• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Queens Against the Flow

That process of restoration, too easily dismissed as “reaction,” is treated with particular sensitivity by Edwards. He describes Mary’s own religion as combining the “Catholic humanism” instilled in her by her Renaissance education and fostered by Katherine Parr, who had once served in her household and took both Mary and Elizabeth under her wing on becoming queen, with a number of the spiritual values and religious practices currently under discussion at the Council of Trent. It was only with the council’s conclusion in 1563 that doctrine finally hardened into dogma and the dividing lines between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism came to be firmly drawn.

Until then, religious beliefs possessed a fluidity that frequently enabled them to bridge the sectarian divide. Mary’s own spirituality had an affinity with that of her cousin, Cardinal Reginald Pole, a member of the reforming wing of the Roman church, who, as papal legate, would mastermind the attempt to reform the English church in line with these reformist ideals.

As is well known, the providential mission on which Mary had set her heart and that gave meaning to her life ended in failure. Her half-sister Elizabeth would steer the country back toward a moderate Protestant settlement, and in the process would give it the stability it so sorely needed. The reasons for the failure were many. The first, and most important, was the shortness of Mary’s reign and her failure, following phantom pregnancies, to give birth to a child. Pole’s reforms, although efficiently managed, had no time to take root. Meanwhile, the burnings of growing numbers of Protestant martyrs, urged on by Philip’s adviser, the Dominican friar Bartolomé Carranza, and enjoying Mary’s sometimes public support, alienated moderate opinion and were to prove fatally counterproductive. They also did much to foster anti-Spanish sentiment. Although Philip himself, while resenting his subordinate status, behaved circumspectly, the presence of so many Spaniards at court and the political involvement with Spain, which drew England into the Spanish Habsburg system of Continental alliances with disastrous results, built up antipathy to Spain in a country that half a century earlier had welcomed a Spanish-born princess with open arms.

It is natural to speculate about what would have happened if Mary’s life had been as long as that of Elizabeth, and if she had given birth to an heir. Are we to see her, as Mattingly saw Catherine of Aragon, as undoubtedly shaping the course of history by her granite-like integrity, but ultimately incapable of stopping its flow? All her recent biographers have tended to emphasize the positive aspects of her reign, and in so doing have revised in important ways the negative portrait that has traditionally predominated. In particular they have shown Mary to be, like her mother and her grandmother, a highly capable woman who, as England’s first queen regnant, successfully defied the stereotype that deemed women both incapable of government and unfitted for it. In this respect, at least, she gave a new direction to the course of English history. Her success in the handling of government affairs smoothed the path for Elizabeth, who, by remaining a Virgin Queen, also managed to turn to political advantage a major source of Mary’s misfortunes—the tension between kingship and femininity.

Yet in matters religious, which were at the heart of Mary’s life, it is hard to see the course of history running smooth. The effect of the repressive policies of her regime was to reinforce the determination of a small but committed Protestant minority to maintain its opposition to the pope and all his works. In this it enjoyed growing popular sympathy in a country that was beginning to redefine itself as a nation by identifying Spain as its natural enemy, and in which a political elite that had benefited enormously from the disposal of church property was fearful of being stripped of its gains. In the wake of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, Europe was in turmoil. It is not difficult to imagine a Marian England descending, like its Continental neighbors, into civil and religious war. The outcome of such a war on English soil is unpredictable.

Mattingly’s “flow” of history is a slippery concept. Personality and contingency have a way of intervening with unintended and unexpected consequences. This at least is what happened when Catherine of Aragon refused to go quietly, and when her daughter responded to the call of providence by marrying Philip of Spain and bringing England back into the Roman fold.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print