Said to have been one of the most dreaded queens in European history, the woman known as Bloody Mary ruled England for five years from 1553 until her death in 1558, after which the crown passed to her younger half-sister Elizabeth I. Her story is one of great tragedy, something that seemed to follow the Tudor family everywhere until Elizabeth brought the Golden Age to England. Today, let’s explore Mary’s life and see for ourselves what caused a devout religious princess to become an infamous executioner.
Mary I was born in London’s Greenwich Palace on 18 February 1516, the only living child of King Henry VIII by his first wife, the Spanish-born Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had a long history of pregnancies that did not end well during her twenty-four years of marriage to the English king. Of the six we know of, two were stillborn and three others died quickly with the longest survivor living for only 52 days. Mary was the only child to survive the odds and her parents doted on her. She was a very pretty girl with blue eyes and the red-gold hair of the Tudor line, and as England’s heir, in a common practice of the time, she was soon betrothed; first to the eldest son of Francis I of France and later to her cousin Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. None of the betrothals lasted however, and soon, relations between Mary’s parents grew even more strained.
Henry VIII in his thirties is depicted here with the first two of his six wives, Catherine of Aragon below and Anne Boleyn above.
By this time, it became clear to Henry that his wife was not going to produce the male heir he so longed for, as Catherine was past the point where it was believed possible for a woman to bear children. The king’s eye then caught sight of Anne Boleyn, effectively changing the course of English history forever. Henry fell desperately in love with Anne, who refused to become just another of his many mistresses. She declared straightforward that she would not accept his love unless she were to become his wife, and Henry immediately asked the Pope for a divorce from Catherine. When his request was refused, the king broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself head of the new Church of England. Soon, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine annulled and he and Anne were wed on 25 January 1533. Mary was declared illegitimate by grounds that Catherine had “not truly been the king’s wife in the eyes of God” because she had previously been married to his brother Arthur, the late Prince of Wales. Catherine swore that she had entered her marriage with Henry chaste, as she and Arthur had never consummated their union, but the damage was done. She was banished from court and sent to live at Kimbolton Castle, where she died of heart disease in 1536. Mary was forbidden to attend her mother’s funeral. Father and daughter did not speak to each other for three years.
More trouble came for Mary when Anne gave birth to Princess Elizabeth. With Anne now considered Henry’s only lawful wife, Mary was from the the point of their wedding on considered a bastard child, stripped of her title as Princess and simply called Lady Mary Tudor. When Elizabeth was born in September 1533, the baby became heir presumptive while Mary was left in the cold. She was sent to Hatfield, where she was to care for her infant sister as more or less just another member of the new princess’ household. Mary became ill with fits of deep depression that would plague her for the remainder of her life as a result.
However, in 1536, Anne was executed and Henry married his third wife, Jane Seymour, who died soon after giving birth to a son, Prince Edward. Edward was placed first in the line of succession ahead of his older sisters. While alive, Queen Jane attempted to mend the relationship between Henry and Mary. The king agreed, but with a catch – Mary had to recognise her father as Supreme Head of the Church of England and throw away her steadfast Catholic beliefs. She was forced to sign a document in which she recognized not only the country’s new religion, but her own illegitimacy. After reluctantly signing the papers, she was brought back to court, eventually regaining a household of her own and after many years, being reinstated into the line of succession as heir to the crown should her younger brother die childless.
On 28 January 1547, Henry VIII died at the age of fifty-five. Prince Edward, then nine years old, was crowned King of England ahead of his elder sisters. Six years later, Edward VI was dead of an ailment of the lungs, most likely tuberculosis. However, Mary’s succession was still not secure. In his will, Edward had named his cousin, the teenaged Lady Jane Grey, as his successor. Jane, granddaughter to Henry VIII’s sister the late Duchess of Suffolk, was a Protestant like Edward while Mary was still a steadfast Catholic. Edward wanted a Protestant on the throne after him, and in his final hours, declared Jane the next Queen of England. When the king died in 1553 at the age of just fifteen, Jane was shocked to discover that she had become ruler of England. However, Jane was never crowned, and Mary at last became Queen of England at the age of thirty-seven. Jane, who is sometimes called the Nine Days Queen for the short length of her “reign”, was sent to the Tower of London by a reluctant Mary and the man who orchestrated her ascension, the Duke of Northumberland, was executed. Soon, Jane would follow along with her husband Guildford Dudley, Northumberland’s son.
Now as Queen, Mary’s life still did not go smoothly. She was thirty-seven years old and still unmarried with no children of her own. She had to find a husband quickly. It did not take long for her to choose – Philip II, acting King of Spain and son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, seemed the perfect match. Two days after they met in person, the two were married, and it was decided that Philip would only carry the title of King of England, but hold no authority over political matters, nor would England be required to participate in any of Spain’s military affairs. Still, the marriage allied England with one of the most powerful nations in Europe at the time, and Mary, who still securely held the reigns of power, committed herself to the next tasks at hand; providing an heir and reinstating Catholicism as the true religion of her country.
Mary with her husband and cousin Philip II of Spain. Philip was young and fashionable, and his engagement to Mary made her council and her countrymen uneasy, as they feared they would be subjected to foreign rule once the couple were married.
Now we come to the reason why history refers to this queen as Bloody Mary. Soon after taking the throne, Mary had the documents annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon torn up and Edward VI’s laws making the country Protestant abolished. By the end of her reign, over 280 Protestants were burned at the stake as heretics, including Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was responsible for organizing Henry VIII’s “divorce” from the queen’s mother. Her sister Elizabeth, also a Protestant, was held prisoner in the Tower of London, kept alive to serve as a Plan B should Mary fail to conceive, which she did.
Mary ruled over England for five years. During that time, she hoped desperately for a child, though none came. Twice she thought she was pregnant, but both times, she was proven wrong. As King of Spain as well as Naples, her husband was away from her a lot, which also led to worsening of her lifelong battle with depression. She also suffered from menstruation irregularities and stomach pains thought to have been ovarian cysts or even cancer, which could also explain her false pregnancies. With her health failing, by May 1558, she was forced to resign herself to having her half-sister Elizabeth be her heir. On 17 November, she died a victim of an influenza epidemic that swept across the city of London, and was buried in Westminster Abbey in December. Her tomb, pictured below, is one she shares with Elizabeth.