Posted on: November 17, 2011

Queen Mary Tudor was the first crowned queen of England.  In her turbulent brief reign she would unleash a terror that would reverberate down the centuries to come.  She was a religious fanatic undoubtedly, but it is impossible to read about Mary’s private life without feeling sorry for her.  This was a woman who knew very little happiness.  She is also a conundrum.  How did a woman who was certainly capable of great kindness, and who inspired much devotion and loyalty from those closest to her, come to be so synonymous with cruelty?

Mary was born on 18 February 1516 at Greenwich Palace, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  It has been said that Mary was a disappointment from the moment she was born, because she wasn’t the son that Henry so desperately craved.  But her parents seemed to be genuinely delighted by her birth, and the fact that she survived babyhood would have given them hope for the future.  Unwarranted hope as it turned out, because Mary was to be the only child of Henry and Catherine’s that would survive into adulthood.

Her mother, Catherine, loved her dearly, and the two had a deep mother and daughter bond.  Henry may have been disappointed that she wasn’t a boy, but he still seems to have been fond of her, and would proudly show her off to visitors.  No doubt this was also to prove that he was capable of siring a healthy child, and silencing his detractors.  Mary was a lively, intelligent girl, and she was given a good education.  If there hadn’t been such an obsession with producing a male heir, she could surely have been comfortably groomed for future queendom.

Things were going badly wrong between her parents though.  Henry was tired of Catherine, who was 6 years older than him, and not ageing well.  A succession of child-deaths only served to estrange them even further.  Henry began to look elsewhere, and to consider putting Catherine aside in favour of a younger woman, with better potential to be a brood-mare.  A vivacious, quick-witted, dark-eyed woman called Anne Boleyn caught his eye, and the rest as they say is history.

Mary was treated appallingly from that moment on.  From being her parents cherished only child, she now became a nuisance to her father’s ambitions.  When her father wed Anne in secret in January 1533 Mary was told that she could no longer call herself Princess, that she would now simply be the Lady Mary.  Anne gave birth the following September.  It wasn’t the boy Henry was desperate for, but the arrival of another girl, the future Elizabeth I, didn’t make Mary increase in favour at all.  Quite the opposite.  Henry was now desperate to ensure that any offspring he had by Anne would take precedence in the line of succession.  Mary’s existence was rather inconvenient for him to say the least.

Queen Catherine was banished away from Court, and Mary was forbidden to see her.  This must have been a terrible blow.  Mary was in her teens by now, and must have yearned for her mother nearby.  By all accounts her transition to womanhood was difficult.  She suffered horribly with her periods, and female gyneacological problems were to plague her for the rest of her life.  To make matters worse she now had to endure the humiliation of being ordered to Hatfield, in Hertfordshire, where she was to wait on her baby sister as nursemaid.

Her mother died in January 1536, after a long debilitating illness.  Mary had begged her father for permission to go and visit her, but he had refused.  Her hated stepmother, Anne, was sent to the block 5 months later on trumped-up charges of adultery, incest and witchcraft.  Henry speedily married his third wife, Jane Seymour, and suddenly it was now the little Princess Elizabeth as well who was an outcast.  She too was stripped of her title and her right to inherit the throne.  To Mary’s credit she never took out her bitterness on her little step-sister.  Mary was devoted to children, with a strong maternal instinct, and by all accounts she diligently kept an eye on Elizabeth’s welfare, even writing to complain that the little Princess was short of clothes.

When Queen Jane gave birth to the much-awaited boy, Edward, in October 1537, Mary accepted his rightful place as the heir to the throne.  She must have been relieved in some ways that his arrival had taken the emphasis of her and Elizabeth.  Mary lived reasonably quietly for the next few years.  Her father died in January 1547, and Edward took his place as king.  Although they were of differing religions – Edward was Protestant, and Mary was a devout Catholic – this doesn’t seem to have caused any personal rifts between them.  Under Edward, England was a Protestant country, which made it difficult for Mary to appear at Court, but she was allowed to live in the country, and devote herself to her religion in private.

If Edward had lived, Mary would have probably lived out the rest of her days contentedly as a countrywoman.  She doesn’t seem to have had any ambitions for the throne for her own sake.  This wasn’t to be though.  Edward had always been sickly, and by the summer of 1553 he had been stricken by smallpox, measles and tuberculosis.  He was dying.  It was generally accepted that on his death Mary would claim the throne, as Henry the VIII’s eldest surviving legitimate child.  Mary dutifully prepared herself for this sacred task.

She hadn’t bargained for the fierce ambitions of the Seymour family.  The Duke of Northumberland married his son, Lord Guildford Dudley, off to King Edward’s cousin, Lady Jane Grey, and then persuaded the dying Edward to make out a new will, leaving the crown to Lady Jane.  Poor little Lady Jane was to go down in history as the Queen who reigned for only 9 days.  She had no desire for the crown, and was said to have fainted from shock when she was told she was to be queen.

Meanwhile the country was in a turmoil.  Mary was the rightful heir, not Jane the unwilling usurper.  Supporters flocked to Mary’s side at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk.  Mary must have thought that everybody was as keen to seen the Catholic faith restored to England as she was, in truth many just wanted to see the rightful line of succession followed through, and some simply hated the greedy, ambitious Seymours.

Mary never lacked for physical courage.  The story goes that Mary was sleeping in the Tapestry Room at Sawston Hall, Cambridgeshire, when she was woken by her host, John Huddleston, who warned her that she was in danger of her life, that the dastardly Seymours had organised a coup.  For her own safety Mary was smuggled out of the house disguised as a milkmaid, and retired to a safe vantage point, where she could watch as the Duke’s men set fire to the house.  When Mary became Queen a a few days later, she didn’t forget the help of the Huddlestons, and gave them money to help them rebuild the house.  (Legend has it that she is said to haunt the Tapestry Room, and the sound of her playing her virginal can be heard).

Soon, in triumph, Mary entered London, and the daughters of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, rode together.  Mary by now was 37, and not in the best of health.  I would be amazed if she wasn’t unsettled and a wee bit jealous of her much younger sister, a tall, slim girl with long red hair. who had inherited her father’s colouring, and her mother’s magnetic personality.  Nevertheless Mary’s reign began in a blaze of glory, and the people of England must have hoped that things could settle down at last.  Mary’s honeymoon period was to be brief.

Mary wasn’t disposed to be forgiving towards her enemies.  It didn’t help that she found the men of her government weren’t as keen to give her her own way in everything as she had hoped.  She repeatedly complained about yelling herself hoarse at them during meetings.  Mary was intelligent, but she didn’t have the political guile that her younger sister was to display so spectacularly well during her subsequent reign.  Mary was also very innocent about people.  Her own clear belief in her religion blinded her to the fact that not everybody else shared it.

At first she seems to have been prepared to forgive Lady Jane for the short-lived rebellion, seeing her as a pathetic pawn at the hands of ruthlessly ambitious men.  As the months wore on though, and Mary came up against her government’s intransigence, she changed her mind.  Lady Jane was sent to the scaffold one cold February morning, and submitted to the executioner’s axe.  Queen Mary, who must at first have seemed simply a stocky, bustling little woman, with a somewhat housewifely air about her, showed that she could be bitterly ruthless when she chose.  It was a sign of things to come.

It was expected as queen that Mary would marry at some point.  Mary can’t have been keen on the idea.  She wasn’t in good health, and the thought of pregnancy and childbirth must have terrified her (particularly having the first one in her late 30s).  She was also astonishingly innocent about carnal matters.  Especially amazing considering this was the daughter of the lusty King Hal, who was said to have tried to embarrass her when she was a girl by making bawdy jokes in her presence.  Mary had never had any sweethearts, she had had to grow up too quickly in some ways, and yet was very lacking in any kind of sexual maturity.  Some believe she had a horror of sex, I think it was more she was baffled by it.  There is the tale of how she overheard a young man about Court making a saucy remark to one of her ladies-in-waiting.  Mary found it amusing, and repeated it to the young girl, who was quite shocked to hear her monarch addressing her in such a way!  Mary simply hadn’t understood that there was any sexual reference to it at all!  She was a true innocent.

When Mary made her choice of husband she couldn’t have picked a worse one.  An old friend, the Emperor Charles V of Spain, who had given her advice and support during her lonely younger years, put forward his son, Prince Philip as her future husband.   It was a deeply unpopular choice as far as the people of England were concerned.  The Spaniards were hated. They wanted her to pick a nice Englishman as her consort.  Sir Thomas Wyatt even raised a rebellion, supported by an army of several thousand men.  They reached the outskirts of London before being vanquished.

Mary was shocked and appalled that her own subjects could rise up against her in this way, but it didn’t deter her from the marriage.  She was an incredibly stubborn woman.  Philip, 11 years her junior, arrived in England on a stormy July day, and the couple (having never met before) were married at Winchester Cathedral.  The marriage was doomed from the start.  Philip was young and handsome, and he found Mary old before her time, and physically unappealing.  When the marriage came to be consummated, he reputedly said that Mary “lacked all sensibility of the flesh”, in other words she was frigid.  Mary really needed a more mature, patient man to show her the ropes, sadly she didn’t get it in Philip, who seemed to be more interested in Elizabeth (reputedly even spying on her in her rooms as she dressed).  To compound the tragedy of the marriage, poor innocent Mary had fallen devotedly in love with her new husband.

She suffered the humiliation of having a consort whose sexual exploits were now the talk of the London.  Even this might not have been so bad if she could have got pregnant.  Mary was desperate for children, not just for the sake of the succession, but because she genuinely loved them.  A couple of times she thought she was pregnant, but it was a tumour of the stomach, which caused her belly to grow.

It was all going wrong.  She should have been the happiest woman in the land.  She was the Queen, and she had a dashing new husband.  But it was all a horrible farce.  Her people weren’t as pliant as she had thought they would be, and her husband barely tolerated her.  Mary became increasingly under the sway of Spanish advice.  She was encoouraged to punish any traitors in her midst, but even the Spanish urged her not to go too far down the road of punishing heretics.  It was fully accepted that the Inquistion would not work in England.  Well obvious to everybody but Mary it would seem.

Throughout the year of 1555 Protestant priests were burnt at the stake.  By the end of it 90 in all had been despatched.  In Broad Street, Oxford, there is a cross marked on the cobbled road to signify where Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, and Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of Oxford, were chained back-to-back and burnt to death, with Latimer uttering the immortal words “play the man, Mr Ridley. We shall this day light such a candle in England as by the Grace of God shall never be put out!”

The burnings accelerated.  Mary seemed blind to the suffering that she was causing.  I don’t think that she was taking out her bitterness and disappointment with her private life on her victims, I think in her religious fanaticism she saw the burnings as her way of appeasing God, that He might show favour on her for punishing all these heretics.  She was a restless woman.  Pacing about, unable to sleep, and old before her time.  Matters became worse when Philip announced he was returning to Spain for a while.  Lonely, and publicly humiliated by a husband who made it clear he didn’t want her near him, Mary stepped up her Inquistion.

An even more vicious, spiteful element came into the proceedings.  Heretics were no longer allowed to recant before their execution, and anyone showing any sympathy for the victims was to be publicly flogged through the streets.  All of this naturally turned her people against her more than ever, they began to regard the heretics as saints, and if any fires were too slow-burning, they would hasten to make them burn faster, so that the agony would not be excessively prolonged.

In the spring of 1557 Philip returned briefly to England, but solely to get Mary to support him in a war against France.  It was a total disaster.  During it the English lost control of Calais, which had been an English territory for 200 years.  Mary was devastated by this news, and uttered the words “when I die, Calais shall be found written on my heart”.  It also exacerbated the contempt her people now had for her.

Mary’s last year was a truly wretched one.  She was dying, but insisted on putting word out that she was pregnant, and that bells of thanksgiving were to be rung.  She stayed confined to the birthing-chamber for as long as she possibly could to keep up the charade, finally emerging a broken woman.  In the country at large people were patiently biding their time.  Through the summer of 1558 crowds turned up and openly sang hymns when the burnings took place.  Government ministers prayed for God to send them Elizabeth.  Mary sent for Elizabeth and begged her to stay loyal to the Catholic faith when she became Queen.  Something Elizabeth had no intention of doing.

She died in the early hours of 17 November.  As she drew her last breath the Coronation ring was removed from her finger, and taken immediately to Elizabeth, who was famously to be found waiting under a tree at Hatfield.  Although Elizabeth gave public thanks when the ring was finally placed in her hands, she never forgot the speed with which it had been removed from her sister’s, and knew that one day the same would happen to her.  (When she lay dying in 1603, a messenger had been posted on horseback beneath her bedroom window, to catch the ring the moment it was removed, and then galloped with it to Scotland to present to the future King James I).

In spite of the horror she caused, it is hard not to feel a smidgeon of sympathy for Mary at the end.  As she lay on her deathbed she reportedly told her close friend, Jane Dormer, that she had had a lovely dream about children playing.  Would the burnings have happened if Mary had been able to have the children she craved?  I find that difficult to say.  Mary would have still been a religious fanatic, but perhaps her zeal would have been tempered somewhat.  She was a woman known in private for her kindness.  Her ladies-in-waiting were devoted to her, and at the end she apologised to Jane for her long tour of duty, saying that she herself had been very selfish for wanting her close by.  When Elizabeth had been a child she had nurtured her, and never taken it out on her for the sins of her parents.

Mary wasn’t the wicked Queen of fairy-tale legend.  She was a very human woman.  A very sad woman.  Let down by her father, removed from her beloved mother, abandoned by her husband.  Apart from the loyalty of her close friends, she had never been loved enough.  The love she must have wanted to show to people all got poured into religion instead.



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