Mary I survived a difficult childhood—separated from her mother, rejected by her father and suffered poor health—to restore Catholicism to England and produce an heir.

Mary I
Mary I

Mary was born in 1516 at Greenwich Palace, the only surviving child of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry was initially disappointed but he proudly showed off his pretty daughter to visiting dignitaries.

Mary, a sickly but intelligent child, was educated by Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives and she excelled in Latin, Greek, Italian and French. Mary could play the virginals when she was four, and already an excellent horsewoman at six.

In 1526, Mary was designated Princess of Wales and had her own court at Ludlow where she would preside over the Council of Wales and the Marches.


Lady Mary, later Mary I (1516-1558)
Lady Mary, later Mary I (1516-1558)

Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn caused major upheaval. Henry divorced Catherine to marry Anne, and banished his ex-wife from court. Mary was disbarred from the succession and forced to serve as lady-in-waiting to her baby sister Elizabeth I.

Mary was forbidden to attend her mother’s funeral in 1536.

Her situation did not improve despite Jane Seymour’s efforts. Mary was invited back to court once she signed the submission. Mary lost an influential friend when Jane Seymour died after giving birth to Edward VI.

Henry died in 1547, naming all three children as his heirs. Mary also inherited vast estates in East Anglia.

Edward IV and Lady Jane Grey

Edward introduced the Act of Uniformity in 1549 which outlawed the mass. Mary made no secret of her Catholic faith. Her cousin, Charles V, threatened war if she was forbidden to practice her religion.

John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland, persuaded Edward, to change his will and name Lady Jane Grey as his successor. Edward VI died from tuberculosis, on 6 July 1553, aged 15.

Queen Jane was deposed after nine days. Mary granted clemency as she believed Jane was a pawn in Northumberland’s schemes. Jane remained a prisoner in the Tower of London.

Bloody Mary

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by the French painter Paul Delaroche, 1833
The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by the French painter Paul Delaroche, 1833

Mary’s ordeals and ill-health had prematurely aged her, but she was now a woman with a mission—to restore England to the Catholic faith, as it was in 1526. Mary must marry and produce and heir to prevent England from returning to heresy, but, at 38, time was running out.

Charles V recommended his son, Philip of Spain, as a suitable husband. However, her Parliament was horrified and suggested she marry an Englishman. Mary was adamant. She would die within weeks if she was forced to marry someone she disliked.

Mary could no longer afford to show leniency towards her enemies after the Wyatt rebellion in February 1554. The conspiracy’s leaders and Lady Jane Grey were executed.

Mary and her husband, Philip II of Spain
Mary and her husband, Philip II of Spain

Philip and Mary were married at Winchester Cathedral on 20 July 1554. Philip was granted the title of king in name only. Mary seriously believed she was already in love with Philip, but he had two mistresses in the Netherlands just months after their wedding.

Burning of heretics began in February 1555. Three hundred people, including 60 women, were burnt alive within three years. Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop Thomas Cramner were the only notable victims. John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is an account of these persecutions. Other Protestants fled aboard.

Mary’s condition was a phantom pregnancy (pseudocyesis). She became a public laughing stock after her due date had passed. Philip abandoned her in disgust and returned to Spain.

She assumed the title of Queen of Spain on 16 January 1556 when her husband acceded to the Spanish throne as Philip II.

Mary’s reign also brought brutal winters, bad harvests, severe unemployment, soaring food prices, and the humiliating loss Calais in 1557.

Mary was delusional as she believed she was pregnant again. However, Mary died from ovarian cancer on 17 November 1558, aged 42, at St James’s Palace, London.

The Family of Henry VIII, with Lady Mary standing on Henry VIII's left, c 1545
The Family of Henry VIII, with Lady Mary standing on Henry VIII’s left, c 1545


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Gold, Claudia, Queen, Empress, Concubine: Fifty Women Rulers from the Queen of Sheba to Catherine the Great, Quercus, London, 2008

Plowden, Alison, Tudor Women: Queens & Commoners, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2002 (Reprinted 2007)

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: At The Edge of the World 3000BC-AD1603, Volume 1, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2000

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© 2009 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 27 May 2009.

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