Bloody Mary or Tudor trailblazer?

She's generally overshadowed by sister Elizabeth I, but was Mary one of the most misunderstood and under-rated English monarchs?

Steven Russell

She's generally overshadowed by sister Elizabeth I, but was Mary one of the most misunderstood and under-rated English monarchs? Steven Russell spoke to a historian - one nurtured under the wing of David Starkey at Cambridge - who says history should judge her better

I'D sign up Anna Whitelock like a shot if I were a big cheese in the East Anglian tourism business. For she's passionate about banging the drum for Suffolk as THE place where England's first ruling queen realised the throne was finally hers - a fact the nation at large seems generally unaware of. Give her a brief as a roving champion of the county and she'd shout the message from the rooftops. It was in the summer of 1553 that the teenage king Edward VI died. The scheming Duke of Northumberland had persuaded Edward to will the crown to Lady Jane Grey . . . who happened to be the duke's daughter-in-law. But then England went into limbo, with the Lords and Commons unwilling to accept Jane.

Mary Tudor - who earlier in life had been a princess one minute, a disinherited bastard the next because of father Henry VIII's marital and political turmoils - had received a tip-off about a plan to capture her. “She'd been lulled into a false sense of security, with the Duke of Northumberland having been very deferential to her, but that was just faking,” explains historian Anna. “She fled from Hertfordshire to Kenninghall, in Norfolk, then to Framlingham, where her forces grew.” The castle's deer park was soon full of local gentry and commoners - several thousand of them - she raised her standard, and sent letters to the surrounding area to attract more support.

You may also want to watch:

Robert Wingfield, an East Anglian gentleman, wrote a celebratory tract, describing how she rode out to appraise her men. “It gives details about how her horse got a bit frisky, so she got down and walked and surveyed the troops on foot. You see Mary as this warrior figure prepared to fight for the throne.

“The next morning, news comes that the Edwardian council is now supporting her claim and accepted her and pronounced her queen. So Framlingham is really the theatre of her victory: the moment when the first queen of England becomes the first queen of England.

Most Read

“This castle was at the centre of her struggle for the throne against her distant cousin - and she was supported there by both Protestants and Catholics, not just Catholics as generally assumed.

“It kind of surprised me that Framlingham is not more widely recognised as the 'birthplace' of female monarchy in many ways.

“This is 'really big news'! It's the biggest chapter” - in the history of Framlingham Castle and, obviously, in Mary's life - “but it also marked a sea-change in the history of the monarchy: the accession of a woman. I beat that drum quite hard!”

Mary left Framlingham for London - her procession taking her via Ipswich, where she stopped and was presented with hearts of gold to symbolise the hearts of the people. She ascended the throne on July 19 and was crowned Mary I in Westminster Abbey in October.

In the 450-odd years since, history hasn't been that kind, however. Being a monarch who ordered the burning of 300 Protestant dissenters, as part of her mission to restore Catholicism to England, doubtless has much to do with it - and her nickname of Bloody Mary.

Anna Whitelock argues the queen was a much more rounded character than history would commonly have us believe. Her new book tells of Mary's Spanish heritage, the tender and supportive bond with her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and about her childhood and rivalry with half-sister Elizabeth - who would later become queen and whose reputation would outshine her sibling's.

Yes, she was a determined and single-minded monarch: one who had fought for her very survival, battled to maintain her integrity and her right to hear the Catholic mass, and finally captured the throne. She married Philip of Spain in the face of domestic opposition and struggled to restore Catholicism.

But she had other sides. In an age when marital unions were struck for political and diplomatic gain, Mary found she'd wedded a man she genuinely loved - but Philip did not share her feelings. The queen suffered phantom pregnancies, illnesses and unrequited love - all endured in the public eye.

Anna's book grew out of her doctoral research, with her thesis at Cambridge focusing on the royal court of Mary Tudor. Judged as a whole, the woman that emerged was not a weak-willed failure - as many have suggested - but a complex character of bravery, grit and compassion.

“I'd been struck by what an amazing story her life narrative was. But it didn't seem to be 'out there', and it certainly wasn't out there in a way that had gripped popular imagination. The image that's central to it is the tomb in Westminster Abbey which was originally Mary's tomb; then Elizabeth's body was moved there three years after she was originally buried - and Elizabeth is placed on top of Mary! What I'm saying is her reputation, like her body, has been buried beneath Elizabeth.

“Mary's story is not seen as particularly sexy in the way Elizabeth's is, but there's just so much drama there. Her reign marked a significant breakthrough in a traditionally male-dominated society. She proved women could rule 'as kings', and she defended the Tudor line of succession, making possible Elizabeth's own much-celebrated rule.

“It sounds a strange thing to say, but she was the kind of Margaret Thatcher of her time! She did succeed in what she wanted to do. She married Philip of Spain, and there was much opposition to that” - many English folk disliked the idea of a foreign king - “and ultimately won public and Parliamentary approval. The marriage treaty was amazing; it pretty much shackled Philip, and Mary had loads of power. This alliance was significant for England.”

The restoration of Catholicism was obviously a priority, but Anna argues that Mary initially adopted a pragmatic, moderate and conciliatory approach. She bided her time, astutely - trying the patience of the Roman Catholic authorities for not moving quickly enough.

Anna suggests the most telling nails were hammered into Mary's reputation by a 16th Century Lincolnshire clergyman and author, John Foxe. He wrote Foxe's Book of Martyrs - an account of Christian martyrs that focused particularly on Protestants during the reign of Mary I.

“Basically, a whole hatchet job has been done on her reputation, and John Foxe was the best example of that. And, also, Elizabeth's spins-doctors, if you like, were very accomplished and played down the fact Mary was the first queen. It was a case of 'Let's big-up Elizabeth as the key female figure.'

“I think it's summed up best by the (1998) Elizabeth film with Cate Blanchett. Kathy Burke plays Mary and, in a way, that says it all! When I'm teaching Tudor queenship, the starting point is a scene where we have Kathy Burke as Mary in the dark, shuffling around in a Kathy Burke kind of way, and the next scene is Cate Blanchett skipping, with the sunshine playing on her hair and clothing. It's that polarity of representation.

“The point is that myth-makers realised that for Elizabeth to be heralded as successful for all the things she was, Mary had to be the opposite. Upon Mary's death, really, the spin doctors started against her. For so long her story's been told from a religious polemical position, rather than trying to move beyond religion - or, at least, put that in a political and human context as well.”

Trouble is, it's difficult to move past the burning of perhaps 300 Protestants - particularly as some notable clerics were executed for heresy during her five-year reign, such as “the Oxford Martyrs”: former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer; Nicholas Ridley, ex-Bishop of London; and Hugh Latimer, bishop of Worcester . . .

“And there's no way that could be, or should be, written out of the narrative. But it's more about what one's definition of heresy was. Mary was prepared to die for her faith, and put herself on the line a number of times during her upbringing, and I think she expected the same of others. So in a way she's consistent in that.

“And, also, I think she thought a few people would be killed and that would set an example: it wasn't her intention from the start to kill 300 Protestants. Elizabeth, too, acted against Catholics: they were imprisoned or executed.

“I suppose the frustration for me is that academic scholarship has moved on and now we have a much more nuanced view of Mary; but the popular stereotype remains, and with the book it's been a question of trying to bridge that gap between the scholarly and the popular.”

Anna drew on original documents, aiming to look at Mary's reign in the context of her life and as a product of her upbringing - “which sounds kind of 21st Century, but she was from the ultimate dysfunctional family, really! I wouldn't want to overstate that, but she had a totally traumatic upbringing”.

Letters between Mary and Catherine of Aragon were often touching; “and the letter where Mary submits to her father, signing away essentially her identity and her mother's reputation, is pretty powerful”.

Historian and TV presenter David Starkey was Anna's supervisor during her PhD days at Cambridge. While she was doing her doctoral research, he was writing about Elizabeth I. “Her story is just as dramatic as Elizabeth's, if not more so - and there are so many parallels: they were both opposition figures and they were in and out of their father's affections. Everyone was loving the Elizabeth book and it was selling in droves, and it was like 'Here's another brilliant story” - Mary's - “so let's get this out there!'”

Mary Tudor: England's First Queen is published by Bloomsbury. RRP �20 - EADT Shop �12 (

Anna Whitelock has a literary talk and lunch as part of the Ip-art festival. It's at Admiral's House, Tower Street, Ipswich, on July 12, starting at 11.45am. Tickets: �18 (�15 concessions). Information and booking: 01473 253992. Web link:

FRAMLINGHAM has become a pivotal place in the life of Dr Anna Whitelock. Mary I, the object of her academic studies (and later literary work), effectively became queen while staying there. Anna advised English Heritage and helped write the text for the greatly-revamped exhibition that opened last year at the castle. It puts Mary's rise to power in the context of the castle's history.

The estate was given to Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk, during the reign of Henry VIII. It was later confiscated when the third duke was held on suspicion of treason. Both Mary and Elizabeth stayed there at different times. When Mary became queen, she gave the estate to the third duke's grandson, Thomas Howard.

He had it until 1572, when it was taken away for high treason: being part of plots to replace Elizabeth I with Mary, Queen of Scots.

Anna says this neck of the woods played a key role in Mary's enthronement. During her research, the historian placed markers in old maps to denote her confirmed supporters or folk with whom she had an affinity, “and they were all around Suffolk, really”.

Framlingham established a personal connection, too, when Anna's parents moved to a farm near Saxmundham about a decade ago. “When they moved there, so close to Framlingham, I thought 'This is crazy! This place is central to the story I'm working on!”

Meet Mary

Born February, 1516

Parents: Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon

Age when crowned in 1553: 37

Married Philip of Spain in 1554

No children

Died 1558, aged 42

All Anna

Grew up in Kent, Sussex and Hertfordshire

Always wanted to be a historian

Read history at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Gained PhD in history from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 2004

Is now a lecturer in early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter
Comments powered by Disqus