On July 19th, 1553, Mary Tudor triumphantly rode into London and reclaimed the crown of England. To her, it was destiny. She would be the one to take back the church for Rome, stamp out the heretics, and restore her country to the religious days of old. To ensure the long-term success of that, however, she would need an heir.
Securing the Marriage
Almost immediately after her ascension to the throne, Mary turned her attention to marriage. At 37, Mary wed the 26-year old Prince Phillip of Spain, a union largely orchestrated by Phillip’s father, Charles V.
The marriage was doomed from the start for a number of reasons. From a national perspective, the English people never felt comfortable with a Spaniard on the throne – rumors swirled of an impending Spanish invasion, whether by an actual army or Spanish friars replacing their English bishops. While the English never accepted Phillip as their king, Phillip hardly embraced the English, either. He barely spoke a word of their language, and with Mary never delegating any real political authority to him, he felt no obligation to invest his time and effort into the people.
Despite the awkwardness of the marriage, Mary believed she would be pregnant by the end of 1554. With the question of her marriage answered and the possibility of a child on the way, an emboldened Mary found herself free to carry out her divinely appointed task: Rid England of its heretical scourge.
Before John Rogers could become the first Protestant preacher to perish in Mary’s flames, a few key pieces needed to be moved into place.
In October 1553 Mary’s parliament re-instituted the Six Articles, which called for the reestablishment of clerical celibacy, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and confession, among other things. Any church leader who objected to these would be removed.
Over the next year, mass became the only legal form of worship and a special proclamation declared heretical books from Englishmen like Thomas Cranmer (specifically his “Book of Common Prayer”) to foreigners like John Calvin illegal. By the end of 1553, leading English reformers such as Cranmer, Rogers, Hugh Latimer, John Hooper, and John Bradford found themselves imprisoned.
While Mary never fully completed her intended reforms, the arrival of Cardinal Pole in November of 1554 brought her pretty close to them. In front of Mary and a host of others in Westminster hall, Pole formally restored England’s previously severed relationship with Rome. With this came the revival of the Heresy Acts, giving the legal green light to eliminate identified heretics.
John Rogers was the first to burn on February 4, 1555. A prominent pastor in London, Rogers quoted Psalm 51 as he walked past his congregation and spotted his wife and ten children. Having not received any updates on his family in over a year while in prison, he met his newborn child for the first and last time. With guards tying him to the stake, Rogers’ pardon was presented to him if he would just recant. He refused, and then went up in flames.
In all, 283 Protestants burned at the stake during the reign on Mary Tudor, both leaders and laymen. The number may have been higher, if not for the Queen’s swift and tragic demise.
In April of 1555, all of England anticipated the arrival of the Queen’s child. The only question seemed to be whether or not the baby would be a boy or girl. They never got their answer.
Failing to give birth to a child, Mary sank into a pool of despair. She reasoned that God would not allow her to have a child until she freed England of heretics – persecution intensified.
More events drove Mary into agony. Phillip, considering his wife a failure and being tired of England, left to assume leadership of the Spanish territory of the Netherlands. After this, Mary slept roughly 3 hours a night.
Believing a conspiracy to be lurking around every corner, Mary’s health began to drastically fail. She stopped appearing in public.
Slowly slipping away, Mary made sure that Thomas Cranmer would get his due. Still extremely bitter over the former archbishop of Canterbury making the case for the annulment of her parents’ marriage, Mary had him burned even after he recanted (Cranmer retracted his recantation before he died).
For Mary, the end was at hand. Phillip briefly returned to England, and a few months later, the queen had once again convinced herself she was pregnant; and, once again, it came to be nothing. The false signs of her birth may have been symptoms of the disease that would take her life a few months later.
Mary Tudor died on November 17, 1558, aged 42. Her younger half-sister, Elizabeth, succeeded her, bringing back many of Edward’s Protestant reforms and leading England through one of its golden ages.
History largely remembers “Bloody Mary” solely for her persecution of men and women who stood up for Biblical truth. But, that description does not fully describe Mary Tudor. While her rough early years do not by any means justify her later actions, they at the very least help partially explain her cruelty. Even as a Reformation “villain,” her full story deserves to be told.