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.

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The Death of Mary I & the Accession of Elizabeth I

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Finally, we get back to some history! The last few weeks have been a little heavy on William, Kate and Harry, I know, but I’ve decided to treat it as a balancing act for August when news was sparse and there was plenty of time for back-to-back historical posts. I prefer a balance, so before more engagements are scheduled, I’m going to try and fit in a bit more about, you know, the Plantagenets and the Tudors.

So, let’s get to it: back in July we covered the unfortunate marriage of Mary I and Philip II of Spain, which took us to Mary’s final months as a disenchanted wife and thwarted would-be mother. In April of 1558, Mary once again held out hope that she was pregnant, but unfortunately the symptoms were only signs that her health was on the decline. By the end of spring, it was widely understood that her 25-year-old half-sister, Elizabeth, was her heir, a young woman whose religion was up in the air and whose politics were untested.

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The Catholic Alliance: Mary I & Philip II

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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.

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The Phantom Pregnancies of Mary I

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Mary I’s brief reign is best remembered for the burning of Protestants, acts which earned her the lasting moniker, “Bloody Mary.” But her five years on the throne were also marked by personal, as well as public, loss. When Mary claimed her throne in 1553 and put down the rebellion of Lady Jane Grey and the Dudley family, she quickly moved forward with marriage. She was 37, her childbearing years were numbered and it was her primary duty to not only re-connect England to Rome, but ensure a Catholic succession.

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