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.

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