The First Queen of England is a revealing biography about the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who was callously cast aside as her father fought to divorce Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn.
Queen Mary has always had a bad reputation for her persecution of Protestants which earned her the nickname Bloody Mary but I wanted to read a book that focused on her as an individual more than a queen. Linda Porter does an excellent job of revealing the tenacious young woman who found herself caught in the middle of her warring parents. Dissatisfied by her inability to produce a male heir, Henry VIII had grown tired of his wife of twenty years and was determined to divorce her but he did not reckon on the stubbornness of Catherine. As Henry fought to find a legal loophole that would invalidate his marriage, he never once considered the psychological damage he was inflicting on his daughter who would be declared illegitimate as a result of his actions.
Naturally, Mary took the side of her mother in the dispute but her father took his revenge by ensuring they were kept apart and Mary was devastated when her mother eventually died from a heart condition. The stress of the divorce took its toll on Mary’s own health throughout her teenage years and she was frequently ill. Matters were not improved when Henry succeeded in marrying Anne who was already pregnant. Henry and his advisors bullied Mary into signing a document declaring she was no longer a princess but she fought him for a long time before she reached the end of her tether.
Mary was then forced to live in the household of her new half-sister, Elizabeth, who was granted the title of princess in Mary’s place. Mary was mistreated by Elizabeth’s attendants for continuing to observe mass and the young woman found herself friendless, although she did try to make amends with her father. When Anne Boleyn fell out of favour and was executed for treason, Mary had hopes of a reconciliation but her father was far too preoccupied by Jane Seymour.
Mary was eventually allowed to return to court but it came with the expectation she would do as she was told. Mary and Elizabeth’s status hardly mattered since both were shunted aside when Jane Seymour finally delivered a son but Henry’s joy soon turned to distress when his queen died after complications. Mary had gotten along well with Jane and was distraught by her death, but she was named as godmother to her new brother and she took the responsibility seriously.
When her father died, Mary soon found herself in another untenable position when her brother’s regents began to bully her for stubbornly clinging to the Catholic faith while they were pushing through reforms. Mary refused to bow to their demands and she suffered for it with frequent bouts of illness that aged her prematurely. Mary and Edward’s relationship deteriorated to the point where he often reduced his sister to tears with his cruel admonishments and Mary found herself alone in her struggles. Although they were in similar positions, Mary and Elizabeth were never on good terms, but Elizabeth had a cooler head than her sister who wore her heart on her sleeve.
When it became obvious that her brother was dying and was in the process of naming Lady Jane Grey and her descendants as his heirs, Mary had to act fast. Although it did seem as if Mary was alone in her struggles, she did have loyal servants and there were many of the old faith who were willing to rally to her cause. After a daring coup, Mary seized the throne after her brother’s death and proclaimed herself queen.
Mary only reigned as queen for five years before her untimely death but much of it is dismissed in comparison to the glorious reign of her sister who succeeded her. Initially, Mary was a tolerant queen in regard to religion as she realised her brother’s reforms could not be undone overnight. However, Mary was determined to have her country reconciled with Rome but it was many months before the new laws could be repealed and the persecutions began. More than 283 Protestants were burned at the stake, tarnishing Mary’s reputation forever and earning her the nickname Bloody Mary. Those who denounced Mary as an unpopular queen tended to forget the fact it was Mary who introduced the policies of fiscal reform, naval expansion and colonial exploration that were later lauded as Elizabeth’s accomplishments.
On a more personal level, when Mary ascended the throne she realised it was her duty to provide an heir and to do that she would have to select a husband. Despite her misgivings, there was only one possible candidate and that was Philip of Spain, although he was eleven years her junior. Anxious to allay English worries, a deal was struck whereby Philip would only co-rule England in Mary’s lifetime and could only make decisions with his wife’s consent. Philip did not really want to marry Mary but was wise enough to go along with it as it would be advantageous politically, but he wasn’t pleased by the terms of the marriage.
Mary was determined to be a good wife to Philip and she did fall in love with him, although her feelings were never reciprocated and Philip spent a great deal of his time abroad. In September 1554, Mary was certain she was pregnant but many had doubts and when the promised child failed to materialise, Mary fell into a deep depression which wasn’t helped by her husband’s desertion to Flanders.
Mary believed she was pregnant once more in 1558 and made provisions in her will for her husband to be named regent should she die in childbirth, however she was soon forced to face the fact there never would be an heir. A few weeks later, Mary became dangerously ill during an influenza epidemic, naming Elizabeth as her heir, before her death on 17 November 1558. In her will, Mary asked to be buried next to her mother but Elizabeth had her interred in Westminster Abbey instead.
While Mary will never be regarded as a popular monarch, this book goes a long way in redressing the balance of opinion as Mary’s actions were no worse than those committed by her father or even her celebrated sister. My main reason for reading it was to gain a better perspective of this much maligned queen and I certainly feel this book achieved that. I had no idea Mary had such a sense of fun as a child and then went on to have a great love for fashion, as she is so often portrayed as a frumpy and humourless woman.
The Mary I most admired though is the young woman who stood up to her formidable father with such courage when he tried to take away her birthright. Mary stood her ground against the man who had two of his wives executed and lived to tell the tale.