Contextualising a Queen Regnant
Stoddard Martin reviews a revisionist take on Mary Tudor
The standard narrative of English history of the 15th century is of squalor bookended by brief-ish reigns of two great kings, Henry V and VII. Shakespeare promulgated this tale as required by the insecure regime of Elizabeth I; he was preceded and followed by others, spinning a 16th century as consolidating Tudor good sense and pragmatic grandeur before a 17th marred by dubious doings of the Francophile, crypto-Catholic Stuarts, leading to more civil strife. Little in monarchy went wholly right until a grand Victorian era finally stabilized the 18th century installation of Hanoverian Germans, shallowly Protestant and eliminating at a stroke a score of more continentally-oriented Catholics with superior blood claims. At last the brief-ish, somewhat indifferent kingships of the first half of the 20th century gave way to another exemplary queenship – that of our happy new Elizabethan era.
Propaganda has ever been part of this process, and over five centuries the phenomenon of long-reigning queens has grown to become a desideratum of pacific rule. Since the Norman Conquest there have been a handful of minor usurpations and two great ones, the first by Stephen from Henry I’s daughter and heir, the Empress[i] Mathilda, in an age when it was thought that a woman, however competent, could or should not rule. Civil strife ensued and was resolved more or less in Mathilda’s favour when Stephen agreed to allow her son, Henry Plantagenet, to succeed. As Henry II, he became the most international king in our story, ruling vast possessions brought to him not least by the greatest of medieval queens consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he had seduced away from a weak king of France.
Thence succession proceeded as deemed proper by primogeniture, a blip occurring when Henry’s youngest son eliminated the boy child of his deceased elder brother Geoffrey – an incident driving the plot of that orphan among Shakespeare’s history plays, King John. After John in straight succession came Henry III, Edward I and Edward II, deposed in the last year of his life in favour of his son Edward III by his wife, heir to the French monarchy were women eligible, and her lover Roger Mortimer. Edward III was in due course succeeded by his eldest son’s son, the ten year old Richard II, a figure with whom Shakespeare’s long historical sequence properly begins, being the kingship during which the dynastic merde began to hit the fan.
Richard was deposed by the eldest son of Edward III’s fourth son, the powerful John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. This violated not only Richard’s rights but those of descendants of Edward’s third son, which passed through a woman, Anne Mortimer (her grandmother had married a grandson of Edward II’s deposer), via marriage to the grandson of Edward’s fifth son, the Duke of York. This gave the house of York its right to challenge what it deemed a Lancastrian usurpation, bringing on the Wars of the Roses. These commenced after Henry V died, leaving another boy child as king, Henry VI. His mother, another heiress of France, produced two half-brothers for him by a Welshman whose pedigree was as obscure as was the fact of whether she ever really married him. These half-brothers, royal only in French descent, established an English royal link by marriage of the younger of them to Lady Margaret, granddaughter of John of Gaunt via one of three Beaufort bastards legitimated by their half-brother Henry IV on proviso that none would succeed to the crown.
Margaret became mother to Henry Tudor, thus grandmother to Henry VIII and great-grandmother to the other three Tudor monarchs, all of whose claims to the throne were on this basis never beyond challenge. Such challenge, pre-existing the religio-dynastic strife that we associate with the Tudors now, may have been a prime cause of most of the blue blood shed during their regimes. Lady Margaret’s aunt, Joan Beaufort, had earlier married into the powerful Neville family, making her grandmother not only to the Wars of the Roses ‘Kingmaker’, Earl of Warwick, but to everyone of York descended from Anne Mortimer’s son Richard, who had married one of Joan’s daughters. This marriage was only prudent. Richard of York’s position was from boyhood insecure – the Lancastrians executed his uncle and father – and dependence on alliance with the Nevilles lasted throughout his lifetime into that of his sons, eldest of whom finally deposed Henry VI to reign as Edward IV.
Edward’s name suggested return to stability in succession of the Plantagenets, broken only after the death of Edward III, but this was not to be. The York clan had its own divisions re legitimacy. The Neville Kingmaker fell out with Edward over his marriage to the widow of a Lancastrian knight, and on Edward’s death his brother Richard cited impropriety in that marriage to declare Edward’s children bastards. Edward’s sons, one called Edward V though never crowned, disappeared in the summer of 1483, leaving their uncle to reign as Richard III. After Richard was killed in battle with Henry Tudor in 1485, his will conferring succession onto the de la Pole children of his York sister Elizabeth was ignored. The eldest of them, John Earl of Lincoln, was killed in battle against Tudor in 1487 during the revolt of Lambert Simnel. Lincoln’s brothers Edmund, William and Richard were variously exiled, imprisoned and hounded by Henry VII, and Edmund finally beheaded by Henry VIII in 1513. Further siblings, including two churchmen and four daughters, kept a low profile.
The crowned heads of Europe looked on with doubt at Tudor legitimacy for years. Several joined another York sister, Margaret of Burgundy, in believing the younger of Edward IV’s disappeared sons had survived rather than being murdered by their Uncle Richard, as put out by Tudor propaganda. Accepted as Richard IV in Ireland and Scotland, a young man who was more elegant than soldierly was captured by Henry in 1495 and put to death after confessing to be mere Perkin Warbeck, this despite a rumour that Henry’s wife (he’d hastened to marry the eldest sister of Edward’s sons after defeating Richard in 1485) recognized him as her true brother.[ii] She had reasons to keep quiet, and not only fear of her husband. With Henry she had parented four children apparently not afflicted by the York-Lancaster rivalry, as she was the prime living claimant of York, legitimacy passing again via a woman. Yet not everyone approved this. Her legitimacy was under shadow too.
Richard III’s assertion about Edward IV’s improper marriage turned daughters into bastards as well as sons. Moreover, a rumour had long been abroad that Edward himself had not been son to his father – Richard of York had been in France when this first child with his Neville wife was conceived, explaining for some why the tall, blond, tending-to-corpulent Edward had resembled York less than did the slight, dark, Machiavellian son who inherited his name. During the Wars of the Roses, York was too dependent on Neville for this to come out; moreover, neither Richard III nor his other elder brother George were prepared to speak against their mother. George was prepared to turn against Edward, however, and went to death for this treachery in 1478. But George had children by his own Neville wife, daughter of the Kingmaker, and they lived on. Attainted by Edward, they nonetheless seemed to pose a threat to the Tudors once they had gained the crown. A son, Earl of Warwick, was executed by Henry VII in the same year as ‘Richard IV’. A daughter, Margaret, married to Sir Richard Pole and mother to numerous children, was made Countess of Salisbury by Henry VIII to recompense the judicial murder of her brother and to reward her as governess to his daughter Mary. Henry encouraged one of Margaret’s sons, Reginald, in a career as churchman; but when Reginald later failed to support Henry in his divorce from Mary’s mother Katherine of Aragon, the king raged. Reginald had to flee England; his brother Lord Montague was beheaded; the aged Margaret was attainted and executed; another brother Geoffrey had to join Reginald abroad. Nor did it stop there. Geoffrey’s sons Arthur and Edmund were imprisoned by Elizabeth in 1562 and died in captivity eight years later.
Clearly the Tudors were never able to throw off fear of challenge to their legitimacy. Their best claim to it, descent from Elizabeth of York, lay on ground which Yorkists themselves had been uncomfortable with – thus one explanation for the consistent elimination of others of the York line with clear blood claims if they dared to waver in support. The one York scion of note to play a significant role in the whole Tudor epoch was Reginald Pole, who grew in piety, intelligence and restraint to become ‘a mild-mannered, saintly individual… at once paternal and patrician’ in the words of Gregory Slysz in his Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen Regnant. Remote from Henry and his ‘reformers’, Pole became a cardinal, almost a pope, and one of the prime movers of the Council of Trent. Corresponding with both Erasmus and Ignatius Loyola, he was at the same time a humanist and a pioneer of the Counter-Reformation. Returning to England as papal legate in 1555, he helped Mary Tudor restore the old religion in a land where it had so far only been superficially uprooted.
Mary, to turn to her, enjoyed a situation dynastically that was little more secure than her grandfather’s had been on his accession. Her mother had been astutely chosen by that Henry for marriage to his eldest son so as to acquire alliance with the rising monarchs of Spain, who had hitherto regarded his kingship as usurpation and been among those attracted by the pretensions of ‘Richard IV’. When Henry’s eldest son died, he re-married Katherine off to his next son to keep the Hispanic alliance intact. Henry VIII thus began adult life wedded to a woman six years his senior, whose possible consummation with his brother would become an issue of pained contention for her in their divorce a quarter of a century on. Despite Katherine’s numerous pregnancies, Mary was sole child of the union – a crucial disappointment to Henry in an era which still had never seen a queen regnant. He believed sons essential to survival of his dynasty. This as well as greed for church lands is widely taken to be his main motive for instigating what became the English Reformation.
Mary had to grow up through the indignity of her parents’ divorce trial, the maligning of a religion she had accepted from earliest days, ostracism once her father had taken a new wife, relegation to the issue of that marriage and its successor, implication of bastardy and death of her mother in ignominy and seclusion. Her teen years passed in shadow, her early adulthood in darker places. When her ten year old brother came to the throne, things grew worse. Dudleys and Greys, with royal connections of their own from the chaotic past century, conspired around the young king, using Protestantism as a weapon, and attempted at his death, aged 16, to install their candidate, the hapless Jane Grey, on the throne, despite Mary’s position as heir. Lady Jane was remote from any claim to becoming England’s first queen regnant, descended only from Henry VIII’s younger sister, so that, even if Mary’s claim were excluded on grounds of impropriety of her parents’ marriage, or her sister Elizabeth’s on grounds of impropriety of Henry’s next marriage, Jane would still have had to give way to the line of Henry’s elder sister. That, however, had devolved by now to yet another teenaged female, Catholic to boot – the other Mary of the era, Stuart, Queen of Scots, already affianced to the young heir of France. Jane had powerful minders to advance her cause – the nation’s effective rulers in Edward’s minority – but the extent of her remoteness from legitimacy was enough to discourage others from accepting the will of these extreme Protestant adventurers, and Mary was duly if not wholly enthusiastically granted the right to succeed that her father had returned to her and to her sister following their separate periods of relegation as bastards before his death in 1547.
Mary’s father had secured the rift from Rome by breaking up monasteries and conferring their wealth on his supporters, a process which continued under his minor son. Possession gained is not easily withdrawn, and Mary was pragmatic enough to see that she would not survive if she demanded full restitution. Her agenda was in any case driven by ideals, as Slysz depicts it in his scholarly return to the historical sources. Mary was a pious Catholic who truly believed that the nation had lost its way, yet she proceeded gently in trying to re-Catholicize the still not-too-Protestant people. Edwardian liturgy was replaced by a less extreme version from her father’s late period: she shared with Henry a fear that Protestant emphasis on ‘the word’ could undermine social order, thus her concentration on ceremony, music and instruction in faith – Pole set about establishing seminaries rather than restoring monasteries. From there Mary moved to eliciting recantation from heretics, a process which, according to Slysz, was moderate by standards of the age. Mary’s efforts in general were shadowed by continuing political grumbles such as manifest in the Wyatt rebellion, bad weather, poor harvests, a debased currency and legacy of maladministration from her brother’s stint as nominal king – an instance recalling Richard II and Henry VI of the perils of having a mere boy on the throne. Mary consulted parliament and ruled via council. She courted foreign support as needed, notably that of her cousin, the Emperor Charles V, and, following the example of her grandfather, looked for alliance to the rising power of Spain.
It is entirely natural that she should have done so. Her English father, however well she had coped with his vagaries and the partly poisoned chalice he had bequeathed her, had at times treated her as monstrously as he had her mother. Katherine was, as said, Spanish, thus Mary half so – actually more than half since Spanish royals were themselves descended from that all-father of the previous era, John of Gaunt, via his second wife. Mary at first considered marriage to the Emperor but shifted her attention on his prompting to his son, four years her junior, thus turning Philip of Spain into England’s first ‘king consort’. Historians imagine this to have been a mistake, and Slysz does not wholly disagree; but in his general attempt to exhume Mary from the avalanche of criticism that has buried her ever since Elizabethan propaganda got going, Slysz argues that Mary always remained sovereign in her own right and that Philip in any case during his brief periods in England proved more moderate in policy than in later years when acting against his own Dutch Protestant subjects or in dealing with his sister-in-law once she ascended the throne as Mary’s successor.
An upshot of the Philippian alliance redounding against Mary was war with the French, of which she herself had no need. The war lost England Calais, last of possessions in France held since the days of that all-father of the all-father, Edward III, or even back to the original Plantagenet. Centuries of imperial historians have held this against Mary, but Slysz argues that the loss actually failed to damage trade as feared and was of little consequence except symbolically. Also in the period and caused by Philip’s policy came a dispute with the new pope, Paul IV, which Mary could have done without; but she managed to stand her ground politically without damaging the Holy See’s support for her effort to re-Catholicize England. Through these phases of foreign difficulty, Mary was more than once pregnant and would miscarry; rarely well or quite happy, she ended by dying at age 42. The ‘sad little woman’ aspect to her story has been a Leitmotiv of it down the centuries, but Slysz believes this has been overplayed and that history has failed to credit the woman as as competent as she was. He sees her as delivering a good working administration to her sister, less unstable and more efficient than what had been left to her by her brother. Mary of course also delivered to the eventually triumphal yet apparently ungrateful Elizabeth what may have proved a greater prize: the precedent that a woman could succeed as monarch and survive.
Slysz gets down finally to what has attached to Mary’s memory most, the epithet ‘Bloody’. The burning of heretics by her regime he considers in terms of context, conduct and number, as well as comparison to the martyring of Catholics by the rest of her regnant family, treated more lightly by Protestant historians ever since. He grants that death by liquefaction of flesh could never be other than horrible but goes on to maintain that the process pleased no one, least of all Mary herself, except perhaps in the case of Archbishop Cranmer who in her view had acted without mercy against her mother. Slysz makes a case that with the urbane Pole at her side Mary was able to keep the total of Protestant martyrs quite low, offering recantation to those who would take it and staying the end for many in hopes that they might save their souls by a change of heart. Her motive was purification, not revenge, he contends. He does not go so far as to redub her ‘Merciful Mary’, but he sees forgiveness and redemption for Protestant ‘error’ as the driving motives of a savage policy. In this and her relative leniency, he argues that her husband and his father, the great Charles, supported her, as did the more visible Pole before he was removed as legate in her last year by a spiteful Pope Paul.
On the matter of vengeance against Protestants traditionally attached to Mary’s reign, it may be Pole above all who had just cause. Yet he doubtless recognized the slaughter of his mother and brother, like that of his uncle before them and cousins after, as more dynastic than religious in motive; nor did he let it cause him to waver from the broad, humanistic approach to dogma that had made him enemies in Rome and probably denied him the Papacy. Among the last of sure-blooded Yorkists, he died twelve hours after Mary in 1558. The crown thence passed to a queen whose Plantagenet blood was a mere trickle from John of Gaunt via Beauforts and Nevilles. Among others of this stock who had not been executed or fled, Thomas Dudley would in due course become first governor of Massachusetts.[iii] By then Tudors had vanished from the English throne, save for the trickle of blood which over four generations managed to drip down into the veins of a first Stuart and then via those of a daughter of a daughter into the Hanoverian and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha lines which are still with us, name changed and bloodline of spouses no longer a priority. Women have now long been established as fit to succeed, and boy kings have for centuries not appeared to be a problem. Primogeniture among royals has recently been abolished, yet bastards still need not apply, despite the centrality of Beauforts in the historical line. Catholics, as Slysz points out, are also still enjoined from succession. Tampering with an old structure seems too dangerous for many. Few are confident of what might eventuate were it to collapse.
Thus we remain, a people still largely in thrall to the myth of the Tudors – creators of a nation, saviours of this sceptred isle from a Papist/continental maw. Perhaps, as Slysz says, it is only in an era less concerned with religion and of diminishing national sovereignty vis-à-vis international institutions that the onslaught vs a first queen regnant for having tried to arrest this process may be properly countered. His book tackles the old anti-Catholic, anti-continental and hyper-national propaganda against her. While lacking the Antonia Fraser touches that might make it popular, it advances a strong plea for revision to continue. In an increasingly Brexit-tending era, who knows how this may fare. Meanwhile, no one need wonder why Francis Coppola looked to Shakespeare and the squalor of his histories as models for sequential dramatic masterpieces on the Mafia. Few families surpass the Tudors in Machiavellianism. How ironic that the one among them most remembered as ‘bloody’ may have been least Machiavellian and most compassionate. Perhaps Shakespeare intuited this tendency in the portrait he painted of her unhappy, poorly loved, yet dignified Catholic mother in the last and other orphan among his history plays, Henry VIII. Dramatists like to show us history driven by rivalry in dynasty, power and greed. It is left to religiously-sensitive historians like Slysz to give hope that the pious may eventually triumph.
MARY TUDOR: ENGLAND’S FIRST QUEEN REGNANT: Truth is the Daughter of Time, by Gregory Slysz (Leominster: Gracewing, 2015)
[i] Title conferred by virtue of her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor
[ii] On this as much else in this phase of the dynastic saga, see Ann Wroe’s The Perfect Prince (Bodley Head, 2003) subsequently retitled Perkin, about the most threatening challenge to Henry VII’s regime
[iii] His line of Dudleys descended from Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, son of Elizabeth Woodville before she married Edward IV. Grey married a daughter of Katherine Neville, elder sister to the Kingmaker
STODDARD MARTIN is an academic, author and publisher