17 November 1558 – The Death of Queen Mary I

Mary I, Hans Eworth
Mary I, Hans Eworth
At St James’s Palace, early in the morning of 17th November 1558, Queen Mary I died. This daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was just forty-two years old and had only reigned for five years and four months.

Mary I has gone down in history as “Bloody Mary”, the “killer queen” who murdered nearly 300 Protestants, rubbing her hands with glee as the heretics burned. But that label should not define this woman and her reign. Although many see her reign as a failure, as part of the “Mid-Tudor Crisis”, Mary actually achieved a significant amount during her short reign:

  • The preservation of the Tudor succession
  • The reconciliation of England and Rome
  • Establishment of the “gender-free authority of the crown
  • Reform and renovation of the Church
  • Improvement of the navy and militia
  • Defeat of rebellions
  • Reforms of customs taxes and coinage
  • Encouragement of domestic industries

Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth would certainly have had a harder time of it if she hadn’t had Mary’s achievements to build on.

Please don’t think I’m condoning or belittling the persecution of the Protestants, I’m simply saying that we need to dig deeper than the label “Bloody Mary” and to educate people about this woman and her reign as a whole.

Further reading:

  • The Myth of Bloody Mary, ElizabethFiles.com
  • Mary Tudor: The First Queen, Linda Porter
  • Mary Tudor, David Loades
  • Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen, Anna Whitelock

Also on this day in history…

  • 1558 – Death of Cardinal Reginald Pole, Mary I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace in London. He had been ill since September 1558 and died after hearing news of Mary I’s death. He lay in state at the palace for forty days before being buried at Becket’s Corona in Canterbury Cathedral.

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16 thoughts on “17 November 1558 – The Death of Queen Mary I”
  1. Poor Mary. Her parents had a fairly normal, loving marriage in her early years. She was The Princess. Everyone loved her. Then her mother taken and locked away from her, she was abandoned and bastardized by the father she adored, and even her Church and Faith — which she had been taught meant Heaven or Hell — was destroyed. She could trust no one. All around the throne devotion motivated by self-interest and changes in political storms. She evidently loved her husband, but it is doubtful that he cared for her. What an unhappy woman she must have been. Talk about ‘daddy Issues’! Fearing her sister, court, subjects, this life and what was coming in the next, she had to ‘fix’ the religious horrors her father had set in motion. After all, a monarch was set in power by GOD, so wouldn’t her present as well as after-life depend on pleasing god? Hysterical pregnancy was just one minor despair in her depressing life. With her stress and sorrow, it’s no wonder she lived a relatively short life. I do not condone her actions, but can see what processes may have twisted her mind and suggested them.

  2. One of the things that is ignored in the “Bloody Mary” myth is how many people were horribly executed for disagreeing with the monarch on religion during that era. After all, how many Catholics were executed by Henry VIII for defending the validity of his marriage to Catherine and how many were executed by Elizabeth for suspected treason? The hanging, drawing and quartering used by these two Tudors may well be equal in horror to burning.

    1. Couldn’t have said it better, louder perhaps, but not clearer…. that was a label branded by Protestants, what Catholics would have called her father or her sister?
      For me she’s not bloody, she’s just a woman, and with quite a difficult, dark and sad life…

    2. I totally agree! History is written by the victors and are not entirely unbias. Each side is equally as guilty of murder in the name of religion. Mary had to be villianized to make Elizabeth look more the ideal monarch since her throne was not secure.

    1. Yes she was, this is very true. I only think she got negative attention as she had a preferred method (burning) and because she was thought of initially as being more merciful. I would more describe her father and sister as being bloody as they actually had people executed in a manner that did actually spill blood (hanging, disembowelling, beheading and cutting the body into quarters – that’s going to spill a lot of blood…).

  3. Mary was yet another one of Henry VIII’s casualties. What makes this one worse is that it was his own daughter. To be loved and cherished all your life and then to be declared a bastard and suddenly not receive your father’s love anymore will have a detrimental effect on anyone. What makes it worse is that, for Mary, she had to suffer this humiliation publicly. All that she was nurtured with and grew up with was suddenly turned on it’s head and she was essentially forced to yield to a new way of living that she did not agree with. Plus she didn’t get to say goodbye to her own mother when she died. In so far as I do not condone all of Mary’s actions, I can understand why she turned out the way she did. But then, as you pointed out Esther, her sister and father were also brutal when it came to executing people who didn’t agree with their religion. For the people of England, the chopping and changing of religions must have been a very scary time for them.

  4. Such a pity mary did not marry a nicer man than Philip and also been able to have a baby or two ,that’s would have made a difference to her life,

  5. No wonder Shakespeare’s plays such as Macbeth were so popular, with the king driven mad by his own guilt over his scheming actions, visited by baleful ghosts and haunting visions of bloody daggers.

  6. Very hard times if you was poor and in some ways not that easy if was rich !very different problems of course !! I’m not a fan of Mary but I do feel sorry for her in so many ways she didn’t deserve no children but her choice of men could have been better !! My word religion has to answer for so much death and countless wars !! But yet again humans abuse everything and we still do we won’t ever change ?

  7. I have come to believe Mary, Elizabeth or Henry, were no better or worse than any predecessor or subsequent absolute monarch if it’s a body count we basing their rule on.
    They might have had different reasons, and went about things in different way to each other, but compared to some sovereigns in English history they were pretty tame.

    Edward I was a brutal monarch with his wars on Wales and Scotland, his unfair policies concerning Scotland, and he persecuted members of his own family.
    He did the same to the Jews whom he heavily taxed to finance his wars, when they couldn’t pay he accused them of disloyalty and a threat to the country. Over 300 were executed in the Tower and others in their homes, then he banished them altogether. He was also the King that had the Hang, drawn and Quarter form of execution devised.
    And how many people were slain under Richard the Lion Heart’s crusading that is said to have run into millions.

    The times were cold blooded and barbaric, and cruel measures were used to force law and order and impose their beliefs and will on those at home and abroad. Fear and strength were the fortitude behind the throne and a very base but effectual form of control of the people…

    You could bring it down to length of reign I suppose, Mary being a very short one and a large number executed, Elizabeth’s reign was a lot longer so the numbers are higher but less impacting on peoples reactions…personally I don’t see any members of the Tudor dynasty being any bloodier than each other, and definitely no bloodier than other monarchs.
    Though I think the reasonings these Monarchs had for ordering the executions are the main reason for contention and dispute much of the time.

    1. If you are interested in the dark days of the Plantagenet dynasty, as the trailer puts it Dan Jones is showing a new series, based on his book, Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty on Channel 5 and HD, Thursday 9 p.m.

  8. The name Bloody Mary is indeed a myth and was not applied to Mary in her lifetime or in the reign of Elizabeth or James I. It was first mentioned in the literature of the Puritanical poems and plays and leaflets of the extreme element of the Parliamentary army fighting in the English Civil War in 1645/6. It was also first officially made in the propaganda to promote the cause for the Protestant succession during the period of crisis in the 1680s. It was raised as fears in a paranoid capital to express opposition to the inevitable succession of James 11 as the brother and only lawful successor of Charles II, being himself a Roman Catholic. It was used wrongly to justify over 300 years of peresecution of Catholics both in literature and in fact, which only ended in 1829. But it has become a popular myth used in books without any justification or validity whatsoever.

    Although it is true that many Protestants suffered under Mary, some 276 being martyred, this was not unusual for the time or a terrible thing; it was a belief held by all parties to punish repeated heretics and the death penalty applied to the most stubborn of offenders who repeated after being warned twice. There are several good studies that show that Mary did not callously kill or order the executuion of people and she was in fact upset that so many suffered in this way, but as many prosesutions were made at local level, that she was not responsible for them either. There is also evidence that Mary had she been able to intervene in most cases, she would have chosen to do so. Yes, she did institute via Parliament the older heresy laws, but it was not her intention that so many would persist as it was in beliefs that the majority of people at that time held to be dangerous and contrary to the law of the land and church. Heresy as well as murder and treason was seen as one of the most henious of community wrecking crimes that was believed to be threatening to the fabric of society.

    Above are an excellent list of Mary’s achievements and I could not have put it better. Mary’s reign was brief and that highlights things that would hae been ignored by historians through the ages had they covered a longer period, such as the 300 plus Catholic priests killed by Elizabeth and the hundereds of lay people placed in prison or who died for their faith. Mary made it possible for a female to pass onto the throne without hinderance; she commanded her army to protect her own rights as a woman and a ruler in order to displace a usurper from her throne. She also a queen who placed her subjects needs first, negotiated a marriage settlement that excluded a sovereign King from interfaring in the governance of the country, as her father and grandfather before her dealt with rebels and met and governed with council and Parliament effectively. She was a hands on monarch and was personally involved in many reforms that made things better for the ordianry people. She was also effective as a female King and as a woman; using her femininity when she needed to get her people on side in the face of the Wyatt rebellion; and in the choice of a husband. She even humbled herself literally before her council; out of choice of course, but in a clever move to win their approval when it came to the need to reform the church, reconcile to Rome and her choice of husband, the controverial decision to marry Philip of Spain. Mary had a female touch that was always commented on as being gracious and gentle; but she also knew how to rule and was effective in doing so. Had she lived longer and produced an heir then it is possible that we would see her reign in similar lights to those of Elizabeth and others.

    I have read recently many good studies that re-evaluate and produce good and accurate studies of Mary and dispel the myths that have arisen later in history. Judith Richards has done an excellent work; as has Linda Porter, John Edwards, and Anna Wilkinson, who has covered mostly her acts as a female ruler in that context; and of course the updated works of Helen Prescot and Susan Doron. All are quite excellent and hightly recommended.

  9. I just finished Prescott’s biography; it is truly excellent. According to this book, Mary tried something approaching tolerance (she had Edward buried by Protestant rites for example, even though she herself attended a requiem mass), but some Protestant extremists (combined with Wyatt’s rebellion) made her change. Elizabeth, also, tried to be more tolerant than others, but later events (especially the excommunication that officially released her Catholic subjects from their loyalty and duty to her) brought on persecution. Henry, however, never even tried anything approaching tolerance.

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