10 Facts About ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary | History Hit

10 Facts About ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary

Sarah Roller

13 Jan 2021
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In 1553 Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, was crowned as the first Queen of England. Her reign would not be a happy one, and her famous religious persecutions lead to her winning the nickname of “Bloody Mary”.

1. She was a talented child

Mary was born on 18 February 1516 to the English King Henry VIII and his first of six wives, Catherine of Aragon. Mary was the only one of their children to survive beyond infancy, and despite the fact she was not a boy (and therefore an heir), she was doted upon in early childhood. The young Princess proved to be an asset to her royal parents: by the age of 9, she was already highly educated (reading and writing in English, Spanish, French and Latin) and an accomplished musician.

A British school portrait of Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536). (Image credit: National Trust / CC).

2. Princess of Wales?

By 1525, it became clear Catherine and Henry would not have any more children together. With Mary as his only legitimate heir, Henry dispatched her to the Welsh border, where she set up court at Ludlow Castle.

Whilst it is not certain, it appears that Henry’s decision to do this suggests he was thinking of giving his daughter the title ‘Princess of Wales’. Mary returned to her father’s court some time in 1528.

3. Familial relations became difficult

By the late 1520s, Henry’s eye had fallen on one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting, Anne Boleyn, and he began to petition the Pope for an annulment. Mary, like her mother Catherine, was a devout Catholic and saw no theological argument for the marriage being invalid. Relations at court between Mary and her father became increasingly strained, and Henry refused Mary access to her mother in order to try and pressure her into submission.

When Henry did finally split from Catherine, establish the Church of England and marry Anne Boleyn, these actions forced him to declare Mary illegitimate (a bastard): she was stripped of her household and servants and eventually sent to wait on her new half sister, the baby Princess Elizabeth.

Jessie Childs is an award-winning author and historian. Her books are 'Henry VIII's Last Victim' and 'God's Traitors'.Listen Now

4. Her Catholic faith brought her trouble

In 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded and Mary had a new step-mother, Jane Seymour. Jane was keen to reconcile Henry and Mary, but in order for Henry to accept his daughter and reinstate her in the succession, he required her to sign a document recognising him as head of the Church of England, acknowledge his first marriage was unlawful and she was illegitimate, and most importantly, deny papal authority.

After much deliberation, Mary agreed to sign the document. She was quickly reinstated at court, with a household, several palaces and access to the privy purse.  

Mary’s subsequent step-mothers, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, also made attempts to restore harmony within Henry’s family. When Henry died in 1547, Mary’s half-brother, Edward, became king: he was a staunch Protestant, and Mary left court in order to practice her Catholic faith less noticeably.

However, this did not sate the young king, who persistently demanded her to drop her faith and convert or risk being cut out of his will and the line of succession: Mary refused equally persistently, aware that her actions could spell serious trouble.

5. She nearly did not become queen

Edward died unexpectedly in 1553, leaving the crown to Lady Jane Grey, a distant relative, rather than to either of his half-sisters as stipulated in the Succession Act. Mary had fled to her estates in East Anglia, a Catholic stronghold, and proclaimed herself Queen. She quickly rallied support from Catholics and loyalists, and attempts to put Lady Jane on the throne quickly fell through.

Mary arrived in London in August 1553, and was crowned in October. Jane – widely believed to be a pawn in a bigger political game – was imprisoned in the Tower of London and convicted of high treason. Her life was initially spared, but once it became clear she was a potential figurehead for rebellion, Mary had her executed.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche
Delaroche, Paul; The Execution of Lady Jane Grey as imagined by Paul Delaroche. (Image Credit: City of London Corporation / CC).

6. She restored the Catholic faith

After years of Protestantism and Catholic persecution under her father and half-brother, Mary restored England to Catholicism, sweeping away many of her father’s laws and reforms and restoring church doctrine. Reaching a settlement with the Pope took months as much of the land (and wealth) previously owned by the Catholic Church had been redistributed by the Crown.

Moreover, these changes were welcomed by many. Catholicism was still widespread, although it had often been hidden, in England, and the return of old practices and customs was popular in many areas.

7. The nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ was given posthumously

Leading Protestants were imprisoned, and persecution of Protestants began under the Marian regime, although this was by no means unusual: religious persecutions took place under all the Tudor monarchs. Mary had around 280 dissenters executed, normally by burning at the stake – she gave them the opportunity to convert right up until execution. Those who didn’t, and maintained their faith, were heralded as martyrs.

John Foxe, an Elizabethan polemicist, further cemented the idea in his work, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which helped popularise the idea of Mary being particularly bloodthirsty.

Jessie Childs is an award-winning author and historian. In this fascinating interview, she explores the Catholic predicament in Elizabethan England - an age in which their faith was criminalised, and almost two hundred Catholics were executed. In exposing the tensions masked by the cult of Gloriana, she considers the terrible consequences when politics and religion collide.Listen Now

8. She was abandoned by her husband

Mary was 37 when she became Queen, and if she was going to produce an heir, she would need to marry and have children relatively fast. Whilst Parliament was keen on her marrying an Englishman, Mary had set her sites on Philip of Spain, the heir to the throne of Spain. The match was not popular at home, and revolts and rebellions took place on its announcement.

There was no precedent for the marriage of a queen regnant, and Philip was forced to submit to a humiliating set of terms, including not being able to act without his wife’s consent. The two married in July 1554, in what was a politically advantageous match rather than a love one.

Following the marriage, Philip spent little time in England, much to Mary’s disappointment and wrote on her eventual death that he felt ‘reasonable regret’.

Portrait of Prince Philip of Spain by Titian
A portrait of the then Prince Philip of Spain by Titian, sent to Mary Tudor prior to their marriage. (Image Credit: Museo del Prado / CC).

9. She lost Calais

On one of Philip’s brief stints in England, he encouraged Mary (and England) to support a Spanish war against the French. This move was unpopular in England before it even started, and even more so when, in January 1558, English forces took Calais, which had been the last remaining English possession in France.

This proved embarrassing and upsetting for England, but for none more so than Mary herself – supposedly on her deathbed, she said ‘I die with Calais on my heart’.

10. Her legacy is being reassessed

Mary died in November 1558, potentially from a form of uterine or ovarian cancer, aged 42. She never produced an heir, and so as per the Act of Succession, the crown went to her half-sister, Elizabeth, who promptly reversed much Marian policy – including her religious settlement.

Today, historians have reassessed her legacy enough to acknowledge that she made important reforms in commerce and the navy, which smoothed Elizabeth’s path in the future. Her achievements in navigating Tudor politics and successfully being crowned the first Queen of England in the face of intrigue and adversity deserve remembering.

Tags: Elizabeth I Henry VIII

Sarah Roller