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The Tragedy and Terror of Queen Mary I

May 17, 2015

Queen Mary I has perhaps the poorest reputation of any English monarch. Known to history as Bloody Mary, she is remembered for the cruelty of a reign in which hundreds of Protestants were killed. Less widely discussed is the abusive upbringing Mary suffered, or the way this affected her reign.

In an age when fundamentalism is once more causing division and death, Mary’s reign can shed great light on the modern world. It can help us to understand the potentially abusive effect not just of individuals but also of social norms, and to re-evaluate the way that we look at public figures, both in the modern world and in history.

An Abusive Upbringing

Mary Tudor was born on 18 February 1516, the daughter of King Henry VIII of England and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Henry was desperately trying to have a boy to inherit the English throne from him, something he seemed unable to do with Catherine. After a string of miscarriages, with Mary as the only surviving child, Henry had his marriage to Catherine annulled and began the string of marriages for which he would become notorious.

The inequalities of the time, and Henry’s reaction to them, led to an upbringing for Mary that can only be described as abusive. It was not the sort of domestic abuse of which high drama is made, but a subtler, more insidious kind. Separated from her mother, who would die while Mary was still young, she was also rejected by her father. He sent her away, showed none of the affection a child seeks from her parents, and rubbed salt in the wound by later placing Mary in the household of her half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of the woman Henry had divorced her mother for.

Many reasons are given for Henry’s behaviour. Not least among them is the fact that an adult male heir could be vital for the political stability of a nation, and the continuation of Henry’s family line. This put huge pressure on him, demonstrating the often neglected way in which gender inequality can be harmful to men as well as women. But none of it necessitated the cruel treatment he showed toward Mary. The extent to which her life was shaped by these social and political pressures only serves to illustrate that institutions, just like individuals, can be abusive. But her father was the figurehead for that abuse.

The result for Mary was a deep and lasting depression from which she suffered her whole life. This was only made worse when she finally reached the throne and married Philip of Spain. It was a marriage brought about by political necessity, but also the only place Mary could expect to find love. She had long craved the affection her father didn’t show, and when Philip proved as neglectful as Henry it worsened Mary’s suffering.

The pressure on her to have a child to inherit the throne, and the extent to which such pressure was placed on women of noble birth more than men, deepened Mary’s misery. Two failed pregnancies, difficult events for anyone to live through, were made worse by the expectations and attention of others. Her five years as Queen were beset by personal misery.

A Bloody Reign

Mary Tudor was in her late thirties when she became Queen of England in 1553. She did so in a troubled period. The Reformation was dividing Europe between Protestants and Catholics. Henry VIII had denied the authority of the Pope in England, and his son Edward VI had made the country Protestant. Mary, on the other hand, was deeply Catholic and believed that Protestantism endangered the souls of her subjects. When Edward died in his teens, leaving Mary as Queen, she set about trying to restore the Catholic faith.

What followed was an object lesson in the way other frustrations can lead people to support religious intolerance. Mary associated Protestantism with every terrible thing that had happened to her before ascending the throne. Ignoring the authority of the Pope had allowed her father to divorce her mother and reject Mary. Powerful Protestants had schemed and raised armies to keep her from becoming queen. She associated all her sufferings with the Protestant reformers.

She vented these frustrations in a wave of horrifying oppression against the Protestant leadership in England. Hundreds were burned at the stake, as Mary tried to remove the movement’s leaders and stop Protestantism from spreading. England was going through a difficult time, with poor harvests and the economy failing, and both sides turned each other into scapegoats. Tangled up in a world view defined by extreme religion, Mary saw every trouble that struck her country as a sign from God that she needed to get rid of the Protestants. They in turn hardened their views in the face of attack, rather than reverting to Catholicism.

It was a bloody example of what has now become an all too familiar pattern. Faced with change or challenges in the world, people turn to those who think like them for support. This leads to a self-reinforcing circle, in which views are never challenged, only become more extreme, and society is torn apart by extremism that justifies violence.

People and Power

When we look at figures from history, we often give them some leeway in their behaviour. Defenders of Henry VIII argue that his behaviour toward his wives and his focus on a son was necessary to make his country secure. By this argument, we should not judge him, or his abusive behaviour, by the standards we apply to ordinary people.

But the story of Mary I provides a compelling argument against this. Henry’s failure to act like a decent human being toward his daughter created a woman who suffered from a deep and abiding depression, and whose bitterness led to hundreds of deaths. Furthermore, by bending to the social pressures put on him, rather than challenging them or accepting that they would mean the end of his family’s royal name, Henry perpetuated those pressures. By treating his wives as little more than baby making machines, he ensured that his daughter would feel the same huge pressure to have a child, a pressure which all but destroyed her emotionally.

Leaders are human beings, and if we are to understand their behaviour then we have to understand their emotional state, such as Mary’s resentment and depression. Their behaviour as human beings, not just political entities, has a huge impact on the society they live in. Their cruelty, whether Henry’s neglect of his daughters or Mary’s oppression of her subjects, can fan the flames of extremism. Therefore, it is not just reasonable but necessary to judge them by human standards, as well as political ones.


  1. Walther A.

    Quite an interesting read. It is the first time I have read the history through Queen Mary’s perspective. Her reign of terror had close ties to her suffering as a person. But, still, she has responsibility; because not every person under the same circumstance would act in the same way. People, particularly leaders, are never the mere slaves of the events taking place around themselves. I think the author should also think about this angle. But what he tells about radicalism is quite striking; it is a blend of personal suffering, a holy cause to fight for the eradication of the suffering, and blindly determined human will.

  2. Francois

    The bold claims of the essay is not detailed and grounded on historical facts. As a professional historian, I would not let an undergrad pass my class with this essay. Where are the facts? How do you arrive at your conclusions? When the connection is not apparent, what is written seems far-fetched. A Freudian analysis of Mary was something we needed the least. The author should have laboured and searched more!

    • Gillain Rimmer

      I agree – I am a History teacher and find the claims ludicrous. It also fails to take into account the fact that royal children at this time rarely ever actually lived with their parents. The Princess Mary, for instance had her own household as an infant and was sent to live in Wales at the age of 9, as befitted the heir to the throne. She was not unusual in this -most heirs to the throne would have been treated exactly the same.

      To try to examine the family relationships and affections of people for whom ‘family’ meant something entirely different than it does to a modern family; and to impose modern ideologies upon people who lived in the past is misguided to say the least.

  3. Perry

    I like Uisio even more now! Every time a different angle, different view, an unnoticed story is revealed on this website. I congratulate Mr. Knighton for his stimulating writing. I will most certainly buy his book! He has the talent of storytelling! The essay gave Mary flesh before my eyes; she was a person, first of all, with the experience of a lot of unfortunate events. Also the link to the present day was brilliant. I would love to read more from him.

  4. Peter

    A great essay! Mary I caused a lot of suffering. But it should not be overlooked that what compelled her to do evil was the swift change of religion in England. People do not part from their heritage that easily. When the destructive affect of Protestantism upon Mary’s family is concerned, Mr. Knighton’s claim looks even more important that radicalism emerges from a swamp like Mary’s contemporary England.

  5. Gillain Rimmer

    The link between religious fundamentalism and the childhood of Mary 1st is not widely discussed because there isn’t one!

    What a very simplistic article. One that doesn’t seem to realise that Mary was a young woman at the time of the divorce. Her early life and childhood was one of being the darling only child of loving parents.

    Also, Henry the Eighth broke from Rome and made himself head of the Church in England but never embraced Protestantism – he remained a Catholic and the Act of 5 Articles passed in 1539 specifies the continuation of Catholic beliefs and practices in the Church of England – for instance the saying of Mass publicly and privately, for the living and the dead; the belief in transubstantiation; confession as a religious observance; celibacy of the priesthood…

    Protestantism was not even legally allowed in England until his son Edward came to the throne in 1547 when Mary was 31 years old.

    It became the official religion of England in 1549 with the first Act of Uniformity which made it illegal to use any other form of worship than that laid down in the protestant Book of Common Prayer ( which we still use today in the C of E )

    In comparison to her half-sister, Elizabeth, whose mother was executed when she was 3, Mary had a good childhood, Yet Elizabeth the First is not known for her religious zealotry.

    The reformation and counter reformation period in England, and indeed the rest of Europe, was a bloody and brutal time. It spanned around a hundred years and there were atrocities on both sides. Mary is remembered as ‘Bloody Mary’ mainly because the Catholics were the losing side. More Catholics were actually executed for their faith during the reigns of Edward 6th and Elizabeth the Ist -than protestants by Mary.

    Religion in England was a case of following the one favoured by the ruling sovereign – all were absolutist – all dissenters were persecuted by death, imprisonment and hefty fines if they deviated from the official religion of the country.

    Mary was not alone in imposing her religious beliefs onto her subjects – they all did.

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