Eminent Biography: John Edwards on Mary I

On November 17, 1558, Queen Mary I of England died in the midst of her restoration of Catholicism. The glorious reign of her succeeding half-sister Elizabeth and the permanent installation of Protestantism as the religion of the Church of England has left this first reigning English queen with a certain legacy; the burning of nearly 300 religious dissenters earned her the sobriquet, Bloody Mary. But was the long-lasting establishment of Protestantism certain when Mary came to the throne? Was her attempt to reverse it always a lost cause?

In his new English Monarchs biography, Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen, John Edwards gives consideration to Mary’s life as a defendant of her own faith and the events that shaped her from childhood. He reflects on the complex nuances of writing on a woman so already condemned by her own country, and how we might think differently of the circumstances she faced in her short reign.

John Edwards—

It seems somewhat arbitrary, and perhaps even intrusive, to presume to write what purports to be someone else’s “life.”  We hardly know our own motives from one hour to the next, so how can we possible discover the inner life of a sixteenth-century queen?  English royal records are exceptionally good, by the standards of the period, but it is often hard to tell what in them is particular to the ruler, and what is in fact the activity of agents and institutions.  Even though monarchy in that period was personal in nature, without the known individual writings of the ruler, such as letters, poetry and prose works, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between his or her activity and that of the government. Mary I of England did write letters and many of them survive, but most of her beliefs, feelings and actions can only be known and understood by means of the writings of others, both at home and abroad.  Even so, it has proved possible to venture on a re-interpretation of Mary’s life, by examining once again what is well known and adding new material that has not previously been considered in this context.

The nineteenth-century French writer Gustave Flaubert published a mischievous “Dictionary of Received Ideas”, in which he mocked the prejudices and lazy thinking of his contemporaries.  In the case of Mary, and the Tudor period in general, it is possible to identify, if not a dictionary, at least a short-list of “received ideas” that, whether acknowledged or not, continue to underlie so much writing on the Tudors.  The first assumption, based on hindsight dating from the period between the eighteenth and the early twentieth centuries, is that the Tudors ushered in English superiority, not only over the other peoples of the British Isles, but also over much of the rest of the world.  Part of this process was the development of insular pride and separation from Continental European entanglements and authority, particular in the case of the Roman Papacy and the Catholic religion.  Judged by this criterion, Mary’s most cherished policy, in her brief reign, was obscurantist and misguided, being rightly reversed and expunged in the much longer and more glorious reign of her successor and half-sister, Elizabeth, which ushered in a glorious future for the English, and for those whom they ruled.  Following this assumption is the more natural and unexceptionable one that, even if Mary did have some creditable achievements to her name, they were ruined, or at least marred, by the violence that formed a significant part of her religious policies.  It simply is not possible to make the burning and imprisonment of Protestant Christians appear either acceptable or unimportant, and to condemn such behaviour is a “prejudice” that, unlike some others, is entirely justifiable in Mary’s case and in that of her husband, Philip, who so favoured the Spanish Inquisition after her death.  In response to the massive weight of hostility which has fallen upon Mary and her historical reputation, since her death on 17 November 1558, a re-interpretation, that does not avoid criticism but positively seeks to understand, goes roughly as follows.

This “Life” respects, though it does not condone, Mary, even when she orders appalling deeds.  It places England in its proper historical and geographical context, as an important but secondary power off the north-western coast of Continental Europe, recognizing the diversity of England’s ethnic and cultural relationships, both within and outside the British Isles themselves, although Mary never travelled outside her country of birth.  In this respect, particular attention is paid to Mary’s Spanish ancestry and affiliation, and English affairs are frequently seen from a Continental perspective, which can make them look somewhat different from the ‘Island story’ of historical myth.  This treatment does not assume, as can be done with hindsight, that the permanent division of the Western Church into Catholic and Protestant had already happened by the time that Mary seized the English throne.  Instead, it tries to take all Christian activity at that time, including Mary’s own personal faith, on its merits, in a manner that aims to be both committed and open-ended.

Very properly, one of the strongest themes in recent writing on Mary, and on her Continental contemporaries, has been the extent to which her gender affected her ability to achieve success as a ruler.  I came to the intensive study of Mary with a great deal of accumulated knowledge of the reality of powerful and effective female monarchy in one of her ancestral lands, Spain, as transmitted directly to her by her beloved mother Catherine, youngest daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile.  I suspected a trap in adopting too absolutely and completely the modern preoccupation with female gender as the determining factor, for better or worse, in the adoption by early modern women of prominent roles in government and society.  There is no doubt at all that Mary’s problems, great enough in any case given the fraught circumstances in which she came to the throne, were increased by the fact that she was England’s first reigning female sovereign.  It is also clear, from both English and Spanish sources, that she shared many of the beliefs of her time about gender roles, and was keen to give her husband Philip the lead in many monarchical functions, such as jousting and conferring knighthoods.  Yet in the last three years of her life, when under pressure from dynastic failure and internal and external enemies, she came more and more to resemble her grandmother Isabella -and her father Henry VIII- in her tenacious pursuit of English interests, even when this meant defying the Pope to whom she had always professed obedience. Of course she was fully feminine in her character and behaviour, in her love of fine clothes and jewels (a Trastamaran family trait) and as a married woman and potential mother, but it seems to me that her fundamental commitments were to God and her country, things that can absorb both genders equally.

I very much hope that readers of this biography will be prepared to question their own assumptions, as well as mine.  I would wish them to try to avoid any “Whiggish” belief in the inevitable progress of England and its empire – upwards and then down.  I would beg them to understand that far more things, in terms of faith and doctrine, united sixteenth-century Christians than divided them, despite the terrible conflicts and splits that affected the communities and nations in which they lived.    Despite things that may seem baffling or appalling to the modern reader, I hope that “my” Mary will be understandable and respectable as a human being.

John Edwards
is Modern Languages Faculty Research Fellow in Spanish, University of Oxford. His recent books include The Spanish Inquisition, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Isabella: Catholic Queen and Madam of Spain. He lives in Oxford, UK.

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