Mary I: England's Catholic Queen
In 1554 Antonis Mor, a Dutch painter employed by the Habsburgs, Europe’s most powerful ruling dynasty, was commissioned to paint a portrait of the new wife of Prince Philip, heir to the emperor Charles V. She was Mary Tudor, the eldest child of Henry VIII and a queen in her own right, though European contemporaries viewing the portrait would have seen before them the depiction of a Habsburg consort, not an English queen regnant. Philip had no intention of presenting his wife as a female ruler or of allowing any flattery in the execution of her likeness. Mary was 38 years old, 11 years his senior, and he had married her at his father’s command to bring England, something of a pariah state following the religious changes of Henry VIII’s Reformation, back into the mainstream of European politics and return it to Catholicism.
The extent of Philip’s influence on England would remain to be seen but he had made it known that he was deeply disappointed by the restrictions of the marriage treaty and his servants did not mince words in their dismay at the appearance of the queen herself. This was hardly surprising. Mary had suffered recurring bouts of illness since her teens. Yet it was mental stress as much as physical debilitation that left its mark. The girl who defied her father when he put her mother, Catherine of Aragon, aside, found herself under threat again in her brother’s reign, when she opposed Edward’s far-reaching religious programme aimed at stamping out Catholicism in England for good.
Surviving the intrigue that plagued the Tudor court in the mid-16th century, Mary fought bravely for her birthright, an outsider whom Charles V, her own cousin, did not lift a finger to support. No one was more pleasantly surprised than the emperor when Mary was proclaimed queen without bloodshed on July 19th, 1553. The opportunity to marry her to his recently widowed son was too good to miss and Mary, proud of her half-Spanish heritage, soon accustomed herself to the idea of being married and braving the dangers of childbirth. Her mind was made up to love her husband. And yet, for all the undoubted affection she bore Philip, Mor’s portrait, used on the cover of John Edwards’ biography, shows an unhappy queen.
The subtitle of this book, as uncompromising as the painting, is an indication of Edwards’ focus. This is the fourth recent life of Mary Tudor, all claiming to reconsider a reputation so ghastly that it stood alongside those of John and Richard III in the top rank of villainous English monarchs. Anyone perusing Edwards’ book casually might wonder if he has reverted to the traditional Victorian view. By highlighting Mary’s Spanish background and influences, her religion and her policy of supporting the Habsburgs in Europe we are much closer to the Mary that her half-sister Elizabeth castigated for marrying a Spaniard. Elizabeth herself had been courted by the French during her sister’s reign, though she chose not to mention that. Mary, Elizabeth suggested, was influenced by the wrong kind of foreigners. Even worse, she burned 300 of her own countrymen as heretics in a state-sponsored religious terror that was ineffective. History would never forgive her.
But it would be wrong to assume that Edwards is turning the clock back. His book fills in valuable gaps in our knowledge of the attempts made to introduce an ‘English’ reforming Catholicism and amplifies our understanding of the religious issues of the period. His research in Spanish archives, though not producing any major revelations, has thrown further light on Philip and his attempts to inculcate himself into English government. Exquisitely polite he may have been to Mary but he never loved her and he got out of the country quickly after her false pregnancy. His priority was the Low Countries, not England.
Edwards is strongest on Mary’s reign and especially the religious and European dimensions. But as a biography of Mary this book is unsatisfying. The queen herself struggles to emerge and the many interesting figures of her lifetime – Lady Jane Grey, the Duke of Northumberland, Mary’s politicians and household advisers – are not brought to life. Elizabeth makes only an occasional appearance, though her relationship with her sister blighted both their lives. The queen may have been half Spanish but she was also a Tudor and that side of her is inadequately explored.
Dense in style and unable to convey the extraordinary drama of mid-16th century England, Edwards’ book has some surprising factual errors. He is particularly hazy about relationships among the Tudors and Stewarts. Family trees would be a useful addition to a corrected paperback version. This is a book for specialists, not for general readers. Fortunately, they have plenty of other choice.
Linda Porter is the author of Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (Pan, 2011)
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