StMU Research Scholars

Featuring Scholarly Research, Writing, and Media at St. Mary’s University

February 16, 2017

Bloody Mary in the Mirror

Winner of the Fall 2016 StMU History Media Awards for

Article with the Best Title

No one can say who history will choose to remember, or for what they will be remembered. Sometimes a lifetime of achievement can be forgotten because of a single misdeed. Few historic figures relate to this statement more than the English Queen Mary Tudor. Remembered today as a drink, or as a ghost story told by young children, Queen Mary was the first self-reigning queen of England during a time of radical religious change within her realm. The atrocities she committed during her reign would forever live on, and earn her the nickname Bloody Mary.

A portrait of Queen Mary I, the first regnant queen of England, by Anthonis Mor, Spain 1554 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mary Tudor was born in the year 1516 to King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Although he wanted a son, King Henry was very fond and proud of Mary, whom he showed off to many people in the castle and in the London markets. As he was showing her off to a French envoy, King Henry was heard shouting “By immortal God, Master Ambassador, this girl never cries!”1 Beginning at the tender age of six, Mary was offered up for marriage multiple times, including to her cousin Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and to the son of King Francis I of France, and even to King Francis himself. She was crowned by her father as the first princess of Wales.

Because Catherine had not given him a son, King Henry sought to annul their marriage. However, at the insistence of Catherine, Charles V and papacy refused to grant Henry the annulment. Henry did not take kindly to their refusal and sought to distance himself from their ecclesiastical rule to establish his own.With his new adviser, Thomas Cromwell, a known Protestant, by his side, King Henry announced the Act of Succession, formally separating the England from the authority of Rome. He then enacted the Act of Supremacy, which placed him as the head of the new Church of England.2

Much of northern England discontented with the current state of affairs. Growing ever more restless with rising taxes, hardships, and now the separation from the Roman Catholic Church, many villages began to revolt. Cromwell sought to quell the rebellion by enacting the Pilgrimage of Grace. Many monasteries and places of worship were burned to the ground while the government issued the Ten Articles of Religion, religious rules that had to be practiced, many of which heavily favored Protestant traditions. These actions only led to further uprisings that eventually posed a threat to King Henry’s rule.3

Once again under the guidance of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry executed over two-hundred of the insurgents, effectively ending the uprising. A young Mary watched as her father sentenced his enemies to death, establishing his power and right to reign through force. This display of power would shape Mary and her eventual reign as monarch.4

Mary was very close to her mother growing up, and believed very deeply in the Catholic traditions and values instilled in her at a young age. After Catherine’s annulment, Mary quickly sided with her mother and developed a deep hatred of Henry’s new wife, Anne Boleyn. Angry that Mary chose to side with Catherine instead of him, Henry separated Mary from her mother, stripped her of her title,which she would never regain in her lifetime. After the birth of her new half sister Elizabeth, Mary became illegitimate in the eyes of the royal court and lost all right to the throne. She was forced to live in Elizabeth’s house, where she was hated and reviled by her step mother Anne Boleyn until her execution years later. Scholars believe Mary suffered from congenital syphilis, which she inherited from her father. This, coupled with the psychological stress she endured, caused her to spend the next several years in and out of severe illness.5

Portrait of Mary I (1516-1558). By Master John. Oil on panel, 1544. National Portrait Gallery | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On 12 October 1537, Edward VI was born to King Henry and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Now Henry finally had a son who would succeed him upon his death, which happened in 1547. Under Edward’s rule, Protestantism was given Edward’s full sponsorship, and an English Reformation ensued, which brought a thorough-going persecution of all things Catholic. Despite this, Mary continued to practice her faith, holding mass in her private chapel, which was in open defiance of the many religious laws put in place at Edward’s behest. Edward’s rule, however, was short lived; he reigned only six years before dying of illness. Before he died, Edward altered the line of succession to ensure that Lady Jane Gray, a Protestant and grand-daughter of King Henry’s sister, would take the throne instead of his half-sister Mary. Lady Jane became queen, and Mary was forced to flee for her life from the castle. She was faced with a choice: flee the country, or try to oppose her rule.6

To the surprise of many, Mary garnered large support and loyalty from many subjects, including East Anglian nobility. In a matter of days she had amassed an army strong enough to oppose the English council and end the rule of the nine-day queen. At 37 years old, Mary Tudor ascended to the throne. In 1554 Queen Mary issued an order, which declared that queens held equal power to kings, effectively becoming the first regnant queen of England.7 As a monarch Mary worked ceaselessly in the name of her kingdom. It was said that she woke up at dusk to pray, then worked in government well passed midnight. Despite the struggles she had endured throughout life, and the cruelty she later become known for, Mary was described by many as kind and caring woman. She was known for interest in fine jewelry while still insisting she remained a simple woman, with an inclination towards gambling.8

Mary immediately worked towards reestablishing the papacy’s control over England. She began a reverse Reformation, undoing many of the religious laws in place and replacing them with new laws meant to reestablish Catholicism in England. Many disagreed with her efforts, and did not believe she had a right rule. Uprisings began as people defied many of the religious laws she put into place, practicing their faith in secret as Catholics had done only a few years ago. As her father had done before her, Queen Mary established her power and authority by executing all those who defied the new laws. Protestant prisoners were dragged from their cells, tied to stakes, and burned alive for all to see. Often times these prisoners were covered in hot tar to make the flames burn longer. Many of the people executed were young. Mothers were burned alongside their children. An estimated 294 were believed to have died under her rule9.

María Tudor, reina de Inglaterra y esposa de Felipe II. By Antonis Mor. 1554 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For Queen Mary, these executions were not just punishing those who broke the religious laws of the land, but a way of purifying England so as to restore it to its former state of communion with Rome. As she had witnessed from her father before her, public executions were also an efficient way to establish power and dominance over the people, great and small. This may have been a necessary power play, since many doubted whether she actually had the strength to rule, because she was a woman. These executions did produce the desire outcome; however, the people sacrificed to the flames soon became martyrs, and Protestant sentiment grew even stronger among its followers. Those who escaped her purge began referring to the queen as “bloody Mary,” because of all of the Protestant blood she had shed.10

Despite the loyalty she had garnered among her followers, many people still believed a queen would be too weak to rule on her own. Many members of her council had also served under Lady Jane as well, providing more obstacles for her to overcome. Mary knew she needed to produce an heir to ensure that Elizabeth would never ascend to the throne. She married King Phillip II of Spain, son of Emperor Charles V, a decision that many considered to be the worst in her reign. Sir Thomas Wyatt, a Protestant leader, staged a rebellion against the matter, led by many other prominent Protestants. Many years into their tumultuous relationship,Phillip convinced Mary to aid Spain in his war against France.  which she did, and it resulted in massive losses for the English navy.11

Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of England from 1554 to 1558 | The arms of Queen Mary Impaled with those of King Phillip II | Made with Inkscape | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Like her brother before her, Mary’s reign was short lived, lasting only five years. She died in the year 1558, after finally succumbing to illness.12 Elizabeth was then crowned reigning monarch, devoting her time as queen to rebuilding the Church of England. As her father had done before her, Elizabeth sought to establish a middle ground between the two warring religions. She instilled traditions from both Catholicism and Protestantism to establish peace among the people.

Though a trail blazer in every sense of the word, Queen Mary is instead remembered as the “Tyrant Tudor” reviled by many for the ferocious acts she committed in the name of her faith.13

  1. Neil Jones, “The Rise and Fall of Bloody Mary,” Britain 84, no. 2 (April 2016): 66.
  2. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Henry VIII,” by William T. Walker.
  3. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Pilgrimage of Grace,” by Sharon L. Arnoult.
  4. Niki Incorvia, “A Threshold of Genocide: Microgenocide in Mary Tudor’s Revenge on Protestant England and Catherine de Medici’s Massacre of the Huguenots,” International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society 5, no. 3, (September 2015): 54.
  5.  Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, April 2016, s.v. “1516–58 Mary I, Queen of England.”
  6.  Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Mary I.,” by Ann Weikel.
  7.  Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Mary I,” by Ann Weikel.
  8. Neil Jones, “The Rise and Fall of Bloody Mary,” Britain 84, no. 2 (April 2016): 66.
  9. Niki Incorvia, “A Threshold of Genocide: Microgenocide in Mary Tudor’s Revenge on Protestant England and Catherine de Medici’s Massacre of the Huguenots,” International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society 5, no. 3 (September 2015): 54–55.
  10. Niki Incorvia, “A Threshold of Genocide: Microgenocide in Mary Tudor’s Revenge on Protestant England and Catherine de Medici’s Massacre of the Huguenots,” International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society 5, no. 3 (September 2015): 54–55.
  11.  Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, April 2016, s.v. “1516–58 Mary I, Queen of England.”
  12.  Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, April 2016, s.v. “1516–58 Mary I, Queen of England.”
  13. Neil Jones, “The Rise and Fall of Bloody Mary,” Britain 84, no. 2 (April 3, 2016): 66.

Tags from the story

Bloody Mary

English Tudors

Queen Mary Tudor

Recent Comments

Adelina Wueste

This was a very informative article. I did not know that “bloody Mary” came from the English queen, Queen Mary. What I found most surprising about this article was how much damage Mary was able to cause within such a short period of time. It’s interesting how Mary’s background likely affected her role as queen later in life. Mary saw her father’s attitude as king and decided to take on that same role as queen. It’s odd that although Mary seemed to follow in her father’s footsteps when it came to her way of ruling, her two siblings did not.

reply

24/01/2023

10:30 am

Anayetzin Chavez Ochoa

As soon as I see her nickname, I immediately recall the countless times kids would exit the classroom during a restroom break and attempt to “summon” her in the mirror, as you mention in the beginning. It’s good to learn that King Henry at least valued Mary to an extent (despite the obvious patriarchal standard of the time). It’s easy to imagine how much of a paradigm shift she experienced all at once (maybe a few days/weeks in real time) that she was ejected from the status of Princess of Wales to a scorned, sickly woman. It’s also a paradigm shift to see her go from a, technically, humble and kind woman to the blood-inducing queen we hear about, because one would expect the ruthless to be ruthless since birth. Thank you for writing this article, it was very inciteful!

reply

25/01/2023

10:30 am

Hailey Koch

First off congrats on winning the best title award! Queen Mary tried her very best to keep Elizabeth off the throne. She knew that she would have to have a son in order for this to happen. She then decided to marry King Phillip II of Spain to try for a son. Many years after they had been married King Phillip wanted his wife Mary to be of assistance in a war against France. This agreeance led to a loss of English. King Phillip influenced Mary in a way that sort of changed her and certain beliefs she had. I find it deranged that so many things happened between her first marriage with King Henry to her last husband before passing young.

reply

25/01/2023

10:30 am

Lucia Rogel

Such an interesting reading, considering that I learned the real reason behind Bloody Mary. Raised in Catholicism, this nickname was taboo because of the supposed use of the Virgin Mary’s name in vain. Now I know this is not that at all. In addition, I am surprised that her short reign made such a deep-rooted societal impact and instilled so much fear in her people since I would’ve guessed that it would take many more years and a higher death toll for someone to earn such a nickname.

reply

25/01/2023

10:30 am

Sofia Perez

What an amazing article, Nicolas! My favorite part about this article was finding out she is the first regnant queen of England. She was a powerful queen that reigned for only five years and married King Phillip of Spain. As for how she got her nickname, bloody Mary, I was shocked to find out how brutal and harsh she was toward the protestants. I do not think that was right for her to force her religion of Catholicism on her people.

reply

25/01/2023

10:30 am

Fatima Esparza

After reading your article, I learned more about the early life of Mary. It is sad that her father separated her from her mother and then had to deal with different illnesses. It is ironic how she was stripped of her royal title but ended up queen, at least for a few years. It is shocking that as much as many people loved her and thought she was caring, many others did not like her due to her strict laws and involvement of the catholic church in her political decisions.

reply

25/01/2023

10:30 am

Jose Maria Gallegos Cebreros

First of all congrats on a great article. For me, it was really easy to digest because of how well you wrote it. Before reading this article, I had an idea why they called her “bloody Mary” and you made it so clear that I feel that i know the whole story now. It is not a surprise that your article won “best article of the year” the content matches perfectly with the title, well done.

reply

25/01/2023

10:30 am

Priscilla Leal

I enjoyed reading about Queen Mary’s rule and how much she had to do and endure in her rule to prove herself as a woman and monarch in her time. Its interesting to see how even though she did similar things as her father, she was the one that got stigmatized and got nicknamed “bloody mary”, gender roles played such a big part in how royals were seen and labeled.

reply

26/01/2023

10:30 am

Kristen Leary

Not only is this a very intriguing topic for an article, but the style of writing allows the reader to stay invested in the story throughout. Well done! All of the political moves in order to keep her from reigning were fascinating, as well as the marriage she chose in order to secure herself an heir. It’s so odd to think that within a royal family there would be such conflict and differing beliefs and views. Especially given the history of her father and the history of Catholicism and the reformation at the time.

reply

26/01/2023

10:30 am

1 2 3 9

Leave a Reply