Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Death of Mary Tudor

November 17 was the anniversary of the death of Queen Mary Tudor. Mary I (1516-1558) was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, his Queen. She was the heir to the throne and her mother was raising her to be a great ruler, like her grandmother Queen Isabella of Spain. However, as a teenager, her life was destroyed by her parents' separation. Anne Boleyn had stolen her father's affections and in his efforts to annul his marriage to Katherine so he could marry his favorite, he broke away from the Church. Mary lost her status, was kept from seeing her mother, and had to be lady-in-waiting to Anne's daughter Elizabeth. Mary had gone from being the cherished princess to being a servant.

Mary clung to the old Faith. I think that like many Catholics today, who often are the lone members of their families to practice their religion, Mary endured a great deal of isolation coupled with frustration. She was also a child of divorce, with all of the feelings of confusion and betrayal that people who come from a broken home often experience. She was not able to marry until her late thirties; motherhood was denied her. Nevertheless, she showed great love for her half-siblings Elizabeth and Edward, as well as for all of her stepmothers (except for Anne Boleyn.) She was instrumental in converting Anne of Cleves to the Catholic religion, according to Alison Weir in The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

In 1553, Mary ascended the throne. Her reign of five years, in which she tried to restore the Church in England, was marked by disappointment, failure, and tragedy. Mary Tudor is infamous because of the 277 people burned at the stake during her reign. Sadly, those horrible deaths, which occurred towards the end of her life, overshadow everything else. It was a tragic and bitter mistake; it did not lead people back to the Church. How could it have? According to New Advent:
It seems to be generally admitted now that no vindictive thirst for blood prompted the deplorable severities which followed, but they have weighed heavily upon the memory of Mary, and it seems on the whole probable that in her conscientious but misguided zeal for the peace of the Church, she was herself principally responsible for them. In less than four years 277 persons were burned to death. Some, like Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, were men of influence and high position, but the majority belonged to the lower orders. Still these last were dangerous, because, as Dr. Gairdner has pointed out, heresy and sedition were at that time almost convertible terms. In regard to these executions, a much more lenient and at the same time more equitable judgment now prevails than was formerly the case. As one recent writer observes, Mary and her advisers "honestly believed themselves to be applying the only remedy left for the removal of a mortal disease from the body politic...What they did was on an unprecedented scale in England because heresy existed on an unprecedented scale" (Innes, "England under the Tudors", 232; and cf. Gairdner, "Lollardy", I,327).
Mary was only 41 when she died, in a state of deep repentance. Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson describes her death in a compelling essay, in which he contrasts her passing with that of her sister Queen Elizabeth I, many years later. (Monsignor Benson points out that Elizabeth had many Catholics killed in a grisly manner.)
Of the final scene of Mary's life we have a tolerably detailed account, taken down from the relation of Jane Dormer herself, who was one of the few friends who remained with Mary to the end. Most of her other attendants had already made their way to Hatfield, to pay their court to the Princess who would presently be in power. This account is an interesting comment on the way in which Mary's religion was a support to her in the crisis, and forms an agreeable comparison with the same element in her sister's death nearly fifty years later. Of course Mary's devotion in no way proves the truth of her faith; it is only an evidence of her absolute and serene sincerity.

"That morning hearing Mass, which was celebrated in her chamber, she being at the last point (for no day passed in her life that she heard not Mass), and although sick to death, she heard it with good attention, zeal, and devotion, as she answered in every part with him who served the Priest, such yet was the quickness of her senses and memory. And when the priest came to that part to say, 'Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,' she answered plainly and distinctly to every one, 'Miserere nobis, Miserere nobis, Dona nobis pacem.'

"Afterwards, seeming to meditate something with herself, when the Priest took the Sacred Host to consume it, she adored it with her voice and countenance, presently closed her eyes and rendered her blessed soul to God. This the Duchess =Jane Dormer= hath related to me, the tears pouring from her eyes, that the last thing which the Queen saw in this world was her Saviour and Redeemer in the Sacramental Species, no doubt to behold Him presently after in His glorious Body in heaven. A blessed and glorious passage, 'Anima mea cum anima ejus.'" =From Life of Jane Dormer, quoted by Miss Stone.=

Mary thought it her duty also, in common with most Christian people, to make some provision for the disposal of her body and her goods after her death -- again offering a comparison with Elizabeth's action. She had already impoverished herself with efforts to restore to the service of God what her father had taken "to his own use"; and on her death-bed she made further dispositions in the same direction. In her will and codicil, every page of which she signed painfully with her own hand, she bequeaths her soul to the mercy of Almighty God, and to the "good prayers and help of the most pure and blessed Virgin St. Mary, and of all the Holy Company of heaven"; and her body to be buried at the discretion of her executors. She leaves large sums to the poor, to the Religious Houses which she had re-founded, to the poor scholars at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and to Hospitals, especially to one for disabled soldiers; she also leaves legacies to her ladies and her servants, as well as to her husband and executors. This will was entirely disregarded by Elizabeth, and lay, as Miss Stone remarks, in obscurity for over three hundred years.

So far, then, we are agreeably surprised. There is no terror of the future, or agonised remorse; there is repentance, of course, and confession of sin and shortcomings, but that is scarcely to Mary's reproach. There is tranquil confidence in religion and the mercy of God; she encourages her friends, makes her will, trusts her sister, and gives up her soul during what was to her, throughout her life, the most sacred and holy action of the day. Whether or not her religion was true is not our affair now; we are only concerned with the way in which it was her support during her last moments, and even if we are not satisfied as to its objective truth, we can at least be satisfied with its power to uphold one who believed in it with all her heart. In this sense, if in no other, we can say, with Jane Dormer, "A blessed and glorious passage! May my soul be with hers!"


Mark said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post about a tragic, misunderstood, and unfairly vilified queen.

elena maria vidal said...

You are welcome, mark. Thank you.

Gareth R- said...

I think what Miss Vidal has written is even-handed and extremely thought-provoking, as ever.

Personally, I do think that from a modern point-of-view Mary must be judged with great sympathy for the tragedies of her personal life - which, as most historians would agree, now stemmed from her tyrannical despot of a father. I think the cruellest moment, from my point of view, is Mary's almost palpable relief and delight at Anne Boleyn's execution (admittedly, not a perfect Christian response), but an understandable one given that she blamed Anne for the disasters of the last decade. Yet, how intense must Mary's agony have been when things only got worse and her father, along with Thomas Cromwell, proceeded to humiliate and discredit Mary far more than they had ever done during Boleyn's lifetime? The repudiation of Papal Supremacy and her mother's marriage were oaths taken under duress, but taken when Mary's favourite stepmother, Jane Seymour, was on the throne and at a time in her life when Mary clearly expected to be better treated. In a truly excellent biography of Mary, by H.F.M. Prescott, written half a century ago, Miss Prescott argues that these oaths taken in these circumstances were psychological blows which Mary never recovered from.

However, I do not know if I would go so far as Mary and said that she was "unfairly vilified." By the standards of her own time, this undoubtedly intelligent and popular princess proved to be a disaster as a monarch, not just in terms of religious policy, but also foreign affairs, the Irish plantations and relations with the lower gentry. She was by no means a bloodthirsty woman in private, with the exception of her distasteful euphoria at Anne Boleyn's death in 1536, she showed no signs of takng pleasure in anyone's suffering; but, politically, she was a catastrophe.

What I so liked about this post was that it was not an attempt to whitewash Mary, but, rather, to humanise. For me, she was a human being who lead a thwarted existence but deserves to be remembered with charity.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Gareth, for providing more background and references. I agree that if Mary had not had such cruel psychological blows as a young person, she might have been a successful ruler. She was certainly intelligent enough, and quite popular with the English people at the beginning of her brief reign. I can't get over how tragic it all is.

elena maria vidal said...

I do think that most popular portrayals of her are unfair, and do not take into account the harsh realities of her life. I am especially thinking of the depiction in the first Cate Blanchett Elizabeth film, which painted Mary as a twisted, psychotic old hag.

Terry Nelson said...

This was very informative, thank you.

Gareth R- said...

The portrayal of Mary in "Elizabeth" (1998) was extreme. I did find myself feeling very sorry for her though, in the end, and applauding the comedienne Kathy Burke for her dramatic acting of Mary's agonising descent into terminal cancer. However, you are absolutely right: the decision to portray her as a medieval hag was several steps too far! Although, there was, at least, SOME physical resemblance to the last ever portrait of Mary (Antonio Mor, 1557); just as I thought Cate Blanchett looked astonishingly like Elizabeth in her Coronation portrait.

A relatively sympathetic portrayal of Mary is given in the 4-part BBC series, "The Virgin Queen," which is sympathetic to both sisters. It had Anne-Marie Duff in the title role, with Joanna Whalley in the role of Mary. One feels for Mary who, through her rage, and brandishing of a sword, comes across not as cruel, but broken-hearted and paranoid. There is a brilliant and deliberate echo of this in the final episode, when Elizabeth is shown in her final years walking around the palace in a breast-shield with a sword, just like her sister had before her.

I sometimes think a series on Mary's life would be a fantastic idea.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Gareth, someone should do a series. Yes, I was also impressed by Joanne Walley's portrayal of Mary in the BBC production. As for "Elizabeth" with Cate Blanchett, there were some definite physical similarities of Kathy Burke with Mary, although overall it was such a caricature. The BBC production was much more accurate.

Rodrigo said...

I'm a longtime reader of your blog, but have never posted until today. Thank you for this wonderful post on Mary I.

Given that England eventually became a staunchly Protestant country in the decades after her death, I think it is not a surprise that she has been vilified for the Protestant executions during her brief reign - in a way that Elizabeth has not for the many horrific executions of Catholics during her own reign. Though I've always wondered at the reliability of that number of Marian executions, considering that the source was the propagandist John Foxe himself.

I enjoyed Linda Porter's book "The First Queen of England" from last year which presented Mary in a way I haven't read before. And there's another biography on Mary by Anna Whitelock which comes out next year that I'm also looking forward to.

I have yet to see an accurate portrayal of Mary in either TV or film, unfortunately. As discussed, the first Elizabeth movie was horrible while her depiction as a ruthless daughter in “Anne of the Thousand Days” was not just unfair, but inaccurate – Mary never saw her mother again after 1531. Joanne Whalley did a credible enough job in “The Virgin Queen” though the part was brief and poorly written and the scene of her hysterical death was ridiculous, given how peaceful her actual death really was.

And about Mary’s apparent euphoria over the execution of Ann Boleyn: I have not read anything of any public displays of enthusiasm by Mary over the execution of Boleyn – in the way that, say, Boleyn herself along with Henry openly celebrated the death of Katherine of Aragon. Of course, when you consider that Boleyn had publicly called for Mary’s death and had instructions out for Mary to be "boxed on the ears for the cursed bastard that she is”, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that Mary would have shed no tears for the demise of her stepmother. But as far as I know, there is no record of any public reaction by Mary to Boleyn’s death.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Rodrigo, for the excellent reflections and book recommendations. Mary was treated so horribly as a young girl; most people are quite unaware.