Bloody Mary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Mary’s birth in 1515 to Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII was disappointing to her father, who had wanted and expected a son. At least the baby did not die immediately, however, as a boy-child had a few years earlier. Christening rites and celebration for the heiress presumptive to the English crown followed, according to the traditional formulas of the Roman Catholic Church and the English monarchy.

As a child, Mary was doted on by both her parents. Her father called her the “greatest pearl of the kingdom.” Given a household of servants at age three, she was taught and groomed to prepare herself for marriage. It was expected that she would wed some foreign prince or prominent Englishman for political purposes as her mother had done. Her formal education was excellent, but she was constantly inculcated with current notions about the weakness and inferiority of females. She must, as a woman, conduct herself quietly, obediently, and modestly, and be prepared to serve in a wifely capacity any husband chosen for her.

Mary, as she grew up, did not develop into a beautiful girl, but she was sufficiently pleasing in appearance so that, with the crown she stood to inherit, her chances of making a favorable marriage were excellent. Numerous suitors and candidates came forth throughout her girlhood. One of the first was her cousin, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, to whom she was engaged when she was ten. Shortly after, however, her father canceled the engagement for political reasons. Mary, however, would continue to admire Charles and rely on him for advice throughout the rest of her life.

By 1525 it became evident that the aging Katherine would have no more children; Henry would have no legitimate sons by her. But Henry had an illegitimate son, known as Henry Fitzroy, to whom he now granted many titles and honors and prepared to legitimatize. At the same time, Mary was designated “Princess of Wales” and went to Ludlow Castle in Wales, where she set up court and had her first experience in ruling. The King, meanwhile, continued to try to arrange a marriage for his “pearl of the kingdom.” There was some talk of Henry Fitzroy and Mary marrying. Instead Henry, in 1527, signed a marriage treaty with the French King, Francis I. It was arranged however, that because of the prospective bride’s tender age, the marriage would be put off for at least three years.

At that point the first serious crisis in Mary’s life emerged: her father decided to divorce her mother. Katherine, now old and ugly, was replaced in the king’s affection by the twenty-year-old lady of the court, Anne Boleyn, who could presumably give Henry the son he so much wanted.

Four years of divorce proceedings followed; it was a time of shock, anguish, and disillusion for Mary. In the end, Anne was crowned Queen, Katherine’s title was taken from her by the Convocation of the Church. She and Mary were sent into virtual exile from the court, forced to live in different residences, and forbidden to communicate.

An even greater humiliation for Mary followed. The Act of Succession (1534) designated Anne’s offspring as the legitimate successors and Mary as a bastard. She formally and strenuously protested, but to no avail. Queen Anne, who hated both Katherine and Mary, prevailed upon the king to humiliate Mary even further. She was sent to Hatfield House as part of the household of the baby princess, Elizabeth. Her clothes, jewels, and other property were taken from her. She was to be treated as the unwanted child of her father, whom she was not allowed to see. Living at Hatfield became a constant torment for her. She began to suffer from a variety of illnesses which would plague her the rest of her life: stomach pains, headaches, amenorrhea, inability to keep food down, and melancholy, which surely must have been the psychosomatic source of her physical ailments. Rumors also circulated that she was being poisoned, and Mary herself feared that such might be the case.

Adding to her personal distress were the attacks that now began on her beloved Church. Her father had, in the matter of his divorce, defied and rejected papal authority and called himself the head of the Church in England. As the conflict between the Crown and the Papacy intensified Mary, along with many others, was caught between loyalty to the King and loyalty to the old faith. She tried to continue her obedience to both, but, as the schism widened, that became impossible. The persecution of the Roman clergy and the suppression of the monasteries touched her deeply, making her more devoted to her religion than ever.

Fearing for her own life when her mother died in 1535, Mary planned to escape England and find sanctuary with her cousin Charles. This plan proved impossible at the time; however, she repeatedly made escape plans in subsequent years. Her situation improved shortly after the removal and execution of Queen Anne, which was a blessing for Mary. It ended nine years of danger, constant tension and uncertainty. She was allowed to return to court, where she was better treated. At the same time, her father remarried, and his new wife, Jane Seymour presented him with the son he had so long wanted, Edward. Edward would displace Henry’s daughters as successor to the throne, but Mary accepted that fact because she would be second in line of succession.

It would be eighteen years before she gained the crown, however. With the death of Henry VIII in 1547, Edward VI became King, and England turned more Protestant than before. Mary came to be regarded by the Protestants as an ever-present threat whereby the “rats of Rome might creep back” eventually. Pressure was put on her to stop her masses; her chaplains were arrested. Mary continued to swear loyalty to the King, her brother, while insisting that her soul and her faith belonged to God and the true Church. She showed her pride, courage, and strength of will more than ever in these years.

At last, Edward, the boy king, died in 1553. The Protestant faction tried to exclude Mary from the succession by elevating Lady Jane Grey as Queen. Mary, however, raised troops, overawed the Council, had Lady Jane and her associates arrested, and came to London in triumph to receive her rightful crown....

(The entire section is 2566 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXIV, February 15, 1978, p. 973.

Christian Century. XCV, April 26, 1978, p. 452.

Choice. XV, May, 1978, p. 456.

Guardian Weekly. CXVIII, March 5, 1978, p. 18.

New York Times Book Review. January 15, 1978, p. 10.

Observer. June 25, 1978, p. 26.