Mary Tudor, or Queen Mary I, was called “Bloody Mary” because of her intense persecution of Protestants during her short reign. Mary Tudor lived in the first half of the 1500s, daughter to King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary became the first female ruler of England and Ireland at the age of 37 and reigned from July 1553 to her death in November 1558. During her long-anticipated yet relatively short reign, she sought to return England to Roman Catholicism, reversing the rise of Protestantism that had been established by her father and her half-brother Edward VI.
Mary waited long and fought hard for her right to the throne after being emotionally abused by her father and her position as rightful heir tossed about with indifference. When her mother, Queen Catherine, could produce no sons for Henry VIII, the king attempted to divorce her to wed his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Catherine, rather than acquiescing as Henry had anticipated, would not agree to a divorce, and the Pope would not grant an annulment. In 1534 King Henry VIII took matters into his own hands by cutting ties with Rome and establishing the Church of England, naming himself as Supreme Head. Thus, his marriage to Catherine was legally annulled, and both mother and daughter became disgraced outcasts. Mary Tudor was declared a bastard child at the age of seventeen and deprived of her former luxuries as princess.
Anne Boleyn bore Henry a daughter, the future Elizabeth I; however, by that time, the king was already courting Jane Seymour, a maid of honor to the queen. The king wanted to end his marriage with Anne, for she could not give him a son, either. To facilitate his wishes, Henry had Anne investigated for high treason. Anne was convicted, then beheaded one day before Henry’s engagement to Jane. Jane Seymour encouraged her husband to renew his relationship with Lady Mary Tudor, and Mary found a friend in her new step-mother.
Henry VIII’s third wife at last gave him a son, the future Edward VI. When Jane died shortly after childbirth, Mary Tudor was Jane’s chief mourner. With his royal line in such a tenuous state, Henry at last established the succession of English rule: first, Edward or Edward’s heirs, then, if Edward died without issue, Mary would become queen, after which Elizabeth (Anne’s daughter) would take the throne.
Edward became king at nine years old upon the death of Henry VIII. His Protestant tutors and advisers put him into a religious fervor, resulting in further disassembly of the Catholic Church in England. Edward VI ruled for only six years, for various illnesses took his life in 1553. Since Edward had been a minor, the lords of Somerset and of Northumberland acted as his regents. They knew what would happen if Mary Tudor became England’s first Catholic queen, and they struggled to instate Jane Gray, Henry VIII’s niece, as next in line. However, Mary had the public’s favor, and the decision to make Jane Gray queen was reversed in a mere nine days. After Mary Tudor ascended the throne, she grew drunk with a power that would culminate in an unfortunate end.
Within two months of her accession to the throne, Queen Mary I had reinstated the previously repealed Heresy Acts, which were extremely strict regulations “concerning the arresting and apprehension of erroneous and heretical preachers”—heretical in this case meaning “not Catholic.” Under the reinstated law, practicing Protestant leaders and churchmen were imprisoned and made martyrs. In the Marian persecutions, over 300 religious “heretics” were executed by being burned at the stake. This persecution of Protestants earned the queen the posthumous title of “Bloody Mary.” John Foxe, in Chapter XVI of his classic book Acts and Monuments, details many of the executions carried out by Bloody Mary.
One of Bloody Mary’s chief antagonists was John Knox, the Scottish Reformer and founder of the Reformed Church in Scotland. When Mary took the throne, Knox fled to Geneva, where he met John Calvin and continued his work in the Reformation. Knox did not return to Scotland until after Bloody Mary’s death, but his influence was felt, as he continued to write tracts against Mary that were smuggled into England.
Determined to produce an heir who would continue her mission of restoring Catholic England, Queen Mary I married Philip II of Spain, son of Charles V. Their marriage proved loveless and childless, as Mary suffered from many reproductive ailments. Philip grew bored with Mary and spent little time in England. After Mary’s death, her successor, Queen Elizabeth I, quickly unraveled her half-sister’s actions on the throne. With the end of Bloody Mary’s reign of terror, England returned to a Protestant-friendly atmosphere.
In some ways, Queen “Bloody Mary” of England was successful in her conversion of England. Under King Henry VIII, only one Catholic bishop stood up to the rejection of Roman Catholicism, though his rebellion led to his execution. When Mary came to power, her bishops proved themselves quite loyal. Ultimately, Bloody Mary could not stop the advance of Protestantism; however many dissidents she killed, she was fighting against a work of God.