Mary Tudor: The Origins
Out of any of the rulers opposed to the reformation in 16th century Europe, Mary Tudor may well be the most iconic. Many know her by her nickname, “Bloody Mary,” which usually conjures up images of flames, persecution and martyrs.
The details leading up to the time of “Bloody Mary” may be less well known, however. Who/what motivated Mary to carry out nearly 300 executions of Protestants, both leaders and layman? How did her role in the notorious Tudor dynasty shape her decisions both up to and during her 5-year reign? Truth Remains looks to answer these questions and more in a two part series on one of the biggest players in the English Reformation.
A Princess, a Lady
On February 18, 1516, Katherine of Aragon, queen of King Henry VIII of England, gave birth to Mary Tudor. Although the king and queen found themselves relieved that they produced their first child after multiple miscarriages and no children, Princess Mary was nonetheless a disappointment to her father. At some point, Henry would need to find a male heir to secure his bloodline and his dynasty.
While Henry weighed the viability of Katherine of Aragon as a wife as long as she kept failing to give birth to a son, Mary began to show signs of striking intelligence and skill. She learned to speak and write in Latin, French and Spanish (skills beneficial in 16th century diplomacy) and developed an avid interest in music, performing often for foreign visitors.
By 1527, Henry’s patience with Katherine had reached its end. Desiring a divorce that Pope Clement VII would not allow, Henry broke from the Roman Catholic Church, forming the Church of England. Six years later, a 17-year old Mary watched as Henry married Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, formally annulled the marriage of Henry and Katherine. Mary would never forgive Cranmer for this, something that became very relevant when the balance of power shifted later.
Such a turn of events left Mary devastated and isolated. She saw her title of “Princess Mary” replaced with “Lady Mary, the king’s daughter” when her half-sister, Elizabeth was born. In 1536, King Henry threatened 21-year old Mary with treason if she did not sign a document acknowledging the repudiation of her mother’s marriage (thereby acknowledging her illegitimacy) and the king as the supreme head of the church. With her life on the line, she begrudgingly signed the document.
From here on out, Mary would never bend, or weaken her will, again. She would never forgive herself for repudiating her mother; the guilt would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Mary was now alone in the world.
By 1536, Henry grew tired of Anne Boleyn’s inability to give him a male heir. To solve the problem, he executed Anne on trumped up charges of treason. A few months after the execution, the increasingly desperate Henry promptly married Jane Seymour, who finally provided Henry with the son he wanted: Edward VI. In this baby boy, the Tudor dynasty was finally secure.
A decade passed, and King Henry died. Making sure that his bloodline would not be fully cut off in the case of a premature death for his son, Henry devised the Third Act of Succession in his will, which returned both Mary and Elizabeth to the royal line of the succession behind Edward.
The rift between Mary and her much younger half-brother began to manifest itself during Edward’s reign. Under the passionately Protestant Edward, the Church of England – previously Catholic in all but name under King Henry – underwent an intense reformation. Largely orchestrated by archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, reformed doctrines like justification by faith alone became official, the denial of transubstantiation effectively destroyed the mass, and preaching largely replaced the traditions of the Catholic Church. With the shackles released, men like John Rogers, John Hooper and John Knox freely preached the gospel.
Mary fumed at her brother’s changes. Fiercely loyal to her mother’s Catholic faith, Mary stood her ground when Edward instructed her to stop celebrating the now illegal mass. As she began to feel more and more threatened, Mary debated leaving England for the European continent; instead, she elected to retreat to her semi-secluded residence at Hunsdon.
A pair of lungs grinded the English Reformation to a halt.
In 1553, at the age of 15, Edward contracted tuberculosis. The disease ravaged his body, and, in a few months, Edward knew his time was short. While on his deathbed, Edward, fearful of Mary reversing all of his Protestant reforms if she came to power, attempted to avoid the question altogether with what he called “his device for the succession.” In it, he reverses the Third Act of Succession, consequently putting his Protestant cousin, Jane Grey, on the throne.
It did not work – Jane Grey reigned as queen of England for a miniscule amount of nine days. Mary, with a large group of Catholic noblemen at her backing, defiantly marched into London, aware of her mission to save England from, in her eyes, the Protestant insurrection.
The reign of Bloody Mary had begun.
(Stay tuned for part two of this post.)