There are some monarchs who were dealt a bad hand from the start. One of these has to be Queen Mary I, although it was only after she reached the age of 17 that her real problems started.

She had been born on 18th February 1516 to King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine. This was a matter of great joy to her parents, following a series of miscarriages and still births, with the only cloud being the fact that she was a girl rather than a boy.

 However, as she got older, and no other children were born, it soon became clear that her father was getting steadily more anxious about the lack of a male heir. The idea that Mary would become a reigning queen was never regarded as a desirable outcome.

 From when Mary was aged ten there was little doubt that her father wanted to divorce her mother. Mary felt more comfortable with her mother than her father, and this led to growing friction with King Henry.

 When the divorce happened and Henry married Anne Boleyn, in 1533, Mary’s world fell apart. Not only was she declared illegitimate and no longer a princess, but her mother was banished from court and Mary was forbidden to have any further contact with her. There were even calls in Parliament that she should be executed.




Queen Mary I painted in 1544
Credit: Painting by "Master John"; public domain artwork

A Dynastic Pawn

Mary had no function other than to be a pawn in her father’s power games. Henry could make and break diplomatic arrangements with other crowned heads by having Mary betrothed to whoever he liked, and breaking such engagements as he saw fit. At one time Mary was betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was 15 years older than her, and at another time her intended was 11 years younger, namely Philip II of Spain – who did actually become her husband much later in life.

Another indignity Mary had to face was being forced to defer to her sister Elizabeth, who was born to Anne Boleyn in 1533 and was therefore 17 years younger than Mary. This situation eased after Anne Boleyn was executed in 1536 and Elizabeth was also declared illegitimate. Mary was advised to make her peace with her father and she was accepted back at court.

The birth of her half-brother Edward to Jane Seymour in 1537 did at least seem to settle one thing, namely that Mary could forget about ever becoming queen in her own right, as could Elizabeth. She was, however, restored to her place in the succession after King Henry had entered his sixth and final marriage in 1543.

An Uncomfortable Subject

Edward became king (as Edward VI) in 1547, at the age of nine, and embarked on a policy of making England a fully Protestant country. Mary had always retained her Catholicism and so was therefore completely at odds with Edward, who demanded obedience from his half-sister who was 21 years his senior. His instructions included that she practice Protestant rites in her worship, which she persistently refused to do.

Mary therefore withdrew from public life to sulk in private over the way the country was going. Although there were serious revolts against King Edward and his “Lord Protectors” there is no convincing evidence that Mary was active in supporting them.


Queen At Last

Mary must have assumed – at did everyone else – that Edward would have a long reign and would marry and produce heirs. However, this was not to be. In February 1553 Edward was taken ill – the symptoms suggest tuberculosis – and he never recovered. He died on 6th July at the age of only 15.

Steps had been taken by Edward’s “minders”, but with his consent, to exclude Mary from the succession. As a result, when Edward died he was succeeded by his cousin Lady Jane Grey, who was as much a dynastic pawn as Mary had been earlier in her life. 16-year-old Lady Jane had no wish either to be queen or to be married to the son of the Duke of Northumberland, who was Edward’s chief minister.

As it happened, the unpopularity of Northumberland meant that Jane’s “reign” only lasted for six days. Mary was seen by the people as the rightful successor to Edward, and when she entered London she was received rapturously and the Council of England had no choice but to give way. Mary therefore became queen at the age of 37.

Mary was prepared at first to be merciful to Lady Jane, but the prospect of a revolt in Jane’s favour meant that Mary had little choice but to have her executed the following February.


Bloody Mary

However, now that Mary was queen in her own right, with all the powers of an absolute monarch, she set about – as she saw it – her God-given task of returning England to the true faith.

This meant executing Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishops Ridley and Latimer, who had been active proponents of the English Restoration. They were found guilty of treason and heresy and burned at the stake in Oxford.

However, they were neither the first not the last victims of the “Marian Persecutions”. During Mary’s reign some 300 people, both male and female and of all classes, were executed by burning for refusing to recant their Protestant views. Their stories, many of which were recounted in the “Book of Martyrs” by John Foxe, make harrowing reading. They included a woman in Derby who had been blind from birth, two women in Suffolk whose crime had been to take food to an imprisoned priest, and a woman in the Channel islands who was heavily pregnant.

The executions began early in 1555 and continued until 15th November 1558, two days before Queen Mary’s own death. Many of the executions were of groups of victims, such as the ten “Sussex Martyrs” who died at Lewes on 22nd June 1557 and several groups of “Canterbury Martyrs”.


The burning of a martyr in 1555
Credit: Contemporary woodcut; public domain artwork

Relief For England

Whatever people’s religious beliefs, there can surely have been few who did not rejoice that Mary’s reign was shorter than her brother’s. She died from influenza – although it is also possible that she had ovarian cancer – on 17th November 1558 at the age of 42. Her half-sister Elizabeth, who had been living quietly at Hatfield, was immediately welcomed as the new queen.

 With Mary dead, the process of healing could begin, although Elizabeth would create a goodly number of Catholic martyrs during her reign to set alongside the Protestant martyrs of Mary’s.


 That said, Elizabeth was greeted as the new Queen with enthusiasm and she would generate genuine love and support from her subjects, which Mary had signally failed to do.