On the 17th of November 1558, Queen Mary I passed away at St. James Palace. She was forty two. Immediately, her coronation ring was taken to Elizabeth I who upon receiving quoted from one of the psalms declaring, quite coincidentally under an oak tree as one of her namesakes supposedly had been under when Edward IV found her, that “this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” Elizabeth was the new queen, she would go on to become the longest reigning monarch of the Tudor dynasty, and with her the reign of her sister would become less and less important and remembered only for the persecutions.
But before everyone is quick to judge, and the expense of being preachy, we must remember the times she lived in. Her actions should not –by any means- be condoned, but neither should the acts of her predecessors and successors be justified or overlooked because of their success. In her short reign, Mary managed to institute a new coinage, refounded universities, as well as instituted a curriculum that was inspired by the Humanist ideals she’d grown up with, and took a page from her brother’s book of common prayer where religious books were concerned. However, as more Protestants rose up against her, and condemned her for her religious inclination as well as her decision to marry a foreign (Catholic) Prince, her policies which once promised would respect everyone’s faith (as long they practiced it in “quiet charity”) became the opposite.
When the Lady Elizabeth had heard of her sister’s failing health by her sister’s servants and Count de Feria, she was very hostile towards them. Although she appreciated her sister making a codicil to her will acknowledging that she would respect her father’s will, guaranteeing Elizabeth’s place in history as England’s next Queen; she remarked to the Count that regardless of what her brother-in-law had done for her, she would not be in any way grateful to him since she had done nothing wrong. Many decades after her death, Jane Dormer would recall that meeting, claiming that she had also been sent there to deliver some of Mary’s jewels to her. Whether she did or did not, it is possible that Mary sought to reconcile herself with her sister. After all, when Mary had reclaimed the crown, she did so, stating that it wasn’t only her right but her sister’s as well.
Close to death, Mary asked to hear mass before midnight, then at night of the next morning she slipped away.
“So peaceful was her passing” Linda Porter writes “that those around her did not realize, at first, that she was gone.” Mary had endured a lot in her life, and she persevered. Yet, just as in life, she was never to know peace. Shortly after she died, the news was delivered to her friend and distant cousin, Reginald Pole who also lay dying. When he heard the news “though his spirit was great, the blow nevertheless having entered his flesh, brought on paroxysm earlier, and with more intense cold.”
“She like himself, “had been harassed during many years for one and the same cause, and afterwards, when it pleased God to raise her to the throne, he had greatly participated in all her other troubles entailed by that elevation.” Just twelve hours after Mary’s passing, he too died, unreconciled with and condemned by the pope.” (Whitelock)
Mary I and Reginald Pole tried something similar her maternal grandmother had done in Castile which was root out corruption in the Church, this as we can imagine probably wasn’t very popular with some clerics. But the pope’s discontent largely has to do with England’s religious landscape. England would never be a Catholic kingdom. Almost a decade later when their cousin, Margaret Douglas, conspired to have her eldest son married to the Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I’s men spread rumors that she tried to have Mary alter their father’s will so she would be name her heir in place of Elizabeth. In another effort to further slander her name, she was also accused as being the main culprit behind the sister’s rivalry.
“Within hours of Mary’s death, the preparation of her body began. Her heart and bowels were removed, her belly opened and filled with preservative herbs and spices.” (Whitelock)
She remained at St James for almost a month until her funeral in mid-December. Elizabeth spared no expense for the funeral. A beautiful eulogy was written for Mary titled ‘The Epitaph upon the death of our late virtuous Quene Marie deceased’ which read the following:
“How many noble men restored and other states also
Well showed her princely liberal heart,
which gave both friend and foe.
As princely was her birth, so princely was her life,
Constant, courtise, modest and mild;
a chaste and chosen wife.
Oh mirror of all womanhood!
Oh Queen of virtues pure! Oh constant Marie!
Filled with grace no age can thee obscure.”
This however was altered, as ordered by Elizabeth, to include the new Tudor Queen and create a starch contrast between the sisters, where Mary is praised but so is Elizabeth who it is implied will be a greater monarch than her predecessor.
“Marie now dead, Elizabeth lives,
our just and lawful Queen
In whom her sister’s virtues rare,
abundantly are seen.
Obey our Queen as we are bound,
pray God her to preserve
And send her grace lie long and fruit,
and subjects truth to serve.”
This wasn’t the only thing that was changed. John White, Bishop of Winchester delivered the funeral sermon praising Mary’s virtues, saying that “she was a king’s daughter, she was a King’s sister, she was King’s wife. She was a Queen and by the same title a King also” concluding with wishing Elizabeth a prosperous reign “in peace and tranquility if it be God’s will.” That last sentence sealed his fate and he was placed under house arrest.
Elizabeth I’s successor went a step further and ordered a great effigy for the Tudor Queen, and also ordered that two sisters be put together. Mary I’s tomb was once marked, and although it still is, only one of the two sisters is remembered in this great monument and that is Elizabeth.
Perhaps it is the romantic in all of us that wish that these two troubled sisters found peace in the afterlife, but given their loss and struggle, especially Mary’s whose reign is still obscured and seen through one lens, it is impossible that they ever will. History is written by the victors, they say and that couldn’t be truer. Mary’s achievement which were continued (albeit some of these improved) by her sister, are nearly forgotten.
- The Myth of Bloody Mary by Linda Porter
- Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock
- Mary Tudor by HFM Prescott
- Mary Tudor by David Loades
- Passion. Murder. Manipulation by Leanda de Lisle
- On this day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway.