Something about Mary

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Mary Tudor: The Tragical History of the First Queen of England by David Loades
    National Archives, 240 pp, £19.99, September 2006, ISBN 1 903365 98 8

To understand someone, meet their mother – and so it was with the Tudor princesses. Mary, the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, was straightforward, pious, brave in a crisis, not especially bright. Her whole life was shaped by her mother’s straightforwardness and bravery in a crisis: when Henry VIII wanted Katherine to accept that she had never been married to him, she refused to do so, and by her unchanging refusal, gave her daughter an example of how to behave. Mary spent her life trying to undo the wrong done to her mother and her mother’s world which Henry’s first annulment crisis represented.

Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was equal to Katherine in stubbornness and her definite superior in intelligence: the only one of Henry’s six wives whose marriage to the king was regularly called her ‘reign’ by contemporaries. That she had a mind of her own and was not afraid to use it is the most plausible explanation of her eventual downfall in 1536. Eric Ives’s biography of Anne, published in 2004, revealed her as a major player in the early English Reformation, the beginning of a Reformation unique in Europe in having two women among its leading architects: Anne Boleyn and her daughter. The uncharitable (a category that includes most English historians since John Foxe) would probably add Elizabeth’s half-sister to make up a formative trio. Bloody Mary inadvertently brought back heroism to English Protestantism after some unfortunate hiccups during and after the reign of Edward VI.

Mary spent her early years as the centre of attention, the heir apparent to the English throne. In 1525, at the age of nine, she was sent off to be the figurehead of Cardinal Wolsey’s revived experiment in government, the Council in the Marches. The Princess of Wales had her own court at Ludlow Castle, and went on her own mini-royal progresses. She was a young teenager before she became aware of the threat to her mother’s marriage and to her own position; but after 1533, aged 17, she could not avoid isolation and humiliation. In 1536 she was declared illegitimate since Katherine’s marriage was declared never to have taken place; after her mother’s death, she was forced to acknowledge her position and was then an outcast for almost a decade. Catherine Parr improved the situation when from 1543 she brought together her three royal stepchildren, and Mary’s position in the succession was regularised by an Act of Parliament in 1544.

Mary’s experience was of a childhood of privilege and honour, followed by total loss and humiliation. Elizabeth’s was the other way round: she would have been too young to remember her three years as heir to the throne; she went through the next seven in a highly ambiguous and probably uncomfortable position as a bastard daughter of the king. Just at the age when Mary’s world had begun collapsing, things started to get better for Elizabeth: when Catherine Parr rebuilt the king’s family, she saw to Elizabeth’s education. So Mary’s youth was one of bitter disappointment: a feeling that all there was in life was to hang on and be true to oneself. For Elizabeth, it was the opposite: if you kept quiet, played your cards right, or let other people play a convenient hand on your behalf, things might get better. There is much to be gained by keeping this contrast in mind when considering their successive reigns.

The main point of royal daughters was as saleable breeding stock. From an early age, Mary would have been conscious that she was a prime piece of property. At the age of two she was already signed up for a marriage to the king of France’s son; at four, diplomacy changed, and she was down to marry her cousin Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who at the time was 20 years old. Unlikely as it would seem in 1521, this was one of the most important relationships in Mary’s life, though she and Charles met only once. When Mary was swept into her mother’s marriage crisis, the emperor was their chief friend. More than any other English monarch between Henry II and Charles II, Mary was preoccupied with a country beyond the sea, or rather a dynasty beyond the sea. She married Charles’s son Philip, and once she was married she was desperate to secure a Catholic future by having his child. That child might with the right quirks of genealogy have ruled half the known world, and a good deal of it not then known: an empire combining Spanish and Portuguese territories and the old British empire, nearly the whole of north and south America, and much more besides. This is one of the great might-have-beens of history. Mary’s failure to have a child is perhaps the saddest and most pitiable aspect of her life; certainly she would have thought so, and that is clearly the point in the mock-Tudor subtitle of David Loades’s biography. Mary’s failure dealt a permanent blow to England’s long-standing alignment with the Habsburgs and their Burgundian predecessors.

Both Mary and Elizabeth had a capacity for inspiring loyalty from close friends, who formed their households. Both profited from using this household circle when they came to power; their reigns both had a strong start. Mary’s arrival was indeed much more spectacular than Elizabeth’s: she replaced Queen Jane Grey; and because Queen Jane lost, we forget what an astonishing achievement that was. Jane had a good claim to the throne, not just because Edward VI had ordered that she should succeed him, but because her royal blood was convincing, as the granddaughter of a sister of Henry VIII. In other words, she had the sort of claim that brought James VI to the throne of England in 1603 (he was a great-grandson of a sister of Henry VIII). By contrast, both Mary and Elizabeth had been officially declared bastards by their father; that had not changed by 1553. So it was perfectly plausible for Protestants to see Jane as the best legitimate heir. Both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and the Bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley, openly and precisely said that both Mary and Elizabeth were bastards.

Mary’s remarkable initial success came from single-mindedly stressing the one asset she possessed: bastard or no bastard, she was flesh of Henry VIII’s flesh. What she did not say, and in fact deliberately avoided saying all through her coup, was that she intended fully to restore the Catholic faith: she made no official statement about religion until she was safely in control of London. By keeping quiet, she managed to unite virtually the whole East Anglian political establishment, Catholic and Protestant alike, creating a critical mass to overthrow the government in Westminster. It was the only time after 1485 that the provinces brought the Westminster government to military defeat: one of very few successful rebellions in the Tudor age. Her early silence on religion is so unlike Mary’s normal no-nonsense Catholicism that she must have been under strong advice to keep her mouth shut. That advice must have come from the tight little group of household officers steering her coup – Catholics to a man, but they had political sense.

Mary and Elizabeth, once on the throne, differed in their capacity to reach beyond the people they trusted; Mary was not nearly as adroit as Elizabeth proved to be. Both women started out with the same problem: how to combine the close friends who had helped to put them in place with a set of politicians who were there simply because they had been around for a long time. Particularly difficult for Mary was the task of uniting her real friends with those who had been part of the governments of Henry VIII and Edward VI and had made her life miserable since the 1530s. In this she was not wholly successful. Recently some historians have tended to play down the divisions in her Privy Council, pointing out that much of the evidence about these divisions came from foreign ambassadors who were often fed lines by councillors for their own purposes, or who wanted to emphasise that they had their own special access to Mary’s inner circle. But even if this is right, it cannot disguise real problems in Mary’s government. Bishop Stephen Gardiner and William Lord Paget hated each other, all the more because Paget had been Gardiner’s favourite student at Cambridge, and then for years on end during Henry’s reign Gardiner had not noticed that Paget had been working against him. Even though Paget was on the Privy Council, in 1554 he wrecked two pieces of government legislation in the House of Lords, bringing about the destruction of a bill against heresy and a bill extending the treason laws to protect Prince Philip. There was, furthermore, a curious incoherence in Mary’s government: one of her most trusted advisers and a major sponsor of religious change, Cardinal Reginald Pole, was not even a member of her Privy Council.

For exactly half a century from 1553, for the first time in English history, England was ruled by two women in succession. Women rulers were not at all unusual in 16th-century Europe: they were familiar from contemporary Scotland and the Low Countries, and would be seen later in France. But such women were not expected to take initiatives. They acted as caretakers for their dominions, usually literally: successive sisters of the ruling male Habsburg monarch were in charge in the Low Countries; in both Scotland and France, it was the widowed mother of the young monarch. Stability in the situation came from the status of the women – sister, widow – that automatically limited their role in relation to their brother or young son or daughter. For Mary and Elizabeth, however, there was uncertainty as to what would happen when normality was restored, and these queens regnant married: the expectation was that their regimes would cease to be in the hands of caretakers, and would be taken over by their husbands. English politicians tried to avoid that eventuality with Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain, first by opposing it, then by seeking to tie Philip down with as many conditions as possible. They were quite successful in this second aim, but only at the cost of permanent ill-will between themselves and Philip and his Spanish politicians. Elizabeth addressed the same problem by refusing to get married.

Female caretakers did not take initiatives, but they could react to situations that they inherited, playing their role as mother of the realm in seeking to reconcile or solve problems. Both Mary and Elizabeth came to the throne after a period of creativity in government and immense upheaval in the Church. The two women had diametrically opposed reactions to what Henry and Edward had done. If anything, Marian Catholicism was more creative than Elizabethan Protestantism, in both religion and other policies. Loades remains firmly fixed on biography, giving only a few side-glances at much recent fascinating reassessment of Mary’s religious policies: where A.G. Dickens half a century ago described a Marian ‘reaction’, a posse of historians led by Eamon Duffy, Christopher Haigh, John Edwards and Loades himself have found a reformation as full of potential as anything that Protestants did, indeed the largest-scale attempt to restore Catholicism up till then in all Europe. We ought to forget Dickens’s uncharacteristically obtuse remark that Mary ‘failed to discover the Counter-Reformation’. She could hardly succeed in finding something that had not yet happened: many of the most important decisions of the Council of Trent, which put the Counter-Reformation into practice, came after her death, while decisions in Mary’s England anticipated the outcome of Trent. As papal legate, her Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, drew up proposals for clergy training schools in every English diocese before Trent had got round to this most important of initiatives to transform the Catholic Church worldwide. Pole ordered that the consecrated bread of the Mass be placed for veneration in a tabernacle on a church’s principal altar: a new devotional arrangement that soon became standard in Counter-Reformation churches throughout Europe. Moreover, the Marian Church and clergy produced as much imaginative instructional literature as their later Counter-Reformation colleagues, before Mary’s death transformed the situation.

If Mary had had 45 years on the throne instead of five, England could have become a bastion of the Counter-Reformation. The Jesuits would have arrived in force, as they could not in Mary’s reign. What would have been the point that early? There were as yet no Jesuits who spoke English, and there was little point in sending Jesuits who could communicate only in Latin, Spanish or French to an audience at court or one of the universities, when King Philip had already imported top-class Spanish Dominicans to do the job. Jesuits might consider hacking through the jungles of the Americas or encountering the great civilisations of the Far East rather more glamorous than anything they could do in a country with a tediously reliable Catholic queen. Not surprisingly, therefore, only two ever arrived, and they hardly had time to unpack and repack their bags before Queen Mary died.

An essential skill of a successful 16th-century monarch was image-building and public relations. Once more, contrast the two mothers. Katherine was conscientious, correct, aware of the importance of proper splendour, but not notable for any apparent initiatives or innovation; Anne Boleyn was fond of modish French-style magnificence, high-spirited, extrovert. Neither queen lacked personal courage. Mary was clearly splendid in moments of acute crisis: she rallied and enthused the gentlemen of East Anglia in 1553; she steadied the nerve of her government and won London to her side in Wyatt’s rebellion in 1554. These were the equivalents of Elizabeth’s Tilbury Speech of 1588. Mary enjoyed a good laugh: one of her closest and most valued companions was Jane the Fool, a rare example of a female court jester. But she was Broody Mary in more senses than one: frequently ill in adult life, and after her marriage, miserably preoccupied with her failure to have children, believing in her false pregnancies with an intensity that thoroughly embarrassed those around her. She seems to have had little idea of making a show. One of the few buildings still standing to proclaim her patronage is the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge: one of the dullest major religious buildings put up in England during the 16th century. Her court equally had the reputation of being the dullest in Europe, middle-aged to elderly, full of earnestly pious Catholic admirers who tended to be figures of her own generation or older. Mary never went on any major nationwide progress, partly because of her health, partly because the government was worried about the unrest that had affected the country each summer since 1548. That contrasts with Elizabeth, who from early in her reign used the progress as one of her chief methods of self-publicity, and went further afield to show herself to her subjects than her father had normally done. Monarchs who went on regular progress were usually successful.

It is Elizabeth that we remember as the Virgin Queen, but this was not an unusual image – in fact it was essential for an unmarried female monarch, for obvious reasons. All the Tudors came to the throne officially as virgins, and, to begin with, Mary could and did play on the image of the Virgin Queen just as much as Elizabeth. An example all the more telling for its pedestrian clumsiness is an extended poem by one of her Catholic admirers, George Cavendish, which celebrated Mary’s succession to Edward VI: ‘For the loss of a king which was a virgin clean,/[God] hath restored us a maiden queen.’ Cavendish even tried drastically to rewrite history with regard to the Spanish marriage:

To a virgin life, which liked the best,
Profest was thine heart: when, moved with zeal
And tears of subjects expressing request
For no lust, but love of the common weal
Virginity’s vow thou diddest repel.

Elizabeth’s triumph was to take up an image of permanent virginity foisted on her in mid-reign by politicians who opposed her prospective marriage to a Catholic, then turn it to her own use. She was always likely to be more successful than Mary, even if they had been granted an equal number of regnal years, because she knew how to make the best of a situation: how to give way, how to transform events to her best advantage. She could be stubborn and tactless, but also superb in her efforts to repair the damage. This will always be the case, however much we try to write her down and to be revisionist about Mary. Elizabeth seized opportunities offered, whereas Mary grimly continued burning Protestants long after the policy had become a public relations disaster.

Both women started well; in Mary’s case, extraordinarily well. But Elizabeth, from the outset of her reign, steadily built on advantage; Mary did not. Forty-five years of her religious policies, even if successful, would probably have caused as much division and disaster in the realm as did the French monarchy’s efforts to contain France’s Reformation. Loades gives plenty of reasons why we should see Mary’s lost opportunity as England’s long-term gain.