To celebrate the 500th birthday of Queen Mary I, here are five facts you may not know about this monarch.
An Isolated Princess
By 1527, Mary’s father, Henry VIII, had decided he wanted to enjoy (what would turn out to be very temporary) wedded bliss with Anne Boleyn. But Mary stood by her mother, Catherine of Aragon, when Henry tried to end his first marriage. In order to bring his daughter in line, Henry didn’t hesitate to treat Mary poorly. One tactic he used was to keep Mary away from her mother; Mary was just 15 when she saw Catherine for the last time.
Even after Henry declared that his marriage to Catherine had been invalid, made Mary illegitimate and took away her title of princess, he still didn’t allow mother and daughter to meet because they continued to oppose his actions. When Mary became ill early in 1535, Catherine begged to be allowed to see her daughter, but that request was turned down (though Henry did let her send her doctor to care for Mary).
Catherine died on January 7, 1536. Mary and Catherine had maintained some contact by sending letters (in secret when Henry forbade this as well), but had successfully been kept apart for four years.
A Belated Diagnosis
Mary ascended to the throne in 1553, and wed Philip II of Spain the next year. After her marriage, she felt enormous pressure to produce an heir. Not only did she want to please Philip, she knew that if she didn’t give birth to a future ruler of England, her half-sister Elizabeth was next in line for the throne. Under these trying circumstances, Mary experienced two false pregnancies (pseudocyesis) in 1554-55 and 1557-58. However, it’s possible that these episodes weren’t solely the result of stress, but rather have a different medical explanation.
A 1987 article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine noted that Mary might have had a prolactinoma (a tumor on her pituitary gland). The tumor could have resulted in the symptoms — like missed periods and an expanding abdomen — that made Mary believe she was pregnant. A prolactinoma would also explain why Mary experienced severe headaches and worsening vision as she grew older.
Another article, “The Aching Head and Increasing Blindness of Queen Mary I,” which appeared in the Journal of Medical Biography in 2000, also posited that Mary had a prolactinoma. However, though it’s a credible diagnosis, confirmation would require an examination of Mary’s remains (which is not likely to happen), so there’s no way to be sure.
How She Became Bloody Mary
Mary has been nicknamed Bloody Mary, a designation she received because nearly 300 Protestants were burnt as heretics during her reign. And it’s true that Mary outranks her relatives when it comes to this particular punishment: under Henry VIII, 81 were burned; under Elizabeth I, only five met that fate.
However, when all deaths ordered by the crown are compared, Mary starts to seem a lot less bloody. For example, while her father was on the throne it’s estimated that between 57,000 and 72,000 people were executed. Admittedly, he ruled for a lot longer than Mary — 38 years vs. 5 — but his scale of killing still eclipses hers.
So how exactly did England’s first queen come to be known as Bloody Mary (a name that took hold in the 17th century)? It’s in large part due to John Foxe, a Protestant who collected information about the people killed as Protestant heretics for his Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perillous Dayes [sic] (also known as the Book of Martyrs). Foxe’s work — which hasn’t been out of print since 1563 — was placed in churches across England, so this aspect of Mary’s rule has never been forgotten.
It Was Okay to Lose Calais
After England was drawn into war with France — thanks to Mary’s marriage to Philip and alliance with Spain — England lost control of the Pale of Calais when it was taken over by the French in January 1558. This is usually seen as another black mark for Mary’s reign, as Calais had been an English possession for more than two centuries, and was the last of the country’s continental holdings. However, maybe the loss of Calais wasn’t as bad as it seems.
By the time Calais was taken, it had become expensive for England to maintain a presence there. And though Calais was an important symbol, it wasn’t important enough for Parliament and Mary’s Privy Council to grant the funds needed to get it back. (The person most in favor of action was Philip, who didn’t want to lose English support for the ongoing fight on the continent.)
And though a dying Mary reportedly said, “When I am dead and opened you will find Calais lying in my heart,” the statement wasn’t recorded until years after her death. Biographer Linda Porter has noted there’s no evidence Mary actually made such a declaration.
Her Husband Proposed to Her Sister
Though Mary chose her husband with dynastic and tactical considerations in mind, she came to love Philip and desperately missed him when he was away (given that he had his own possessions and interests on the continent, Philip spent little time in England while married to Mary). So it’s unlikely she would’ve been thrilled to learn that her widower offered to marry her sister just a few months after her death.
Mary died on November 17, 1558. Philip, through his ambassador, proposed marriage to Elizabeth I early in 1559. To be fair, apparently Philip wasn’t driven by a telenovela-worthy passion for Elizabeth; instead, he viewed the marriage as a way to help maintain the power of the Catholic Church in England. He admitted to his ambassador, “If it was not to serve God, believe me, I would not have got into this…”
Mary likely would’ve understood Philip’s actions; after all, she’d only been born because her mother had married Henry VIII following the death of Catherine’s first husband, Henry’s brother Prince Arthur (it was this first marriage that would later be used by Henry in his quest for an annulment). And Mary had always wanted England to be Catholic. But she had also disliked her sister, who was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, the woman who had upended Mary’s life. So, if she became aware of the proposal in the afterlife, there was probably a part of Mary that was glad Elizabeth didn’t accept Philip’s offer.