The first-ever Queen of England to rule in her own right. However, critics have traditionally referred to Queen Mary I of England as “Bloody Mary.”

Is this, however, a fair portrayal? Was she the violent religious fanatic who has been left to us by posterity? While hundreds of people perished during Mary’s reign, her grim legacy may stem from the fact that she was a Catholic queen who was succeeded by a Protestant Queen in a Protestant kingdom. History, as they say, is written by the victors.

Over 300 religious dissenters were burned at the stake during Mary’s five-year reign, known as the Marian persecutions. It is a statistic that appears to be barbarous. King Henry VIII, on the other hand, executed hundreds of people for treason, heresy, and other crimes. Her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I, assassinated a large number of people for their religious beliefs. So, why did Queen Mary earn the moniker “Bloody Mary”? What type of monarch was Mary, and how did she rise to the throne? We’ll go over all of this and more in this article…

Early Life

Mary was born on February 18, 1516, at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, England. The daughter of the infamous English King Henry the Eighth and his first of six wives, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of the infamous English King Henry VIII and his first of six marriages. Because Mary was the couple’s only surviving child, she can be credited with influencing the Reformation, as Henry’s eventual break with Catholicism stemmed from his wish to divorce Catherine in order to have a male heir.

bloody-mary
Queen Mary I of England (February 18, 1516 – November 17, 1558)/Wikimedia Commons.

Mary’s connection with her father became difficult after the break with Catherine and the religious upheaval that accompanied it, and she was only summoned to his court after signing a humiliating contract acknowledging his religious and patriarchal rule after not speaking to him for three years.

Despite signing this document, Mary remained a devout Catholic who celebrated mass in her own chapel fiercely.

In spite of being Henry’s oldest surviving child, Mary was no longer his heir after Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour gave birth to a boy, Edward, in 1537. Mary was restored to the line of succession in 1544 after an intercession by Henry’s last wife Catherine Parr, who reconciled father and daughter.

Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Lady Jane Grey

King Henry VIII died in 1547, and his nine-year-old son, King Edward VI, succeeded him. King Edward, however, would only reign for six years before succumbing to his illness at the age of 15, ending his reign and leaving the throne vacant once more.

In an ideal world, Edward’s elder half-sister, Princess Mary, would have succeeded him. But there was one problem: Princess Mary was a practicing Catholic, unlike the Protestant King Edward, and her ascension would delay the English Reformation by years. Edward proposed his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor in order to keep Mary off the throne.

edward vi
Edward VI (12 October 12, 1537 – July 6, 1553) was the King of England and Ireland from January 28, 1547, until his death on July 6, 1553. He was crowned on February 20, 1547, at the age of nine/Wikimedia Commons.

Mary rallied her supporters and marched into London as soon as she learned of her half-brother’s death. She was crowned the true Queen of England there. Lady Jane’s brief reign had come to an end after just nine days. She and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, were arrested and transported to the Tower of London, where they were tried and executed for high treason. Despite the fact that this was one of the earliest executions carried out under Queen Mary’s reign, it was far from being the last.

The 5-year Reign of Queen Mary I

Hundreds of her Protestant subjects were killed during Queen Mary’s five years on the throne. She was a devoted Catholic who was adamant about restoring Catholicism to England. Citizens who refused to convert to Catholicism were burned at the stake, which was the favoured means of execution at the time of the Catholic Spanish Inquisition.

During Queen Mary’s reign, 227 men and 56 women were executed, including Bishops Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer. Upon her ascendancy, many more Protestant leaders escaped the same fate by fleeing to other regions of Europe.

Philip II of Spain and Queen Mary I of England
Queen Mary I and Philip, during whose reign Elizabeth was heir presumptive/Wikimedia Commons.

Most people believe Queen Mary’s nickname stems from her indiscriminate killing of Tudor men and women based on their religious beliefs. Mary was only responsible for the deaths of less than 300 individuals in total. Quite a paltry number when compared to her father, King Henry VIII, who reportedly had over tens of thousands executed during his reign.

So why exactly is Queen Mary I of England popularly known as ‘Bloody Mary’?

Why the nickname, Bloody Mary?

The Protestant propaganda that evolved during the reign of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, earned her the moniker “Bloody Mary.” Mary married King Philip II of Spain in 1554, and he joined her in her efforts to restore Catholicism to England. The union was unpopular among the English, who did not want to be ruled by a foreigner. To make matters worse, Philip instructed Mary to fight France, a political decision that ended in the French invasion and recovery of Calais, England’s final possession in France.

When Mary died in 1558 at the age of 42, she was succeeded by the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, putting an end to the English Counter-Reformation. Philip of Spain, Mary’s widower, was unwilling to give up the power of England so easily and wanted to marry the new Queen Elizabeth. When that failed, he invaded England with the Spanish Armada.

elizabeth I
Elizabeth I (September 7, 1533 – March 24, 1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from November 17, 1558, until her death on March 24, 1603. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor/Wikipedia.

The Armada was eventually defeated by the English Navy, but the harm had already been done. As the wife of the despised Spaniard, Queen Mary’s name was dragged through the gutter. Her atrocities against Protestants were exaggerated, and those she burned were celebrated as martyrs.

Legacy of Queen Mary I of England

But it is the Protestant “martyrologist,” John Foxe, who can be held responsible for Mary’s notoriety. His best-selling book, The Acts and Monuments, often known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, was a thorough description of every non-Catholic martyr who died for his or her faith. It was first published in 1563 and went through four editions during Foxe’s lifetime, demonstrating the book’s enduring appeal.

Foxe’s work was a big hit when it was first published five years after Mary’s death. The second edition, which was printed as a massive folio, was commanded to be installed in every cathedral, and church leaders were told to keep copies in their homes for servants and visitors.

However, by the end of the 17th century, Foxe’s work had become increasingly condensed, containing only the most spectacular accounts of torture and death. As a result, graphic depictions of pious Protestant martyrs submissively dying at the hands of a “tyrant” became part of English Reformation mythology.

The Catholic Queen Mary was despised by Protestant England’s men, who saw her as evil. She was, without a doubt, Bloody Mary.

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Sources

Dopico, A. (2020, July 11). What bad things did Mary the 1st do? Retrieved from https://janetpanic.com/what-bad-things-did-mary-the-1st-do/

Mcilvenna, U. (2018, October 25). What Inspired Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary’s Gruesome Nickname? Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/queen-mary-i-bloody-mary-reformation

HistoryExtra (2021, February 18). Mary I: 8 facts about her life, death and legacy. Retrieved from https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/mary-i-bloody-facts-life-death-legacy-illiegitimate-henry-viii/

royalcentral.co.uk (2020, November 28).  How did Queen Mary become known as ‘Bloody Mary’? Retrieved from https://royalcentral.co.uk/features/history-blogs/how-did-queen-mary-become-known-as-bloody-mary-153025/

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