So the thing with Queen Mary I, as it is with so many historical figures, is that her whole life tends to be retrofitted back from her short, weird, bloody reign. We know how she wound up, so picking up the breadcrumbs in reverse order is a way to understand how and why her life ended like it did. But I prefer to begin at the beginning, when her life could have gone so many different ways; each tantalizing maybe getting passed by as her life becomes a series of terrible Choose Your Own Adventure options. Change just one twist of fate, and things may have ended so differently for both her and for England — and the world.
She was the older of two redheaded sisters, both disinherited by their grotesquely terrible father; both defined, at least for much of their lives, for not getting married. Mary was only the second Queen to ever rule England, or the first, depending on how you like to factor Lady Jane Grey into things. There were lots of men who had short, bizarre, bloody reigns but the fact she’s one of such a small assortment of Queens forces comparisons to both her half-sister as well as to later queens like Victoria and Elizabeth II. And then also, much of what we know of her is based on documents that came out during the lengthy Protestant reign of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was just as precarious as Mary’s had been, and her story has its own intriguing sliding doors. One of the ways that Elizabeth I worked to prove herself as a Queen was by setting up how she was different from her sister; propaganda that still colors the way Mary I is written about.
So, basically: it’s a lot of wading through a lot of peoples’ opinions and reflections to dig into what Mary was really like, and what her importance to history truly was. As a Queen, she took over a country in the midst of ongoing religious conflict, a war in which we know with the virtue of hindsight, her side would ultimately lose. But that’s all off in the future; today, we’re looking at the first part of her life, from beloved Princess to cast-aside Lady to the woman who would be Queen.
Mary was born February 18, 1516, the first child of Henry VIII and his wife Katherine of Aragon to survive infancy. She had been preceded by a boy who lived only 52 days, as well as at least one recorded miscarriage and two stillbirths. With this track record in mind, her Catholic family ensured Mary was baptized as quickly as possible; their theology stated that even babies couldn’t go to Heaven if they died without being first baptized. She was a girl, which nobody really wanted, but she was alive, which proved that Katherine was at least this fertile. Her very existence meant that hopefully, a son would come along soon.
Much has been written about Henry VIII’s obsession with having a son, and it makes sense that he did. The Tudor dynasty was still very new, and he needed a no-brainer line of succession to ensure that his family would continue to rule long after he died. Daughters were useful as bargaining chips to solidify trade and political arrangements via marriage to foreign Princes and Kings, but sons were seen as necessary to further the family tree. Without a straightforward line of succession, the Tudor dynasty itself could end; a line of sons would ensure the line in, hopefully, perpetuity.
We know more about Mary’s childhood than most other women of the time period because she was born royal. Her intelligence, forceful personality, and firm opinions are noted in letters sent between ambassadors and emissaries. Both her grandmother, Isabella of Castile, and her mother, Katherine of Aragon, were firm believers in the importance of education for girls, so Mary was trained to be fluent in multiple languages, to be able to debate religion and philosophy, and in sports and music. Physically, she resembled both of her parents, with bright red hair, light blue eyes, and a pale complexion. When she got worked up, which seemed more often than for others, her skin would redden much as her father’s face did when he became emotional.
When she was two years old, a marriage was arranged between Mary and Francis, the infant son of the French King. The union was never solidified through any ceremony and, three years later, the Kings of both countries agreed to end the engagement. Her next engagement was arranged when she was six and would see her married to her 22-year-old cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Again, both parties agreed to end the contract a few years later, without any ceremony having been held. Henry then attempted to negotiate with the French again, this time promising Mary to the French King himself, not to the infant. And then, yet again, the agreement was ended without Mary securing herself a husband. But no big deal! She was still a kid! Plenty of time to find her a suitable husband.
When Mary was about ten, she was sent from London to Wales to preside over her own court. This was hugely significant, because even today, the heir to the English throne is known as the Prince of Wales. Sending Mary there was effectively saying, Katherine will not have any more children, Mary is the heir to the throne, get used to it. There was also a second reason for sending her away, and that reason is that Henry VIII was a huge asshole. He was actively trying to annul his marriage to Katherine at this point so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. The main sticking point was that Katherine refused to agree that their marriage was invalid. Removing her beloved daughter from her side was probably a bargaining/blackmailing tool; if Katherine wanted to see Mary again, she would have to accept Henry’s terms.
TOTALLY COINCIDENTALLY, it was during her time in Wales that Mary’s health concerns began to be recorded. Almost as if being used as a pawn between two warring parents, one of whom was a narcissistic monster, would have some sort of psychological effect on a tween? She had trouble with irregular menstrual cycles as well as struggled with disordered eating — the first hints at similar problems to what had plagued her grandmother, Isabella of Castile, in later life. Mary was clearly depressed and anxious, and Henry’s mistreatment of both herself and her mother only exacerbated these issues. Although she was forbidden to communicate with or to visit her mother, the pair managed a few secret meetings and letters. And then, finally, excruciatingly, Henry declared his marriage to Katherine null and void — and that the new English religion would be Protestant. Mary, and Katherine lost their influence, titles, and religion all in one fell swoop.
Henry did not divorce Katherine; he had their marriage annulled. This meant that, retroactively, Mary was illegitimate. As such, she was stripped of the title of Princess and had her household and staff taken from her. Retitled just Lady Mary, she was sent to live as a guest in a house away from court — that of her new infant half-sister, Princess Elizabeth.Mary, aged 17, had been replaced by a baby. The new Princess looked a lot like Mary, with red hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. This baby was to be raised just as Mary had been, as heir to the crown — and as an unwanted girl, placeholding until a boy was born. Elizabeth was now in possession of everything Mary had lost.
Henry had basically commanded that reality shift to fit his mercurial mood. He didn’t want Katherine anymore, so nobody else should respect her. He had no use any longer for Mary, so she was cast aside. Catholic leaders hadn’t given him the annulment he wanted, so everyone had to change to Protestantism. Both Mary and her mother refused to play along with this Emperor’s New Clothes reimagining of their lives. Katherine refused to accept that her marriage had been ended, or that she was no longer Queen. Mary refused to accept Anne Boleyn as either her stepmother or her Queen. Neither would waver in their devotion to their Catholic faith. And Henry hated them both for it.
When Katherine died in 1536, likely of cancer, Mary was not permitted to visit her mother’s bedside, nor to attend the funeral. According to all records, she was understandably inconsolable, a captive in her half-sister’s home, now having lost everything and everyone who had ever mattered to her. Elizabeth was now living a shadow of her sister’s life, too — Henry declared his marriage to Anne Boleyn retroactively invalid as well, downgrading Elizabeth from Princess to Lady, as well. But help would arrive for both redheaded stepchildren from an unlikely source — their new stepmother, Jane Seymour.
It was Jane’s influence that led Henry to reach out to Mary, who he hadn’t communicated with in three years. Henry being Henry, this communication was in the form of an ultimatum — Mary would have to pledge allegiance to the Church of England, and publicly agree she was illegitimate, in order to return to her father’s affections. Mary, bless her, tried to hand-wave away these requirements and make amends anyway, but Henry strong-armed her into agreeing. Mary finally signed a letter agreeing to his term and, at age 20, was welcomed back by her father at Engish court.
Now mistress of her own household again, Mary hired back some of her former servants to work for her. They, along with much of the population of England, still secretly supported her. Katherine of Aragon had been a beloved Queen for twenty years, and her daughter was equally loved — especially by those who disagreed with the King’s shift from Catholicism to Protestantism. The same year Mary returned to court, a rebellion arose, seeking to return England to the Catholic religion. One of their demands was to have Mary made legitimate again and to become Henry’s heir. Keep this in mind; there were a number of people lying in wait to support Mary’s claim to the throne. (That will be important in part two of this story). Now, this particular rebellion was ended when Henry basically massacred everyone who had been involved, which… again, keep this in mind for part two.
Lady Mary’s relationship with her stepmother Jane was a close one. When Jane gave birth to a baby boy, Prince Edward, she named Mary his godmother. Jane passed away shortly after giving birth, and Lady Mary led the mourning procession at her funeral — a role she had been unable to perform for her own mother, but now could for her stepmother.
Mary, now into her twenties, was still not only unmarried but not promised in marriage to anyone. Henry diligently worked to find a match for her that would help himself and England. One option was that of Philip, the Duke of Palatinate-Neuburg. Philip was close in age to Mary, and apparently, the two got along quite well. Philip’s connections in Germany would be beneficial to Henry, who was hoping that England could team up with Protestant German nobles to create an alliance against the Holy Roman Empire. Philip came to court for the first time in 1539, where he acted like a normal person, not wearing a disguise or trying to trick Mary into recognizing him. He presented Mary with a gift, and kissed her (!!!) which basically meant they were married at that point. Everyone at court, and everyone all over the country began gearing up for a royal marriage. The fact that Mary, the most Catholicy Catholic to ever Catholic, was agreeable to marriage with a Protestant really shows how much she liked him as a person.
But then the political and religious stuff got tricky again, and Henry decided this alliance didn’t suit him, Henry. Because he was not only the King but also — I cannot overstate this enough — a huge asshole. Philip visited court three more times to try and convince Henry to let him marry Mary, but no luck. On The Tudors, his character is played by the guy who plays Hook on Once Upon A Time, which is perfect casting because when the marriage plans dissolve the audience is just as gutted as Mary is. She could have had it all! ***shakes fist at Henry***
But in between ruining her chances at a sweet husband who loved her and was hot AF, Henry was still treating Mary pretty well. Like, for Henry? He was basically showering her with kindness, letting her act as hostess for his parties when he was between wives himself and things like that. Because he couldn’t deign to let Mary get married, but he just cavorted around marrying over and over again until he got bored with his wives and moved on.
Anyway, Henry’s sixth wife/Mary’s fifth stepmother, Kathryn Parr, managed to sweet-talk the King into reinstating both Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth into the line of succession. Like, they were both still technically illegitimate, but if something happened to Edward and/or any sons Edward would have, the two sisters would be first and second in line to the throne. Because, remember what I said before, about how Henry wanted a no-brainer line of succession? If anyone had to think too much about who got the throne next, there was wiggle room for other factions to come in and try and take over. He didn’t want everyone to have to consult a multi-page family tree to understand who was taking over; he wanted it to be VERY OBVIOUS. But, at this point, everyone assumed Edward would live for years and years and have lots of sons, so the thought of Mary or Elizabeth taking over was very pie in the sky and unlikely.
Henry died in 1547, and Prince Edward became King Edward. Now, he was a devoted Protestant, as were all of his advisors. One of the main things Edward knew he had to do was to continue his father’s work at making England be All Protestant All The Time. Having an older sister who was All Catholic All The Time wasn’t great for this plan, so Mary was kept out of the way, at estates she was given to run outside of town. She also, for those keeping track, was still neither engaged nor married and was now well into her thirties.
This was surely super stressful and frustrating for Mary. She had been raised as a noblewoman in a time and place where everyone knew her path was to get married to someone politically advantageous, then to birth as many children as possible to ensure the family’s dynasty. Unmarried and in her thirties, cut off from her royal title, she was running her estates but must have felt aimless. To make matters worse, her relationship with the teenage King was fractious. She was invited to court for Christmas in 1550, wherein she and Edward got into such an emotional screaming match about religion that they both wound up in tears. He was like, “I’m the King and I decreed everyone has to be All Protestant All The Time and when my sister doesn’t obey the law, it hurts my feelings!” and she was like, “I’m your sister and like 25 years older than you and when a teeny tiny boy tells me to cast aside my religion it makes me want to stick forks in my eyes!” and so on.
Then, in July 1553, Edward died. And the no-brainer line of succession started to look pretty confusing. Because Edward and his advisors had worked on a plan meant to ensure that Mary didn’t bring her Catholic ways to the throne of England. They’d all have been fine with Elizabeth inheriting the throne, but if they made her legitimate again they’d have to make Mary legitimate again, and there wasn’t any way to pass the crown to Elizabeth while bypassing Mary. Both girls had become illegitimate for basically the same reason, so he either had to have both in line or neither of them. And Edward and his gross, slimy, terrible advisors decided to remove them both. This meant that it was time for Plan B — a ten-page family tree to explain why they were choosing someone else entirely to succeed him to the throne. The people of England — and Mary herself — understood her to be the rightful new Queen. But Edward’s advisors had other plans in mind.
Click here for part two: The Reign of Bloody Mary
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter