Mary Tudor; devout or misguided?

The reign of Mary Tudor stirs strong feelings in hearts even now. The ‘Bloody Mary’ tag has stuck for centuries after her death. Was she just a devout Roman Catholic responding to her conscience and a truly held belief that she was ‘saving England’ and her people from eternal hell or someone hell bent on relieving England of heretics at any cost – or indeed can these be seen as the same thing?

There are many things we must remember before studying the bare facts of her reign. Her reign is set against the backdrop of Tudor England; the country had just emerged from civil war (War of the Roses); the horrors of division still fresh in the people’s minds. The importance for stability of succession was paramount to those in power. Religious differences had threatened to topple this stability with new ideas. The debate was affecting the lives of many people not only in religious beliefs but in political and financial matters also.

You will need to decide as you read the facts but do remember that much of Mary’s history was written by Protestant writers, many of whom had suffered at her hands or knew of people who had. Although it has always been clear that she and only she could have stopped the horrific burnings that were unprecedented in the sheer scale for the times. It is clear that burnings were not uncommon during the Tudor times but the reputed 238 within 5 years is huge in comparison with other rulers.

Very much a product of her childhood Mary saw her Mother, the devout Spanish Roman Catholic, Catherine of Aragon, cruelly discarded by her father because she did not bear the sons Henry desperately needed for the stability of succession. Mary appears to have inherited her pride and obstinacy from both her Mother and Father.

Mary proved very popular on her accession. She received loyal support as the rightful Queen. It is recorded that even many Protestants supported her. She had remained faithful to her faith through the painful separation from her Mother; through being declared illegitimate when Catherine’s marriage had been declared unlawful; through the humiliation at having to be ‘second’ to her younger step sister Elizabeth and having very little contact with her father, the King. She had feared for her life when she knew that she would, if requested, have to refuse to sign the Oath of Supremacy and Oath of Succession. She withdrew from the Protestant Court of King Edward VI and continued to celebrate the forbidden mass in her households.

On accession she became determined to restore England to the Catholic fold. She felt it an answer to prayer that God had protected her when she remained faithful and held mass in secret. She embarked on a policy of reuniting with Rome and undoing the work of recent years. The following timeline shows the rate and events of that change.

Mary Tudor
United with Rome 

Divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon annulled
Catholic mass restored in Latin
Book of Common Prayer suppressed
Illegal to attend a Protestant service.
Wyatt’s rebellion against return to Roman Catholocism quashed
Execution of Lady Jane Grey.

 1554Heresy Law of 1401 re-enacted allowing persons condemned as heretics to be burned. (considerable opposition by parliament)
Restoration of property to monasteries.
Papal legate – Reginald Pole – the act was repealed that had condemned him to death.
Edward VI's Act of Supremacy repealed
Heresy Laws passed at Christmas.

1555 – 1558
283 burnings
(one every 5 days)

March 1555 Bishop of St David burned
October 1555 Ridley and Latimer burned in Oxford
March 1556 Cranmer ( placed right hand into fire first – hand that had signed recantation)
Heretics no longer given the opportunity to recant at the stake

1558 Mary dies and Elizabeth I takes to the throne.

It could be viewed that the burnings were a matter of conscience for her; she was saving the souls of those who had reformed. Only Mary could have stopped these burnings. It is known that foreign leaders urged restraint – urging her to win them over by showing kindness and mercy rather than burning.

Her end and her legacy witnesses a failed marriage with no successor, a disastrous war with France that resulted in the loss of Calais, the unsuccessful suppression of heresy, secret Protestant prayer meetings continued and crowds began to turn at the sites of burnings in favour of the heretics and the knowledge that under Elizabeth the Protestant faith would once again be tolerated.

Devout or misguided? Your call – research the facts and decide!

A reflection by Sandra Wylie, RE and History specialist and Chair of West Berkshire SACRE

Read More: The Life and Times of Mary Tudor by Jasper Ridley and edited by Antonia Fraser.  Copyright George Weidenfield & Nicholson Limited and Book Club Associates 1973 Published by Morrison & Gibb Ltd, London