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Mary I: Tyrant or trailblazer?


500 years since her birth, Mary I is a monarch who continues to divide opinion.

First, there’s the ‘bloody’ epithet to deal with, which has dominated accounts of her reign since. Known as a Catholic tyrant and branded a religious bigot for her ferocious persecution of Protestants in what was to be a futile attempt to restore Catholicism in England, she is notorious for brutally burning around 300 Protestant heretics at the stake. Published in 1563, John Foxe’s classic martyrology, Actes and Monuments (popularly known as the Book of Martyrs), graphically depicted ‘the horrible and bloudy time of Queene Mary’ and as a result, hers is often considered the bloodiest reign of all the Tudor period. But is this fair?

Although Mary was zealous in imposing the Catholic faith and responsible for hundreds of executions during her five-year reign, her father Henry VIII’s sovereignty saw tens of thousands of men and women put to death. Most of these happened after the 1536 ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ uprisings and one English chronicler, Raphael Holinshed, who died in 1580, put the figure at 72,000 during King Henry’s thirty-eight-year reign.

Then there’s the pity. Languishing between those two giants of history, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, many consider Mary’s reign unimaginative and ineffectual in comparison, particularly considering that it ended in disappointment and despair with no heir to the throne. Disastrous war campaigns, epitomised by England’s loss of Calais in 1558, also designated Mary a military failure.

Her personal life was equally tragic. Thrust around by the whims of her father, a tempestuous relationship with her half-brother and outshone by her half-sister and successor in most domains – political, artistic, intellectual – there were significant periods where she was ostracised, bastardised and vilified.

Her marriage, to Philip II of Spain, was loveless and extremely unpopular with the public. Philip sought the union only for its political and strategic gains and whilst Mary did not negotiate marriage with the most severe Catholic ruler in Europe without vested interest (she knew that in order to prevent the Protestant Elizabeth from succeeding her she needed to produce a Catholic heir) she was initially besotted and it seems that she did come to love her husband and increasingly depend upon him. To Mary’s distress the marriage did not produce the heir she so desperately desired and needed. Plagued by gynaecological illnesses and heartbroken after suffering at least one phantom pregnancy, she was abandoned by Philip and subjected to national ridicule.  Her early death, not long after the loss of Calais and in the midst of a flu epidemic and a disastrous harvest, only sealed her reputation as a disgraced, stubborn, vengeful queen further – ‘Bloody Mary’ cuts quite a sad and lonely figure.

In recent years, however, historians have started to re-assess Mary’s reputation. Although she died despised and reviled by her disillusioned country, she initially held great popularity with the public. Upon receiving the news of Edward’s death, she fled to Framlington Castle in Suffolk, assembled her troops and prepared to fight for her crown. Proving she was the legitimate heir to the throne, she overthrew Lady Jane Grey in a superbly managed coup d’etat – one which many historians recognise as the only successful revolt against government in sixteenth-century England. Accounts state that when Mary was proclaimed queen on 19 July 1553, people rejoiced in the streets and bells pealed across the country. The scale of this achievement should not be overlooked; she had evaded capture, rallied support in a time of crisis and proved herself to be decisive, courageous and politically proficient. Securing both Catholic and Protestant support by proclaiming her legitimacy she also ensured that the crown continued along the official line of Tudor succession.

Nor should it be forgotten that Mary was England’s first acknowledged queen regnant. In a deeply patriarchal society, Queen Mary had to establish herself as a female monarch. She redefined royal ritual and law with her 1554 Act of Parliament which declared that a female ruler, married or unmarried, would enjoy identical power and authority to a male monarch. Even when she married Philip she ensured that Spanish influence was kept to a minimum and that her legal rights as queen were preserved.

Even so, when Mary became engaged to Philip, the public did not approve of the match. The idea of a Spanish king, and one who was an advocate for the papacy and Catholic religion, seemed abhorrent to many. However, when Kent landowner, and prominent Protestant, Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion against the union in 1554, Mary refused to hide away. She confronted the rebels head on by making an impassioned speech at the Guildhall in London, in which she stood by her beliefs and defended her choice of husband. Her defiance, commitment and courage won over the crowds and asserted her authority, successfully crushing the rebellion.  

Often also overlooked are the great advances Mary made during her relatively short time on the throne. She restored the navy, introduced policies of fiscal reform, established new hospitals and improved the education of the clergy.

Re-examining Queen Mary I it would appear that while she left a terrible memory of religious persecution, she may not previously have been given the credit and recognition she deserves. Her turbulent life was one of tragedy and triumph, insecurity and stubbornness and although her rule was ultimately ineffectual and unpopular there were occasions where she proved her herself to be a courageous leader.

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