The first woman to rule England in her own right didn’t simply inherit the throne. She seized it with unprecedented ambition from those who sought to thwart her.
Historian Sarah Gristwood describes the ascension of Mary I as a “staggeringly bold” course of action undertaken with little chance of success. Still, she rode into London on August 3, 1553, to widespread acclaim. In the words of one contemporary chronicler, “It was said that no one could remember there ever having been public rejoicing such as this.”
Centuries later, however, the Tudor queen is remembered as one of the most reviled figures in English history: “Bloody Mary.” This is a story of how a heroic underdog became a monarch who was then mythologized as a violent despot—despite being no bloodier than her father, Henry VIII, or other English monarchs. It’s a tale of sexism, shifting national identity and good old-fashioned propaganda, all of which coalesced to create the image of an unchecked tyrant that endures today.
Born on February 18, 1516, Mary was not the long-awaited son her parents, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, had hoped for. But she survived infancy and grew up in the public eye as a beloved princess—at least until her teenage years, when her father’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn led him to divorce her mother and break with the Catholic Church. Declared illegitimate, downgraded from the title of “princess” to “lady,” and separated from her mother, Mary refused to acknowledge the validity of her parents’ divorce or her father’s status as head of the Church of England. It was only in 1536, after Anne’s execution and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour, that Mary finally agreed to her mercurial father’s terms.
Welcomed back to court, she survived Henry—and three more stepmothers—only to see her younger half-brother, Edward VI, take the throne as a Protestant reformer, adopting a stance anathema to her fervent Catholicism. When Edward died six years later, he attempted to subvert his father’s wishes by leaving the crown to Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey, excluding those next in line—Mary and her younger half-sister, Elizabeth—from the succession. Though Mary could have sought refuge with family members in Europe, she chose to remain in England and fight for what was rightfully hers. Eluding the armies of her antagonists, she rallied support from nobles across the country and marched on London. Mary and Elizabeth rode into England’s capital side-by-side, one as a queen and the other as a queen-in-waiting.
During her five-year reign, Mary navigated the manifold challenges associated with her status as the first English queen to wear the crown in her own right, rather than as the wife of a king. She prioritized religion above all else, implementing reforms and restrictions aimed at restoring the Catholic Church’s ascendancy in England. Most controversially, she ordered 280 Protestants burned at the stake as heretics—a fact that would later cement her reputation as “Bloody Mary.”
The queen also set precedents and laid the groundwork for initiatives—among others, financial reform, exploration and naval expansion—that would be built upon by her much-lauded successor, Elizabeth I. Mary failed, however, to fulfill arguably the most important duty of any monarch: producing an heir. When she died at age 42 in 1558 of an ailment identified alternatively as uterine cancer, ovarian cysts or influenza, Elizabeth claimed the throne.
Prior to England’s break from Rome in 1534, Catholicism had dominated the realm for centuries. Henry VIII’s decision to form the Church of England proved predictably contentious, as evidenced by the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace uprising, which found some 30,000 northerners taking up arms in protest of the dissolution of the monasteries, banning of feasts and holy days, and bloody treatment of clergy who refused to accept the new order. Under Henry’s son, the English Reformation reached new extremes, with legislation ending the practice of Latin Mass, allowing priests to marry, and discouraging the veneration of relics and religious artifacts.
According to Linda Porter, author of The Myth of “Bloody Mary," Edward VI “moved much faster and much further than the majority of the population wanted, … remov[ing] a great deal that was familiar and depriv[ing] the congregation of what many of them saw as the mystery and beauty of the experience of worship.” Protestantism, she says, was the “religion of an educated minority,” not a universally adopted doctrine. At its core, Porter and other historians have suggested, England was still a fundamentally Catholic country when Mary took the throne.
Herself still a Catholic, Mary’s initial attempts to restore the old Church were measured, but as historian Alison Weir writes in The Children of Henry VIII, grew more controversial following her marriage to Philip of Spain, at which point they were “associated in the public mind with Spanish influence.” During the first year of her reign, many prominent Protestants fled abroad, but those who stayed behind—and persisted in publicly proclaiming their beliefs—became targets of heresy laws that carried a brutal punishment: burning at the stake.
Such a death was an undoubtedly horrific sentence. But in Tudor England, bloody punishments were the norm, with execution methods ranging from beheading to boiling; burning at the stake; and being hung, drawn and quartered. Says Porter, “They lived in a brutal age, … and it took a lot to revolt your average 16th-century citizen.”
During the early modern period, Catholics and Protestants alike believed heresy warranted the heavy sentence it carried. Mary’s most famous victim, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was preparing to enact similar policies targeting Catholics before being sidelined by Edward VI’s death. According to Gristwood’s Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe, “That obdurate heretics, who refused to recant, should die was an all but universal tenet.”
To the 16th-century mind, heresy was a contagion that threatened not just the church, but the stability of society as a whole. Heretics were also deemed guilty of treason, as questioning a monarch’s established religious policies was tantamount to rejecting their divinely ordained authority. The justification for one heretic’s death, writes Virginia Rounding in The Burning Time: Henry VIII, Bloody Mary and the Protestant Martyrs of London, was the “salvation of many innocent Christians, who might otherwise have been led astray.” Even the gruesome method of execution had an underlying purpose: Death at the stake gave recalcitrant heretics a taste of hellfire, offering them one final chance to recant and save their souls.
Mary and her advisors hoped the initial spate of burnings would act as a “short, sharp shock” warning errant Protestants to return to the fold of the “true” faith. In a January 1555 memorandum, the queen explained that executions should be “so used that the people might well perceive them not to be condemned without just occasion, whereby they shall both understand the truth and beware to do the like.” But Mary had grossly underestimated Protestants’ tenacity—and their willingness to die for the cause.
“In mid-16th-century Europe,” writes Porter, “the idea of respecting another person’s beliefs would have provoked incredulity. Such certainties bred oppressors and those who were willing to be sacrificed.”
All that said, inextricable from Mary’s legacy are the 280 Protestants she consigned to the flames. These executions—the main reason for her unfortunate nickname—are cited as justification for labeling her one of the most evil humans of all time and even depicting her as a “flesh-eating zombie.” They are where we get the image of a monarch whose “raging madness” and “open tyranny,” as described by 16th-century writer Bartholomew Traheron, led her to “swimmeth in the holy blood of most innocent, virtuous, and excellent personages.”
Consider, however, the following: Even though Henry VIII, Mary’s father, only had 81 people burned at the stake over the course of his 38-year reign, heresy was far from the sole charge that warranted execution in Tudor England. Estimates suggest Henry ordered the deaths of as many as 57,000 to 72,000 of his subjects—including two of his wives—though it’s worth noting these figures are probably exaggerated. Edward VI had two radical Protestant Anabaptists burned at the stake during his six-year reign; in 1549, he sanctioned the suppression of the Prayer Book Rebellion, resulting in the deaths of up to 5,500 Catholics. Mary’s successor, Elizabeth I, burned five Anabaptists at the stake during her 45-year reign; ordered the executions of around 800 Catholic rebels implicated in the Northern earls’ revolt of 1569; and had at least 183 Catholics, the majority of whom were Jesuit missionaries, hung, drawn and quartered as traitors.
If numbers are the main reasoning behind such sobriquets as “Bloody Mary,” then why aren’t Mary’s family members dubbed “Bloody Henry,” “Bloody Edward” and “Bloody Bess”? Why has the myth of “Bloody Mary” persisted in Great Britain’s collective imagination for so long? And what did Mary do that was so different from not only other Tudor monarchs, but kings and queens across early modern Europe?
These questions are complex and predictably fraught. But several recurring themes persist. As England’s first queen regnant, Mary faced the same challenge experienced by female rulers across the continent—namely, her councillors’ and subjects’ lack of faith in women’s ability to govern, a dilemma best summarized by contemporary Mary of Hungary: “A woman is never feared or respected as a man is, whatever is his rank. … All she can do is shoulder the responsibility for the mistakes committed by others.
Historian Lucy Wooding says descriptions of Mary tend to have misogynistic undertones. “She’s simultaneously being lambasted for being vindictive and fierce” and “spineless and weak,” criticized for such actions as showing clemency to political prisoners and yielding authority to her husband, Philip II of Spain. Most experts agree that the Spanish marriage had an adverse effect on Mary’s reputation, painting her, however unfairly, as an infatuated, weak-willed woman who placed earthly love ahead of the welfare of her country.
While Mary’s gender played a pivotal role in the formation of her image—especially during her own lifetime, according to Porter—arguably the most important factor in the “Bloody Mary” moniker’s staying power was the rise of a national identity built on the rejection of Catholicism. A 1563 book by John Foxe known popularly as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs played a pivotal role in the creation of this Protestant identity, detailing the torments suffered by men and women burned at the stake under Mary through word-of-mouth accounts and visceral woodcut illustrations. (The accuracy of Foxe’s manuscript remains a point of contention among historians.) The book was enormously popular during the Elizabethan era, with copies even placed in local churches alongside the Bible.
“Foxe’s account would shape the popular narrative of Mary’s reign for the next 450 years,” writes Anna Whitelock in her biography of the Tudor queen. “Generations of schoolchildren would grow up knowing the first queen of England only as ‘Bloody Mary,’ a Catholic tyrant.”
Porter argues that Mary’s burnings might have become a “mere footnote to history” if not for the intervention of John Foxe; historian O.T. Hargrave, meanwhile, describes the persecution as “unprecedented” and suggests it “succeeded only in alienating much of the country.” Either way, after taking the throne, Elizabeth took care not to replicate her sister’s religious policies. Writing in Mary Tudor, Judith Richards observes, “It may have helped protect Elizabeth’s reputation that many [executed] … were hanged as seditious traitors for seeking to restore Catholicism rather than burned as heretics.”
To put it bluntly, says Porter, “Mary burned Protestants, [and] Elizabeth disemboweled Catholics. It’s not pretty either way.”
The myth of “Bloody Mary” is one mired in misconception. England’s first queen regnant was not a vindictive, violent woman, nor a pathetic, lovestruck wife who would have been better off as a nun. She was stubborn, inflexible and undoubtedly flawed, but she was also the product of her time, as incomprehensible to modern minds as our world would be to hers. She paved the way for her sister’s reign, setting precedents Elizabeth never acknowledged stemmed from her predecessor, and accomplished much in such arenas as fiscal policy, religious education and the arts.
If she had lived longer, says Gristwood, Mary might have been able to institute the religious reforms she so strongly believed in, from a renewed emphasis on preaching, education and charity to a full reunion with Rome. But because Mary died just five years after her accession, Elizabeth inherited the throne and set England on a Protestant path. Over the centuries, most significantly in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Protestantism became a core component of British identity.
Mary’s reputation, says Wooding, was “very painstakingly constructed after her death [and] had extraordinary longevity because of the fundamental place that Protestant identity came to take in British identity.” Her enduring unpopularity, then, reflects a failure to properly contextualize her reign: Writes historian Thomas S. Freeman, “Mary has continually been judged by the standards of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and not surprisingly, has been found wanting.”
For all her faults, and regardless of whether one falls into the competing camps of rehabilitation or vilification, Mary—the first to prove women could rule England with the same authority as men—holds a singular place in British history.
“She was an intelligent, politically adept, and resolute monarch who proved to be very much her own woman,” argues Whitelock. “Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.”
As the Bishop of Winchester observed during Mary’s December 1558 funeral sermon, “She was a King’s daughter, she was a King’s sister, she was a King’s wife. She was a Queen, and by the same title a King also.”
Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's assistant digital editor
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