A Difficult Woman

The First Queen of England: The Myth of "Bloody Mary"By Linda PorterSt. Martin’s Press, 2008They captivate our imagination, and they inhabit our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will examine their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the ninth installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.

There’s a scene in Trevor Nunn's 1986 movie Lady Jane: the great British character actress Jane Lapotaire, playing Queen Mary, is gazing forlornly at Titian’s magnificent portrait of Prince Philip of Spain, her betrothed. In the course of the movie, we’ve come to see that her personality is as tightly corseted as her lean body, and when she looks up at that painting and wistfully says, “He’s going to marry me,” we cringe. Such delusion, especially coming from a Tudor, can bring only bad things.

 The film hews fairly close to the picture of Mary constructed by biographers and historians for the last four centuries: a bitter, frustrated woman whose torment at the hands of her father (and his new wife Anne Boleyn) pushed her to embrace a radically conservative Catholic orthodoxy and an ill-founded faith that her distant Habsburg relations had her best interests at heart. This is the Mary who could endanger her throne by making the heir of Spain her husband; this is the Mary who could endanger her soul by burning over 300 Protestants at the stake during her reign. This has traditionally been ‘Bloody’ Mary, the religious zealot who was always more her Spanish mother’s daughter than a true queen of the English: a throwback, a maladroit anomaly, like her brother Edward a pathological caesura between the greatness of Henry VIII and the glories of Elizabeth I.British historian Linda Porter is having nothing of this, however, and her new book The First Queen of England: the Myth of “Bloody Mary” is the most comprehensive and spirited defense of Mary Tudor’s place in history as has appeared in a century. Porter rightly points out that nobody could have foreseen when Mary ascended to the throne that she would live only five years; had she lived another ten or fifteen, she might well have succeeded in returning England to the Catholicism in which she (and, Porter argues, the “silent majority” of her subjects) so devoutly believed.Porter has made herself a strong advocate, and she’s done this in the only good way: by studying her subject forwards and backwards, in such thorough detail that future Marian biographers will consult this book like Holy Writ. A vast array of primary sources is used with great skill and insight, and among the secondary sources are some familiar names from “A Year with the Tudors”: David Loades is here, and Chris Skidmore with his book on Edward VI, and Jessie Childs on the Earl of Surrey. If this is the company of our new Tudor historians, the dynasty is in good hands.Examining Surrey’s picturesque life and times – or re-sifting the slim evidence on Edward VI – is one thing, however; rescuing “Bloody Mary”s reputation is quite another. Porter brings to her task a generous helping of sympathy, often mixed with the kind of you-are-there novelistic personalizations that, for good or ill, have always been a part of popular history, as in this passage about when, precisely, Mary might have learned that her father intended to divorce her mother Queen Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn:

There is no information as to when Mary herself first learned of what was happening between her parents, or when she realised that she could not avoid taking sides. The surviving evidence, fragmentary and indirect, suggests that she was shielded from the truth for some time. It seems likely that neither parent wished to involve her initially. Katherine, in spite of her decision to take a stand, would have considered it a needless raising of anxieties and perhaps also an embarrassment. How do you explain to an 11-year-old princess that her father considers you to have been unlawfully wedded to him for seven years before she was even born, and that he wishes you to disappear off the scene so he can marry properly for the first time?

Writing about the interior lives of the Tudors always involves speculation (even Edward VI’s diary is notoriously sphinxlike), and although Porter indulges in it, she does more than most of her contemporaries to shore up her imaginative leaps with the apt quote:

Whether she felt deep sorrow at the old king’s death we shall never know. Her reaction seems to have been measured, at least for public consumption. She was apparently more irritated by the delay in receiving the news than prostrate with grief on hearing it. Probably her reaction was one of grief mingled with regret; she could not have avoided thinking about the past and the treatment she and her mother , as well as many others, received at her father’s hands. But if she did not mourn Henry with tears, he was still her parent and she did feel his loss, which was, as she put it four months later, ‘very ripe in mine own remembrance.’

(And it should be pointed out that the above rather fanciful paragraph is immediately followed by a fact-based and entirely expert digression on the specific ways Henry VIII’s will made both Mary and Elizabeth wealthy women; Peter paying Paul, as it were).When dealing with the relationship between Mary and her much-younger sister Elizabeth, Porter is for once disarmingly traditional. English historians have always been reluctant to attribute the animosity between the two women to its exceedingly obvious cause: they both wanted to be queen. Porter likewise avoids this elephant in the corner, preferring a more analytical, new-world/old-world schema:

Though there were many factors that influenced the development of the sisters’ relationship, including the inescapable one of geographical separation, the greatest and most fundamental can be simply stated. Elizabeth was no longer a child, but a person of substance with a mind of her own. Potentially, she was a rival. At 13 years of age, she was a highly intelligent young woman who had benefitted from a superb education, part of it shared with her brother, and informed by a greater breadth of learning and enquiry than Mary’s. Mary’s education was certainly impressive by the standards of its day, but those standards had changed by the time Elizabeth entered the schoolroom. She was taught by men who had questioned established orthodoxies, and the power of new ideas inclined her away from her older sister intellectually.

Her subject was a prickly, willful individual, and Porter is to be given credit for not overlooking that fact. Readers of The First Queen of England will not encounter hagiography, although some of its first cousins do creep in here and there, especially when Porter is dealing with the signal failures of Mary’s reign. But prior to those contentious spots, something like a three-dimensional portrait emerges, and our author is surprisingly adept at evoking the emotional subtleties that must have riddled relations between the two most problematic Tudors:

Edward hated the confrontations with Mary, and on one occasion they both ended up in tears, but he found her tone patronizing and was increasingly impatient with it as he grew into his teens. This creeping disenchantment with a difficult woman whom he could not help loving when he was a little boy may explain his attitude towards her when he knew he was dying in 1553.

Indeed, “a difficult woman” might almost serve as the book’s title, and in a note struck throughout the book, Porter makes it clear she would have it no other way:

Attempts to soften her image have been made, but their tendency to depict her as a sad little woman who would have been better off as the Tudor equivalent of a housewife is almost as distasteful as the legend of Bloody Mary. To dismiss her life as nothing more than a personal tragedy is both patronising and mistaken.

Porter fights this dismissal because she maintains it gives Mary short credit for the real achievements of her reign, and those achievements get more space and attention in The First Queen of England than they have received in any previous Mary biography. And some of these achievements are substantial. Mary did forward many plans for building and rebuilding the infrastructure of her realm, fortifying bridges and roads and the like, although as previous historians have pointed out, many of those projects originated in the reign of her brother. Likewise Mary, in concert with Philip, sought to strengthen England’s economic ties with Europe (and even the far-off Russia of Ivan the Terrible), although Spain’s monopolies on its New World trade routes were not shared with the English (despite the fact that Spain’s prince shared their queen’s bed and throne) – a fact that only further fanned the flames of resentment that always burned toward “the Spanish marriage.”

 About one subject at least Porter is in full agreement with all of Mary’s previous chroniclers: she had every drop of the Tudor spirit, and every inch of the Tudor raw physical courage. This was demonstrated vividly by one of the only things she shared in common with her grandfather Henry VII (and which they share with no other Tudors): she had to fight for her crown.As young Edward lay dying, with the succession clearly laid out (by Henry VIII) as descending first to Mary and her male heirs, the councilors of the realm had every reason to fear: here was a woman whose abuse they had all abetted, and none moreso than John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland and Edward’s principal adviser, a strange and domineering man who saw in Mary’s accession the specter of England’s return to the thrall of the Pope in Rome – and, not incidentally, the specter of his own rather abrupt termination. Tudor statesmen seldom needed more cause than this to act, and Dudley did: he convinced Edward (or enthusiastically seconded Edward’s own decision; it amounts to the same thing) to alter the succession so that the kingdom went to the daughter of Henry’s VIII’s sister Mary, Frances Brandon, who would step aside in favor of her own daughter, Jane Grey (who had been hastily married to Dudley’s feckless young son Guildford, thus ensuring the family’s royal favor). With the stroke of a pen, Mary was disinherited and her lifelong tormentor set to become the power behind the throne.In such a circumstance, there could be only one Tudor response, and Mary had it: she fought. Porter sees this as something of a transformation, and she is quick to highlight the drama of it all:

Closeted with her advisers, Mary decided there was, in reality, only one course open to her: she must proclaim herself as queen and she must prepare to fight. Much of her adult life had been spent in opposition, but now there was a need for clear thinking and boldness, not protests and tears. The supreme moment had crept up on her, like the lengthening days of summer.

And although in her flight to Framlingham, in Sussex (and in her raising of an army) Mary required the support and pledges of a great many powerful men, Porter is insistent that her subject was at the heart of everything, not a figurehead:

Throughout all this time, Mary showed remarkable courage and commitment. The miserable, indecisive princess who could not quite bring herself to cut ties with England in 1550 was nowhere to be seen. Instead, she had rediscovered the implacable girl who resisted, for three years, a king’s determination to make her deny who she was. This was the supreme struggle of her turbulent life. But it had a clear goal, a prize worth fighting for, and it was evident that there were many who were willing to die for her … Mary was no passive observer of events, and the idea that she knew very little about the planning behind her fight for the throne underrates her intelligence and diligence.

In any case, her open defiance worked: in little more than a week, Northumberland’s support evaporated, and the fantasy that was Queen Jane came to an end. Dudley of course would have to die, and, under pressure from Philip and the Spanish envoys, Mary eventually executed Jane and Guildford too, although it’s easy to see Porter’s humane queen agonizing over such a decision.

Coins engraved with Mary I and Philip II

Which brings us to the part that isn’t so easy to see. Not the loss of Calais that occurred during Mary’s reign; I think Porter is right to dismiss this as relatively unimportant – and to gently chide the “nationalist historians” who’ve always harrumphed otherwise, saying Mary cost England an “empire.” No, the really tough part of defending Mary is all those burned heretics.That’s where “Bloody Mary” comes from, and Porter must know better than anybody that it’s no mere “legend.” The burning of bishops might not be exclusively the act of wild-eyed fanaticism; bishops could be political opponents, after all, as Wolsey had been to Anne Boleyn, and as Cranmer (one of Mary’s first victims) was to Queen Katherine (and by extension Mary). It was lurid, certainly, and carried the risk of martyrdom (as one Tudor historian has put it, Mary might have fared better if she’d burned fewer heretics and beheaded more traitors), but there was reason of state behind it. But the burning of common folk? Of simple men and women, of farmhands who couldn’t accurately list the Sacraments? Such scenarios were the norm, not the exception, in Marian religious executions; the characterizing incident isn’t some beady-eyed prelate getting his just desserts, but rather a pregnant woman who gave birth while she was writhing in the flames, only to have the hysterical crowd throw the newborn child onto the fire. This was Torquemada; this was the Spanish Inquisition come to England. Porter has an uphill job attempting to defend it.So it’s perhaps not surprising that in this one instance, she fails. She could scarcely have succeeded; the fundamentally unbalanced nature of Mary’s persecutions is too plain, argues too strongly as a reflection of the woman’s inner turmoils writ large. Against this, Porter can only argue moral relativism and the security of the crown:

For her, extending any kind of mercy to these deluded sinners was unthinkable. Many of them wanted her dead, or, at least, dethroned. The queen understood well the power of the written and spoken word, but not the even greater propaganda victory that came with martyrdom. There could be no middle course, no bargaining with such error. She would have seen this as negotiating with the devil. In mid-16th century Europe the idea of respecting another person’s beliefs would have provoked incredulity. Such certainties bred oppressors and those who were willing to be sacrificed. Mary herself had said she would die for her faith during Edward VI’s reign. There is no reason to doubt her.

Cogently put, as is the rest of this book, and yet: mercy was thinkable. Mercy was obtainable from most other Tudors, especially Mary’s sister, especially in matters of faith. In Mary’s furious and lopsided assault on what she perceived as heresy (the “silent majority” that Porter claims agreed with her seemed to melt away pretty quick under Elizabeth), it’s impossible not to see a sad and anxious woman lashing out at the insecurities that had brought so much misery to her life. Porter is right to remind us of Mary’s accomplishments and potential; this is just one valediction too far.The First Queen of England would not have us characterize Mary Tudor as a failure, merely unlucky – unlucky to have loved unwisely (when he learned of her death, Philip gushed, “I’m reasonably sorry”), unlucky to have been betrayed and disinherited by her father, unlucky in her gruesomely authentic-seeming false pregnancies, unlucky in her timing (had she come into her kingdom at twenty instead of thirty, everything might have been different), and finally unlucky in her untimely death (Porter attributes it to an attack of the sweating sickness, which would be ironic indeed, considering the likelihood that the disease was introduced to England by the French mercenaries Henry VII brought with him to take his kingdom from Richard III) . There’s validity in this, especially when contrasted with the spectacular luck of Elizabeth, and Linda Porter has done a superb and richly rewarding job illuminating it for a new generation. Difficult woman though she might have been, Mary Tudor is at last lucky in her biographer.___By virtue of his deep friendship with Topham Beauclerk, Steve Donoghue was an original member of "The Club," until he was expelled by Samuel Johnson over matters of personal hygiene (whether Donoghue's or Johnson's it remains unclear). He now directs his literary observations to the salon of his blog Stevereads