The Rise of “Bloody Mary”

Mary I

It’s easy to feel sympathy for Katherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary I, when you know how they fared during Henry VIII’s reign – and I do. Katherine, the loyal and loving wife, was discarded after 24 years of marriage and left to die alone, separated from her only child. And Mary, the helpless daughter, saw a half-sister supplant her at age 17, had her mother die at age 20 and was then forced to watch five stepmothers pass through thanks to divorce and execution.

The tricky part about the casting Katherine and Mary as “good” where, say, Anne Boleyn was “bad” is that it dehumanizes women who were in fact very human and people utterly reflective of their times. Anne was a champion for the English Reformation, learned and incredibly powerful – yet by her own admission she showed cruelty to her husband’s adolescent daughter. Katherine was the abandoned first wife, but one whose religious extremism allowed her to think the expulsion of Muslim and Jewish populations was for the greater good. And finally Mary, who was absolutely victimized – in a truly horrifying way – by her father, went on to oversee the persecution and death of hundreds of Protestants during her reign.

So, how then do you go from a young woman plunged into grief by her parents’ divorce to a woman who can ruthlessly cull “heretics” by bloodshed? It makes more sense when you consider what religion – Catholicism – meant to Mary and the extent to which it was her only comfort during the final years of her father’s reign. But even then, that trajectory charts a linear path and paints a picture of a woman biding her time in the wings in order to bring England back to the “light” and reality isn’t that neat and tidy.

It is worth noting that as of Henry VIII’s death in 1547, there was little reason to believe that Mary would become queen regnant of England. The succession laid out by her father named his heir as her younger half-brother, Edward VI, who ascended the throne at the age of nine. Mary, as the elder of Henry’s two daughters, came next. The possibility of her inheritance wasn’t out of the realm of possibility – far from it – but there seemed a greater likelihood that Edward would grow up, marry and produce children of his own.

As such, for at least some portion of Mary’s adulthood she was more focused on securing a husband – and indeed, she sincerely wanted to marry and have children. But for a woman whose father was a king, her standing on the European stage was precarious thanks to her faith. Marriage to a Catholic prince during her brother’s reign meant Edward risking the possibility of an invasion, while marriage to a Protestant nobleman in England still made a coup likelier for a government that was growing increasingly shaky as it went on.

Finally, Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 – Mary was 37 years old and had allowed herself to become convinced her lack of family was the result of another divine purpose. Like the Virgin herself, Mary saw herself the vessel for deliverance, only this time it would be England from the clutches of heretics. The summer was a mess of violence and tension after the failed coup of Lady Jane Grey at the behest of her father-in-law and the leader of Edward’s Protestant government, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Despite the power of Protestantism, Mary was her father’s daughter and in fact enjoyed popularity with the English people, many of whom felt sorry for her. Less than a month after Edward’s death, Dudley’s uprising was put down and its leaders arrested – Mary was finally queen.

Almost immediately, religion was the central question of Mary’s reign. Her Catholicism was well-known, as was the association of the Church of England with her father’s divorce and remarriage to Anne Boleyn a quarter-century before. But it is worth noting a few important points – Mary saw her fate as returning England to Rome. She was motivated by a genuine faith and belief in good governance, not revenge. Indeed, she was savvy enough to understand that a counter-reformation would need to be handled gently and it would be grossly unfair to imagine that the day her reign began out came the stakes to burn every non-believer.

On the contrary, the early months of her rule look remarkably similar to her half-sister’s – both women espoused tolerance and freedom to worship, and both would end up end up pulling the reins tight out of necessity. Why Mary’s eventual action garnered her a bad reputation has more to do with time than it does with the carnage itself being extraordinary or motivated by the woman at the helm. Mary only ruled for five years, and within that time she also married a Spanish prince that brought with him all the same kinds of xenophobic fears that any number of foreign-born queen consorts had brought with them over the centuries. In Mary’s case it was particularly fraught since Philip, as a man, was expected to rule his wife and, through her, England.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, would rule until 1603 – her religious policies stretching over decades and fluctuating with the feeling of the decade and the tides of Europe. Crucially, she never married and with that came the comfort of policies existing in as much of a domestic vacuum as they ever do.

The first hurdle Mary faced was in fact her brother’s funeral. He himself was Protestant, but Mary’s Catholicism begged the question of what sort of ceremony the new queen would order. A Protestant one and she appeared weak, a Catholic one and she was too abruptly forcing a new faith on her people. She opted for one of each.

Still, she released the Catholics who had been imprisoned by her brother, namely Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. Masses were once more held throughout England and the trappings of Catholicism and worship were, quite literally, dusted off and reinstated. Still, it had been over two decades of the Church of England – not long enough to erase Catholicism, but long enough that a generation didn’t know anything else. The politics of it only made it murkier, for even if Mary extended a hand to Rome, she was beholden to Parliament for the title Head of the Church and with that came funds that once been channeled to monasteries and religious houses throughout the country. Undoing the work of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer would take far longer than the work itself.

Unfortunately, from the get-go, Mary was dependent on the advice of not just men, but foreign men. And their foreignness meant that they did not – and could not – comprehend the unique way in which Protestantism had unfolded in England as compared with the rest of Europe. When Mary married Philip in the summer of 1554 she was marrying a man who thought nothing of squashing heresy as ruthlessly as possible having been raised on tales of the Inquisition. Hesitating, showing mercy or exhibiting patience were alien. But even then, Philip was not running the show, his father was. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, did not have the benefit of feeling the public and political push back that Philip would eventually see firsthand and he was far more interested in the matter of England being settled by whatever means necessary.

Then there is Cardinal Reginald Pole, a distant cousin of Mary’s who had spent the majority of his adulthood exiled in Europe. His mother had been Margaret of Clarence, Countess of Salisbury, a one-time governess to Mary who was related to the Tudors via Elizabeth of York and the Plantagenets. His education in Italy had once been funded by Henry VIII, but when Pole became a critic of his relationship with Anne Boleyn, the gates came crashing down and by the end of Henry’s reign, nearly all of the Poles had been executed, with many of deaths used as a way to apply pressure on Pole. Pole, meanwhile, not only stayed strong, but rose through the ranks of the Catholic church and at one point was a close friend of Pope Paul III.

Like Mary, Pole saw his destiny as saving England. It was he, less than the Queen, who was motivated by revenge, for dismantling the Church of England meant dismantling Henry’s legacy, the very thing that had cost him his family and he sincerely saw his mother’s execution in 1541 as that of a martyrdom. Mary and Pole had taken similar emotional journeys – their mothers’ untimely deaths, their inheritance stripped of them and their faith held against them – and when they were reunited in the autumn of 1554, their youthful friendship forged into a new, more serious partnership centered around a common goal.

Unfortunately, Pole was hardly a savior for a female monarch. He believed that a woman was fundamentally incapable of governing and found himself constantly surprised by Mary’s work ethic or good sense. He assumed, as did many, that once she became pregnant she would retire from public life and he would instead support Philip – or, more ominously, govern for them both when Philip was abroad. When Gardiner died in the autumn of 1555, there was truly no one to check Pole’s rise and Mary, already upset by her husband’s departure after a “phantom” pregnancy, came to believe that she needed her fervent and brilliant cousin.

The first burning had taken place in February 1555, 18 months after Mary’s accession. It was followed by another round that spring and then continued through the summer and autumn, stretching through the coming years. They are, of course, not defensible to our modern eyes, but it is worth noting that many of the “heretics” found guilty were not just Protestant, but arch-reformists – that is, worshipers of a brand of Protestantism so outside the norm that even the government of Edward VI would have found them guilty. At least, this was the case in the beginning, but as Pole took charge after Gardiner’s death, the practice of public burnings became common place enough that Mary’s government alienated not only Protestants, but Catholics, too.

Pole’s time in Italy had ill-prepared him for the new England, one in which Protestantism had settled not only quickly, but deeply. His experience with heretics was Italy’s, where the Reformation was shallow and easily isolated. The same tactics that might have suppressed the movement there could not work in England, particularly not when its infrastructure was so deeply seeded through the government.

But if the method itself – burning – and the charges – heresy – weren’t novel to Mary, then the poorly-executed PR was. The public nature of the executions made martyrs and the sight of people – often middle and lower-class Englishmen and women – dying horrifically scarred onlookers. The damp English weather didn’t make for a clean death – instead of dying by smoke inhalation, too often the flames would reach the torso of the body. Victims weren’t gagged, thus allowing their screams, prayers and protestations to be heard and remembered by witnesses. Most people didn’t understand the nuances of their faith, and certainly not the doctrine behind it, leading to death by lack of education, with the lower classes bearing the brunt of it.

Then, too, there was the death of Thomas Cranmer in March 1556. He tried to recant his entire career, but Mary, who blamed him for her parents’ divorce, wouldn’t show mercy and while on the stake he took back his recantation after the government had already published it. Instead of bolstering Mary’s position, it made her look like the figurehead of a dishonest and tyrannical government.

The poor optics and the trudging misery of the deaths did little to beckon the English closer to Catholicism. Instead, quite the opposite happened and those who cared little one way or other other, or indeed were Catholic, found themselves hardened against the religion. The Vatican was fed up by the slowness and the lack of funds funneling back to Rome – they gave up on Mary and turned their back on Pole. Philip, disillusioned by false pregnancies and his lack of coronation, did little to hide his lack of interest in his wife and spent as much time away as possible.

Mary and Pole both passed away on November 17, 1558, an eerie coincidence given their shared trajectory, but they had both failed in their shared goal. England would never return to Catholicism and the memory of Mary’s reign would only undermine the reputation of Catholics in power for generations to come.


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