The Catholic Alliance: Mary I & Philip II


Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard may have lost their heads to Henry VIII, but a part of me has always had the most sympathy for his daughter, Mary I. After all, she truly didn’t have a say in her association with the Tudors and it’s a particular kind of heartbreaking that her adversary was her father.

The question comes up now and again as to when England would have broken from Catholicism had Henry VIII not forced the issue in the 1530s and the answer usually landed on is that while it might have been delayed, the Reformation would still have swept the country in the 16th century. But it’s a tricky scenario to tackle, because it’s impossible to separate out the English brand of religious reform from Henry’s marital history, if for no other reason than it dictated both the succession and those with political power. Without Anne Boleyn it’s hard to accept Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer would have held the same sway, and without Anne there is no Elizabeth I and possibly no Edward VI.

Had the Catholic Church granted Henry’s marriage to Anne from the get-go then you’re dealing with complete unknowns – a longer marriage quite likely, and more chances for them to have produced a son. More years of Cardinal Wolsey in power, very possibly.

Katherine of Aragon

But what of Mary? For she came before all of this and from the time of her birth in 1516 until Henry’s marriage to Anne and Elizabeth’s birth in 1533, she was her father’s sole legitimate heir. Had Henry never left her mother, Katherine of Aragon, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Mary didn’t ally herself with a Catholic. Not only was she pious, but her maternal grandparents were Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Europe’s most “Catholic Monarchs.”

In many ways, Mary’s behavior once she ascended the throne in 1553 was to correct the wrongs she felt had been perpetuated by her father – to her, to England and to the Catholic Church. As such, I think it’s fair to view certain aspects of her choices as queen, including her marriage, as those which she believed had been set out for her as her mother’s daughter and her father’s true heir. The great tragedy, from Mary’s perspective, is that her full potential had been greatly delayed by her father’s action; not only did he jeopardize her claim to the throne, but he also robbed her of her childbearing years and a chance at true marital happiness. Some of that is unfair, perhaps, but then again, so much of Mary’s life was unfair that I’m willing to call it a wash.

Hypotheticals aside, in reality Mary came to the throne in July 1553, an accession delayed by the six-year reign of her younger half-brother, Edward VI, who had succeeded their father in 1547. Her own succession had been further marred by the Protestant coup of her cousin, Lady Jane Grey, which had been quickly quashed and Jane and her conspirators arrested. She was 37 years old and had never been married, though she had a host of broken betrothals behind her.

One of those betrothals had been to her cousin, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Sixteen years her senior, Charles was the son of Katherine of Aragon’s sister, Juana, and her Austrian husband, Philip. Through Juana, Charles inherited both Castile and Aragon, permanently consolidating Spanish power. It was his paternal grandfather, Emperor Maximilian I, from whom he laid claim to the Holy Roman Empire. In short, he was quite the catch. His sisters included the queen consorts of France, Portugal, Denmark and Hungary; his brother ended up succeeding him as Holy Roman Emperor.

Mary at the time she was betrothed to Charles V, seen wearing a broach that reads “The Emperor”

It was Katherine of Aragon’s great wish to see her daughter further solidify an alliance between England and Spain via marriage to her nephew, but politics repeatedly got in the way. Specifically, Henry VIII found himself for most of the 1510s and 1520s shuttling back and forth between Spain and France and it’s hard to say which he resented more. As a result, Mary’s betrothals were made and broken and in 1526, Charles ended up marrying his cousin, Isabella of Portugal, with whom he had three children who lived until adulthood, including his eldest son and heir, Philip.

Philip, born in 1527 in Valladolid, Spain, was 11 years younger than his future Tudor bride. From an early age he also showed off his skills as a statesman and diplomat – tools he had clearly inherited from his paternal great-grandfather, Ferdinand of Aragon, and which would later make him a formidable opponent of Elizabeth I. In 1543, when he was just 16, Charles put him in charge of governing Spain in his name, handing over an enormous amount of power.

That same year Philip married his cousin, Maria Manuela of Portugal. The same age, with similar backgrounds and education, the pairing had all the makings of a successful match, however Maria died four days after giving birth to their son, Carlos, in July 1545. Carlos lived, but it soon became clear he suffered from significant physical handicaps and, in later years, signs of mental health issues came into play. In short, for all that Philip had a son, he could still use a reliable heir.

By the time Mary came to the English throne six years later, it’s fair to say Charles was Europe’s elder statesman and certainly his family’s patriarch. Her own father dead, Charles became a paternal figure in Mary’s life, one whose religion never wavered and who had personal and political reasons for ensuring his cousin ended up on the English throne. However, by 1553, Charles’s best years were behind him. Physical ailments were on the rise and, of more concern to his ministers, his mental health appeared on the decline. He grew melancholy, sometimes weeping for hours and uninterested in governance – a considerable problem given the sheer expanse of his empire.

He relied heavily on his son to take on more responsibility in Spain, and on his younger brother to shoulder the burden of the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire. And in typical continental fashion, he saw no reason to wait until his death for power to fully transfer, putting into motion an abdication that would finally conclude in 1556.

As for the man Philip had grown into, I defer to Carolly Erickson from her superb biography on Mary, in which she wrote:

“Prince Philip, son of Charles V and Isabella of Portugal, was a somber, stuffy and rather dull young man of twenty-six whose upbringing had left him little scope for originality of independence. He was slight in build, and quite short, but he carried himself with dignity; it was in fact his grave, reserved Spanish dignity that was so often mistaken for hauteur by the non-Spaniards among his future subjects. His receding hairline made him appear a little taller and older than he really was, but his face had an appealing, almost childlike look of pathos about it. The large, mild eyes gazing out from his portraits reflect superiority and boredom, but also a faint wistfulness; the dark circles under them probably came from the combined effects of dissipation and dyspepsia, but they gave a noble sadness to his expression. He looked in fact as if he wished he were somewhere else, and though he performed the ceremonial courtesies of his rank with precision and exactness, he bore them like a hereditary affliction for which he would have liked to find a cure.”

Philip II by Titian, the portrait sent to Mary

It would be unfair to assume Mary blindly followed Charles’s decision that a match between her and Philip was the right course. So much of Mary’s legacy has been influenced by the subsequent reign of her sister, Elizabeth, and so much of her character drawn as the yin to Elizabeth’s yang that she is often depicted in near caricature. In truth, Mary and Elizabeth had many similarities, not the least of which was a first-rate mind and a robust education to back it up. Both had ample reason to be skittish about marriage and what male hands might do to their birthright if they got hold of it, and both had to hustle to get on the throne.

Mary might have followed the traditional course and taken a husband, but not for nothing, it’s unclear what Elizabeth might have done had she not seen a test case for a foreign match first hand. Nor should Mary’s choice be seen as her putting personal desire before public duty – begetting a Catholic heir and keeping Elizabeth off the throne was Mary’s duty. And indeed, Mary was the first real female monarch England had ever truly experienced; she was surrounded by the assumption that a woman couldn’t rule on her own and it’s unclear how much of that she absorbed.

When Charles’s suggestion that she marry with his guidance was put before Mary she handled it with diplomatic perfection. She hadn’t given it much thought, she lied, but she was more than willing to hear his recommendations so long as he remembered she was a grown woman, not a teenage girl. And there were other suitors on the table – the Duke of Savoy and the Archduke Ferdinand (Charles’s nephew), among them.

But the Spanish match made the most sense for personal reasons. Mary was half-Spanish and it was the alliance her mother would have wanted. It was also a Catholic marriage, one that would give her rule the backing it needed if she were to truly bring England back into the folds of Rome.

The only complication was that Charles was in the middle of negotiating a match between Philip and a Portuguese princess, however her dowry was considered insultingly small to marry a man of Philip’s rank and when Charles brought forth the English option, his son responded:

“If you wish to arrange the [English] match for me, you know that I am so obedient a son that I have no will other than yours, especially in a  matter of such high import.”

In October 1553, Charles sent envoys to England who formally told Mary that he would marry her himself if his age permitted it, but since he could not, would she consider the hand of his son instead? It’s a weird proposal, sure, but Charles had been a widower for 14 years and it nodded to their previous betrothal.

Within weeks, if not days, Mary decided to accept the proposal, but the true stumbling block was public perception. Mary’s rule was in its infancy and she had come to the throne in the wake of rebellion – her popularity and the will of the people were not small factors that made up her success or failure. Philip’s Catholicism was abhorrent to English Protestants, and even the English Catholics hated the idea of a Spaniard. And while disliking foreign consorts was nothing new, Spanish rule struck real fear – their governance was perceived as violent and cruel, their reputation tinged by the famous Inquisition and militarism. And with a woman on the throne, the knee-jerk reaction was that England had become Mary’s dowry – that it would be Philip who reigned and Mary would soon become relegated to ceremony and pregnancy.

While understandable, the fear didn’t necessarily give Mary her due. There was also the matter of the English treasury’s bleak outlook and the assurances a match with a strong partner would give their government. By the time her first Parliament met later that autumn, Council had come around to the idea and it was only the Commons who remained the dark. Their Speaker prepared an earnest sermon, however he forgot his notes for the delivery and ended up putting forth a circuitous and rambling speech that both annoyed and offended his sovereign.

So much so that Mary broke with tradition and answered him herself, calling the advice given “very strange” and not “suitable or respectful.” She then offered a point-by-point rebuttal of each and every argument, concluding with an assurance that she had made her mind up and her judgment was sound. The sight of a monarch – and a female monarch at that – fighting back directly was extraordinary and it should further underline Mary’s skill in at least some facets of her reign – her mind was quick, her rhetorical abilities considerable and her stubbornness thoroughly Tudor, for all that her father and sister take the glory.

The proposal personally accepted by Mary and amenable to her council, negotiations began. The final terms reflect the antipathy with which the match was viewed by the public and the terse resignation with which even its supporters saw it. Since Philip already had a son, Spain was was to be his upon his father’s death and there was no question of Mary’s potential child uniting England and Spain together while Carlos lived. If Philip and Mary had a son, he would stand to inherit England and the Low Countries, the next step of Philip’s inheritance from Charles, while if they had a daughter she would inherit England in full and only the Low Countries if Carlos approved of her choice of husband. Should Philip and Mary’s child outlive Carlos (assuming he remained childless), then that child would in fact unite England, Spain and the Low Countries, creating a new form of consolidated empire that would have changed the face of western Europe.

As these terms were concluded that winter, Wyatt’s Rebellion rose in the early weeks of 1554 in direct response to the marriage, roping in Elizabeth and the Englishman many had hoped Mary would choose, her cousin, Edward Courtenary, Earl of Devon. Elizabeth’s life was spared, but in the midst of the chaos it was decided to finally execute Lady Jane Grey and some of those who had orchestrated her coup. By the end of February the matter was concluded, but Spain was shocked by what they saw as Mary’s leniency with her sister. (In fairness to Elizabeth, her involvement with the rebellion is debatable.)

Mary I in 1554

Philip finally arrived in England in July 1554 and to him and his Spanish entourage England was rainy, dull and common, and Mary little more than a spinster, prematurely aged by the stress and burdens of her life. She was small, thin and pale, her style of dress plain and unfashionable. She was described as old, “not at all beautiful” and having “no eyebrows.”

Mary’s looks, if she had ever truly been “beautiful,” had likely been lost years before, but the unkindness of Philip’s countrymen can more be attributed to her age. Mary’s parents had both been considered attractive in their youth, but neither aged well. Ferdinand and Isabella had been handsome enough and Mary’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth of York, was considered a genuine beauty in her day. She was by no means an ogre, but 38 in the 16th century was considerably older than it is today, and life was harder, leading to a bit more wear and tear, if you will, then we now associate with one’s late 30s.

At their first meeting Mary ran up to Philip, kissed her hand and then took his, while he adopted the then-English custom of kissing her on the mouth. They sat down under a cloth of state and had their first conversation, though because Philip didn’t English, they communicated in an amalgam of Spanish, French and Latin.

The wedding was carried out on July 25, 1554 at Winchester Cathedral, which had been decorated in gold cloth. Philip wore white with a fur mantle gifted to him by his bride, while Mary dressed in black velvet decorated with precious stones and a mantle of gold. The ceremony lasted several hours, including a High Mass, and Mary’s demonstrated piety prompted admiration from even her harshest Spanish critics.

A banquet followed at the bishop’s palace, where Mary and Philip sat at a raised table while their guests remained standing. They were served by the highest-ranked of the English nobility, while two noblemen stood before the couple holding the sword and staff of state. After a drink to the room’s health, Philip and Mary led their party in a German dance, during which it was remarked the English outperformed their guests by a mile – particularly Mary paired with her new husband. And with that, the couple parted ways briefly before rejoining for the formal bedding ceremony. Still dressed in their wedding finery, the bed was blessed and the couple left in it.

The only real snafu occurred the next morning when Philip’s Spanish attendants attempted to retrieve him and Mary’s shocked ladies barred their access. English custom dictated that a bride was not seen until the second day after their wedding, while Spanish etiquette saw the bridegroom congratulated while he still lay in bed the next morning. None of it mattered however, for Philip had risen at seven to work at his desk before hearing mass and dining alone.

Such was the dynamic of the marriage established.

Philip was always public courteous to his wife and Mary took great pains to act the part of a hospital hostess to the Spaniards. When she first believed herself pregnant two months later, all had good reason to believe the investment had paid off – the English succession was secure and Philip’s stake in his new country complete. It was not to be; instead, it was only the first “phantom pregnancy” Mary suffered from, which were likely the result of other medical issues. The issue and the circumstances can be read about in more depth here, but the result was that by the following summer, Philip finally left England for Flanders, leaving behind a despondent wife.

The choice of Flanders wasn’t Philip’s but Charles’s, but it still allowed him to leave England, which was a relief. Charles was in the final stages of his abdication and given his decision to retire to Spain, it was all the more important that his son be seen out and about in Flanders, applying the personal touches of his rule. As for Mary, she waited in vain in England for word that Philip would return to her, however instead of making it back in time for the opening of Parliament that autumn, his letters became shorter and less frequent – he treated her like a co-worker, not a spouse, and Mary had long since fallen in love.

Love, yes, but not blind love and it’s the latter claim that has long-since clouded Mary’s reputation and it deserves to be examined. As we’ve already noted, much of the angst surrounding this match was centered on Mary was a woman – a unique dynamic given England’s history of monarchs. How did a woman rule? How did a married woman rule? What would her husband do? These were all relatively new questions to 16th century European politics and, honestly, one need only look at the rhetoric that surrounds women in politics today to see how far we’ve come – or not, as the case may be.

Mary may have grown to care for Philip and he clearly didn’t share those feelings, but the former isn’t a character indictment, nor does it speak to her ability to rule. Mary would also have known it was her wifely duty to love, honor and respect her husband and she took those religious vows to heart. Philip, on the other hand, grew increasingly indiscreet with his affairs, going to far as to publicize them in front of English diplomats, so let’s not go too far in calling Mary the lesser politician.

Indeed, the narrative that Mary, an older woman in love with a younger man, grew hysterical, anxious and irrational is so laden with sexism that it’s impossible to take it seriously. Did it have some basis in fact? Of course. But it also neatly sidesteps the issue that Philip desperately wanted a coronation and Mary never gave in, knowing it was a bridge too far for the English. You know who else wanted a coronation? Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII, quite the man, moved heaven and earth to get it done, holding them both up to public ridicule and doing little to safeguard their public legitimacy.

Then there is the issue of the burnings, which began during this time. It begs the question, then, how a lovesick woman with baby fever also found the mental wherewithal to begin a ruthless campaign of executing heretics. It’s almost as if one occurred independently of the other – much in the same way the dissolution of the monasteries is rarely seen as Henry VIII’s emotional reaction to his divorce and remarriage.

And don’t even get me started on branding Mary “Bloody Mary,” while Henry’s rule was a glorified reign of terror and Elizabeth I wasn’t exactly known for her soft touch, including a little episode of regicide. Particularly given that Mary, in keeping with her mother’s legacy of popularity with the London public, was known to go out of her way to connect with the humblest of her subjects. Which brings us back to the well-known concept of history being written by winners – in this case, Protestants.

In February 1556, Mary turned 40 and Philip was still abroad. He promised to tie up his business in Antwerp, make a last stop in Louvain and return to England, but by Easter he was still spending money like water and holding elaborate jousts and masques without any sign of hurrying on his way. As King Henry II of France remarked from across the Channel, “I am of the opinion that ere long the king of England [as Philip was styled during their marriage] will endeavor to dissolve his marriage with the queen.”

It was a horrifying parallel to Mary personally, who would have been well-aware by then of the dynamics of her parents’ marriage – an older, barren wife, a younger, handsome husband, infidelity and abandonment. The rumors of divorce spreading through Christendom did nothing to ease Mary’s experience. she reacted by having one of his portraits removed from her sight and publicly declaring that “God sent oft times to good women evil husbands.”

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

In fairness to Philip, he wasn’t only partying his way through Europe. His father’s abdication resulted in considerable work and the power dynamics of the continent were shifting, resulting in more attention needing to be paid to France, Italy and Hapsburg dominions. England, in the grand scheme of the Holy Roman Empire’s priority list, was falling behind. Indeed, it was politics that finally prompted Philip to return to England, which he did in the spring of 1557, nearly two years after his departure, because he needed an ally against his ongoing dispute with the Pope and Henry II.

Yet, while Mary was amenable, a crucial tenant of their marriage treaty had been that Philip could not draw England into Spain’s wars. The English treasury couldn’t afford it, the harvest had been badly impacted by a several-month drought and English trade with France was a necessity. In short, nothing about this marriage was going Philip’s way either.

Once again, within months, Mary believed herself to be pregnant, however instead of resulting only in embarrassment, this time it became clear the Queen was dying. Without offspring, Mary acknowledged her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, as her heir, disregarding the question of her cousin, Mary Stuart, then-dauphine of France. Mary Stuart’s Catholicism might have been appealing, but her coming marriage to the future king of France and what that would mean for England was anathema. Elizabeth, at least, was English.

At least this was Philip’s attitude as he began laying the groundwork for keeping ties with with the country even before Mary’s death. Elizabeth, however, was more than Philip’s match and having seen the way he had treated her sister, not mention a fellow monarch, there was never a chance she would have accepted his suit.

On November 17, 1558 Mary died at St. James’s Palace in London. In her will she had requested that she be buried alongside her mother; instead, she was interred at Westminster Abbey in a tomb that she would eventually share with Elizabeth – a fate that likely would have been undesirable to them both.

Philip had already left England by the time Mary passed way. Of it, he wrote, “I felt a reasonable regret for her death.”

Within a year he remarried to Elisabeth of Valois, daughter of Henry II and Catherine de’Medici, and childhood companion of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their marriage was brief, but happy, and resulted in two daughters. He would marry a fourth time in 1570 to Anne of Austria, who he is believed to have genuinely loved. They had five children together, including Philip’s successor, King Philip III of Spain.

3 thoughts on “The Catholic Alliance: Mary I & Philip II

  1. Roxana

    Usually it’s a princess being sent off to a foreign country to marry an older partner. We feel a lot of sympathy for their trials, why none for Philip? In fact he made heroic efforts to win over the English and please his new wife. The strain must have been considerable. Yet Mary Tudor had a pathos that might touch the heart of a sensitive man and Philip was a little too good at making her happy to be entirely uninvested in the relationship. But Philip wasn’t a princess he was in fact a king in his own right and heir to half an empire. He expected to be more than a cipher in England was bitterly disappointed when his apparently loving wife denied him not just a coronation but any real power. Mary of course had excellent reasons for that but Philip felt humiliated. The disaster of her false pregnancy seemed to him to make the whole project futile, there would be no Catholic heir,no permanent tie. But even if there had been a child. Even if Philip had loved his wife passionately his role as King of Spain, etc. Would have kept him out of England. Charles V and Isabella of Portugal had been a happy couple but they’d been able to spend very little time together. Mary was not hopelessly besotted and enslaved but she was needy and however much Philip may have pitied her filling her understandable need for emotional support must have been an unwanted burden. Basically this relationship was doomed personally and politically.

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