Posted on 21st March 2021
The Princess Mary was born in Greenwich, London, on 18 February, 1516, the only child from the otherwise barren marriage between King Henry VIII of England and his Spanish Queen Catherine of Aragon.
Though Henry was disappointed that he had not been provided with a son, it was early days, and much was still expected of the good Queen. As such Henry, the proud father doted on Mary throughout her infancy and in truth despite later events was to have a great affection for his first born for the rest of his life.
The early years of Henry’s marriage were happy, and he and Catherine made a good working partnership but the relationship soon began to sour when it became apparent that Catherine was unable to bear healthy children. She was also deeply religious and very formal in manner which soon became an irritation to the fun-loving and aggressively energetic King and Henry soon began to look for his entertainment elsewhere.
Henry had never been shy in taking mistresses and he had already sired an illegitimate son by Elizabeth Blount, Lady Talboys, and there were any number of women at Court who were willing to satisfy His Majesty’s desires but none in the past had posed a threat to the royal marriage. But all this was about to change.
On 7 June 1520, Henry attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais in France. It was jamboree of unparalleled ostentation organised by Henry’s Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey to cement an alliance between King Henry and his young French counterpart Francis I. Such an alliance it was thought would curtail the power of the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V.
As it was, for all its grandiloquence the Field of the Cloth of Gold achieved little politically. No treaties were signed, and the meeting ended on a sour note when Francis threw Henry on his back during a wrestling match. But it was here that he first met the woman who would alter the course of English history and make the lives of Catherine and her daughter Mary a living hell, the 19-year-old Anne Boleyn.
Henry was not at first taken by Anne but rather by her older sister Mary. They began an affair that was so public that it soon earned Mary the unfortunate title “the King’s Whore” a stigma that would remain with her for the rest of her life.
Henry and Anne were not to meet again until 1522, when she attended the Court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine. Though she was described somewhat unflatteringly by the Venetian Ambassador as “not the handsomest of women”, men appeared to adore her. She had long thick brown hair, olive skin, and large dark eyes, almost black that were much commented upon. Even so, she was considered plain and to lack prettiness. But then Anne did not depend upon her looks for her attractiveness. It was her natural vivaciousness and love of flirtation at a time when female behaviour was bound by strict convention that made her so desirable. She had many admirers and King Henry was very soon to be one of them.
Henry pursued Anne with great vigour but aware of the fate of her sister she kept him at arm’s length, toying with his affections and ensuring that he worked hard for every furtive glance and blown kiss. This guaranteed the King’s attention and drove him wild with desire.
Henry’s determination to divorce Catherine and marry Anne was to entangle him in an eight-year legal battle that was to become known as “the King’s Great Matter.” The outcome of which would lead to the arrest of Cardinal Wolsey, the martyrdom of England’s two leading theologians, the break from Rome, the destruction of the monasteries, the English Reformation, and the establishment of the Church of England. It also led to the ruination of Mary’s mother, Queen Catherine.
Catherine steadfastly refused even under the most intense pressure to grant Henry his divorce. She had previously if briefly, been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, so Henry had had to receive special Papal dispensation to marry his brother’s widow. He now argued that their marriage had been illegal all along because Catherine and Arthur had enjoyed a coital relationship. This Catherine denied, insisting that the marriage had never been consummated. Her frequent tears and public avowals of fidelity to Henry won her the sympathy of the people and were to earn Anne Boleyn their loathing. To the ordinary man in the street, she was the “Goggle-Eyed Whore.”
Mary felt her mother’s persecution deeply, and it was soon to affect her personally for despite Catherine’s refusal to do so Henry would have his divorce.
On 25 January 1533, Anne and Henry married. Four months later on 23 May, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry and Catherine’s marriage to be illegitimate and null and void. Catherine was barred from Court, stripped of her titles and not permitted to see her daughter. No longer Queen she was made Dowager Princess of Wales. As a result, Mary was declared illegitimate. She was no longer Princess Mary but Lady Mary with her place in the line of succession going to her half-sister, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth. She was also barred from Court or from seeing her father. She would never see her mother again.
Like her mother Mary was stubborn and brave but she lacked her stoicism and was only too ready to express her unhappiness. She was also frequently ill. Some of these maladies were real others a figment of her tortured imagination, either way, she was determined to let everyone know about them. She was isolated and alone, friendless and starved of affection and her paranoia grew exponentially.
On 7 January 1536, Catherine died. She had insisted right to the very end that she was the sole and legitimate Queen. Anne Boleyn, she said, had been “the scandal of all Christendom.” Upon hearing of her death Henry ordered festivities to be held and Church bells to be rung. On that same day however, the pregnant Anne miscarried – the child would have been a boy.
Anne’s miscarriage began to be seen by Henry as a judgement on him from God and that he would never be granted the son and heir he so desperately desired if he remained with her. She had bewitched him, he said. Within six months of Catherine’s death, Anne Boleyn would also be dead, executed on the orders of the man who had earlier put his entire reign in peril just to have her for himself.
Just two weeks after Anne’s execution, Henry married Jane Seymour. Of all his many wives it was to be Jane who would provide him with the son he so yearned for, a son. Jane was to die as a result of complications following childbirth. Never mind, a Queen had at last done her duty.
Henry was to have two further disastrous marriages with Katherine Howard and Anne of Cleves before finally settling upon Catherine Parr. She was to be just what he needed in his old age, more of a mother and a nurse than a mistress. She also worked hard to bring the family together and to re-unite Henry with his children. A guilty Henry lavished gifts on his daughters, particularly Mary, his favourite.
On 28 January 1547, the obese, arthritic, half-blind King whose physique and athleticism had once made the Royal Courts of Europe swoon, died. His nine-year old son old Edward succeeded to the throne under the Regency of the Seymour family.
It was during Edward’s short reign that the Reformation truly became a reality and religious life in England would never be the same. Under the guidance of Thomas Cranmer all the land that had been previously owned by the monasteries was finally sold off, clerical celibacy was no longer required, the Mass was banned, and the Common Book of Prayer introduced. From these reforms it was believed there could be no turning back.
Mary, like her mother a devout Catholic, insisted on being allowed to take Mass in the privacy of her own chapel. This caused a rift with her brother who despite only being a child was a committed Protestant. He denied her this right and only relented when pressure was brought upon his Council by Mary’s cousin the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
In January 1553, Edward fell ill with pulmonary disease. As it became increasingly clear that the illness was terminal and that the young King would not recover plans were put in place to deny Mary the succession. In discussions with his Council, Edward drew up the “Device for the Succession” in which it was agreed that his 16-year-old cousin Lady Jane Grey, a Protestant, would succeed him.
On 6 July 1553, Edward died aged 15, and four days later Lady Jane Grey was Crowned Queen of England. Her reign was to be short-lived, just 9 days. She had little support; indeed, few people even knew who she was and no one had thought to first place Mary under lock and key. When Mary entered London a week later at the head of a small army it was in triumph. The crowds came onto the streets to greet her. She was after all the daughter of the adored Queen Catherine and the Great King Henry.
Any lingering support for Lady Jane Grey quickly dissipated and she was arrested and sent to the Tower of London.
At 37 years of age Mary was Queen, and her mother had been vindicated.
For most of her previous life she’d had to endure bullying, intimidation and isolation; she had even been denied permission to attend her mother’s funeral, now God had lighted upon her to do His work.
That she was neurotic, paranoid and had a martyr complex is perhaps understandable but to wear all three on her sleeve in the way she did was perhaps politically unwise. She truly trusted no one not even her closest adviser the recently released from prison Bishop Gardiner who was to become her Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mary was desperate to have a child, secure a Catholic succession and by doing so deny her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth the throne, Mary hastily agreed to marry the future Philip II of Spain (the man who 34 years later would launch the Spanish Armada against England).
They married on 25 July 1554, to rioting in many towns - here was a Queen, they said, who loved another country more than she loved her own.
The most serious rebellion was led by Sir Thomas Wyatt, who marched on London with an army intending to oust Mary and place Elizabeth on the throne. The rebellion was crushed, and Wyatt later executed but the repercussions were to spread far and wide. Mary, whose Coronation had been greeted with much rejoicing had lost the support of the people. She in turn no longer trusted them and saw in all her subject’s conspiracy and anti-Catholic devilry.
The Wyatt Rebellion would cost Lady Jane Grey her life. Mary had initially forgiven Lady Jane who was only 17 years of age and had never wanted to be Queen. She had even made a public vow that no harm would come to her. She now reneged on the promise and both Lady Jane and her equally young husband Gilbert Dudley were executed on the scaffold. The people never forgave her for this betrayal, and she was fast becoming a figure of hate.
Thomas Wyatt’s failure now also put the life of the 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth in peril. She was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. There she was interrogated by Bishop Gardiner. Despite his threats, Elizabeth more than held her own. She was a Princess of Royal blood and felt no obligation to answer questions put to her by a commoner. She demanded an audience with her half-sister Mary. The Queen eventually yielded to her request and Elizabeth was able to plead her case in person.
In what was a tense and fraught meeting, Elizabeth frequently reminded Mary that they were sisters who shared the same blood and the same father. Mary had even taken care of her as a child on occasions. Mary, who of uneven temperament and prone to hysteria often shrieked at Elizabeth that she was a traitor and a heretic, but Elizabeth remained calm and respectful. She insisted that she had known nothing of Wyatt’s rebellion, which probably wasn’t true, and refused to renounce her Protestant faith. Her pleas of innocence and loyalty to the Crown must have worked for she was released from her imprisonment in the Tower of London. She was however placed under house arrest and close surveillance.. She was also to spend the rest of Mary’s reign in fear that any future insurrection would cost her, her life.
Mary and Elizabeth had always had a peculiar relationship. Both were daughters of women who loathed one another. Both had suffered indignities and humiliations at the hands of their father, and both had lived in peril of their lives. But there the similarities ended. The small, plain, dark haired Mary was a devout, serious, humourless hypochondriac. The flame-haired, vivacious, flamboyant, fun-loving Elizabeth was in many respects the spitting-image of her father. Mary could be kind and generous, but she was a difficult person to like or to get on with. She too much thought the world was against her and was petulant and peevish by nature. Elizabeth, by contrast, was a woman who was difficult not to admire, if only for her wit and intelligence. They could not have been more different. Even so, they remained sisters.
Still desperate for the child that would secure England for Rome, Mary endured a series of phantom pregnancies. Indeed, her belief that she was in a state of near constant pregnancy became almost pathological and she would become hysterical with anyone who dared to refute it.
Philip could no longer bear to be with his increasingly frenzied wife. Though she begged him to remain he departed to command his armies abroad telling her that he would be back but with the agreement signed between them ensuring he could never be King in his own right he had no intention of returning. Following his departure, Mary fell into a deep depression.
Mary was unable to reverse England’s slide into Protestantism and her attempts to do so became increasingly desperate. She was to vent her impotence in a series of vindictive and unnecessary prosecutions that became known as Marian Burnings.
On 4 February 1555, a preacher, John Rogers, became the first of the Marian Martyrs but many more were to follow. Some were high profile such as the Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, but most were common folk. In total, 277 men and women were burned at the stake for professing their Protestant faith, a further 30 died in prison. By contrast no Catholic had endured a similar fate during the reign of her half-brother Edward. But the real target of her vengeance was Thomas Cranmer, who along with Thomas Cromwell had been the architect of the Protestant Reformation in England.
Thomas Cranmer had been arrested and under duress had written numerous letters of submission to the Pope in Rome but had always later torn them up. Eventually, with what he believed was a promise from the Queen that he would be spared if he did so he handed over his letter of submission. Mary now reneged on that promise and instead demanded that Cranmer make a full public confession from the pulpit before being burned anyway.
Instead of doing what was expected of him Cranmer denounced the Pope as anti-Christ and amid a furore was dragged from the pulpit and taken to the stake. There as the flames lapped about him, he shouted to the crowd, “I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe in my heart.” He then thrust that same hand into the flames.
The fate of the Marian Martyrs was later to be immortalised in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, better known as his Book of Martyrs. It was to be published early in the reign of Elizabeth and was to lend great support to her claim to be the protector against the return of Catholic auto-da-fe to the streets and shires of England.
In the winter of 1558, Mary again believed she was pregnant. What she had in fact was cancer of the stomach. She died on 17 November 1558, an angry and frustrated woman.
She had not been able to bear the child that would preserve England for Rome and secure her mother’s legacy. The insecurities that had so tormented her as a young woman served to manifest themselves as she got older, and when she became Queen, they too became England’s.
It had been an ill-starred reign and her passing was not greatly mourned.
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