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Queen Mary

Greenwich - looking towards the site of the former Tudor palace

Mary Tudor, who ruled England for five years, 1553 to 1558, was a deeply religious woman in a world dominated by religious belief. This world view divided life up into good and bad, important and unimportant. Ironically Mary's life demonstrated how these categories are not nearly as clear as they seem to be. The qualities of sincerity and conscientiousness which Mary brought to her religious beliefs were also character flaws which led her to order the burning of hundreds of people because they did not hold the same religious views as her. With the loss of religious certainty in the late nineteenth century many people feared that this may have a negative impact on morality. Looking back to the reign of Queen Mary a different perspective on these worries is provided by the moral certainty of Mary, and its tragic consequences.


Mary Tudor was born 18th February 1516 at Greenwich Palace, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. By this point Catherine had given birth to two stillborn girls, and two boys, who had died within weeks of birth. Mary's birth, and her survival was not part of Henry's masterplan for a male heir to continue his dynasty. He toyed with the idea of using an act of parliament to legitimise his son Henry Fitzroy, son of his mistress Elizabeth Blount. As a fall back Mary also seemed to be considered a potential heir, and was even given an impressive court at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border. Although Henry stopped short of making her Princess of Wales, the traditional title of the heir to the throne, a court at Ludlow Castle was at least meant to hint at a symbolic Welsh connection. Mary's position as an unofficial Princess of Wales began to weaken in 1525 - 1526 when Henry VIII began an ominous affair with Anne Boleyn. Now a plan unfolded to divorce Catherine and marry Anne, who it was hoped would provide a son. When the pope refused to allow a divorce Henry decided to make England a protestant country, to take himself away from papal authority. Catherine was frozen out, as was her daughter. Mary was always close to her mother, and she would not recognise that her mother's marriage was invalid, and that she herself was illegitimate. The demand that Mary sign the Oath of Succession which declared Anne Boleyn's children as heirs to the throne was met with obstinate refusal. The Oath of Supremacy which declared Henry as the head of the Church met with a similar response. Any acceptance of Protestantism was a betrayal of Catherine. The seeds of Mary's later religious fundamentalism were sown, in the pain of her father's divorce of her mother.

Mary's position continued to become more unstable and dangerous. Anne Boleyn had given birth to a girl, Elizabeth, in 1533, but having failed to provide a son, was executed in May 1536. Mary continued in her refusal to sign the Oaths of Succession and Supremacy, and her life was now in danger. Eventually, on 15th June 1536, Mary signed, and saved herself. It didn't really cross Henry's mind to think that perhaps Mary wasn't being sincere in her submission. The public display was enough. Henry wasn't really concerned with principles. His simple self interest was the main driving force. Then in October 1537 Henry's third wife Jane Seymour gave birth to a boy, Edward. Henry finally had his male heir, which seemed to confirm Mary's fate as an unimportant, illegitimate princess.

In January 1547 Henry VIII died, and the protestant reformation continued in the reign of his young son Edward VI, under the direction of protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Somerset, however, was sympathetic to Mary and allowed her to practice her religion privately. For the first two years of Edward's reign Mary lived quietly at Kenninghall in Norfolk. But when Somerset was overthrown by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the atmosphere became less tolerant. Plans were made for Mary to escape to the continent, but were never followed through. Inspite of her fears, and the arrest of close confidants, a blind eye continued to be turned to Mary's religious activities. Pragmatism was still an acceptable policy.



Tower of London

By the summer of 1553 Edward VI was dying of tuberculosis, and was using what strength he had left to support moves to disinherit his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth. The plan was for the succession to descend through three safely protestant daughters of Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, niece of Henry VIII. These three girls were all placed in hastily arranged marriages. Jane, the eldest, was married to Northumberland's son Guildford. While this plan was put into effect Northumberland decided that Mary should be in government hands. Summoned to Greenwich, she began her journey to London, but turned back, stopped at Sawston Hall near Cambridge, and then headed back to Kenninghall, arriving on 6th July, the day Edward VI died. July 8th saw Jane Grey proclaimed queen, the new queen moving from Syon House to take up residence in the Tower of London's state appartments. Meanwhile Mary wrote to the Privy Council demanding the crown. A swift reply informed Mary that she was illegitimate and excluded from the succession. Both sides now had to fight, since one of them, by definition, was guilty of treason. It was at this point that circumstances demonstrated a lack of categorisation, which is typical of history, and which was to be so at odds with Mary's later fundamentalism. In the crucial few days after Jane Grey was proclaimed queen, the eastern and southern areas of England, the protestant areas of England, rose in support of Mary. News travelling slowly over poor roads meant that the catholic south west and north were not involved. It was the people of Norfolk and Suffolk who initially rallied to Mary. Life does not follow clear lines, and ironically Mary was now in a position to take the throne because of protestant support.

On July 14th Northumberland rode out of London towards East Anglia, at the head of an army which was soon showing signs of mutiny. John Ridley preaching for Jane at St Paul's Cross was shouted down. The Privy Council declared for Mary on 19th July 1553, and a huge street party began in London which lasted twenty four hours. Church bells rang, people drank and danced, bonfires were lit. Poor Jane, and her father Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, watched from the Tower. On the afternoon of 19th July Suffolk told his daughter that her reign was over. Northumberland was arrested, and Jane moved from the state appartments to the Tower's cells.


Although Mary began her new reign with good intentions, the consequences of her principled fundamentalist outlook immediately made themselves felt. A pattern emerged of the new queen rewarding people who had done her injury in the past, and punishing those who had helped her. Archbishop Cranmer had been more reluctant than any other member of the council to subscribe to the document granting the Crown to Jane Grey. He had also argued for Mary when Henry VIII had been considering her execution. Yet Cranmer was sentenced to death for treason. Justice Hales, the only judge who had refused to support Jane Grey's succession, was the only judge who was arrested. Conversely, the Duke of Norfolk who had treated Mary badly was appointed to the Privy Council, as was Richard Rich who had arrested Mary's servants for celebrating mass at Copthall in 1551. As Jasper Ridley says:"Perhaps she convinced herself by this policy that she disregarded all personal feelings of gratitude and revenge... " (P141). Mary felt she had to adhere to higher principles. The actual result of ignoring the normal feelings of gratitude and revenge was bizarre injustice.




After initial popularity, public feeling began to turn against Mary. The initial reason for this was the Queen's marriage to Philip of Spain. Distrust of foreigners and catholics came together early in 1554 to bring about a large rebellion in Kent, led by Thomas Wyatt of Allington, near Maidstone. Mary retreated behind the walls of London, and at the Guildhall she had her Winston Churchill moment, calling on her subjects to protect her: "I cannot tell how naturally the mother loveth the child, for I was never a mother of any; but certainly, if a prince or governor may as naturally and earnestly love her subjects as the mother doth love the child, then assure yourselves that I, being your lady and mistress, do as earnestly and tenderly love you."

Wyatt with 7000 men marched on London. Reaching Hyde Park Corner they were surrounded and overwhelmed. Mary who until now had been inclined to leniency changed her attitude. From this point on opponents would be shown no mercy. The wedding to Philip went ahead on 25th July 1554 at Winchester Cathedral. In November Parliament restored the pope's supremacy over the Church of England. By Christmas statutes for the burning of heretics, removed during Edward VI's reign, had been restored. Now the most terrifying phase of Mary's reign could begin, with regular burning of protestants.




Broad Street, Oxford. In October 1555 protestant bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burnt at the stake in what is now Broad Street. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer suffered the same fate in March 1556.

It is sometimes claimed that Mary was no worse than her contemporaries in her treatment of religious malcontents. It is true that protestant propaganda during Elizabeth's reign, demonised Mary, and might have made her seem more unpopular than she actually was during her lifetime. In Elizabethan England, a book by John Foxe about protestant martyrs was placed in every church in England, alongside the English Bible. It is also true that by the standards of religious suppression on the continent Mary's reign was a relatively mild one. But in the context of English history the figures speak for themselves. Jasper Ridley points out that whereas Henry VII ordered the burning of ten heretics in twenty four years, Henry VIII eighty one in thirty eight years, Elizabeth I five in forty four years, Mary ordered the burning of two hundred and eighty people in only five years. This is an average of one person every five days from 4th February 1555 to 10th November 1558. Recantation under threat of burning was now no longer acceptable, since serious minded Mary refused the politics of public submission and demanded true adherence to principles. Mary was not a politician. She was a fanatic. Mary attended Mass nine times a day, which in theory everyone was supposed to do, but few did. Mary was the sort of conscientious person who did things by the book, and this quality which may have played out well in other circumstances led now to a reign of terror. Many protestants fled to safe areas abroad, through the ports of London and Rye.


Towards the end of 1557 Mary might have thought that, in her own terms, she was doing well. She was burning lots of heretics, which was apparently defending the spiritual well being of her people. She also made many visits to poor tenants living on royal estates, and tried to help them. Mary was always personal in her generosity, but had no sense of guiding legislation generally to ease wider problems. She was simply not a politician in that sense. All her energy went into internal court politics and religion. Then early in 1558 came the disaster which seems to have broken Mary's will. On the continent her husband Philip was fighting a war with France. Initially there had been a major victory for Philip at St Quentin in 1557, but in December of that year the French staged a surprise attack on the English town of Calais. The garrison, not expecting an attack in winter, was under strength, and there was no time to send reinforcements. On 7th January 1558 Calais fell.

By the spring of 1558 Mary was seriously ill. She cried a great deal and appeared profoundly depressed. Mary died on 17th of November. Her successor Elizabeth I allowed her sister to be buried with full catholic rites, and then got on with deciding which direction she should take with England's religion. In dramatic contrast to the fundamentalist commitment of the previous regime, Elizabeth's chief advisor William Cecil presented a succinct paper outlining the pros and cons of England remaining catholic or becoming protestant. The choice between the two was a political one, designed to minimise disruption. Cecil recommended Protestantism. Elizabeth agreed.