Mary I, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s only surviving child, was the first Queen Regnant of England, Ireland, and Wales, acclaimed, crowned, and anointed in spite of an attempt to change the succession after Edward VI’s death. Yet John Foxe indirectly gave her a nickname that has obscured her achievement as Queen Regnant, highlighted in two of the titles listed below, for centuries: “Bloody Mary.”
Three new biographies (The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter; Mary Tudor by Judith Richards; and Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen by Anna Whitelock) and two new studies of her life and her reign (Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives, edited by Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman; and Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor by Eamon Duffy) offer similar reactions and common themes to the dichotomy between her achievement and her notorious nickname. The biographies recount her struggles growing up while her father denied the validity of his marriage to her mother, making her illegitimate and forcing her to swear an oath that betrayed her mother and her faith, thus presenting some grounds for sympathy with her personal life. All three biographers note the surprise and discouragement of their friends and colleagues when they announced their intention to write about Mary Tudor.
Porter and Whitelock write for a more mainstream audience, setting scenes and imagining Mary’s emotions—but never carrying any conjecture too far—while Richards limits her description of events to documented evidence. Richards addresses how Mary assured her role as Queen of England was not diluted by the presence of her consort, Prince Philip of Spain who was never crowned in England, and Whitelock emphasizes her Spanish background and Catholic loyalty, while Porter highlights her love of fine clothing, jewels, and furs and how they demonstrated her authority and power.
The studies acknowledge previous historical judgments while offering new interpretations, as the title of Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman’s book clearly demonstrates. As the publisher’s description states: “Reappraising aspects of her reign that have been misrepresented the book creates a more balanced, objective portrait of England’s last Catholic, and first female, monarch.” The volume features essays by two of the biographers mentioned above, Richards and Whitelock. Eamon Duffy directly addresses common criticisms of the Marian revival of Catholicism by A.G. Dickens, D.M. Loades and others when offering his interpretation of that aspect of Mary’s reign.
Why so much attention now on this queen, whom many historians and common opinion have written off as an anomaly the history of English monacrchy—bigoted, cruel, and foreign? Part of it must be the overall fascination with the Tudor dynasty. Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn, and Henry’s other spouses have been studied enough: It’s just Mary’s turn—and a new interpretation of her old story will provoke interest
I propose that the attention is more securely founded upon the revisionist history of the English Reformation. The work of Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh, John Bossy, Alison Shell, and others have demonstrated, at least, that the English Reformation was not the break with the past the Whig historical myth of progress in English history proclaimed. Some English people wanted to remain Catholic; they wanted the Mass, devotion to Mary and the saints, prayer for the dead, and the monasteries to stay open, and they did not like the religious changes Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I legislated and forced on them. The history of rebellion, resistance, and recusancy throughout those reigns represents a clear pattern.
Then what was the role of Mary I’s reign in this history of religious change? Was it just another religious swing back and forth during the Tudor dynasty? Was her re-establishment of Catholicism simply a revival of the Middle Ages without consideration of the efforts of the Council of Trent and the counter-reformation movement?
Eamon Duffy answers that last question with a well documented, cogently argued, “not hardly.” Reginald Cardinal Pole, who came within a few votes of being elected pope in 1549, led the Catholic revival in terms Thomas More, John Fisher, John Colet, and Erasmus would have understood: centered on the sacraments, Sacred Scripture and tradition, homilies and catechesis, humanist learning. Duffy’s book focuses on Pole’s program for reform and renewal that anticipated the Council of Trent: diocesan seminaries, resident bishops, a comprehensive catechism—even tabernacles on altars and an English translation of the Holy Bible.
More controversially, especially to British reviewers, Duffy argues that the regime’s program of arresting, trying, and burning heretics alive at the stake might have been working. Duffy asserts that the regime addressed the propaganda issues with sermons at Smithfield and Oxford, and warns us against taking John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments/Book of Martyrs at face value. He points out that the number of heretics and of self-proclaimed Protestants in England was declining, either through conformity or exile. From our perspective that’s not the right way to achieve those goals, but Duffy responds that in the context of that era, this was an accepted method of dealing with heresy as a threat to the common good. He adds that torture and execution by hanging, drawing, and quartering aren’t humane methods of dealing with recusancy and dissent (but we don’t call Mary’s half-sister “Bloody Bess”), even though the later regime called it treason.
Even without the debate about the burnings, was this reign just an interlude in the history of a nation destined to be Protestant? Was the restoration of Catholicism in England doomed from the start—and not just because Mary and Cardinal Pole just didn’t have enough time? That is the harder question to answer.
In the final chapter of Fires of Faith, Duffy summarizes how Pole’s program succeeded in establishing a legacy of bishops and exiles who upheld the Catholic faith. He had selected new bishops and strengthened bishops from the last reign. Just before Elizabeth came to the throne, crowned and anointed in the pattern her sister established, the Convocation of Bishops clearly stated their belief in crucial Catholic doctrines: the Real Presence, the sacrifice of the Mass, transubstantiation, the primacy of the pope, and the unity of the Church. Only one of Pole’s bishops accepted Elizabeth’s supremacy over the Church of England; all but one of William Warham’s had accepted Henry VIII’s (John Fisher, cardinal archbishop of Rochester and martyr). That’s quite a mark of success, turning around the hierarchy. He also inspired Oxford men like William Allen to use their exile to prepare English priests as missionaries to their own people, paving the way for Campion, Southwell, Walpole and so many others, firmly obedient to the pope and ready to die for their faith.
What role did Mary play? Duffy’s focus is on Reginald Pole, but Judith Richards provides some surprising answers—surprising if one has the standard view of “Bloody Mary.” As a young girl, she had received a modern humanist education, supervised by her then-doting father and ever-supportive mother; she was intelligent, adept with languages (translating Erasmus for her step-mother Catherine Parr), a talented musician and dancer. Mary’s practice of her Catholic faith ironically patterned after her father, centered on the Eucharist and the Mass; she did not go on pilgrimages or pray at shrines, two features of late-Medieval Catholicism. She supported the English translation of the Bible and the effective reorganization of the Catholic hierarchy in England—even disobeying the pope when he recalled her archbishop of Canterbury to Rome to face charges of heresy because she needed him in England.
Richards states that Mary was unusually forgiving for a monarch, refusing to have Lady Jane Grey executed immediately upon reclaiming her throne and pardoning many of Thomas Wyatt’s supporters. All three biographers depict her as kind, gentle, and brave, not at all the cruel, repressed and fearful woman John Foxe and others describe. Duffy and Richards agree that Mary’s one great act of vengeance was against Thomas Cranmer who divorced her parents, reduced her to bastardy, and broke her mother’s heart. He could have been beheaded for his support of Lady Jane Grey, but she wanted him punished for his crimes against the Catholic faith. Even though Cranmer recanted, he was sentenced to death by burning so he recanted again to return to the Protestant faith. But none of the biographers can absolve Mary from the ultimate responsibility, as Queen Regnant, for the burnings.
This reevaluation has inspired some historical conjecture of what might have been—an ultimately disappointing exercise, since it wasn’t. Perhaps if Mary and Pole could have lived a little longer and executed all their plans for formation, catechesis, and reform, Elizabeth would have had to accept Catholicism in England and could not have established the via media of the Church of England when she succeeded to the throne. Perhaps this wasn’t just a brief Catholic interlude in England’s history, thwarted just as inevitably as James II’s 130 years later—maybe it really did have a chance. Any chance it had certainly ended when Mary died on November 17, 1558 without a Catholic heir, and it may have burned away with the fires.
These five reevaluations of Mary I and her reign offer not apologies or whitewash but argue for a more dispassionate awareness of her circumstances, efforts, and achievements. Whether or not this new view of Mary I is accepted may depend on open-mindedness and a willingness, for instance, to understand the propaganda of John Foxe and the Black Legend of Catholicism in English History.
The crucial issue for the success or failure of her reign was whether she had a Catholic heir to succeed her. Since she did not, Elizabeth succeeded to the throne and dismissed all of Pole’s bishops save one. As Elizabeth ignored her last will and testament, historians ignored Mary’s circumstances, forgot her efforts and achievements and she gained a nickname she might not deserve. But she and Cardinal Pole left a legacy beyond the fires of Smithfield: an underground counter-reformation Catholicism in England, supporting the faithful and ready for revival again—even if it had to wait almost 300 years.
Stephanie A. Mann is author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation (Scepter Publishers, 2009). She resides in Wichita, Kansas. For more information, please visit www.supremacyandsurvival.com.