The Life and Historical Reputation of Mary Tudor

by Linda Porter

Chapter 1: Perceptions

A couple of years ago I was asked to give a talk on a topic of my choosing about prominent Tudor women in the Great Hall of Hampton Court. It was a fund-raising event for a group of high-powered business and professional women, most of whom are American.The evening was expertly compered by a well-known TV personality – until, in introducing me, she ventured to tell the audience that Elizabeth I was our first reigning queen. I couldn’t help cringing. For, of course, the first woman to rule England in her own right was not Good Queen Bess but her elder half-sister, Mary I. Stop anyone on the street and the chances are that they wouldn’t have much of a clue as to who was our first female monarch, but that those who ventured an opinion would repeat this mistake. And, if pressed, they would recall someone much nastier: ‘Oh, Bloody Mary’.

The epithet, not in common use until the seventeenth century, has stuck like mud (or something worse) to the reputation of our first Queen-regnant. Despite the best efforts of several writers, myself included, over the last ten years or so, it has not really been possible to achieve a more nuanced appraisal of a small, once pretty woman, brought up as the heir of England (her own father’s words), who inherited the throne in dramatic circumstances and whose efforts to reform Catholicism in her country and improve many aspects of English government have been completely submerged by the one fact for which she will always be remembered, that during her short reign of only five years nearly 300 Protestants were burned at the stake.

This systematic pursuit of opponents to Mary’s religious policy, leading to what seems to us an especially gruesome death, has become Mary’s abiding legacy. Many stately homes in England still sell short histories of our Kings and Queens.The one on Mary I saw at Knole House in Kent, near where I live, had a predictable subtitle: ‘A Cruel Queen'. Her efforts to eradicate religious opponents may explain the popular view of Mary I, but there was much more to this woman than the fires of Smithfield. Her own life is undeniably tragic – the more so because, as Queen, she was tremendously hard-working and wanted only to do what she perceived to be right. It is only in presenting a more rounded view of Mary that we can understand how her past had marked her and come to a more just appreciation of who she was and what she achieved.