This article will feature in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

The phrase “Bloody Mary” typically pertains to either the Tudor Queen, murderous ghosts in mirrors, or the eponymous drink. The first of these reigned over England from 1553-58 and remains a controversial figure today due to the roughly 300 Protestants she burned for heresy – a fate that earned them instant martyrdom. The condemnation of such a person as “bloody” when presented with this does appear logical. However,  arguably, Mary was given this nickname not solely due to these burnings. The following centuries of English religion and the implications of her gender must be considered when deciding whether “Bloody Mary” is a just name.

Mary’s deep-seated detestation of Protestantism came from a more human source than simply being “bloody”. The Reformation had been harsh on Mary personally. Her religion was now being  undermined and it cost her parents their marriage, and her place in the succession. From 1534 to 1543 she was known as Lady Mary, a title she never recognised. Mary was also barred from seeing her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and from her funeral in 1536: cruel acts on Henry VIII’s part, designed to break Mary’s spirit and to get her to acknowledge her illegitimacy. It is understandable that she grew to resent reformist doctrine and those who favoured it. Whilst Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell were dead by 1553, Thomas Cranmer – who annulled her parents’ marriage – was alive and had been increasingly religiously radical in Edward VI’s reign. Mary’s refusal to pardon Cranmer, like other Protestants who recanted their faith, was because he had wronged her. Personal vendettas are a sign of humans, not monsters – after all,  it was common in the 16th century for those who fell from favour to lose their lives.

It is also important to remember that English society, after Mary, grew increasingly anti-Catholic. Although Elizabeth I would initially attempt to find a middle ground, plots would lead to more anti-Catholic stances. This expanded after the Tudor era with the commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, continuing until the 1850s. A century after Mary, England was governed by a Puritan, and the next Catholic King was dethroned by Parliament. Increasingly, being Catholic was seen as being anti-English or anti-British: as being loyal to the Pope, not the monarch. History remembered by such a society was undoubtedly going to portray Mary – the Catholic Queen who burnt her opponents – as disturbed. When Mary ascended in 1553, England still held a strong Catholic affinity in many areas and did not fully embrace the radical reforms of Edward’s reign (as the Western Rebellion of 1549 exhibited). The England of the future, however, was not so fond of Catholicism. Retrospectively, Mary is regarded as trying to hold back the inevitable “enlightenment” of religion – she was playing for the wrong team. Would the nickname “Bloody Mary” have  endured if she were a Protestant Queen executing Catholics? Was singling Mary out for such an evocative nickname simply anti-Catholic?

Mary was also judged harshly, being arguably the first Queen of England in her own right. There are countless examples in history and literature of powerful, violent women depicted as morally inferior to male counterparts. Whilst modern opinion towards Henry VIII may not be overwhelmingly positive, he has no nickname declaring him “bloody”. Yet, he executed and tortured both Protestants and Catholics on religious grounds, as well as those closest to him (including two wives). What made Mary distinctly worse than him? Though Henry’s 81 Protestant executions over 38 years pales in comparison to Mary’s record, was it simply more acceptable for a King to sign death warrants than a Queen? Considering that even fairly recently women who kill are treated as more shocking than the men who do the same (such as the Moors Murderers), this argument perhaps is not so farfetched.

Mary’s gender did her no favours in the 16th century. Many feared that whoever she married would make England a satellite state of their own country, as a man inherited everything a woman had upon marriage. Whilst a treaty was passed through Parliament in 1554, ensuring Philip II of Spain was unable to dominate England, he remained unpopular, damaging Mary’s reputation. Further damage was added by his lack of affection for her and Mary’s inability to conceive. Being forced to name Elizabeth as heir was viewed as a personal failing as a woman and monarch – it sealed Mary’s reign as a short blip before Elizabeth’s “golden age”. Mary does not compare well to Elizabeth, whose reign was long and varied enough that she is remembered for more than religious persecution. Also, Elizabeth better manipulated her image as “the Virgin Queen” – a more acceptable meshing of femininity and monarchy than “Bloody Mary”. 

Finally, the most common misconception about Mary’s character is when and why she executed Lady Jane Grey. Surprisingly, it was not the moment she was deposed — as Mary recognised she had been a pawn — but after Jane’s father was involved in 1554’s Wyatt’s Rebellion. Surely a “bloody” Mary would have executed her straight away, for daring to take her throne? Realistically, Mary will always be known as “Bloody Mary”; the benefit of this is it makes her more accessible. Reports she was a hardworking monarch who respected the Parliament’s authority are not as striking as burning 300 people for religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the oversimplification of “great” or “evil” people is rarely useful because morality is a changing concept. This is not to justify the infamous Marian Persecutions, but reputations are not always so simple.

By Rebecca Smith