Mary I, England’s Catholic Queen of Undeserved Reputation

Review of Mary Tudor, England’s First Queen Regnant – Truth is the Daughter of Time by Gregory Slysz. Gracewing, United Kingdom 2015 by Eleonore Villarrubia

Recently I read a review of a book about the 1641 Irish Rebellion. The reviewer called the many “historical” versions of that event — all written by Protestant Englishmen — “The Big Lie.” No doubt many events throughout history have come to us as “history” when the winning party in an issue or conflict gets to write the official version of events. This very same term can be justly applied to the legitimate daughter of Henry VIII and the cruelly treated Catherine of Aragon, Mary I, and her short reign of five years on the English throne. Sadly, Mary has become known by the victors of that protracted battle to keep England Catholic as “Bloody Mary.” Now, in a new book (2015) English author Gregory Slysz sets things straight about Mary and her efforts to keep her beloved country within the bosom of the Church. He demolishes this particular “Big Lie.”

The book begins with a very informative introduction about the historic scholarship of Mary I and her reign. As the daughter of King Henry VIII and his only legitimate wife (marrried in the Catholic Church), Catherine of Aragon, Mary was first in line to inherit the throne, as she was their only surviving child of six pregnancies. Catherine and Mary remained adamantly attached to the Old Faith after Henry’s break with Rome. Catherine, after her marriage to Henry was unjustly “annulled,” retired to a small room in Kimbolton Castle where she wore the hair shirt of the Franciscan Order and left only to attend Mass. She always considered herself the only legitimate wife of Henry and refused to ever acknowledge Anne Boelyn as the King’s wife. Sadly, she was deprived of contact with her daughter, and Mary was raised at the court. Although she was well treated and highly educated there, Mary was cheated of a normal relationship with her mother.

When Catherine died in 1536, England mourned, for she was much loved by her people.

As the saying goes: “to the victor belong the spoils,” and in this case the “spoils” included interpreting the history of the period. While she tried valiantly to keep England Catholic, Mary’s side lost — lost definitively and mightily — in the end with the long reign of her half-sister, Elizabeth I which shut the door on a Catholic England.

It has been only in recent years, according to Slysz, that honest scholarship has been done about Mary and her reign. The author’s aim is to give an unbiased version of Mary and her five years of rule, focusing not so much on her person as on the actual events taking place in England at that time, their meaning and their consequences. Quoting the author, ”This particular study has an overriding purpose, namely to offer an introduction to the key themes of Marian history in an accessible single volume. It is both biography and study of the policies of one of the most controversial monarchs of British history.”

The book is separated into three main sections: Part I, “The Making and Unmaking of Bloody Mary” focuses on the historiography of the period and seeks to highlight the misrepresentations of Mary’s reign. Part II, “Pawn and Victim” focuses on her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, tracing her long journey from a pampered young child to England’s first Queen regnant. It evaluates her political and economic policies with the intention of dispelling the myth of an incompetent reign. Part III traces Mary’s attempt to restore England permanently to the Old Faith and to suppress Protestantism. The author’s stated task here is to challenge the long-standing assumption that her religious policy was a failure.

Our book is amazingly fact-filled for so short a volume (208 pages, small-ish print). So much is contained in this work that it would bear two or three readings, especially for the reader who is not well-versed in this period of English history. I will mention two of the most interesting sections related herein.

Henry’s “Great Matter”

As Catholics, we heard (or at least I did, being educated by the good Sisters in Catholic schools until college) that Henry’s desire to marry his courtier, one Anne Boelyn, is what prompted him to seek annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Henry based his claim that his marriage to Catherine was invalid because she had previously been married for six months to his older brother Arthur, who would have inherited the throne. Catherine swore that the marriage had never been consummated. Arthur was younger than Catherine and in poor health; he died just six months after their wedding. A papal dispensation allowed Henry to marry his brother’s widow after a period of five years and after he had ascended the throne. After six pregnancies produced only one living female heir — Mary — and Henry became enamored of Anne, the king (as a faithful reader of the Scriptures) found an “impediment” to his first marriage.

It must be said that annulments were not unusual at that time in royal marriages for one reason or another. The monarchies — and the Papacy — were very political and marriage alliances were made mostly for political reasons. Henry, who considered himself an amateur theologian and spent much time studying Scripture, found the impediment he was looking for in a passage in the Book of Leviticus (18:16 and 20:21): “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife; it is thy brother’s nakedness, for if a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.” (Did not Deuteronomy compel a man to “take his brother widow as his own and have children with her”?) Henry’s scholars conveniently interpreted the last line of Leviticus as “without sons” rather than “childless.” Henry thought that he had found his ace-in-the-hole and the annulment would be forthcoming. Pope Clement VII, however, refused to capitulate to Henry’s demands.

The wrangling was long, bitter and complicated and involved many opinions of saints, scholars and political hacks. When Anne became pregnant it was important to Henry that the child was born legitimate. At last Henry declared himself in schism from the Papacy and took Anne as his second “wife.” They married in 1533. Three years later, the object of Henry’s lust was beheaded for “treason.” Thus, Henry was now de facto head of the English “church,” a sect founded upon betrayal, lust and desire for power. This action was to set in motion the persecution of Catholics who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, recognizing Henry as the head of the Church, leading to the deaths of many thousands of English Catholics over the years. Saint Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor, and Saint John Fisher were two of the early victims who refused to take the oath.

“Bloody Mary”

Mary ascended the throne on October 1, 1553. Here is the author’s description of her character: “Mary’s character was complex, the product of both inherited traits and experiences as a neglected child and an imperiled and disinherited princess. She was dignified and kind-hearted, yet fearless and courageous, loyal to her servants and simple and sincere in her manner though not someone to suffer fools gladly when confronted by presumption.” She was not so judged by her Protestant critics through the centuries.

Mary had much against her when she became queen. Her younger half-brother, the Protestant Edward VII, son of Jane Seymour, was proclaimed king upon Henry’s death in 1547. Edward died at the age of nine. There was great intrigue attempting to put anyone with any kind of legitimate claim on the throne instead of Mary because of her steadfast adherence to Catholicism. Times were tough in England with crop failures and plague, and the crown had already committed the “dissolution of the monasteries” — which in plain English was the theft of Church properties and income. By her time, it would have been impossible to restore all of the confiscated Church land and wealth. Nevertheless, many of her political policies were sound and successful.

The general population of Englishmen was not particularly enamored of the new religion, especially in the countryside and the small towns. The people were not clamoring for a “New Mass” and a “revised Missal” (sounds familiar!). Nor were they screaming for the traditional Latin to be trashed. In England, Protestantism was a religion imposed from the top down. So the greater portion of the people had no problem with Mary’s return to the Old Religion.

Readers need to understand that in the European countries in the sixteenth century heresy was tantamount to treason. “Religious toleration” as we post-Enlightenment revolutionaries understand it was simply NOT tolerated. We see this in the Spain of Catherine’s parents, Isabel and Ferdinand. Profession of false faiths was a danger to the salvation of the soul, not only of the heretic, but of those he might corrupt. In many cases, the intransigent heretic was punished by death. This came about when the tables were turned permanently in England with the numbers of Catholic martyrs far exceeding those who died by Mary’s religious courts. Slysz counts Henry’s death toll at sixty thousand. Mary’s half- sister, Elizabeth I’s long reign was no easy time for Catholics, either. Execution methods were gruesome and brutal, designed to cause much suffering. This was nothing new for the time. Many good priests, especially English Jesuits educated in France met horrific ends. Fines and other sanctions were placed on “recusants.” One could also consider the six hundred thousand Irish Catholics who were murdered in various rebellions victims of Elizabeth as the legacy of her policies. Even today, although the Penal Laws were eliminated long ago, no Catholic can become the monarch, who is considered the head of the Church of England.

What did Mary do to earn the title “Bloody?” Her chosen method of execution was cruel — burning at the stake. (Is this worse or better than hanging, drawing and quartering?) This was nothing new with Mary as very early heretics in England were burned. How many thousands of early martyrs for the Faith died the same way? As with the Inquisition in Spain and elsewhere, it was the desire of the bishops’ courts who made judgement to bring the heretic back to the truth for the sake of his or her soul. If the heretic defiantly chose to remain in heresy, the sentence was pronounced only after much effort to bring him to the truth. It was also meant to be a deterrent to those who courted heresy; that is why the executions were public. A grand total of two hundred and eighty-four were burned during Mary’s reign, far less than that of Henry’s total of victims. Slysz and other sources maintain that the only heretic burned by Mary’s decision because of vengeance against him was Cranmer whom she blamed for her parents’ annulment, the separation of England from Rome, her mother’s tragic and unhappy life, and her own mistreatment as a child.

If you want a highly detailed story of this time of upheaval in England, written in an interesting and lively style, carefully footnoted and very thorough in its treatment, I highly recommend this book. It is available online at Amazon for a good price.