Previously in our examination of Queen Mary I…
She was a Princess, then an illegitimate Lady, and Henry VIII wouldn’t allow her to marry anyone. Her baby sister replaced her, then seemed to be following in her footsteps. Her baby brother became King, then died. And a large proportion of the English population wanted her to be Queen. Get all the details here, and then join us for part two:
The woman who would become Queen Mary I battled health problems throughout her life. As a teenager, she had irregular and painful periods that perhaps would today be diagnosed as endometriosis. She was also passionate and deeply committed to what she believed in, which included several things that used to be true such as that she herself was a Princess, that her mother was the Queen, and that her parents’ marriage had existed. Her life became collateral damage to her father’s goals of a) marrying Anne Boleyn and b) turning the whole country Protestant. I find lots of similarities between Mary and her mother, Katherine of Aragon, like their resiliency and stubbornness as well as how each turned to faith in times of crisis. But there are also lots of similarities between what Mary is now often derided for, like her mood swings and tendency to look without leaping, that she has in common with Henry VIII, too. Really, she was the sum total of personality traits of two extremely sensitive and mercurial people which, combined with having a ton of life-related tragedy thrown at her, seemed to give her no chance at all. But she equipped herself far better than history thought for a long time.
So, we left off last time with her much-younger brother dying at age 15, leaving the succession a giant question mark. Generationally, Mary and Edward were half-siblings but they had been born so far apart she was closer in age to his mother than she was to him. At age 37, she had been fucked around with for the majority of her life, mostly by men, but now also by a boy king. Because Edward and his dirtbag advisors had schemed to remove Mary as his heir. The rules of succession basically said that the crown should go to literally any man before it went to any woman, and it was a perfect storm where there weren’t any male candidates anywhere on the family tree. Every branch ended with a woman, and rather than popping over to have a cousin take over, really Mary — as Edward’s sister, and Henry VIII’s first daughter — should have been heir to the throne.
So although Edward’s advisors tried to have Lady Jane Grey (Edward and Mary’s cousin) put on the throne — and Jane was technically Queen for nine days, which I wrote about here — eventually reason and logic won out and Mary was appointed Queen Mary I. This was a big deal. England had never before in its history had a Queen as the sole monarch. Like, Kings had married women before who became Queens, but Queen Mary I was the first woman to be, herself, the monarch of the country. There was one big reason and one small reason that Edward et al preferred Jane to Mary. The big reason was that Jane was Protestant and Mary was Catholic, and Edward had been committed to seeing through his father’s desire to Make England Protestant. The small reason was that Mary was 37 years old and Jane was 16, and chances were much more favorable that Jane would have children at this point than Mary would. If whoever took over didn’t start popping out heirs, then the crisis of succession seemed like it could go on forever. And unlike on Game of Thrones, a crisis of succession isn’t all sexy drama and exciting swordfights — it drains the bank accounts of everyone involved and lots of people tend to die.
The first amazing thing Mary did as Queen was how she got rid of Lady Jane Grey and everyone who had supported her. Mary had been raised for the first part of her life as heir to the throne, then spent the next part of her life probably fantasizing about a situation just like this, where she’d be able to become Queen again. So she knew just what to do, and that was: hang out around people who hated Edward and his advisors, lean into the fact that everyone in England basically loved her because they had loved her mother, and ride that horse all the way to the throne. When her brother was dying, Mary was called to his bedside allegedly so she could say her goodbyes. Actually, she was being invited so she could be captured and hidden away so she wouldn’t try and steal the throne from Jane. But Mary figured this out, and instead of going to her dying brother’s bedside, headed for East Anglia which was a place where she owned a lot of land and where Edward’s advisors had recently killed a bunch of people, so they were keen to help her defeat him.
Mary’s first plan was politness, writing a letter to the privy council instructing them to name her Queen. This letter arrived on July 10, the same day that Jane Grey was declared Queen so: onto Plan B. Which was: amass an army and take over by force. What’s amazing is that she didn’t even need to use the army. Just the very fact that she had an army, along with widespread support among literally the entire country, was enough to spook Edward’s advisors into abandoning Jane and proclaiming themselves on #TeamMary. On July 19th, Jane was removed from the throne and put in jail. Mary processed into London, surrounded by about 800 fans and with her sister Elizabeth at her side, on August 3. Queen Mary I had ARRIVED!
Now, the thing is that Mary was 37 years old, unmarried, and childless. These are all wonderful things to be, but was not who she wanted to be, and not what the country needed at this time. She had to find a husband and have a baby ASAP, because without an heir, Elizabeth would inherit from her. And while the Protestants of the world would love that, Mary was Catholic, and wanted a Catholic heir. This meant she needed a Catholic husband, ideally someone from another country that it would be beneficial for England to team up with. Her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor, was like, “How about my son Philip of Spain? He was married once before and has a son already, so we know he’s virile, plus he’ll inherit tons of land in Europe and North America, and England and Spain together could be like a Catholic superpower that could take over the world!!” And Mary was like, “YES PLEASE!”
Although Mary was really excited about this plan, basically nobody else was. Not her advisors, not the country in general: nobody. Not just because Philip was Catholic, but also because Spain was one of those countries that England was on-again/off-again at war with, and nobody really wanted to team up with them. But Mary refused to back down, which is no surprise given how stubborn we know she was as a younger woman. And so, just a few months into her reign, she had a full-scale rebellion on her hands as a bunch of her councilors basically went on strike to prevent her from marrying Philip. These rebels wanted Mary off the throne, and for Elizabeth to take over in her place. This was the whole Mary/Jane Grey thing all over again, where it’s hard to consolidate power as Queen when someone much more appealing is running around living her life, too. And so, even though Elizabeth probably wasn’t involved in the rebellion (and was like 15 years old at this time), Mary threw her half-sister in jail.
One huge hurdle in Mary’s choice of husband, no matter who he was, was that English law basically said that when a woman married then everything she owned became the property of her husband. Doesn’t matter if you’re the Queen; your husband is more important than you. So whoever Mary married would become King of England, and in many ways, a little bit more powerful than she was. Philip was all about this life, and finally, the councilors relented and Mary was allowed to marry him. Two days after they met for the first time, they were married! Never mind that he didn’t speak English; Philip was now King of England, and through their marriage, Mary became Queen of Naples and Jerusalem, along with England.
About two months after their wedding, Mary began to display symptoms associated with pregnancy. Now, bear in mind she’d had issues relating to menstruation as long as she’d reached menarche. Medical records weren’t made public because, I mean, of course they didn’t. But she likely had always suffered from painful and inconsistent periods, causing her debilitating pain and perhaps contributing to her other health issues. For a 38-year-old woman to miss a period could mean she’s pregnant; for Mary, it could also mean a lot of things, not least of which being that she was suffering from yet another internal issue. But this time, the missed period came along with a swelling in her breasts and belly, and she gradually began gaining weight. Along with daily morning sickness, her physicians diagnosed her as pregnant. Because she was a married adult woman and 9 times out of 10, or perhaps 199,999 times out of 200,000, these symptoms meant just that.
But even as her apparent pregnancy progressed, there were those who doubted that was truly happening. Her husband, Philip, took mistresses and was known to be unfaithful to her. Having a baby could, perhaps, be seen as a way of tying him more to her — not to mention a way to solidifying both him and her as the parents to the next King of England. As was the usual custom, preparations began to welcome the birth of a new royal baby. Birth announcements were created, leaving blanks just for the date and sex of the child. A crib was hand-carved, a room was prepared for Mary’s delivery, and legal plans were sorted out about who would control the country if she and/or her child didn’t survive childbirth.
In May, the month of Mary’s due date, Elizabeth was released from house arrest to come and witness the birth. This wasn’t just for gloating reasons (“Ha ha! You’re not the heir anymore!”) but more for practical purposes; in case both Mary and the baby both died, Elizabeth would become the new Queen. If only Mary died, the infant would be crowned, with Philip serving as their regent. Philip, surprise!, was just the latest in a long line of truly terrible men to happen to the women of this dynasty, and he had a secret plan to marry Elizabeth if Mary died, to ensure he could continue on being King of England.
But Mary didn’t die. And neither did the baby. Because there wasn’t ever a baby to begin with. Nine months passed, then ten, and finally eleven months and it was July and Mary spent all this time locked up in the sort of quarantine room that royal women were put in back then to have babies. As she fasted and prayed, hidden away, as parties and announcements and proclamations of a new royal heir were all done away with like nothing had ever happened.
But what really caused Mary to think she was pregnant? She wasn’t stuffing pillows down her dress, her body was providing numerous signs that was the case, to the point that her royal physicians agreed with her. Was it a case of Emperor’s New Clothes where everyone was too scared to contradict her? Even if that were the case, why was her body acting like it was pregnant? Obviously nobody knows because medical records from back then don’t involve things like ultrasounds and we can’t exactly exhume her womb to investigate. But three things seem most plausible:
- Mary may have had an ovarian cyst. This would explain the swollen uterus area, breast tenderness, and morning sickness.
- Mary may have had a molar pregnancy, which is what it’s called when a non-viable fertilized egg implants in the uterus. This rarely can grow into a mass that could be the same size as a pregnant belly BUT this would likely have also killed her from bleeding etc.
- Mary may have had pseudocyesis. This is sometimes called “hysterical pregnancy” and you may have encountered it on episodes of Law & Order or that sort of thing. It’s where a woman psychologically believes herself to be pregnant, and her body mimics the symptoms of pregnancy, including feeling the baby kick (and part of Mary’s deal was that she did claim to feel the baby move). This is a VERY RARE THING because goodness knows that lots of women desperately want to have children (like, for instance, ALL OF HENRY VIII’S WIVES) and this does not happen to all of them. This is a VERY RARE AND UNUSUAL THING, but is most often what people think happened to Mary.
Whatever the cause, Mary truly believed she was pregnant for a gestational period and commissioned cradles to be whittled and parties to be held and this is all unbelievably sad. Unlike when her mother had delivered stillborn babies, or babies who died after a few hours or weeks of life, there was no body to mourn, no baby with a name to commemorate and grieve for. She did not receive the sympathy and pity of a woman who lost a child. Mary, like both her parents, was super-religious and looked for clues because God was obviously doing this to her for a reason.
So when she emerged from seclusion, months after her due date, emaciated from the fasting and the praying, she was determined to make things right with God. And she would do that by killing as many Protestants as possible.
Oh, and if you’re like, “Wait, where’s that husband of hers, the guy who married her after knowing her for ten seconds and wanted to rule all of Europe with her?” SURPRISE! King Philip was, you guessed it, a total sleaze. He constantly ran off to fight wars and have affairs with mistresses, and whenever he was away Mary fell into a deep depression. Which just made him stay away even more. So Mary, left on her own, firmly committed to her plan to please God by killing all the Protestants and returning England to the Catholic faith. Step one was to throw prominent Protestant leaders in jail. Step two was to abolish all the Protestant laws her brother King Edward had made. Step three was to restore all the laws back to how they were before, which meant all the Priests who got to be married when they switched to Protestantism were now Catholic again and had to get rid of their wives and families. When Queen Mary isn’t happy NOBODY IS HAPPY. And also A LOT OF PEOPLE GET BURNED AT THE STAKE.
To be fair, she also offered that the rich Protestants could just flee and move to another country, which about 800 of them did. Approximately 283 Protestants were executed during this period, including Mary’s former governess which is the sort of detail that is just like: wow, I need to learn more about Mary’s former governess. And so you know how Mary’s mother was from Spain and her husband was Spanish and they were all Catholic? All this stuff made the people of England really start disliking both Catholics and the Spanish. Almost right away, the victims of her persecution were being spoken of as religious martyrs.
While Mary was busy lighting fires, Philip was… yes, still in Spain, avoiding her. When his father abdicated, Philip became King of Spain and sort of permanently moved there. Philip came back to England in 1557, mostly to encourage her to declare war on France with him. Everybody told her it was a bad idea, but that had never stopped her before, so she agreed and her country went to war! This was a terrible idea for all kinds of reasons, not least of which that by doing so, they made an enemy out of the literal Pope. Who you kind of want on your side when your main purpose in life is defending the Catholic religion.
As if things couldn’t be more miserably for literally everybody, the entire period of Mary’s reign was unusually wet. This meant the crops were all spoiled, which meant everybody was starving all the time. Plus, they were at war with France and just like… things were not going great for England, like, in general. Mary could have been the greatest Queen of all time and she’d still be dealing with things beyond her control such as weather, her health problems, and the fact that every man in this time period was an absolute nightmare of a human being.
But then! Philip’s conjugal visit resulted in Mary becoming pregnant! The new baby was said to be due in March 1558, and Mary filled out all the paperwork like she had before — saying that if she died, Philip would be the regent of their child, and that if both she and the child died in childbirth, Elizabeth would become the new monarch. And it should come as no surprise to anyone at this point when I tell you that Mary was again not actually pregnant. By May, two months after her not-due date, she was extremely weak and ill and in pain. This is part of why my personal theory is that her two phantom pregnancies were actually recurring ovarian cysts, the latter of which may have turned into uterine cancer. She died on November 17, 1558, at age 42.
Her reign lasted just over five years. I do think that anyone taking over during such a period of turmoil — the Jane Grey thing, Edward’s years as a boy king, the religious turmoil, the starvation, the wars, the religious battles — would have had a lot to deal with. She was only on the throne for a short time, during which she was also going through some really intense personal stuff, and she did not have the full support of her advisors or her husband at basically any time. And the fact that her short, odd, messy reign was followed by the decades-long, famously successful reign of Elizabeth, means she’s often put up in comparison to her sister. John Knox, one of the WORST men of the Tudor time period who wrote a bunch of very stupid things about how women were inferior, etc., would use Mary as an example of why women should never be allowed to rule anything. And perhaps Elizabeth learned from watching Mary’s struggles breaking through this glass ceiling, making a mental note to never marry because of how much control a Queen would lose by taking a husband. Oh because after Mary died, if you think Philip didn’t try to marry Elizabeth? Then you haven’t been paying attention. Obviously she had none of that, because COME. ON.
Next time: The Childhood of Princess Elizabeth, The Girl Who Would Be Queen
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