Merry Mary, Impugned Unfairly?

Happy Birthday to Queen Mary I of England. She came into the world on 18 February 1516 and was the only one of Henry VIII’s six children with Katherina of Aragon to survive past early infancy. Mary was a pretty little girl, with her father’s strawberry-blonde hair and ruddy cheeks, and she spent her early years being an adored and precocious only child.

NPG 6453; Queen Mary I

Her world collapsed when she was just a child as a result of her father’s nullity suit against her mother. She was put into the nearly impossible position of ‘choosing sides’ during her parents’ de facto divorce. Henry decision to declare her the bastard product of an incestuous false marriage was obviously a devastating emotional blow. Since she undoubtedly considered herself a legitimate princess, she sided with her mother and the incontestability of the Catholic faith.  Inasmuch as she loved her father, and could not psychologically cast him in the role of absolute villain, so she blamed Anne Boleyn completely for Henry’s desire to have a new wife and his slow-growing separation from the Holy Mother Church.

There is an old saying: ‘What’s bred into the bone will come out in the blood’. This saw predates human understanding of DNA, but even without the knowledge of genetics people could see heritable characteristics. With all due respect to nurture, Mary I of England’s nature was a nearly perfect admixture of Tudor and Trastámara.

As stubborn as either of her parents, Mary dug in her heels and refused to give way to her father’s demands to acknowledge the invalidity of his first marriage until she literally feared for her life. With the death of Anne Boleyn in May of 1533, Mary thought her father was at last ‘safe’ from evil influence and would welcome her back into the fold without her submitting to her own illegitimacy. Alas for her, it was Henry – not Anne – who was the most truculent about Mary’s admission of bastardy. Coaxed by her advisors, who were concerned that Henry would actually murder his daughter for her resistance, Mary signed a document confessing that her parents’ marriage was never real and that the Pope was not the ultimate pontiff of the Christian faith.

Henry is rightfully regarded as a monster for how he treated his daughter, but Mary was not the stainless innocent she is often portrayed to have been. As I explained in Blood Will Tell, “Less than a year before Anne’s death, Mary had been actively encouraging Charles V to invade England to restore Katherina to the throne and to punish the heresy of Protestantism … Calling for her father’s overthrow was clearly insubordination that would have sent anyone else posthaste to the chopping block.” Henry was indeed cruel to his daughter, but his daughter was also willing for a foreign power to depose her father in order to restore her place in the succession and return England to enforced Catholicism.

Although Mary never forgave herself for signing the declaration of her illegitimacy and denying the supremacy of the Pope, her capitulation to Henry’s demands allowed her to be restored to the succession in 1544.


Like both of her parents, Mary was as unwilling to compromise or to conceptualize that she might be wrong about anything. Although all human beings have a tendency to justify their actions to themselves, Mary was every inch her parents’ daughter with her assumption that her wishes were God’s will. Like her mother, Mary believed that Catholicism was the ONLY true religion and all others were doomed to eternal hellfire. Like her father, Mary believed ONLY she and the people who agreed with her were ‘good’ people and that those who opposed her were deserving of the death penalty.

When her brother Edward VI died and left his throne to Jane Grey, Mary raised an army of rebels and took the crown by force. Post-usurpation propaganda has done an excellent job of whitewashing these events, leaving most people with the idea that Queen Jane the I was an ‘innocent traitor’ who never really wanted the throne or had the legal right to sit there, but Jane was the queen and Mary’s uprising was the overthrow and murder of a legitimate monarch.

Mary I of England

It was Mary’s belief in her infallibility and her role as a divine agent on earth that led her to become known Bloody Mary. This moniker is both unfair yet simultaneously deserved. Mary did not kill people with any more wantonness than did many of her predecessors, none of whom are remembered as Bloody Henry or Bloody Edward, but she did slaughter a significant number of Protestants during her five year reign. Hundreds of Protestants fled the country to avoid being burned alive at the stake. Mary may not be able to rival her grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella in terms of religious persecution, or her English ancestors Edward I and Edward III in terms of sheer number of people killed for political consolidation, but she was no shy violet when it came to using executions as the final say in disputes.


Mary’s reign was spent inadvertently undermining her own goals. Her marriage to Philip of Spain and her persecution of those she considered heretics, meant to keep her country and people safe, backfired and created Wyatt’s rebellion, further alienated many people from Catholicism, sharply lessened Mary’s popularity as queen, and eventually led England into war with France. This does not mean Mary had been foolish. Every one of her decisions had a sound reason behind it. She hoped her marriage to Philip would provide an heir and ease international tension between England and it’s neighboring states. Instead, her people resented Philip, the marriage was childless, and the alliance with Spain got England embroiled in a war with France. The Marian Persecutions were supposed to undo the ‘corruption’ of Protestantism by eradicating the malcontent heretics leading people astray and bring England back into the Catholic fold, but it was impossible to turn the tide of religious change and all Mary’s executions did was make martyrs that inspired further Protestantism. Her efforts for the Church were unrewarded even at the highest level, when the ungrateful Pope supported France in a war against Spain.  It was as though Mary was cursed with some sort of reverse Midas touch; metaphorical gold was constantly turned into baser materials wherever she went.

Mary died in 1558, probably as the result of cancer in her reproductive organs. She was only 42 years old, and she has spent the whole of her short life trying to do the right thing as she perceived it. She had made every effort to be a dutiful daughter, devout Catholic, and good queen, but nevertheless left gory footprints on the historical page. She deserves to be remembered as the complex and complicated woman she was, rather than a stereotype of either a butcher or bungler.

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