Queen Mary I of England, or Bloody Mary, was a short-lived English Queen from 1553 to 1558 (and lived from 1516 to 1558). As daughter of King Henry VIII and sister of Elizabeth I, she is often overlooked – or seen as a failure. More intriguingly, in contrast to her father and sister, she was not Protestant but Catholic. Here, Casey Titus tells us about this Tudor Monarch.

See past Tudor history writing from Casey on King Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI (here), and the person who could have been king instead of Henry VIII (here).

Mary I as painted by Master John in the 1540s.

Mary I as painted by Master John in the 1540s.

Mary I of England was the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. After an early life marked by religious and personal strife at the hands of her father, Mary inherited the English throne upon the death of her half-brother Edward VI in 1553. She married Phillip II of Spain in July 1554, with the hopes of forging an alliance with her Spanish family and producing a Catholic heir. When the latter failed and by the time Queen Mary I of England died in late 1558, history forever lamented her “Bloody Mary,” for her ferocious persecution of English Protestants and attempt to reverse her father’s Reformation which was promptly completed by her Protestant successor and half-sister, the more renowned Queen Elizabeth I of England, or Gloriana, during her unforgettable forty-five year reign.

The Tudor dynasty lasted from 1485 to 1603 and played an extraordinary role in turning England from a feuding European backwater still engrossed in the Medieval Ages into a powerful Renaissance nation that would dominate much of the world and lead to the formation of even stronger nations and revolutionary philosophies. Yet, typically only three monarchs are given credit for this: Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I. In between the transition of power from Henry VIII to his second daughter, Elizabeth I, Mary I is dismissed despite her direct relation to two of the most influential and powerful nations at the time: Spain and England. Was her ‘bloody’ reign as unfruitful as historians claim?


Early Years

For the first half of King Henry VIII’s reign, Mary was revered as the rightful heir to the English throne. She was ensured an outstanding education by her mother and referred to “his pearl in the world,” by her father. Several marriages were negotiated for little Mary, including the infant son of King Francis I of France and her 22-year old first cousin, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. By the time Mary reached adolescence, she had reportedly developed as a pretty and well-proportioned lady with a fine complexion that resembled both of her fine-looking parents. 

Out of Catherine’s seven pregnancies, only Mary survived beyond infancy. Because of her mother’s failure to produce a living male heir, Henry VIII had fallen passionately in love with Anne Boleyn and sought a divorce from Catherine on the grounds of her previous marriage to his late brother, Arthur, which Henry interpreted as violating a biblical verse (Leviticus 18:16) and was therefore, cursed in the sight of God. The evidence was their lack of male heirs, he insisted. Catherine stood her ground by asserting that her marriage to her brother was not consummated and hence was annulled by a previous pope, Julius II. Her firm resolution to not only keep her position and title as Queen of England but refuse to acknowledge her marriage as void which would render her daughter both illegitimate and unable to inherit the throne suggests that Catherine believed her daughter to be capable of ruling in her own right. This perspective can be further supported by the example of her celebrated mother, Queen Isabella I of Castile who also ruled in her own right and both united and centralized Spain as we know it today. In contrast, Henry’s mother never exercised much political influence as queen, and her husband had no intention of sharing power with her.


Mary’s Problems in the 1530s

Henry’s efforts to divorce Catherine, known as the “King’s Great Matter,” complicated Mary’s life and future. From 1531 onward, Mary fell ill with irregular menstruation and depression, possibly caused by the stress of her parents’ situation or a sign of a deep-seated disease that would affect her later life. She was forbidden from seeing her mother, allowed only one brief visit in five years. After breaking from the Church of Rome, Henry finally married his pregnant mistress, Anne Boleyn, in 1533. That same year in September, with the disappointing birth of a girl they named Elizabeth, Mary was formally stripped of her title of Princess and demoted to “Lady Mary,” and on Anne’s persuasion, was placed in her half-sister’s household as a servant to the baby Elizabeth. Mary would not see her father for two and a half years, having been banished from court as well.  

Despite her banished mother’s worsening health, Henry still forbade Mary from visiting her. Catherine of Aragon died on January 7th, 1536 at the age of 50, most likely of cancer. Mary, described as “inconsolable” at the news of her mother’s death was still forbidden from attending her funeral by her father. Mary saw no future for her in England at this point and wrote to her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V, begging him to help her flee to Spain. Only four months later, Anne Boleyn was imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges (most likely trumped up) of treason, adultery, and even incest with her own brother. She was beheaded on Henry’s orders on May 19, 1536. 

Even with her mother’s usurper out of the picture, Henry would not reconcile with his daughter until she recognized him as Supreme Head of the Church of England, renounced papal authority, and both acknowledge the unlawful marriage of her parents and her own illegitimacy. At first resisting as far as “God and [my] conscious” permitted, she was frightened into signing a document by Henry that met all of his demands on the probable penalty of a traitor’s death if she refused. The reward of signing that hated document was a decade of peace. Her place at court, household, and estates were restored and King Henry VIII had finally sired a baby boy through his third wife, the sympathetic and meek Jane Seymour.


A new King… and Queen

In 1544, Henry returned Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession through the Third Succession Act behind their half-brother, Edward VI. When Henry died in January 1547, the nine-year old Edward succeeded him. While Mary remained away from court and faithful to Roman Catholicism, her equally committed Protestant brother intensified the Protestant Reformation in England and pressured Mary to comply and convert. A plan was even formulated by her cousin, Charles V, to smuggle Mary to mainland, Catholic Europe, but this did not end up happening

On July 6, 1553, Edward VI died at the age of 15, possibly from tuberculosis. Fearful that his half-sister would overturn his reforms, Edward defied his father’s will and the Succession Act by naming his cousin and fellow Protestant, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir. Informed of this, Mary fled into East Anglia where Catholic adherents and opponents of Lady Jane’s father-in-law, the ambitious John Dudley, resided. On July 10, Lady Jane was proclaimed queen by Dudley. Two days later, Mary assembled a military force and support for Dudley collapsed. Both Dudley and Jane were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Mary rode into London on August 3, surrounded by 800 nobles and gentlemen as well as her half-sister Elizabeth. The citizens of London wept joyfully and Mary read passionately from the Bible: “If God be with us, who could be against us?” (Romans 8:31)


Mary I as Queen

Mary endured extreme joys and sorrows to claim the throne of England. Threats were made against the faith she learned at her mother’s knee as well as to her own life. Now age 37, Mary would spend the remainder of her life searching to avenge it. By that time, her legacy would only be tarnished and maligned. Is there anything worth noting during her reign that challenges the nickname, “Bloody Mary?”

One of her first acts as queen was to find a husband and produce a Catholic heir to prevent her Protestant sister from ascending to the throne. Charles V suggested a marriage to his only son, Prince Philip of Spain, which Mary agreed to. The alliance proved unpopular with the English people and the House of Commons, and a rebellion broke out lead by Thomas Wyatt with the intention of deposing Mary and replacing her with Elizabeth. On February 1, 1554, Mary first demonstrated her resilience and capability as a political leader by rallying the people of London against Wyatt’s Rebellion. During her booming speech, she referred to the people as her “child” and loved them “as a mother doth her child.” Wyatt surrendered and was executed along with ninety rebels. Another example of her skilled capability as a negotiator came when Mary desired to reverse the Dissolution of the Monasteries that had occurred in 1536. However, this threatened the contemporary owners of monastic and ecclesiastical lands that acquired them. As a compromise, Mary permitted the ecclesiastical lands to remain with their owners and merely eliminated the Edwardian reforms to the church.  

As a female monarch in a very patriarchal age, Mary negotiated with her desire to form an Anglo-Spanish alliance with the hopes of a Catholic heir and to please her uncertain people and council. The issue revolved on Mary’s status as queen regnant and holding a traditionally male position with contemporaries believing that a good Catholic wife should submit wholly to her husband, making Prince Philip not only head of his realm but head of his household. Mary resolved this through the marriage treaties that defined Philip’s authority as king consort of England. Mary was represented as a king and queen. England would not be obliged to provide military support to Philip’s father in any way and Philip could not act without his wife’s consent or appoint foreigners to office in England.


Policy during her reign

The loss of Calais overshadowed Mary’s previous military victories. Calais fell to the French in January 1558, although it wasn’t formally lost until the reign of Elizabeth I under the Treaty of Troyes. Calais was expensive to maintain and the queen meanwhile enjoyed the successes such as the Battle of Saint Quentin. While her half-sister was often reluctant to engage in war, Mary relished it, and possibly wanted to imitate her grandmother, the warrior queen Isabella I of Castile.

Mary had inherited the economically strived realms of her father and half-brother. Mary has been credited for her reforms to coinage, extension of royal authority into the localities, managed her parliaments, and made significant reforms to the navy. Mary drafted plans for currency reform but they were not implemented until after her death. The queen had a progressive commercial policy that was embraced by English merchants. Her government restructured the book of rate in 1558, leading to an increase in revenue. 

Moreover, Mary’s failed ability to produce an heir was no fault of her own as thirty-seven was a late age to marry in the sixteenth century and she had only ruled for five years. 

The most infamous aspect of her reign at last was her religious policy. At the start of her reign, her first Parliament declared her parents’ marriage valid and abolished Edward’s religious laws, known as the First Statute of Repeal. Church doctrine was restored including clerical celibacy. By the end of 1554, the Heresy Acts were revived. Under these Acts, almost three hundred Protestants were burned at the stake, one of them being the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who had annulled the marriage of her parents twenty-three years earlier. Nearly 800 wealthy Protestants fled England, including John Foxe. It is interesting to note that the burnings of Protestants did not take place until after the marriage of Philip and Mary, which begs the question of whether Philip influenced his wife’s decisions. Most of the burning victims were from lower classes in the south-east of England. The public burnings were unpopular and Mary’s advisers were divided as to whether or not they were necessary and effective. The question remains to this day as to who was responsible for the burnings, due to a lack of conclusive evidence and the attempt at deflating blame by those who wrote about it. Only the fact exists that she could have halted them and did not.


In conclusion

Historians have been divided on whether Mary I’s five year reign was a success. For the public, her image has been tarnished through the nickname of perpetual infamy: “Bloody Mary,” overshadowing her accomplishments. Mary’s reign was the shortest of the Tudor monarchs (except for Lady Jane Grey, who only ruled for nine days) and would probably not have a lasting effect were it not for Elizabeth. Elizabeth, unlike Mary, was not raised to rule and subsequently learned from Mary’s successes and failures and built upon the foundations of Mary’s reign as one of the greatest English monarchs of all time. 


What do you think of Mary I? Let us know below.




Abernethy, Susan. “Mary I, Queen of England.” The Freelance History Writer, The Freelance History Writer, 16 Nov. 2018, thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2018/11/16/mary-i-queen-of-england/.

“Mary I of England.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Jan. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_I_of_England#Religious_policy.

“Mary I: 8 Facts about Her Life, Death and Legacy.” History Extra, 3 Oct. 2018, www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/mary-i-bloody-facts-life-death-legacy-illiegitimate-henry-viii/.

NikitaBlogger. “Just Why Is Queen Mary I Known as 'Bloody Mary'?” Royal Central, 31 July 2016, royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/insight/just-why-is-queen-mary-i-known-as-bloody-mary-51995.

Ridgway, Claire. “Mary I - An Underappreciated Queen.” The Anne Boleyn Files, 16 Feb. 2017, www.theanneboleynfiles.com/mary-underappreciated-queen/.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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