The myth of Bloody Mary is one of the most enduring myths in history, with some historians and pop culture fans still seeing her as one of the vilest monarchs in history. But is Mary I deserving of this nickname?
The short answer is no. Mary’s actions and views, while despicable to us, reflect her time-period. On top of that, they also reflect the deadly inheritance she received as being a member of a ruling House who wasn’t yet fully established.
The Tudors’ right to the throne was contested by many. And while her paternal grandfather squashed every rebellion and defeated both pretenders, there were still many threats abroad and within her realm. It didn’t help that the wars of the religion had made her position more unstable, and thus, heightened these threats.
Along with this myth comes the assumption that Mary was ignorant. For those of you who are still adhere to this notion, I am sorry to disappoint you but that is simply not true.
“She had clearly an early aptitude for music and dancing and grew to be highly accomplished in both. At the age of four she could play the virginals and she later learned the lute and the regal. Playing these instruments as she grew up, and the comments on her ability seem to have been more than the studied politeness of official observers. Dancing was also a vital accomplishment for royal ladies, and Mary’s enjoyment of it began early. She learned to dance at least as well as any lady at her father’s court. After Henry’s death, her brother Edward VI would criticize Mary for her unseemly devotion to his pastime at which she excelled.
Mary also became an accomplished linguist and had evidently learned some French by 1520, when she so impressed the French lords sent to inspect her. Again this may have been, like the musicianship, a skill inherited from her father, who used it to communicate with the emperor’s French-speaking diplomats throughout his reign. There would have been no need for such a young child to converse at any length, only to demonstrate that she could exchange pleasantries and formal greetings. As an adult she relied on her French for communication with the imperial ambassadors at a time when they were almost her sole support and, later for speaking to her husband. She may have picked up some Spanish from those around her mother, overhearing the conversations of Katherine with people like her confessor and her ladies-in-waiting, but the numbers of those who had, long ago, accompanied Katherine from Spain were dwindling, and the queen did not regularly use her native tongue anymore except with her priests. Mary could, though, read Spanish; in the 1530s, when their worlds changed so dramatically and Katherine needed to be very careful in her letters to her daughter, she wrote to Mary in Spanish. The princess, however, does not seem to have spoken it well, and she did not used it in public.” (Linda Porter, Myth of Bloody Mary)
Mary was a daughter of the Renaissance just as her half-sister was a product of the Reformation. Like her, she tried a middle approach at the beginning of her reign when she issued a proclamation on the 8th of August 1553, in which she stated that everyone was free to practice as they wished, so long as they did it in private. Wyatt’s rebellion however convinced her that was no longer possible. After the executions of Jane Grey and her husband, Guildford Dudley, and her father, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk and Marquis of Dorset, and her marriage to Philip of Spain (then Prince of Asturias, King of Sicily and Naples), she doubled down on the Protestants.
While the Protestant faction continued to call others to war, Mary I remained invested in re-funding and founding universities that would once again promote the liberal arts and other forms of Humanist thinking.
Linda Porter and Anna Whitelock have written outstanding biographies on her where they deconstruct the many myths surrounding this controversial figure. Anna Whitelock highlights the challenges she faced being the first female ruler of a country who was still unready for a female monarch given that they believed it would end in anarchy. The events of Matilda vs Stephen and the wars of the roses were still fresh on their minds.
Mary ordered the old Humanist curriculum to be reinstated in the universities and like her maternal grandmother, she sought to root out of corruption from the Catholic Church. Using some of the language found in the book of common prayer, she encouraged several Catholic leaders to write religious texts in the hopes that this would make England a Catholic kingdom again. This started with a proclamation she issued in March of 1554, where her stance towards uneducated and incompetent church officials became clear:
“… to deprive or declare derived, and remove according to their learning and discretion, all such persons from their benefices or ecclesiastical promotions, who contrary to the … laudable custom of the church, have married and used women as their wives.”
Edward VI’s previous statutes had caused division between all academic circles, Mary intended to remedy this by issuing new ordinances and supporting the institutions financially. The dean of Oxford thanked for the endowments she made on this and other institutions of higher learning, as well as founding several under her husband’s name.
Mary’s policies made some of religious officials uneasy. She wanted to be another Isabella, who although despising her unofficial position as head of the Anglican church, meant to have complete control over the church by reforming it from within and appointing leaders who were like-minded as her. Mary might have also seen this as a good strategy against the growing number of Reformists in England. While some Reformists had supported and England still had a large population of Catholics; Protestantism wasn’t going to go away easily. She figured the best way to combat an idea was by giving the people a better idea.
Mary’s interest in education didn’t distract her from her usual pastimes which included gambling, various forms of music, poetry, and art. Humanism played man at the center of everything, and besides higher learning, it was often tied with art, music, and poetry. And being true to this creed, Mary’s court was filled with music, dancing, art, and just about everything that Mary was used to.
Today, some of her accomplishments remain overshadowed by the violent aspects of her reign in her final years, and the sorrow she faced following Philip’s departure, and finding out she wasn’t pregnant but was yet again the victim of another phantom pregnancy. Mary I died on November 1558 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the Lady Chapel the following month. It didn’t take long for her accomplishments and policies to be forgotten and attributed to her sister. Besides Whitelock and Porter, other historians and biographers have done their part in rehabilitate her by separating fact from fiction, destroying the myth of Bloody Mary, while still being critical of her.
- Lisle, Leanda. Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder. The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public. 2013.
- Duffy, Eamon. Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor. Yale. 2009.
- Loades, David. Mary Tudor. Amberly. 2011.
- Whitelock, Anna. Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen. Random House. 2010.
- Erickson, Carolly. Bloody Mary: The Life of Mary Tudor. Robson Books. 2001.
- Edwards, John. Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen. Yale. 2011.
- Porter, Linda. The Myth of Bloody Mary. St. Martin Press. 2008.