The first woman to rule England in her own right didn’t simply inherit the throne. She seized it with unprecedented ambition from those who sought to thwart her.

Historian Sarah Gristwood describes the ascension of Mary I as a “staggeringly bold” course of action undertaken with little chance of success. After unseating Lady Jane Grey, the Nine-Day Queen, Mary rode into London on August 3, 1553, to widespread acclaim. In the words of one contemporary chronicler, “It was said that no one could remember there ever having been public rejoicing such as this.”

Centuries later, however, the Tudor queen is remembered as one of the most reviled figures in English history: “Bloody Mary.” This is the story of how a heroic underdog became a monarch who was then mythologized as a violent despot, despite being no bloodier than her father, Henry VIII, or many other English monarchs. It’s a tale of sexism, shifting national identity and good old-fashioned propaganda, all of which coalesced to create the image of an unchecked tyrant that endures today.

Born on February 18, 1516, Mary was not the long-awaited son her parents, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, had hoped for. But she survived infancy and grew up in the public eye as a beloved princess—at least until her teenage years, when her father’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn led him to divorce her mother and break with the Catholic Church. Declared illegitimate, downgraded from the title of “princess” to “lady” and separated from her mother, Mary refused to acknowledge the validity of her parents’ divorce or her father’s status as head of the Church of England. It was only in 1536, after Anne’s execution and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour, that Mary finally agreed to her mercurial father’s terms.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon
Mary I's parents, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Welcomed back to court, she survived Henry—and three more stepmothers—only to see her younger half-brother, Edward VI, take the throne in 1547 as a Protestant reformer, adopting a stance anathema to her fervent Catholicism. When Edward died six years later, in 1553, he attempted to subvert his father’s wishes by leaving the crown to a Protestant cousin, Jane, excluding those next in line in the succession: Mary and her younger half-sister, the future Elizabeth I. Though Mary could have sought refuge with relatives in Spain, she chose to remain in England and fight for what was rightfully hers. Eluding the armies of her antagonists, she rallied support from nobles across the country and marched on London. Mary and Elizabeth rode into England’s capital side by side, one as a queen and the other as a queen-in-waiting.

During her five-year reign, Mary navigated the manifold challenges associated with her status as the first English queen to wear the crown in her own right, rather than as the wife of a king. She prioritized religion, implementing reforms and restrictions aimed at restoring the Catholic Church’s ascendancy in England. Most controversially, she ordered around 280 Protestants burned at the stake as heretics—a fact that would later cement her reputation as “Bloody Mary.”

The queen also set precedents and laid the groundwork for initiatives that would be built upon by her much-lauded successor, Elizabeth—among others, financial reform, exploration and naval expansion. But Mary failed to fulfill arguably the most important duty of any monarch: producing an heir. When she died at age 42 in 1558 of an ailment alternatively identified as uterine cancer, ovarian cysts or influenza, Elizabeth claimed the throne.

Prior to England’s break from Rome in 1534, Catholicism had dominated the realm for centuries. Henry VIII’s decision to form the Church of England proved predictably contentious, as evidenced by the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace uprising, which found some 30,000 Northerners taking up arms in protest of the dissolution of the monasteries, banning of feasts and holy days, and violent treatment of clergy who refused to accept the new order. Under Henry’s son, Edward, the English Reformation reached new extremes, with legislation allowing priests to marry, ending the practice of Latin Mass, and discouraging the veneration of relics and religious artifacts.

Elizabeth I and Edward VI
Mary's younger siblings, Elizabeth (left) and Edward (right) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

According to Linda Porter, author of The Myth of “Bloody Mary,” Edward “moved much faster and much further than the majority of the population wanted, … remov[ing] a great deal that was familiar and depriv[ing] the congregation of what many of them saw as the mystery and beauty of the experience of worship.” Protestantism, she says, was the “religion of an educated minority,” not a universally adopted doctrine. At its core, Porter and other historians have suggested, England was still a fundamentally Catholic country when Mary took the throne.

An ardent Catholic herself, Mary was measured in her initial attempts to restore the old church. But as historian Alison Weir writes in The Children of Henry VIII, these initiatives grew more controversial following the queen’s marriage to Philip II of Spain in July 1554, at which point they were “associated in the public mind with Spanish influence.” During the first year of Mary’s reign, many prominent Protestants fled abroad, but those who stayed behind—and persisted in publicly proclaiming their beliefs—became targets of heresy laws that carried a brutal punishment: burning at the stake.

Such a death was an undoubtedly horrific sentence. But in Tudor England, bloody punishments were the norm, with execution methods ranging from beheading to boiling to being hanged, drawn and quartered. “They lived in a brutal age,” Porter says, “… and it took a lot to revolt your average 16th-century citizen.”

During the early modern period, Catholics and Protestants alike believed heresy warranted the heavy sentence it carried. Mary’s most famous victim, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was preparing to enact similar policies targeting Catholics before being sidelined by Edward’s death. According to Gristwood’s Game of Queens: The Women Who Made 16th-Century Europe, “That obdurate heretics who refused to recant should die was an all but universal tenet.”

Book of Martyrs woodcut of Latimer and Ridley
This woodcut from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs depicts the burnings of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To the 16th-century mind, heresy was a contagion that threatened not just the church but also the stability of society as a whole. Heretics were deemed guilty of treason, as questioning a monarch’s established religious policies was tantamount to rejecting their divinely ordained authority. The justification for one heretic’s death, writes Virginia Rounding in The Burning Time: Henry VIII, Bloody Mary and the Protestant Martyrs of London, was the “salvation of many innocent Christians, who might otherwise have been led astray.” Even the gruesome method of execution had an underlying purpose: Death at the stake gave recalcitrant heretics a taste of hellfire, offering them one final chance to recant and save their souls.

Mary and her advisers hoped the initial spate of burnings would serve as a “short, sharp shock” warning errant Protestants to return to the fold of the “true” faith. As the queen explained, executions should be “so used that the people might well perceive them not to be condemned without just occasion, whereby they shall both understand the truth and beware to do the like.” But Mary had grossly underestimated Protestants’ tenacity—and their willingness to die for the cause.

“In mid-16th-century Europe,” writes Porter in her biography of Mary, “the idea of respecting another person’s beliefs would have provoked incredulity. Such certainties bred oppressors and those who were willing to be sacrificed.”

All that said, inextricable from Mary’s legacy are the 280 Protestants she consigned to the flames. These executions—the main reason for her unfortunate nickname—are cited as justification for labeling her one of the most evil humans of all time and even depicting her as a flesh-eating zombie. They are the impetus for the image of a monarch whose “raging madness and open tyranny,” as described by 16th-century writer Bartholomew Traheron, led her to “swimmeth in the holy blood of most innocent, virtuous and excellent personages.”

The Family of Henry VIII
Mary stands second from left in this circa 1545 painting titled The Family of Henry VIII. Royal Collection Trust

Consider, however, the following: Even though Mary’s father, Henry, only had 81 people burned at the stake over the course of his 38-year reign, heresy was far from the sole charge that warranted execution in Tudor England. Estimates suggest Henry ordered the deaths of as many as 57,000 to 72,000 of his subjects—including two of his wives—though it’s worth noting these figures are probably exaggerated. Mary’s brother, Edward, had two radical Protestant Anabaptists burned at the stake during his six-year reign; in 1549, he sanctioned the suppression of the Prayer Book Rebellion, resulting in the deaths of up to 5,500 Catholics. Mary’s successor, Elizabeth, burned five Anabaptists at the stake during her 45-year reign; ordered the executions of around 800 Catholic rebels implicated in the 1569 Rising of the North; and had at least 183 Catholics, the majority of whom were Jesuit missionaries, hanged, drawn and quartered as traitors.

If numbers are the main reasoning behind such sobriquets as “Bloody Mary,” then why aren’t Mary’s family members dubbed “Bloody Henry,” “Bloody Edward” and “Bloody Bess”? Why has the myth of “Bloody Mary” persisted in Great Britain’s collective imagination for so long? And what did Mary do that was so different from not only other Tudor monarchs but also other kings and queens across early modern Europe?

These questions are complex and predictably fraught. But several recurring themes persist. As England’s first queen regnant, Mary faced the same challenge experienced by female rulers across the continent—namely, her councilors’ and subjects’ lack of faith in women’s ability to govern, a dilemma best summarized by contemporary Mary of Hungary: “A woman is never feared or respected as a man is, whatever her rank. … All she can do is shoulder the responsibility for the mistakes committed by others.”

Lucy Wooding, a historian at the University of Oxford, says descriptions of Mary tend to have misogynistic undertones. “She’s simultaneously being lambasted for being vindictive and fierce” and “spineless and weak,” criticized for such actions as showing clemency to political prisoners and yielding authority to her husband, Philip. Most experts agree that the Spanish marriage had an adverse effect on Mary’s reputation, painting her, however unfairly, as an infatuated, weak-willed woman who placed earthly love ahead of the welfare of her country.

A portrait of Mary's husband, Philip II of Spain
A portrait of Mary's husband, Philip II of Spain Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of Mary by Hans Eworth
A portrait of Mary by Hans Eworth Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As Porter explains, marriage was a complicated issue for queen regnants, who “were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.” Mary and Elizabeth exemplify both sides of this dilemma. The former, who chose to wed a prince next in line for the Spanish throne instead of one of her own subjects, avoided elevating any of England’s noble families above the others but raised fears of ceding too much authority to the far more powerful Habsburg Empire. Additionally, writes Weir, Mary “underestimated the insularity and xenophobia of her subjects, who … had heard terrible tales of the tortures of the dreaded [Spanish] Inquisition.”

Elizabeth, on the other hand, never wed, perpetually playing the game of courtly love and ensuring power stayed in her hands alone. Though she eventually won acclaim as England’s “virgin queen,” her decision to remain unmarried—and her constant prevarication on the subject—infuriated her advisers, who believed women were unfit to rule without the guiding influence of a husband. When Elizabeth died childless in 1603, leaving the crown to James VI of Scotland, the son of her longtime rival Mary, Queen of Scots, she effectively ended the Tudor dynasty after just three generations.

While Elizabeth’s marital status is viewed as one of her greatest strengths, Mary’s is often cited as a sign of weakness. Popular lore suggests Mary, who was 38 years old at the time of her wedding to Philip, became besotted with her 27-year-old husband, who was in turn disgusted by his aging wife. A phantom pregnancy failed to help matters, deeply embarrassing both would-be parents and leaving the kingdom doubtful of Mary’s ability to produce an heir. A year into the marriage, Philip left England to fulfill his duties back on the continent—an act widely described as abandonment but, in truth, an anticipated arrangement necessitated by the Spaniard’s status as the prince (and soon-to-be king) of an entirely different nation.

Porter points out that scholars know very little about the true nature of the couple’s relationship, as their surviving correspondence focuses mainly on issues of state. “Given the fact that they both had similar cultural interests and both wanted to make the marriage work for the benefit of their countries,” she says, “they probably did get along tolerably well, but we don’t know how she felt about him on a personal level, and we know very little of how he felt about her.”

Mary I of England: Beyond the Myth of "Bloody Mary"

While Mary’s gender played a pivotal role in the formation of her image—especially during her own lifetime, says Porter—arguably the most important factor in the “Bloody Mary” moniker’s staying power was the rise of a national English identity built on the rejection of Catholicism. A 1563 book by John Foxe, known popularly as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, contributed to the creation of this Protestant identity, detailing the torments suffered by men and women burned at the stake during Mary’s reign through word-of-mouth accounts and visceral woodcut illustrations. (The accuracy of Foxe’s manuscript remains a point of contention among historians.) The book was enormously popular during the Elizabethan era, with copies even placed in local churches alongside the Bible.

“Foxe’s account would shape the popular narrative of Mary’s reign for the next 450 years,” writes Anna Whitelock in Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen. “Generations of schoolchildren would grow up knowing the first queen of England only as ‘Bloody Mary,’ a Catholic tyrant.”

Porter argues that Mary’s burnings might have become a “mere footnote to history” if not for Foxe’s intervention; historian O.T. Hargrave, meanwhile, describes the persecution as “unprecedented” and suggests it “succeeded only in alienating much of the country.” Either way, after taking the throne, Elizabeth took care not to replicate her sister’s religious policies. Writing in Mary Tudor, Judith M. Richards observes, “It may have helped protect Elizabeth’s reputation that many [of the executed] … were hanged as seditious traitors for seeking to restore Catholicism rather than burned as heretics.”

To put it bluntly, says Porter, “Mary burned Protestants, [and] Elizabeth disemboweled Catholics. It’s not pretty either way.”

The myth of “Bloody Mary” is one mired in misconception. England’s first queen regnant was not a vindictive, violent woman, nor a pathetic, lovestruck wife who would have been better off as a nun. She was stubborn, inflexible and undoubtedly flawed, but she was also the product of her time, as incomprehensible to modern minds as our world would be to hers. She paved the way for her sister’s reign, setting precedents Elizabeth never acknowledged stemmed from her predecessor, and accomplished much in the arenas of fiscal policy, religious education and the arts.

If she had lived longer, Mary might have been able to institute the religious reforms she so strongly believed in, from a renewed emphasis on preaching, education and charity to a full reunion with Rome, says Gristwood. Because Mary died just five years after her accession, however, Elizabeth inherited the throne and set England on a Protestant path. Over the centuries, most significantly in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Protestantism became a core component of British identity.

Mary in 1544
Mary in 1544 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Antonis Mor portrait of Mary 1554
A 1554 portrait of Mary by Antonis Mor Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mary’s reputation, says Wooding, was “very painstakingly constructed after her death [and] had extraordinary longevity because of the fundamental place that Protestant identity came to take in British identity.” Her enduring unpopularity, then, reflects a failure to properly contextualize her reign: As historian Thomas S. Freeman writes, “Mary has continually been judged by the standards of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and not surprisingly, has been found wanting.”

For all her faults, and regardless of whether one falls into the competing camps of rehabilitation or vilification, Mary—the first to prove women could rule England with the same authority as men—holds a singular place in British history.

“She was an intelligent, politically adept and resolute monarch who proved to be very much her own woman,” writes Whitelock. “Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.”

As John White, the Bishop of Winchester, observed during Mary’s December 1558 funeral sermon, “She was a king’s daughter, she was a king’s sister, she was a king’s wife. She was a queen, and by the same title a king also.”

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