Spartacus Blog

Mary Tudor, the first Queen of England

Saturday, 12th September, 2015

John Simkin

Up until the second-half of the 16th century no public office above the level of churchwarden was open to a woman. (1) The accession of Matilda, daughter of Henry I in December 1135, had been challenged by her cousin Stephen. It was not until 1139 that Matilda landed in England with her army. When Matilda went to be crowned the first Queen of England, the people of London rebelled and she was forced to flee from the area. Later she returned to Normandy. (2)

In the summer of 1553 it became clear that the fifteen-year-old Edward VI, was dying. His senior advisors were all supporters of the Protestant faith and did not want the crown to go to Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon. The leading opponent of Mary was John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. As Philippa Jones has pointed out : "Early in 1553, Dudley... began working to persuade the King to change the succession. Edward VI was reminded that Mary and Elizabeth were both illegitimate, and more importantly, that Mary would bring Catholicism back to England. Dudley reasoned that if Mary were to be struck out of the succession, how could Elizabeth, her equal, be left in? Furthermore, he argued that both the princesses would seek foreign husbands, jeopardizing English sovereignty." (3)

In order to secure his hold on power, Northumberland named his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VIII's younger sister Mary, as Edward's successor. Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. Mary, who had been warned of Northumberland's plans, fled to Kenninghall in Norfolk. (4)

The problem for Northumberland was that the vast majority of the English people still saw themselves as "Catholic in religious feeling; and a very great majority were certainly unwilling to see - King Henry's eldest daughter lose her birthright." (5) However, the Catholic strongholds in the north and west of England were too far away to help Mary. It was south-east England, where the Protestants were strongest, which made Mary queen.

The Protestants afterwards alleged that Mary had issued a proclamation promising that she had no intention of overthrowing Edward's religious reforms. No record of any such proclamation has been preserved. Jasper Ridley has argued that the most likely explanation is that her subordinate officers "led the people to believe that the Protestant religion would be preserved, and that Mary took care to say nothing to contradict this impression". (6)

On 3rd August, dressed in a gown of purple velvet, Mary triumphantly entered London with a large and magnificent retinue, which the populace greeted with joy and traditional festivities. She was crowned the first Queen of England in October, 1553. "Mary, an unmarried woman of thirty-seven, small in stature and near-sighted, appeared older than her years and often tired, because of her generally poor health." (7)

It soon became clear that Mary was not going to be ruled by her Privy Council. Her first move was to put her marriage into the hands of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Therefore her councillors found that Mary had excluded them from the marital decision-making process. This is something that no previous king had done. (8)

Charles V, with little concern for Mary, seized the opportunity to increase his influence over England by proposing his son Philip II as her husband. According to Simon Renard, the Spanish ambassador, Mary disliked the idea and reached the decision with the greatest reluctance. (9) "She was disgusted at the idea of having sex with a man; but the Emperor and his ambassador were strongly in favour of a marriage which would unite England with the Emperor's territories in a permanent alliance." (10) This move was opposed by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, her Lord Chancellor, who wanted her to marry Edward Courtenay, a man he thought was more acceptable to the English people. (11)

Mary was determined to produce an heir, thus preventing her sister, Elizabeth, a Protestant, from succeeding to the throne. In negotiations it was agreed that Philip was to be styled "King of England", but he could not act without his wife's consent or appoint foreigners to office in England. Philip was unhappy at the conditions imposed, but he was ready to agree for the sake of securing the marriage. The ceremony took place at Winchester Cathedral on 25th July 1554, two days after their first meeting. (12)

Alan Turing
Mary Tudor by Master John (1544)

Mary taught Philip to say "Good night my lords and ladies" in English but this was probably the limit of his proficiency in the language. He spent little time in England and was alleged to have several mistresses in Spain. "Whether he was really as promiscuous as alleged, we do not know, but it is unlikely in view of his rigid piety. On the other hand a man who very seldom saw his wife could well keep a mistress - or a succession of mistresses - without ever feeling called upon to acknowledge the fact." (13)

Unlike Anne Boleyn and Catherine Parr, Mary never showed any interest in women's rights. Nor was she sympathetic to Lady Jane Grey, who was clearly a victim of her father-in-law's political scheming and ordered her execution. Alison Plowden has described it as "the judicial murder of sixteen-year-old Jane Grey". (14)

Mary was also known as a persecutor of heretics. During her three year reign 227 men and 56 women were burnt for heresy. (15) This compare to only 81 heretics executed during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547). Mary's cruelty resulted in her being called "Bloody Mary".

John Foxe, one of the first historians to write about Mary, claimed that she was an example of what could happen when "a lawful ruler was seduced by the Devil". (16) For the next five hundred years historians have not been very kind to our first queen. Jasper Ridley, wrote in Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) that because of Mary's actions "it is impossible for a King or Queen of England to be a Roman Catholic or to marry a Roman Catholic; and Bloody Mary is indirectly responsible for the hatred of 'Papists' felt by the Protestants in Northern Ireland today". (17)

In recent years historians have been more sympathetic and have attempted to explain the psychological reasons for her behaviour. They have pointed out that when Mary was 17-year old she was declared illegitimate, lost her rank and status as a princess and was exiled from Court. She was placed with Sir John Shelton and his wife, Lady Anne Sheldon. It has been claimed that "Mary was bullied unmercifully by the Sheltons, humiliated, and was constantly afraid that she would be imprisoned or executed." (18) Alison Plowden has concluded that the treatment Mary received "turned a gentle, affectionate child into a bigoted, neurotic and bitterly unhappy woman." (19)

In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry VIII the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (20)

Mary refused to take the oath as it would mean renouncing her mother, Catherine of Aragon. On hearing this news, Anne Boleyn apparently said that the "cursed bastard" should be given "a good banging". Henry VIII told Archbishop Thomas Cranmer that he had decided to send her to the Tower of London, and if she refused to take the oath, she would be prosecuted for high treason and executed. According to Ralph Morice it was Cranmer who finally persuaded Henry not to put her to death. Morice claims that when Henry at last agreed to spare Mary's life, he warned Cranmer that he would live to regret it. He did, for on 21st March, 1556, she had Cranmer burnt at the stake.

Henry VIII also told Jane Seymour, who also interceded for Mary, that she was a fool to do so because Mary would be an enemy to any children which he and Jane might have. Henry decided to put her under house arrest and did not allow her to have contact with her mother. He also sent some of her servants to prison. (21)

Anna Whitelock, the author of Mary Tudor: England's First Queen (2009) has presented a much more sympathetic portrait of Mary than historians such as Jasper Ridley. Whitelock claims that she was a victim of her upbringing and that the "woman who emerges is a complex figure of immense courage and resolve". (22) David Loades, in his book Mary Tudor (2012), agrees that she was a tragic figure and insists that Mary's reign was "in many respects successful, not least because she set precedents and also made some of the mistakes that Elizabeth was thereby able to avoid". (23)



(1) David Loades, Mary Tudor (2012) page 8

(2) Anna Whitelock, Mary Tudor: England's First Queen (2009) page 2

(3) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 86

(4) Ann Weikel, Mary Tudor : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) Christopher Morris, The Tudors (1955) page 113

(6) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 45

(7) Ann Weikel, Mary Tudor : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) David Loades, Mary Tudor (2012) page 10

(9) Simon Renard, letter to Charles V (28th October, 1553)

(10) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 54

(11) David Loades, Mary Tudor (2012) page 141

(12) Linda Porter, Mary Tudor: The First Queen (2007) page 318

(13) David Loades, Mary Tudor (2012) page 12

(14) Alison Plowden, Lady Jane Grey : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(15) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 1

(16) David Loades, Mary Tudor (2012) page 9

(17) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 1

(18) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 23

(19) Alison Plowden, The Young Elizabeth (1999) page 45

(20) Ann Weikel, Mary Tudor : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 274

(22) Anna Whitelock, Mary Tudor: England's First Queen (2009) page 4

(23) David Loades, Mary Tudor (2012) page 14


Previous Posts

Anne Boleyn in the history classroom (29th August, 2015)

Why the BBC and the Daily Mail ran a false story on anti-fascist campaigner, Cedric Belfrage (22nd August, 2015)

Women and Politics during the Reign of Henry VIII (14th July, 2015)

The Politics of Austerity (16th June, 2015)

Was Henry FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, murdered? (31st May, 2015)

The long history of the Daily Mail campaigning against the interests of working people (7th May, 2015)

Nigel Farage would have been hung, drawn and quartered if he lived during the reign of Henry VIII (5th May, 2015)

Was social mobility greater under Henry VIII than it is under David Cameron? (29th April, 2015)

Why it is important to study the life and death of Margaret Cheyney in the history classroom (15th April, 2015)

Is Sir Thomas More one of the 10 worst Britons in History? (6th March, 2015)

Was Henry VIII as bad as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin? (12th February, 2015)

The History of Freedom of Speech (13th January, 2015)

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