cross with statues of the bishops. Uncowed, Latimer had shouted out to Ridley as the flames licked around them, “We shall this day light such a candle in England as, by the grace of God, shall never be put out.”
It was not just clergy that suffered the regime. Long records include weavers, butchers, barbers…people from all professions, who lost their lives for refusing to renounce their faith. Four women in Essex were put to death for not knowing what a sacrament was.
Because the Queen was so fanatical about Catholicism, married clergy were now forced to leave their wives if they wanted to stay in the church. Where
churches had been stripped bare of ornamentation by her predecessors, Mary now had altars, icons and statues restored, and soon there were Acts of Parliament acknowledging the Pope’s supremacy.
In November 1554 it was announced that Queen Mary was expecting her first child and there was public celebration throughout England at the prospect of a new heir to secure the Tudor line. In May 1555, when the birth appeared to be imminent, the waiting game continued and it eventually became apparent that this was a phantom pregnancy and there was no baby to be born. Fluid retention as a result of dropsy, now known as edema, had caused her stomach to swell. With Mary and Philip’s relationship stormy from the outset, he now packed his bags at the news and set sail for Spain leaving her alone and rejected. He was to marry twice more after Mary’s death and fathered at least 10 children.
Philip returned to England briefly in 1557 simply to muster English troops to join in a war between Spain and France, and some 8,000 soldiers departed with him to fight. On 5th January 1558 England lost Calais. Its last piece of French territory, won in 1347, had gone and Mary was humiliated. “When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying on my heart,” she said.
Physically, Mary was never a great beauty. Short, plump, pale skinned with dark hair, a Spanish gentleman described her at the time of her marriage as “flabby rather than fat…and she dresses badly”. Venetian Ambassador Giovanni Michieli recorded in 1557 that Mary’s “eyes are so piercing that they inspire not only respect, but fear in those on whom she fixes them, although she is very short-sighted, being unable to read or do anything unless she has her sight quite close to what she wishes to peruse or to see distinctly. Her voice is rough and loud, almost like a man’s, so that when she speaks she is always heard a long way off.”
In the summer of 1558 Mary suffered with dropsy again, but deluded herself that she was pregnant. She had not seen Philip for over nine months, yet insisted that it was her husband’s child. This time the condition proved fatal and modern physicians conclude that she may well have been suffering from ovarian cancer. On 17th November Mary was anointed and a Mass was said at her bedside at St. James’s Palace. She died while being blessed by the priest. Few people mourned at her passing and there was no great national outflow of grief. Her husband wrote to his halfsister, “The Queen, my wife, is dead…. I felt a reasonable regret for her death.”
When the news was announced in London there was in fact jubilation at Elizabeth’s accession rather than Mary’s passing. “Did anyone ever see such a time?” said one Londoner, “No one would think that a queen had died since the day began; there has been nothing but bonfires and bell-ringing and feasting and shouting.”
Mary’s heart and bowels were buried at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace, and her body at Westminster Abbey. Whilst many of our English monarchs were given elaborate tombs, Mary shares her final resting place with her half-sister and successor, Queen Elizabeth I, in Westminster Abbey. It is Good Queen Bess’s effigy that adorns the tomb and a Victorian inspection of the burial chamber revealed that Elizabeth’s better quality coffin had been placed directly on top of Mary’s. Even in death, Mary was overshadowed.