Bloody Mary

Today marks the death day of Queen Mary I, the unfortunate and undisputed first Queen of England, and thus the beginning of the “golden” age of Elizabeth. When I teach the Reformation, as I am doing now, I have to reveal my Protestant bias to my students, but even I can admit that poor Mary Tudor’s reputation has suffered from a hatchet job: she has been “Bloody Mary” from almost her own time and has somehow been transformed into a paranoid, desperate dwarf in ours. She was certainly a pious and intolerant Catholic, but in her time toleration was not an attribute: while almost 300 Protestants were executed during her reign the Chambre Ardent (“Burning Chamber”) of the French King Henri II killed far more. I see her primarily as a victim of circumstances and a woman of her time: the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was in a position to make a glorious and early marriage, but fell from favor during her parents’ divorce and was declared illegitimate. She was reinstated in the order of succession to the throne in 1544, and succeeded her half-brother Edward VI in 1553, but her religion and the “Spanish Marriage” to the future Philip II contributed to her unpopularity, along with the economic depression and military losses that characterized her brief reign. Several false pregnancies seem to indicate the presence of severe tumors or possibly even cancer, and she died in pain and in misery on this day in 1558, aged 42.

NPG 428; Queen Mary I by Master John

NPG D18729; Queen Mary I when Princess Mary after Hans Holbein the Younger

Mary Tudor: as Princess Mary in 1544, by Master John; Engraving after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1700, both National Portrait Gallery, London.

A passionate circle of Protestants, generally called the “Marian Exiles”, left England during Mary’s reign and upon her death they returned, with a vengeance, as their movement had been strengthened by the martyrs who chose to stay behind. Even their new Queen Elizabeth, whom they had idealized as a perfect Protestant princess, would not be pure enough for them, but her sister was thoroughly demonized, most consequentially by John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563. This book (which is treated as more of an “event” than a mere book by historians) chartered the history of Christian persecution back to the days of Nero in five volumes, but its successive reprints (as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and abridgement increasingly focused on Mary, and transformed her into the Bloody Mary of the seventeenth century and after. It didn’t help Mary’s historical reputation that her successor sister’s reign was so golden by contrast, as exemplified by the triumphant victory of England over the “invincible” Spanish (Catholic) Armada in 1588.

The British Library- G 12101 t/p

frontpage_woodcut_full

Title page of 1563 first edition and colored woodcut illustration from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments online at the University of Sheffield, which has all four Elizabethan editions.

It just gets worse for Mary as Britain’s triumphant Protestantism is associated with its imperial strength (and democratic government) in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And the contemporary popular obsession with the Tudors seems to have contributed to the deification of Elizabeth and the demonization of Mary: the first Elizabeth film (1999) being a particularly blatant case in point. Despite some recent historical revisionism (there is a succinct review here), I’m not sure Mary I can ever be viewed in her proper historical context:  “Bloody Mary” seems to have taken on a life (several, really) of its own.

Bloody Mary

“Teaching” Mary: a flash card from the 1920s, NYPL Digital Gallery.


7 responses to “Bloody Mary

  • D.E. Cantor

    While I agree with everything you said, I would like to add that it is not taught enough that her reign of terror was preceded by another reign of terror in that before the reign of Queen Mary I, it was her faith that was persecuted as her younger brother, the Protestant King Edward VI, tried to stomp out Catholicism in England, praying the Rosary was outlawed and Catholics were executed.

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  • Roger

    “Queen Mary I, the unfortunate and undisputed first Queen of England, ”

    Except that her right to be queen was disputed. The even-more-unfortunate and even-more-disputed Lady Jane Grey reigned for nine days before Mary took power.
    A few centuries earlier there was Matilda, again disputed and unfortunate.

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  • Brian Bixby

    I’ve often thought of Henry VIII’s children as being almost forced into their religious roles by their father’s actions. Mary wasn’t just a Catholic because of her personal beliefs — it was also the only politically acceptable way for her to rule. Her father may have reinstated her into the succession, but Lady Jane’s brief rule demonstrated that Mary would not be accepted by Protestants. (Or at least that was the obvious lesson to draw.)

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