‘Bloody Mary’ or just Mary I?

The brutal personality of Mary I of England (1553-1558) has countlessly been regurgitated in historiography on the Tudor period. “Bloody Mary” is a name we know a lot more than Mary I, and the associations we link with this cause us to have one limited perspective on her personality as a monarch and the nature of her rule as a whole.

Admittedly, her actions in her own religious and political legislation show her hatred of what she saw as the attempted heretical change in the Church and its doctrine. Mary was clearly a strict Catholic, being raised in a Catholic England and taught the old customs and laws of its Church, including the belief in the papal supremacy. Henry’s Break with Rome did not take place until 1534, fuelled by his wish to annul his marriage to Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon. Henry’s further two children Elizabeth and Edward both had Protestant upbringings, being taught  humanism which was a mixture of rationalist and ancient thought. Humanism was highly valued by Henry and his court at the time, and reflected the influence the Renaissance had over England and Europe. Mary was born before Henry’s decision to divorce her mother and break with Rome, so was brought up with the traditional form of education of the Catholic Church and it is this that she defended.

From looking at Mary’s actions throughout her reign, she was attempting to create a new and improved England, and the only way she saw it as being perfect was reverting it back to what she thought was the true religion. There were many people who supported her Catholicism, especially in the north where Protestantism had met a lot of resistance. London was at this stage very Protestant due to the inhabitants living so close to the monarchy and at the time of the Reformation, the monarchs would have made many attempts to make people feel part of the new religion. This explains why the north weren’t as accepting of it because apart from being a highly strict Catholic area, they were much further away from the capital and so wouldn’t have felt part of it as much. Mary opened her reign with releasing Catholic Bishops Gardiner and Bonner from prison and reinstating them to their offices, confirming her loyalty laid with the Catholic Church. The repealing of all religious legislation since 1529 the following year illustrates her disagreement with all Protestant thought and her wish to revert England back to the old religion. The burnings ordered by her are perhaps the most famous part of her reign, and these were a consequence of the heresy law being passed in the same year as the repealing of all religious legislation since 1529. The first burning took place the following year in February, and the convict was John Rogers, a translator of the Bible. Nearly 300 people were burnt for heresy during her reign, and it is this which gives Mary her nickname. 

In a way, Mary had no choice but to be as strict and perhaps as brutal as she was due to the nature of the previous monarch Edward VI’s reign. His reign was started off by Henry’s want for him to have the best humanist education, better than that of the leading universities in England at the time. The appointment of two Protestant men to be Edward’s two main councillors and to help him rule was another way Henry made sure the crown was to carry on his work. After Henry died, these two men handcrafted Edward’s reign entirely and manipulated the weak king, creating a highly strict Protestant England, more so than what Henry would have expected and wanted. Although by the time Mary came to the throne England was still not dominantly Protestant, it only made sense for her to push her views in a radical manner to make sure Catholicism was truly reinforced into every level of society, leaving no one Protestant. If this meant killing the ones that refused to do so, then that was what had to be done.

However, Mary can be seen as a gentle monarch who may have been pushed into many of the decisions she made. For example, it has been said that she was pushed into the execution of Lady Jane Grey as well as the burnings of Protestants, said to be encouraged by the Spanish, or by priests. Furthermore, in any case, burning heretics was widely accepted as a public good and it was only witnessed by a few number of Mary’s subjects.


We are left with an undecided perception of this fascinating queen, and it comes down to opinion on whether she really was a “Bloody Mary” or just Mary I. Personally, the power of religion is really to blame here, and our modern-day perceptions of what is right and wrong would be completely alien to Tudor England. Religion had such a dramatic power and influence over everyone in the early modern period and the villainous nature we paint Mary with is coated with our own paint of the more secular and scientific society we live in today. Contemporaries would not have seen her as this villain, and Protestants would have seen her as a heretic and would not have seen the burnings as horrific for what they were, but what they represented. They represented part of the end of what they saw as the true religion. Similarly with Mary, she was indoctrinated and disillusioned by religion like everyone else. She thought she was doing the right thing and we can’t blame her for this.

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