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Queens Against the Flow

Prado, Madrid/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library
Sir Anthonis van Dashorst: Queen Mary I, 1554

If the life of Catherine of Aragon raises the question of the extent to which the actions of a single individual can change the course of events, that of her daughter Mary throws it into even sharper relief. When Henry VIII died in 1547 he left, in addition to his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, a young son, Edward, by his third wife, Jane Seymour. Henry had established royal supremacy over the Church of England, dissolved the monasteries, and sold off church lands on a massive scale, but doctrinally he remained a conservative at heart. When his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, urged him “zealously to proceed in the reformation of the church,” he is said to have bridled at her intervention, which was doubly unwelcome as coming from a woman: “A good hearing it is, when women become such clerks; and a thing much to my comfort, to come in mine old days to be taught of my wife.” For a moment it seemed that Katherine might share the unhappy fate of her predecessors, but recognizing the “great imperfection and weakness” of women, she made a groveling submission and the king relented and restored her to favor.4

Henry’s orthodoxy came as a bitter disappointment to those who had hoped to see him “zealously to proceed in the reformation of the church” by moving it in a more Protestant direction, and it was they who seized the initiative during the short reign of Edward VI. By the time of Edward’s early death in 1553 the mass had been abolished, and numerous “popish” remnants had been swept away. But the speed and character of the reforms left the country divided. The reforming faction, in a bid to ensure their survival, persuaded the dying Edward to set aside the order of succession fixed by Henry at the end of his life. As a result, the Protestant Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen, and Mary and her half-sister Elizabeth were dismissed as bastards. Mary, however, as the daughter of Henry VIII, was widely seen as the legitimate successor to the crown, and a coup launched by her supporters triumphantly placed her on the throne.

The reign of Mary I, from 1553 to 1558, was for long seen as an unhappy caesura in England’s national story. On one side stood Henry VIII and Edward VI, who between them liberated the country from the shackles of Romish religion, and on the other stood Elizabeth I, whose long and glorious reign enabled it to realize its destiny as a great Protestant nation bound for global supremacy. The five years of rule by “Bloody Mary,” by contrast, were years of dark reaction, when an obstinate and fanatical queen reimposed the papal yoke, and ordered nearly three hundred Protestants to be burned at the stake for holding fast to their heretical beliefs. This was the story vividly recounted in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a vastly influential work that did much to shape England’s national consciousness.

Recent years, however, have seen a number of important attempts to reassess the character and significance of Mary’s reign. Much of this process of reassessment has been prompted by a growing appreciation of the complexities of religious thought and practice in sixteenth-century England and a questioning of the degree to which Protestantism really took hold in the country, at least before the later years of Elizabeth’s reign. In two major works Eamon Duffy in particular has sought to show that Mary’s reign was not the sterile reign of popular imagination, and that the religion she attempted to restore was far from being Roman Catholicism in its most reactionary form.5

There are other reasons, too, for the revival of interest in Mary Tudor, both as a person and a queen. So much attention has been paid to Elizabeth and her reign that it is not surprising that a new generation of historians should have revisited the reign of her immediate predecessor, which by comparison remained underresearched. More importantly, Mary was England’s first queen regnant, if one sets aside the de facto queenship of Matilda for a few months in 1141. The growing concern with women’s history over the past few decades has naturally aroused interest in the impact of female rule on the character of government and kingship in a masculine world. Mary Tudor has been a particular beneficiary of this interest, and the two books here under review take their place in a growing list of recent biographies, all of them works that show the art of biography to be flourishing in contemporary Britain.6

In Mary Tudor Anna Whitelock, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Mary’s household, has turned her hand to popular biography, and her book has enjoyed deserved success as a highly readable and well-researched account of Mary, both as a woman and a queen. She illustrates vividly the tension between these two aspects of her life, especially during the years of her marriage to Philip of Spain when she was at once queen regnant and the dutiful, loving, and ultimately tragic wife of a royal husband who was not allowed by parliamentary statute to exercise the powers traditionally exercised by a king of England. The conclusion of her book is in line with that of other recent accounts of the reign: “Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.”

A comparable conclusion is reached in the even more recent Mary I by John Edwards, who asserts that her “achievement as England’s first recognized sovereign queen has been effectively usurped by her half-sister,” and that “Mary’s historical clothes have been stolen by Elizabeth.” Both authors draw a broadly similar picture of the queen and her reign, but Edwards’s biography, while making for denser reading than Whitelock’s, which tends toward the episodic, gains from being written by a historian who has published extensively on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain. Drawing on his close knowledge of the Spanish and international background, and of the spiritual cross-currents of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Edwards is able to situate Mary more authoritatively than Whitelock in European as well as English history. This Continental dimension to the story of a reign that cannot be fully understood if treated purely as an episode in English national history makes Edwards’s book the most comprehensive and convincing account to date.

Both authors emphasize the importance of Mary’s Spanish heritage, and depict a woman well-educated, like her mother, Catherine of Aragon, who had inherited in full measure the tenacity and extreme devoutness of her own mother, Isabella of Castile; and Isabella’s marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon while heiress presumptive to the crown of Castile would offer useful precedents for the arrangements surrounding Mary’s marriage to Isabella’s great-grandson, Philip of Spain. These arrangements raised delicate and complicated issues for both parties. Philip, the heir to the Spanish throne, was still only a prince, and, as such, would find himself in the intolerable position of being subordinate to his wife, the queen of England. This was rectified at the wedding ceremony, held in Winchester Cathedral in July 1554, when letters patent from his father, the emperor, created him king of Naples, one of Charles V’s many dominions. Philip and Mary were thus jointly proclaimed “King and Queen of England, Naples, Jerusalem, Ireland and France….” But as king of England, what powers would Philip possess? Just as there were no precedents for a queen regnant in England, so also there were none for a king consort.

Mary’s councillors, worried about the potential consequences of a foreigner on the English throne, insisted on a series of strict conditions before the marriage could go ahead. By the terms of the marriage treaty Philip’s powers were severely restricted. Mary, for instance, retained absolute control over all public appointments. If the marriage produced a child, he or she would inherit England and the Netherlands, while it was envisaged that in Spain itself Philip’s son by his first marriage, Don Carlos, would in due course inherit the crown. If Mary died before Philip, neither he nor Don Carlos would have any claim to the English throne.

Philip made it clear in a secret document that he had no intention of binding himself and his heirs in this way, but he was prepared for the time being to play along with the arrangements, although deeply resentful that the English resolutely refused to allow him a coronation. On the other hand, when the new coinage depicted Philip in a position of superiority on Mary’s right, it was the turn of the English to feel aggrieved. Cosovereignty was never going to be easy, but Philip played a weak hand with some skill, and Mary, infatuated with her husband, was in general willing to accommodate herself to his wishes.

During the year he spent in England, from July 1554 to August 1555, before going back to Brussels, he influenced the Council’s policy decisions, introduced important administrative changes, and intervened in major appointments. He was also determined to involve England in the Habsburg conflict with France, and—after succeeding his father as king of Spain in 1556—was back in England for a few months in 1557 to secure its military support for war on the continent. Like his father before him he saw England as essential to the Habsburg geopolitical system, and within months of Mary’s death in 1558 he was making overtures for a marriage to his former sister-in-law Elizabeth, her successor on the English throne.

He made the overtures reluctantly, in the hope of preventing England from breaking loose once again from Rome. It may have come as a relief that they were not successful. The precedents set by his marriage to Mary were discouraging, at the personal as well as the political level. The shared Spanish heritage was not sufficient to bridge the gap created by age and temperament, and, oddly enough, that heritage does not seem at first to have included an ability on Mary’s part to speak the language. At their initial encounter, two days before the wedding, Philip spoke in Spanish and Mary in French. The reason may well be that, although she must have heard Spanish spoken around her in her early years, she was separated from her mother at the age of nine when she was sent to the Welsh Marches with a household of her own, and never saw her again after 1531, when Henry finally abandoned Catherine and ordered mother and daughter to be kept permanently apart.

They did, however, maintain a clandestine correspondence, in which, as Whitelock says, Catherine communicated to her daughter a sense of “shared martyrdom.” That sense of martyrdom may well have helped carry Mary through the mental and physical sufferings of the terrible years of deprivation and humiliation, and put iron into her soul as she awaited an always uncertain fate. Not surprisingly, when she finally ascended the throne of an England that seemed in danger of toppling into civil war over matters of religion and the disputed succession, she saw the hand of providence at work. Against all the odds, the legitimacy of her birth and her royal rights had at last been vindicated. In the circumstances it was natural that she should see herself as the humble instrument of God chosen for the execution of His grand design, the restoration of England to obedience to Rome.

  1. 4

    Cited from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs in the introduction to Katherine Parr, Complete Works and Correspondence, edited by Janel Mueller (University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 22 and 24. This handsome and impressively edited volume contains not only the religious writings of Katherine Parr, the first woman to publish in English under her own name in England, but also her correspondence, here assembled for the first time. 

  2. 5

    Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (Yale University Press, 1992); Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (Yale University Press, 2009). 

  3. 6

    Linda Porter, The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary” (St. Martin’s, 2008); Judith M. Richards, Mary Tudor (Routledge, 2008); David Loades, Mary Tudor (Amberley, 2011). Attention should also be drawn to the chapter “Images of Mary Tudor” in Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth- Century England by the late Kevin Sharpe (Yale University Press, 2009). 

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