The sad life of England’s first female ruler is rendered even more tragic in comparison with her half-sister and successor’s reign. Poor Mary Tudor, destined – like her half-brother and predecessor – to languish between those two giants of English history, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Yet there is much to warrant even a brief examination of her life and reign. Though her hated half-sister would outshine her in virtually every sphere – physical, political, intellectual, artistic – Mary also had a formidable impact upon English history. Throughout the first thirty-seven years of her life, she was tossed about by the whims of her father and, later and perhaps more galling, her Protestant brother and his council. It was perhaps inevitable that when she first tasted real power, the experience would be both intoxicating and unfortunate.

Princess Mary, age 28, painted by Master John

Princess Mary, age 28, painted by Master John

When Mary came to the throne, she was thirty-seven years old. She had never been married though, in her youth, several matches had been suggested and abandoned. Contrary to later beliefs, Henry VIII was pleased with her birth in 1516, proudly displaying the infant Mary to visiting ambassadors and noblemen. It was only years later, with Mary as his sole legitimate offspring, that Henry began his desperate search for a son. This search would forever brand him as a misogynist and cruel tyrant who discarded, divorced, and beheaded the women who did not bear him sons. But one must be fair to Henry and judge him by the standards of his time, which certainly his contemporaries did. He was only the second Tudor monarch and, as such, he understood the necessity of stabilizing the English throne. Indeed, his father had only won the crown in 1485, barely thirty years before Mary’s birth. And if Henry VII, born the unprepossessing earl of Richmond, could steal the crown then his son’s actions can be understood. Above all else, Henry VIII was determined the crown would remain in Tudor hands. Mary, like her half-sister Elizabeth, was always recognized as his daughter. But England had never had a woman ruler, one who ruled in her own right without a male consort or as regent for an infant son. The only possible precedent was Matilda, Henry I’s heir, and the precedent was not good – Matilda was expelled by the English barons and her cousin Stephen of Blois was made king. Though this had happened four centuries before, its lesson was still valid.

With this in mind, Henry’s treatment of Mary’s mother becomes – if not palatable – at least understandable. Certainly the petty cruelties and humiliations he forced upon her were his own doing but the overall aim was to ensure the Tudor succession. But all this happened years after Mary’s birth. From 1516 to about 1530, Mary led a happy, sheltered life. She was considered one of the most important European princesses and Henry used her as every king used his daughter – as a pawn in political negotiations. She was also well-educated with a fine contralto singing voice and great linguistic skill. Her mother, Katharine of Aragon, was deeply devoted to Mary. This was a reflection of Katharine’s strongly domestic nature as well as the numerous miscarriages she suffered. Any mother would naturally love a child but Katharine had lost enough children to make her especially devoted to the one who survived. When Henry proposed the idea of divorce, Katharine fought it passionately, not least because divorce would destroy her daughter’s future. Katharine was the youngest daughter of those great Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the ‘Catholic Kings’ who united Spain geographically and spiritually. Through her mother, she could trace her lineage to John of Gaunt, that legendary figure in English history. She grew up as an Infanta of Spain; and, unlike Henry, her claim to royalty was not a mere few decades old. As such, she was naturally proud and dignified. Mary inherited this pride as well as her mother’s enduring affection for Spain. When she became queen, this affection was to have terrible consequences.

Educated by her mother and a ducal governess, Mary was at last betrothed to her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain.) Charles made the unfortunate demand that she come to Spain immediately, accompanied by a huge cash dowry. Henry ignored the request and Charles jilted Mary, concluding a match with a more accommodating princess. Meanwhile, Henry invested his daughter as Princess of Wales in 1525 and she held court at Ludlow Castle. With this decision, Henry meant to soothe Katharine’s fears that Mary’s position as the only legitimate Tudor heir was being undermined. Only a few weeks before the investiture, Mary had attended a ceremony in which her father ennobled his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, as duke of Richmond (among various other titles.) And though he sharply rebuked Katharine for criticizing his open affection for Fitzroy, and the accompanying titles and wealth he gave the boy, Henry did not neglect his daughter. In fact, Mary was the first princess of Wales, and the first female royal to hold court at Ludlow. But of course, sending Mary to Wales was not the same as sending a son and heir; Henry never intended her to rule England, at least not as its sole ruler. Her role in Wales would be primarily symbolic, and she would be replaced as soon as he had a legitimate male heir. This elusive son – Henry’s most fervent wish – occupied his mind even as he continued to scour Europe for a suitable husband for Mary.

Yet even as new betrothal plans were being made, the king’s attention was increasingly elsewhere. Henry had met Anne Boleyn, daughter of a simple knight and sister of a former mistress. His passionate attraction to Anne, coupled with the increased need for a male heir, made Henry restless. He looked at Katharine, nine years his senior and as domestic as Anne was exotic, with new eyes. At first he sought a quiet, amicable annulment of their long marriage. Certainly such a decision was not revolutionary; Henry could cite numerous examples in European history where kings had annulled marriages to barren queens. Since he and Katharine had a mutual respect and affection for one another, Henry anticipated her cooperation. Certainly he would tread with delicacy but – in the end – his will would be done.

But Henry had not anticipated his wife’s immediate and intense anger. For he had based his argument upon theology – in short, Henry argued that because Katharine had been briefly married to his brother, Arthur, her marriage to Henry was incestuous. Katharine responded that this matter was already resolved. Before she wed Henry, the Pope had granted a dispensation. He did so under political pressure from Henry VII and Ferdinand – but also because Katharine swore she and Arthur had never consummated their marriage. In short, she was a virgin when she wed Henry, a fact Henry would be certain to know. Cynics could not help but mock the King’s sudden attack of conscience, occurring some twenty years into the marriage and in the midst of his affair with Anne Boleyn.

Portrait of Katharine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout

Portrait of Katharine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout

It would be impossible to argue that Anne had no role in his decision. In his mid-thirties, Henry had entered into the most passionate romantic attachment of his life. Indeed, after her death, he would complain that Anne had ‘bewitched’ him. It was true that Henry displayed an intensity of feeling toward her which shocked their contemporaries. Today we can read his love letters to her; across the span of four centuries, they retain their power. Anne was not beautiful but she possessed greater gifts – she was witty, graceful, and stylish. She had been educated at the glittering French court so she sang and danced beautifully, skills which Henry admired. She was also very intelligent and confident. Unlike her older sister Mary, Anne Boleyn had no desire to be the king’s temporary mistress. In fact, she had intended to wed Henry Percy, heir to the earl of Northumberland, until the king – already enchanted – put a stop to the match. He wrote to Percy’s father, arguing against the unsuitable match. A knight’s daughter wed to one of the most important peers of the realm? Percy’s angry father immediately sent for his son, ending the romance but not the attachment. Percy wrote poetry about Anne and, at her trial, he had to be carried from the room. Unlike the other peers, he could not bear to sit in judgment of her. For Anne, the loss of Percy was undoubtedly galling. After all, had the king ended the engagement simply to make her his mistress? Henry’s disregard for her personal feelings, his interference in her personal life, was not endearing. But it convinced Anne of the king’s attraction and she resolved to be his wife or nothing.

For Mary, the sudden ascent of Anne Boleyn signaled the end of her world. Her beloved mother, equally loved by the English people, was being forced aside by a former lady-in-waiting. Her father was determined to declare her a bastard; in effect, Henry’s charge of incest dissolved his marriage and illegitimized his daughter. In the midst of this, Mary developed a lasting hatred of Anne Boleyn which extended to Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth. She never openly blamed her father for his actions, though she considered them unlawful and impious. Instead, she persuaded herself that he had been Anne Boleyn’s pawn. Such a reaction was perhaps inevitable. However, it was to have an unfortunate impact upon Elizabeth’s life.

The Pope refused to recognize Henry’s argument for an annulment or divorce and thus began a power struggle between the Vatican, Spain, and England. Katharine’s nephew, Charles V, naturally agreed with his aunt for personal and political reasons. He exerted considerable military and political pressure against the Pope. Henry’s numerous petitions were disregarded. Eventually he simply gave up and decided the matter himself. In 1534 Henry took the unprecedented step of breaking with Rome, establishing the Church of England with himself as Supreme Head. The annulment was granted and Katharine and Mary were officially outcasts.

In the meantime, Mary continued her somewhat restricted life. Despite her declared illegitimacy, Henry continued to propose various husbands for her. The searches were not particularly thorough or serious, however, and Mary remained a spinster. She was now in her late twenties, leaving behind her youth and – most importantly for a woman – her safest reproductive years.

Even before the official decree, Henry had stopped living with Katharine and recognizing her as Queen. He took Anne Boleyn with him to France to meet his rival Francis I; this was an important state visit and her appearance was commented upon. Henry, however, had already ordered Katharine to surrender her jewelry; Anne now wore it. He also sent Katharine to one decaying residence after another, dismissing several of her devoted servants. Though deprived of her title, home, jewels, and companionship, Katharine never recognized the divorce. She refused the title of Princess Dowager, offered by Henry as recognition of her marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales. She continued to assert that she and Arthur had never consummated their marriage. And, above all else, she professed faith in the judgment of the Pope. A devout Catholic, daughter of the monarchs who introduced the Inquisition to Spain, Katharine never acknowledged the Church of England. Since she had raised her daughter to be equally devout, Mary also refused to acknowledge both the Church and her father’s position as Supreme Head.

It should be noted that Henry VIII, though ostensibly head of a new church which overthrew the Catholic supremacy, remained a devout Catholic throughout his life. He continued to attend Mass and heartily despised ‘heretics’ like Martin Luther. But Henry possessed the ability to separate the secular from the spiritual, a quality which Mary completely lacked and Elizabeth honed to fine perfection. Though his son would become a bigoted Protestant determined to stamp out Catholicism and his eldest daughter a bigoted Catholic determined to stamp out Protestantism, Henry was a Catholic who lapsed when it suited him. Of course, he always asserted theological justification for the lapses. However, he would not allow Katharine or Mary to deny his authority. Both paid a stiff penalty for their refusal to submit. Katharine, as noted, was sent from court and deprived of all accustomed luxuries. Mary was equally disgraced. Now a bastard, declared such by Parliament, she was denied any communication with her mother and made lady-in-waiting to Anne and Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth. Unlike Mary, Elizabeth was recognized as a Princess of the realm. For the seventeen-year-old Mary, the complete reversal of her fortune was devastating. She began to suffer from a variety of illnesses, undoubtedly stress-related. These plagued her until her death, causing such symptoms as severe headaches, nausea, insomnia, and infrequent menstruation.

Anne took an equal dislike of Mary. It was a simple fact that if Anne and Elizabeth’s fortunes rose, Mary’s would fall. After all, Elizabeth was legitimate only if Mary was not, and vice versa. Anne would have been foolish to encourage any reconciliation between Henry and Mary, quite possibly she did the opposite. But after her fall from grace, Henry offered to pardon Mary and restore her to favor – but only if Mary acknowledged him as head of the Church of England and admitted the ‘incestuous illegality’ of his marriage to Katharine. To Mary’s credit, she refused to do so until her cousin, Charles V, persuaded her otherwise. She gave in to Henry’s demands, an action she was to always regret. Meanwhile, Katharine of Aragon had died at Kimbolton Castle, loving – and defying – Henry to the last; her final letter to him was signed ‘Katharine the Queen.’ Katharine and Mary had not seen one another for years though they had written one another, against Henry’s orders, in great secrecy. Katharine’s last thoughts were undoubtedly of her daughter.

Henry, however, was soon reconciled to Mary. Flush with marriage to the meek Jane Seymour and her quick pregnancy, he welcomed Mary home. She was given a household befitting her position as his daughter and included in court festivities; there were even rumors of a possible marriage in her future. Jane Seymour encouraged Henry’s reconciliation with both of his daughters. Mary, in turn, respected and liked the new queen. She was named godmother to Henry and Jane’s son, Prince Edward, born in October 1537; and when Jane died shortly after her son’s birth, Mary was the chief mourner. Their friendship was not so unlikely. They were relatively close in age and Mary, having lost her mother and longing for her father’s affection, was grateful for any kindness. Furthermore, she had the satisfaction of knowing Elizabeth, too, was bastardized; Anne Boleyn’s execution on charges of incest and treason had illegitimized her daughter. It is revealing to note that, upon her ascension, Mary revoked the Act of Parliament which made her a bastard. Elizabeth, upon ascension, didn’t bother to do so.

However, Mary and Elizabeth were not forgotten. After Jane’s death, Henry determined the line of succession as follows: first, Edward or Edward’s heirs; if Edward died without issue, the throne passed to Mary; after Mary, to Elizabeth. Henry recognized the fragility of his succession, resting as it did upon just one son. He, after all, was a second son. But there was little he could do. His fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, had ended disastrously. She was too unnattractive for the king so she was titled ‘the king’s sister’ and given a generous pension. Anne preferred this solution to returning home.

Portrait of Queen Mary I

Portrait of Queen Mary I

Soon enough, Henry’s attentions were captured elsewhere. He wed Catherine Howard, cousin to the infamous Anne Boleyn. It was a pathetic match. Henry was old enough to be her grandfather, plainly in lust with a young woman who exuded sex appeal. Mary’s opinion on the match is not known but it would be safe to assume that even if she disapproved, she would never say so. Mary recognized her father’s secular authority as king even as she disapproved of his spiritual authority as head of the English Church. In any case, there was barely time to know Catherine before she, too, was executed on charges of adultery. Whether she was guilty is a matter of conjecture; if she was, one can hardly blame her and, if she wasn’t, she was yet another blot upon Henry’s conscience. In her defense, she refused the easy path of divorce. Henry offered to recognize a pre-contract with another nobleman. If she, too, recognized it, their marriage would be invalid. Catherine would be divorced but still alive. She refused to admit such an arrangement, however, and met her end at the Tower of London.

Henry’s last queen was the Protestant Katharine Parr, twice-widowed and chosen for her excellent character and nursing abilities. Like Jane Seymour, Katharine Parr was determined to bring the royal family closer together. To that end, she provided the only true home and maternal guidance Edward and Elizabeth would ever know. She also befriended Mary, a difficult task because of their opposing religious beliefs. Mary, however, did respect Katharine’s intellectual accomplishments.

Katharine Parr was the product of the changing climate in Tudor England. When he ended Catholic supremacy in England, dissolving the monasteries and granting their lands to various nobles and the crown, Henry had begun a process whose end he never foresaw. As mentioned, Henry never became a Protestant. But his decision to use Protestantism for his own ends allowed Protestantism to flourish. Toward the end of his reign, there were few councilors who could remember the Catholic supremacy. They had benefited from the break with Rome, both spiritually and materially; Henry, meanwhile, never understood the force he had unleashed. When Katharine made the mistake of arguing about theology with him, she came very close to losing her head. Only a timely intervention and her own impassioned apology saved her. But upon Henry’s death and Edward’s ascension, the Protestant faction was in control. The new king, just nine years old, had Protestant tutors and a Protestant step-mother. Indeed, Edward VI is revealed in his journal as a priggish, unfeeling boy who noted the executions of his uncles with no trace of compassion. His letters to Katharine Parr, however, are the only examples of feeling and affection which he left behind. To her, he confided his insecurity and vulnerability.

Katharine Parr’s influence on Edward VI was to simply strengthen the Protestantism which his tutors and the English court encouraged. For Mary, the situation was disastrous. Edward, swayed by religious fervor and his advisors, made English compulsory for church services. Mary continued to celebrate Mass in the old form and in Latin. During the six years of her brother’s reign, she tread the fine line between piety and treason. Edward attempted to reason with her at court yet she refused his advice. Indeed, she was a woman in her thirties and he was still a child. Edward was also under the control of the Duke of Somerset, Jane Seymour’s staunchly Protestant brother. Though Henry VIII’s will had specified a specific group of councilors to guide his son’s regency, his wishes were disregarded. His fellow councilors, most of whom had profited from the Catholic expulsion, titled Somerset Lord Protector. The nine-year-old king had no deep affection for his uncle; Somerset kept Edward short of pocket money and hired harsh tutors who regularly beat the boy. But their religious sympathies were similar. Mary managed to disregard the combined pressure of Somerset and Edward, largely because she stayed away from court. Her brother was firm with her. He told her she was misguided and occasionally threatened her. Mary was intelligent enough to not risk open disobedience, preferring the quiet celebration of Mass in her country home. Meanwhile, in 1549, Somerset had overstepped his authority and was executed. His fall was largely engineered by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and soon-to-be Duke of Northumberland. From then on, Edward was under Dudley’s control.

Edward VI ruled for just seven years. The last year of his life was one of near-constant pain and suffering. Various illnesses have been suggested, consumption being the most likely. He had never been of robust health, unlike his father, and the Protestant councilors did all they could to prolong his life. To that end, Edward was given arsenic and various other poisons which were believed to prolong life even as they increased suffering. For Dudley and his supporters, Edward’s death was inevitable but they needed every available moment to prevent Mary from ascending the throne. They were not fools and knew their fate with a Catholic queen. Dudley hurriedly married his son Guildford to Lady Jane Grey, Edward VI’s Protestant, scholarly cousin. Like Edward, Jane was a pawn in Dudley’s schemes. She was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary Tudor and, thus, a remote claimant to the English throne. Working together, Edward and Dudley disregarded Henry VIII’s will yet again and barred both Mary and Elizabeth from the succession. In turn, Edward willed the throne to Jane and her heirs. When he finally died, Jane was declared Queen by Dudley and the Protestant lords.

Jane Grey’s ascension to the throne lasted but nine days. Though the Protestant councilors were not fond of Mary’s religious views, many still regarded her as the rightful heir. She was, after all, Bluff King Hal’s daughter. Like her mother, Mary had enormous sympathy from the English people, a gift she was to squander recklessly. Many viewed her as the poor victim of Anne Boleyn’s scheming, a quiet, kindly, and pious woman. It should be noted that the English people cared not so much for her religious views as they did her parentage. She was the old king’s child and therefore, she should follow Edward to the throne. This loyalty to Mary’s dynastic claims was something she never fully understood. As queen, Mary was capable of both extreme affection and disdain for her English subjects.

With Jane declared queen, Mary fled to Norfolk. Though her closest friends advised against it, she soon decided to ride to London and stake her own claim to the throne. The people of London welcomed her ecstatically. Mary arrested Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley, though she displayed her typical leniency by not immediately executing them. When Jane’s fugitive father attempted to lead an uprising for her, Mary had him executed along with John Dudley. Jane and Guildford, however, remained in the Tower of London.

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