Bloody Mary, England’s Most Hated Queen

Queen Mary put opponents to agonising death in her drive to restore Catholic faith in England
Queen Mary put opponents to agonising death in her drive to restore Catholic faith in England

by Ray Setterfield

November 17, 1558 — In the past 1,200 years England has seen 61 monarchs, starting with Egbert in the year 827. But only five women have ruled in their own right as Queen regnant – six if the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey is counted.

So when the first female Queen, Mary, died on this day, widespread grief might have been expected. Instead, there was rejoicing.

Mary was born in 1516, the fifth child of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary was the only one of their children to survive infancy.

She was treated as a political pawn by her father and promised in marriage to different people at different times, depending on whom he wanted as an ally.

She was only two years old when she was promised to Francis, the King of France’s infant son. In 1522, at the age of six, she was instead contracted to marry her 22-year-old first cousin, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

And so it went on until 1533 when Henry, who wanted to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, managed to secure an annulment of his marriage to Mary’s mother, Catherine. It meant that Mary was officially illegitimate and unacceptable as a bride in top circles.

Anne Boleyn married Henry and bore him a daughter, Elizabeth – the future Queen. Anne saw to it that Mary was stripped of her ‘princess’ title, and forbidden to see her parents. She never saw her mother again. She was also ordered to act as lady-in-waiting to the infant Elizabeth, her half-sister.

But these were the tumultuous Tudor times full of twists and turns, and Anne was beheaded in 1536 after allegations of adultery. Henry went on to marry lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour, who gave him his longed-for male heir, Edward.

Upon Henry’s death in 1547, the official order of succession was set out as Edward, followed by Mary and then Elizabeth. Unfortunately, the boy was a sickly nine-year-old when he assumed the throne as King Edward VI and he died six years later.

That triggered a new problem. To secure his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry had broken from the Church of Rome and set himself up as head of the Protestant Church of England. Catholic monasteries across the country had been shut down and sold off to aristocrats who had no intention of giving them back.

But next-in-line Mary was a devout Roman Catholic who wanted things back as they were. The Protestants’ best hope of avoiding this rested on power passing to Edward’s cousin, Lady Jane Grey, who was a strong follower of the Protestant faith and technically fourth in line to the throne. The dying King was persuaded to support the Protestant Reformation by declaring Jane his successor.

So in 1553, 15-year-old Jane was crowned Queen of England – a reign that was to last just nine days. A fuming Mary, backed by Parliament, cited the 1544 Law of Succession, which clearly stated that she should be queen. Jane was taken to the Tower of London where her short life was later ended on the executioner’s block.

Mary was crowned Queen on October 1, 1553 and soon began to reverse her father’s anti-Catholic reforms – with a vengeance. She revived England’s heresy laws and began burning offenders at the stake, starting with her father’s long-time advisor Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ordinary people suffered the same fate, nearly 300 being convicted of heresy and burned to death. The scale of the Queen’s persecution led to her being called “Bloody Mary.” As well as those killed at the stake dozens more died in prison and an estimated 800 fearful citizens fled the country.

In her drive to bring her people back to the Church of Rome Mary married Catholic Philip II of Spain, but he was distrusted and maligned by ordinary people. The marriage and the heresy burnings resulted in Mary being hated by a wide section of the population.

In May, 1558 Mary, who had always suffered from fragile health, fell seriously ill, possibly from cancer. She died aged 42 on November 17.

When her half-sister – about to become Queen Elizabeth I – was told the news she said: “This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes”. Millions of her countrymen would have agreed.

Published: October 7, 2020
Updated: October 8, 2020

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