Those new to the 16th century sometimes have trouble keeping the “Mary”s straight. There is Mary, Queen of Scots, the beauty who married three times, lost her throne and was eventually executed by Elizabeth I. She was romantic. The Mary I write about in this post is the other one—the “Bloody” one who, in her zealousness to turn England back into a Catholic country had 284 Protestant martyrs burned at the stake. While more than 300 Catholic martyrs died during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Mary is the one who carries the reputation of being a merciless, bigotry-filled killer. How that reputation evolved over the centuries is very interesting.Share
Mary Tudor was a woman of her time. While that may seem obvious, she was followed by a half-sister who was in some ways ahead of her time. Mary took a husband to secure the succession by having children, as every monarch was expected to do. Elizabeth refused to marry. Mary upheld the Catholic religion and did not recognize the opposing point of view. Elizabeth famously said, “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith, all else is a dispute over trifles.” Mary and Elizabeth, while close when young, distrusted each other by the time Mary took the throne. The relationship went downhill from there. When Elizabeth succeeded, she did not honor Mary’s request to be buried with her mother, Katherine of Aragon, and rarely spoke well of her older sibling.
But it wasn’t Elizabeth who ensured that Mary would be detested for centuries. The first person to push her toward infamy—hard—was John Foxe, the Protestant author of The Book of Martyrs. Most English people did not witness the burnings of condemned heretics. But thanks to Foxe’s widespread book, first published in 1563, the horror of being burned at the stake was made starkly clear. These descriptions make for harrowing reading, then and now. (Read more.)