10 Surprising Facts About Queen Mary I

1. Mary was England’s first undisputed Queen Regnant.

In the mid-12th century, Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I, attempted to seize control of England but was overthrown by her cousin Stephen. Matilda was never officially proclaimed Queen and instead held the title of ‘Lady of the English’. Similarly, Mary’s cousin, the Protestant Lady Jane Grey, briefly and ineffectively claimed the English throne after the death of her cousin (and Mary’s half-brother) Edward VI.

Matilda ‘Lady of the English’ from a 15th century manuscript.

Only nine days after Jane’s formal proclamation as Queen of England, Mary had amassed enough support to ride into London and assert her claim to the throne. Lady Jane and her husband, Guildford Dudley, were imprisoned at the Tower of London and later executed. In defeating the Northumberland’s forces, Mary became the first undisputed Queen Regnant of England. In April of 1554, under Mary’s guiding hand, a special Act of Parliament was passed declaring that Queens could govern with the same legal authority as Kings. This paved the way for female rule in England.

2. Mary left instructions to be buried near her mother, Catherine of Aragon, that were never accomplished.

Born on 18 February 1516 at Greenwich Palace, seven years after the marriage of her parents, King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was the couple’s only child to survive infancy. In the 1520s, dissatisfied with his wife and eager to produce a male heir, Henry terminated their marriage on the grounds that the union was unlawful and incestuous, since Catherine had been previously married to Henry’s deceased elder brother. Catherine, devastated by the collapse of her marriage, fought tirelessly to defend the validity of their once happy and powerful union. Mary, who enjoyed a close bond with her mother, and shared her pious Catholic faith, allied with Catherine; resulting in a devastating breach in her relationship with the King.

Mary in 1544 after Master John

During her reign as Queen of England, Mary expressed the desire to posthumously rectify the dishonour her ‘well-beloved’ mother endured in death. Henry had given orders at the time of Catherine’s passing that her funeral should be conducted, as a final and crushing insult to her legacy, in a manner suitable for a ‘Princess Dowager’ – a title which Catherine had staunchly refused to acknowledge in her lifetime, often to her own detriment. 

Mary’s will stipulated that her mother’s remains should be transferred to London, with the intention of uniting their final resting places and constructing ‘honourable tombs or monuments’ for them both. Despite Mary’s clear directive, her dying wishes were never accomplished by her successors. Today, Catherine of Aragon remains buried at Peterborough Cathedral, while Mary herself is interred beneath a splendid marble effigy of her half-sister Elizabeth I at Westminster Abbey.

3. Mary’s mother took a keen interest in her education.

The relationship between Queen Catherine and Juan Luis Vives, a distinguished Spanish humanist, had a profound impact on Mary’s upbringing. Vives, renowned for his devout religious beliefs and comprehensive educational theories, played a crucial role as a trusted confidant and advisor to King Henry’s Spanish Queen. With a keen interest in women’s education, Catherine shared Vives’ involvement in educating her daughter, passing down the knowledge and skills she had acquired from her own mother, Queen Isabella of Spain. 

Catherine regularly consulted Vives for advice in Mary’s schooling and commissioned him to write the influential De Institutione Feminae Christianae, a treatise on the education of girls, for Mary’s education. The Queen also permitted Vives to oversee the education of several of Princess Mary’s companions.

Catherine instructed Mary in Latin and nurtured the Princess’ ‘precocious skills’ in both dancing and music. Like her father, who regretted that his kingly responsibilities forbade him from ‘studying more,’ Mary developed a love of both learning and theology early in her life. She proved to be a precocious child, adept at the virginals (a form of harpsichord), and by the age of nine she could read and write Latin. Mary was also proficient in French, Spanish, and possibly Greek. 

4. She regretted recognising Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church.

On 22 June 1536, Mary wrote a letter to her father, King Henry VIII, in which she acknowledged the annulment of her parents’ marriage. In this letter, she accepted her own illegitimate status and yielded to her father’s authority as the head of the newly established English church. She admitted to having ‘offended your most excellent highness, in that I have not submitted myself to your most just and virtuous laws […] I do recognize, accept, take, repute and acknowledge the king’s highness to be supreme head on earth, under Christ, of the church of England; and do utterly refuse the bishop of Rome’s pretended authority, power and jurisdiction within this realm.’  

This decision was one that Mary, an unwavering Catholic, had long resisted, only yielding under the influence of her cousin, the Emperor. It would later be a choice she came to deeply regret. Nevertheless, the letter succeeded in enabling a reconciliation between Mary and her father, who, in turn, provided her with a household befitting her noble status. As a testament to her reintegration into the royal fold, Mary was honoured with the role of godmother to Prince Edward, Henry’s much longed-for son and heir from his third wife, Jane Seymour.

5. Mary was declared illegitimate.

In the aftermath of her parents’ divorce and her father’s subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, Mary was declared illegitimate. The next several years of Mary’s life were spent  confined to Hatfield House in Hertfordshire under strict supervision. The King’s third wife and Mary’s stepmother, Queen Jane Seymour, played a pivotal role in facilitating reconciliation between Mary and her father. Although she had not yet been reinstated to the line of succession, Mary resumed her place at the royal court and spent time by her father’s side at Greenwich and other palaces during the later years of his reign.

Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536)

It was under the influence of Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, that the King was convinced to reinstate Mary in the line of succession. Restoration, however, would prove a delicate matter due to the King’s self-proclaimed role as the Head of the Church of England and Mary’s devout adherence to the Catholic faith. While Mary found solace in her unswerving religious convictions, her redoubtable refusal to embrace the ‘New Faith’ would also come to shape the negative perception of her legacy. 

6. She refused to succumb to Edward VI’s Protestant Reforms.

When Mary’s Protestant half-brother, Edward VI, succeeded his father in 1547, the young King’s new regime brought significant changes to the religious landscape of England. The King issued a decree that church services should be conducted in English instead of the traditional Latin, which, as a devout Catholic, Mary unsurprisingly rejected. The King’s Catholic sister continued to receive Mass held in the Latin tongue, and incurred her brother’s displeasure at her refusal to embrace his stringent religious reforms. In an attempt to preserve the King’s religious reforms and keep England a Protestant nation, Edward would later exclude Mary from the line of succession and name their Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor. Mary would triumph over Jane’s short-lived reign, ushering in another spell of religious changes across the kingdom.

7. Mary’s plans to marry a Spanish prince sparked an uprising.

The portrait of Philip II of Spain by Titian that Queen Mary I reputedly fell in love with

In the early months of 1554, a rebellion known as Wyatt’s Rebellion emerged in response to Queen Mary’s determination to marry Philip, Prince of Spain, and to reinstate strict Catholicism and papal authority in England. The majority of the leading conspirators involved in the rebellion were Protestants, and their opposition to Mary was significantly influenced by their religious concerns. The uprising ultimately proved unsuccessful, resulting in varying consequences for the rebels, though where possible, the new Queen sought to show clemency to those involved. 

On 25 July 1554, having fallen deeply in love with the portrait of a handsome Spanish prince, Mary and Philip were wed. Their wedding ceremony took place at Winchester Cathedral, a mere two days after their initial meeting. The marriage was not especially happy; Philip was eleven years his wife’s junior, and though eager to produce an heir to the throne, did not appear to share Mary’s strong devotion to their marriage. 

8. She had a false pregnancy.

In late 1554, Queen Mary I was thought ‘certainly to be with child.’ Although Mary’s health had been for some time poor, her father-in-law, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had long-hoped that the union between Mary, then thirty-eight, and his son Philip of Spain would be solidified by an heir to the English throne. Six weeks prior to the anticipated due date, a hopeful Queen Mary entered a period of confinement, appearing ‘fatter and [with] better colour than when she was married, a sign that she is happier, and indeed she is said to be very happy’. Mary had long desired children of her own and, aside from the Queen’s clear maternal qualities, the possibility that she could deliver a son and heir was of national importance. 

On 30 April 1555, ‘bells rang, bonfires were lit and there were celebrations’ in London, toasting the news that Mary had given birth to a son. Tragically, these rumours would prove false. By June there was no news of a royal baby, and in August Mary and those closest to her had to acknowledge that there was no longer any hope of the Queen being with child. Mary’s advisors had taken to attributing the Queen’s symptoms to menopause, though her ladies continued to indulge her hopes and uphold the illusion that she would soon be delivered of a child. Among these women, there was one exception – a midwife by the name of Frideswide Strelley – who had the courage to inform her mistress that she was not pregnant. Mary expressed her gratitude to Strelley’s honesty: ‘Ah, Strelley, Strelley, I see they all be flatterers, and none true to me but thou.’

It is now believed that Mary suffered from pseudocyesis (phantom pregnancy), a condition all too common in an era before modern medicine. 

9. Mary was unfailingly generous.

Though Mary’s Protestant opponents remembered the Queen as a murderous ‘Bloody Mary,’ casting those whom she clashed with into the flames, the real Mary I was remarkably generous – evident in the abundant gifts she regularly bestowed upon members of her court and household. Mary regularly exchanged sisterly gifts of impressive worth with her-half sister Elizabeth, and at her coronation, gifted jewels to all of her sister’s ladies. The act of granting presents to Elizabeth became such a customary practice for Mary that when their relationship sparked a hostile note, the Queen’s councilors advised her to send Elizabeth a parting gift in order to prevent Elizabeth from suspecting something was amiss between the pair.

During the Christmas festivities of 1557, Queen Mary presented over three hundred gifts to those close to her, including Cardinal Pole, a trusted friend and minister, Beatrice ap Rice, her dedicated launderer who had faithfully served her since she was three years old, and her late brother Edward’s beloved nurse, Sybil Penn. It is said that Mary never forgot the face of anyone who served her. 

10. Mary’s war against the French resulted in the loss of England’s last territory in France.

“The Siege of Calais 1558” by François-Édouard Picot (1786–1868).

On 7th January 1558, in the final year of Queen Mary’s reign, the Pale of Calais (the last continental possession owned by England) fell to the French. Calais, the final piece in a once extensive French empire, had been captured by King Edward III in 1347. It held immense national and financial importance to England as the primary port for exporting profitable English wool to foreign markets. In early 1558, ignited by Mary and Philip openly supporting a Spanish invasion of France, King Henry II sent the powerful general François de Lorraine, duc de Guise – better remembered as ‘Scarface’ – to lay siege to the port.

The overwhelmed English government immediately dispatched reinforcements led by the Earl of Rutland to resist Henry of France’s forces, but with the country grappling with a deadly outbreak of influenza, Rutland was hard pressed to find fit and able men to withstand the Duc de Guise’s attack. Within the span of six days, the French had overcome the English garrison stationed in Calais – the town was now called the ‘reconquered country’, and its loss was not only deeply mourned by the people of England, but by their Queen. Exacerbated by the year’s poor harvests, the events of January 1558 were seen by many as the final straw in Mary’s short and largely unhappy reign. 

She would die less than a year later, ushering in the reign of her half-sister, Elizabeth I. On her deathbed, Queen Mary I was said to have exclaimed, ‘when I am dead and opened, you shall find ‘Philip’ and ‘Calais’ lying in my heart’. 

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