Time to Reassess and Value Mary Tudor, England’s First Queen Regnant

___________________________________________________________

Lady Mary Tudor
Lady Mary Tudor

___________________________________________________________

Days before her coronation, Mary called together her council for an impromptu and improvised ceremony. Kneeling before them, Mary spoke of how she came to the throne and what she considered to be her duties as queen. It was her solemn intention to carry out the task God had given her to His greater glory and service and to the public’s good so that all her subjects benefit. Mary entrusted ‘her affairs and person’ to her council, urging them to be faithful to the oaths they had sworn to — and to be loyal to her as their queen. Mary remained on her knees throughout. So ‘deeply moved’ were her councilors that ‘not a single one refrained from tears’. No one knew how to answer, amazed as they all were by this humble and lowly sight — nothing ever before seen in England. It was astonishing and extraordinary times, as a woman was to wear England’s crown.

When Mary ascended to the throne of England in 1553, she was the “not so young” age of 37. She was small, slightly built, with large bright eyes, a round face, reddish hair, and a love of fine clothes. Mary cut a striking figure, though she was wearied with ill health and misfortune. Mary suffered bouts of illness, heart palpitations and headaches, was exceedingly short-sighted and prone to melancholy. Throughout her adult life, Mary knew neither security nor happiness, but nonetheless, she was regarded as ‘great-hearted, proud and magnanimous’. She had secured the throne against all odds, a victory described as ‘more of Herculean then womanly daring’.

Queen Katherine of Aragon
Queen Katherine of Aragon

Mary’s life up until this was an extraordinary roller coaster, like that usually confined to a character in either a soap opera or fairy tale — a princess born to loving parents. Feted and adored, she was the jewel in their eyes. Mary had her own court, received a great education, and endless marriage betrothals. Then, when her father decided his marriage to her mother, Queen Catherine of Aragon, was unlawful, he tried to annul the marriage, declare his daughter a bastard, and marry a new and prettier women. Banished from ever seeing her mother again, Mary was stripped of her household, declared a bastard, and forced to wait upon her half-sister. Then, when her stepmother  Anne Boleyn was executed on trumped up charges, a new stepmother arrived. It looked like all would be well.

Unfortunately, this was no fairy tale. This was reality. The tragic story of Mary Tudor, the first woman to ever be crowned Queen Regnant of England, was not to get better, but instead worse, much worse. Bullied by her father and his councilors, threatened by the later into acknowledging herself a bastard and her parents’ marriage unlawful- the mother which she had stuck by all this time, it is no wonder Mary was as damaged as she became. She never forgave herself for submitting to these terms and accepting her father as Head of the Supreme Church of England – going against her faith. Mary became more determined than ever to right the wrongs that she believed she had committed. Her new stepmother, Jane Seymour, died after giving birth to a long-awaited son, leaving Mary heartbroken. Mary was like a mother to her much younger half-siblings, even interceding on her half-sister Elizabeth’s behalf after her mother’s execution. Elizabeth like Mary was declared a bastard and ignored by their father.

Three more stepmothers came and went, one marriage annulled, one ending in execution, and the last ending with the death of her father, when Mary was nearly 31. Each woman either brought kindness or hostility. More marriage negotiations came and went. Beyond this, Mary had to live through the execution of her childhood governess and Godmother, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. By the time her father died, Mary and her half-sister were reinstated in the Act of Succession (though not legitimised). If their brother Edward died without heirs than Mary would inherit, and if she died without heirs, Elizabeth would inherit. It must have felt strange for Mary to be back in the succession again- though it was still considered unlikely that she would ever inherit the throne.

Prince Edward, later King Edward VI
Prince Edward, later King Edward VI

Her half-brother King Edward VI ascended the throne aged 9, and a regency ruled in his name. He was however, a bright boy. Where Mary was a staunch Catholic, Edward was a staunch Protestant. His regency council was largely dominated by Protestants. In 1549, the Act of Uniformity was passed, prescribing Protestant rites for Church services, such as the use of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer’s new Book of Common Prayer. Mary defied this act, celebrating the traditional mass in the chapel on her own estates, much to the young king’s fury. Many arguments took place between Mary and the king, with Mary unwisely telling him that he was not old enough to be making decisions. She believed he was governed by his councilors, some of whom where her enemies.

Things got worse for Mary after Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour (brother of Jane), Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, fell from favour and was executed in 1552. Although they disagreed on religion, Mary got on relatively well with Somerset. It was to be a different case with the new leader of the council, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Dudley put pressure on Mary to stop the misuse of her privilege of celebrating the Eucharist, as she allowed her entire household and flocks of visitors to attend. Once again Mary refused. After a disastrous meeting with the king and council, some members of her household where arrested. Mary began to consider fleeing the country, but after a threat of war from her cousin King Charles V came, a silent compromise was grudgingly reached.

DUDLEY’S COUP

King Edward VI fell ill in early 1553. Within months it became clear he would not live much longer. According to their father’s Act of Succession, Mary was next in line to inherit the throne – which would reverse the English Reformation. Edward composed a draft document entitled “my devise for the succession” passing over both his sisters, due to their illegitimacy, and settling the Crown upon his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey – who coincidentally around this time married Northumberland’s son Guildford Dudley. Edward died on the 6th July, three months short of turning 16.

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland
John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

Mary was kept apprised of her brother’s health. Aware of his imminent death, Mary left her residence Hunsdon House, near London, and sped to Kenninghall in Norfolk. Meanwhile, Northumberland delayed news of the king’s death so he could gather his forces. Jane Dudley was taken to the Tower to secure the ancient fortress. The Armoury, Treasury and the Great Seal where all under the control of Northumberland. Even Ambassadors sent by Mary’s cousin the Emperor where pessimistic about her safety, believing her chances ‘well-nigh impossible’. Troops were stationed everywhere to prevent people rising in arms or causing any disorder. Ships where dispatched to the Norfolk coast to prevent her escape, and Northumberland led an army of over six thousand men to capture Mary. Things looked very bleak.

Undaunted, Mary was determined to claim what was hers by right.

MARY FIGHTS BACK

History is so often judged backwards – and with Mary, it is often forgotten how she was prepared to go to battle for her Crown. It is also all too often forgotten — or rather popularly ignored — that the public was on Mary’s side. When Jane Dudley was publicly proclaimed queen, hardly anyone cried “Long Live the Queen!!”, except the herald who proclaimed it — and a few others who followed along with him. One young man, Gilbert Potter, shouted out that Mary was the rightful queen and was subsequently taken to Cheapside where his ears where nailed to the pillory and then cut off.

Meanwhile, the East Anglian gentry and commoners rallied to Mary’s side. The Earl of Sussex brought her money, provisions and armed men, which greatly expanded her meagre forces. The arrival of Southwell, a knight and wealthiest of his rank in Norfolk, did much to raise the morale of Mary and her supporters. On the 12th July, with her forces growing, Mary moved southeast to Framlingham Castle, one of her principal houses. Framlingham was far larger than Kenninghall. It was the strongest castle in the area, the ideal place to defend against or indeed engage against an enemy. Here Mary’s standard was displayed over the gate tower. Once again she sent a desperate plea to her cousin the Emperor for help, but once again he sent nothing — believing her chances to be to slim.

Over the next few days, more and more people began to declare for Mary – even if they had previously declared for Jane. For example, Sir Thomas Cornwallis, Sheriff of Nottingham, seeing where the people’s sympathies lay and the great outcry against Northumberland, was quick to change sides. The town authorities in Norwich, who had first refused to open the gates for Mary’s messengers, not only proclaimed her Queen, they also sent men and arms. The ships sent to capture Mary had been forced into safety at Orwell harbour due to bad weather. Here, the crew mutinied against their officers for disowning Mary and put themselves under her ardent supporter Henry Jerningham. Many more nobles and gentry flocked to her side with cohorts of horsemen, foot soldiers and knights.

Farmlingham Castle
Farmlingham Castle

With Northumberland getting closer to Mary, she stayed determined and resolute. She summoned her household council, ordered her field commanders to prepare for battle, then issued a proclamation asserting her authority to make clear her defiance. With Mary’s army mustered, she condemned Northumberland, stating that he ‘most traitorously by long-continued treason sought and seeketh, the destruction of her royal person, the nobility and common weal of this realm’. On the 20th, Mary rode from the castle to review her troops, where they threw their helmets high in the air to shouts of “Long Live Queen Mary!” and “Death to the Traitors!”.

Without Northumberland to guide them, the council began to waver in support for Jane Dudley. With the ships’ crews of Yarmouth deserted and rumours that Sir Edmund Peckham, Treasurer of the Mint and Keeper of the King’s Privy Purse, had fled with the monies to Framlingham, their resolve crumbled. Now a proclamation was drawn up offering a reward for the arrest of Northumberland. The following days saw a dozen or so Privy Councillors break out of the Tower to Baynard’s Castle, home to the Earl of Pembroke, where the Earl of Arundel declared for Queen Mary. The streets of London where full of heralds announcing that Mary was queen. For two days the bells rang and banquets and bonfires where held in the streets. The Imperial Ambassador reported, “From a distance the earth must have looked like Mount Etna. The people are mad with joy, feasting and singing, and the streets crowded all night long. I am unable to describe to you, nor would you believe, the exultation of all men. I will only tell you that not a soul imagined the possibility of such a thing”.

Upon hearing the news, Northumberland, then at Cambridge, was forced to admit defeat and threw his cap in the air, acknowledging Mary as queen. He had failed, and that evening, the Earl of Arundel arrived to arrest him in the queen’s name.

___________________________________________________________

Queen Mary, Regina
Queen Mary, Regina

___________________________________________________________

MARYE THE QUENE

Having put a stop to the plot by Northumberland, Mary could now finally celebrate. Both the Emperor and the French king looked to ingratiate themselves with the new Queen of England. The French, having previously conspired with Northumberland, were now forced to declare their belief in Mary’s legitimacy and deny their part in the coup. Many believed France was set to invade England to support Northumberland. As Noailles, the French Ambassador reported, ‘You could not believe the foul and filthy words which the nation cries out everyday against our own’. The French king feared that England would join with the Emperor against France.

Only Northumberland was executed for his role in the plot. Lady Jane and her husband where found guilty, but spared. At first Mary assured her subjects she would not compel them to follow her religion. By 1555 however, the infamous burnings of which Mary is so well known for had begun. During her reign, over 280 burnings or executions of religious dissenters ensued, including the burnings of Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and Laurence Saunders. It is all too easy for us to judge with modern eyes, as we do so often, the horror of these burnings. But in those days Mary and her councillors did what they thought was right. Those that where burned in Mary’s reign were really no different to other reigns. In fact, by contemporary Continental standards it was mild. It has to be remembered that in the eyes of the government Protestantism had, with justification, become synonymous with sedition, treason and open rebellion.

A MOTHER TO HER PEOPLE

king-philip-ii

When Mary decided to marry her first cousin once removed, Philip of Spain, rebellion broke out. People feared being ruled by Spain, with Philip being the sole ruler. (It must be remembered that a queen would submit rule to the king in those days.) Mary, however, had no intention of turning the country over to Philip. Mary did not immediately plan to marry him and did not always follow his advice unless at times it agreed with her own. At the end of her life, the Spanish where known to grumble that their king had poured money into England and received little in return. A rebellion against the marriage led by Thomas Wyatt and Lady Jane Grey’s father Henry Grey broke out. With the people divided and the mood unstable, Mary managed to sway her subjects in her favour by giving a rousing speech at the Guildhall.

‘I am your Queen, to whom at my coronation, when I was wedded to the realm and laws of the same (the spousal ring whereof I have on my finger, which never hitherto was, not hereafter shall be, left off), you promised your allegiance and obedience to me…. And I say to you, on the word of a Prince, I cannot tell how naturally the mother loveth the child, for I was never the mother of any; but certainly, if a Prince and Governor may as naturally and earnestly love her subjects as the mother doth love the child, then assure yourselves that I, being your lady and mistress, do as earnestly and tenderly love and favour you. And I, thus loving you, cannot but think that ye as heartily and faithfully love me; and then I doubt not but we shall give these rebels a short and speedy overthrow’.

Once again Mary had swung the tide in her favour. The rebellion was crushed. Wyatt and Henry Grey were executed – as was Lady Jane and her husband, something which Mary tried to avoid even up until Jane went to the block.

Mary married Philip on 25th July 1554 at Winchester Cathedral. Under the terms of Queen Mary’s Marriage Act, Philip was styled “King of England”. All official documents (including Acts of Parliament) were to be dated with both their names, and Parliament was to be called under the joint authority of the couple for Mary’s lifetime only. Emperor Charles V ceded the crown of Naples, as well as his claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, to Philip. Therefore, Mary became Queen of Naples and titular Queen of Jerusalem upon marriage.

Sadly the marriage was not to be a happy one. Philip spent just over a year in England — in which time Mary experienced a humiliating phantom pregnancy. She may have actually been pregnant at some point, but miscarried or the child, which ultimately was not properly expelled. Whatever the case, it became quite clear that the queen was not going to give birth since it was now nearly a year after she was first reported to be with child.

MARY’S POLICIES

Religion

Pope Julius III
Pope Julius III

Mary always rejected the break with Rome instituted by her father and the establishment of Protestantism by her brother’s regents. Philip persuaded Parliament to repeal Henry’s religious laws, thus returning the English Church to Roman jurisdiction. Reaching an agreement took many months. Mary and Pope Julius III had to make a major concession. The monastery lands confiscated under Henry were not returned to the church, but remained in the hands of their influential new owners. By the end of 1554, the Pope approved the deal, and the Heresy Acts were revived.

Foreign Policy

Furthering the Tudor conquest of Ireland, under Mary’s reign English colonists were settled in the Irish Midlands to reduce the attacks on the Pale (the area around Dublin controlled by the English). Queen’s and King’s Counties (now Counties Laois and Offaly) were founded, and their plantation began. Their principal towns were respectively named Maryborough (now Portlaoise) and Philipstown (now Daingean).

Philip returned to England from March to July 1557 to persuade Mary to support Spain in a renewed war against France. Mary was in favour of declaring war, but her councilors opposed it because French trade would be jeopardised. It would also contravene the marriage treaty, and leave a bad economic legacy from Edward VI’s reign. A series of poor harvests meant England lacked supplies and finances. War was only declared in June 1557 after Reginald Pole’s nephew, Thomas Stafford, invaded England and seized Scarborough Castle with French help in a failed attempt to depose Mary.

King Henry II of France
King Henry II of France

As a result of the war, relations between England and the Papacy became strained, since Pope Paul IV was allied with Henry II of France. In January 1558, French forces took Calais, England’s sole remaining possession on the European mainland. Although the territory was financially burdensome, it was an ideological loss that damaged Mary’s prestige. According to Holinshed’s Chronicles, Mary later lamented, “When I am dead and opened, you shall find ‘Calais’ lying in my heart”. This commentary, however, may be apocryphal.

Commerce and Revenue

In an attempt to increase trade and rescue the English economy, Mary’s counselors continued Northumberland’s policy of seeking out new commercial opportunities. She granted a royal charter to the Muscovy Company, whose first governor was Sebastian Cabot, and commissioned a world atlas from Diogo Homem. Adventurers like John Lok and William Towerson sailed south in an attempt to develop links with the coast of Africa. English coinage was debased under both Henry VIII and Edward VI. Mary drafted plans for currency reform, but they were not implemented until after her death.

SUMMARY

Before Mary, only two women since the Norman conquest of 1066 had come close to wearing the Crown. Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I, battled for years against her cousin Stephen for the Crown of England in a period known as ‘The Anarchy’. When she came close to receiving it, the Londoners revolted against her arrogant attitude and refusal to lower taxes. The other woman of course was the teenage Lady Jane Dudley, an innocent victim, drawn into Northumberland’s ambitions.

Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer

Mary had no mandate to follow. She was the first ever woman to be ‘officially’ crowned Queen of England, setting the path for her sister Elizabeth I and all future queens. Mary has all to often been unfairly dismissed as a ‘weak ruler’, ‘failure’, ‘tyrant’, also labeled by popular legend “Bloody Mary”. In fact, Mary’s reign was not the bloody terror of popular myth. Naturally, the burnings for our modern eyes seem horrific. In fact, when you look at what else was going on over the channel on the continent at the time, such as The Inquisition, the burnings were tame in comparison. More were executed in the Cornish rebellion during her brother’s reign. Her father and her sister executed far more people in their reigns.

Coat of Arms: Philip and Mary
Coat of Arms: Philip and Mary

When we really examine Mary’s reign, we don’t get the ‘weak ruler’, but a woman who, when times where bad, stood by her beliefs. At the age of 37, with ill health, she prepared to fight for her Crown and country. When her subjects where unsure of her marriage choice, Mary spoke to them as a mother would to her children, assuring them of her love and protection. It’s easy to judge history backwards by focusing on the war with France, the loss of Calais and England’s plunge into debt, but this was at the end of her reign. Mary hoped her marriage and returning the Church to Catholicism would be to England’s benefit. Her life was one of tragedy, triumph, insecurities, turbulence and at times- terror.

It is time we reassessed the way Queen Mary I of England is viewed, and it is time we gave Mary more of the credit she deserves. That is why next year, in 2016, the 500th anniversary of her birth, it is time England’s first ever Queen Regnant is honoured properly.

Trivia Fun

After her marriage, Mary Tudor was styled as Queen of England, Spain, France, both the Sicily’s, Jerusalem, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Milan, Burgundy and Brabant, Countess of Habsburg, Flanders and Tyrol.

SOURCES:
David Loades, Mary Tudor A Life
Anna Whitelock: Mary Tudor, England’s First Queen

James Peacock

I run The Anne Boleyn Society, which I set up in 2014. Over the years the society has grown tremendously and there are accounts on Facebook, Instagram (@society_anne) and Twitter (@Society_Anne). With over 20,000 followers, the society aims to debate and discuss the life and times of Queen Anne Boleyn while taking into account the period in which she lived in.

Leave a Reply