Discounting Jane Grey, Mary’s predecessor who reigned for just nine days, Mary was the first Queen of England to rule in her own right. Despite this, she’s more widely remembered for killing a great number of Protestants – her nickname of Bloody Mary remains a popular refrain in the history books even now.
Mary I was born in 1516 to King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She was the only one of the couple’s children to survive past childhood. Mary’s often remembered as a dreadful person (and for good reason) but her troublesome reign was foreshadowed by a tough childhood.
The Early Years of Queen Mary I
Catherine of Aragon provided Henry VIII with a number of children but it was only Mary, a girl, who survived. Years went by and Henry became increasingly desperate for a male heir. On his quest to produce a son who could take the throne after him, Henry decided he should marry Anne Boleyn. The pope denied the king a divorce from Catherine so he took matters into his own hands and separated England from Rome. He overthrew Catholicism in England in favour of Protestantism, to be headed up by the king himself.
From here on out, Mary’s upbringing was rocky. She was undoubtedly Catholic but made to live under her father’s Protestant rule. Her mother was ousted and Mary herself was declared a bastard. She had a whole string of step-mothers too. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was later beheaded. Still desperate for a son, Henry married Jane Seymour, who died after giving birth to Edward VI, then Anne of Cleves, who accepted a divorce, then Catherine Howard, who was beheaded, and lastly Catherine Parr.
Mary and her mother were separated and not allowed to speak, though they did so through secret messages. When Catherine died of ongoing illnesses, Mary was distraught. Years later, realising that it was her only way of securing some form of political position, Mary finally gave in to her father’s wishes and acknowledged him as head of the Church of England. She kept her Catholic beliefs close to her heart, though, only accepting Protestantism as her life and position depended on it.
Her relationship with her father was intact once again and Mary was brought back into second place in the line of succession, after Edward and before Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn.
Mary’s Journey to the Throne
As per Henry’s will, it was precocious nine-year-old Edward who replaced him as king after his death. To add insult to injury, Edward was a Protestant too and just as determined as Henry had been to oust Catholicism – so much so that he ensured it was his Catholic cousin, Lady Jane Grey, who would take over as England’s ruler when he died aged just 15, despite it being Mary’s rightful inheritance.
After Edward’s death, Mary set out to claim the throne. She managed to rally overwhelming support from those who respected her right to the throne and from English Catholics. Jane Grey was overthrown and Mary was finally crowned as Queen of England.
A Bloody Reign
Mary’s reign, much like her life, was defined by the clash of Protestantism and Catholicism. She was determined to reinstate wide-spread Catholicism, to undo the religious ‘wrongs’ done by her father and brother. After the earlier part of her life was spent fighting against her father’s and brother’s religious beliefs and being unable to outwardly practice her own, she came down increasingly hard on those who upheld their Protestant religion.
Between 1554 and 1558, Queen Mary was ruthless in dishing out punishments for heresy. She had over 300 dissenters burnt, earning her the less-than-fond nickname of Bloody Mary. The number of Mary’s victims is thought to be much higher, too, as many more died in prison after being starved and mistreated because of their beliefs.
She became strongly disliked. Naturally, the murders didn’t make her particularly popular but it wasn’t just that. Many people were actually for the success of the Protestant church as they’d received land and money with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. This dislike for the queen was only deepened by England’s defeat in its war against France, which saw England lose Calais in 1588, the country’s last French possession.
The End of Mary’s Five Year Reign
After a relatively short lifetime of religious battles, Mary died in 1558, just five years after becoming queen. She died childless and alone – though she’d married Philip II of Spain, he never returned her love and was away in Spain when she died.
Of course, Mary’s death marked the end of any hopes of restoring England to the Catholic faith. According to Henry VIII’s will, it was Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth – a Protestant – who was to be the next monarch.