Monday, 24 October 2011

'Bloody' Mary.

The town of Lewes has a charming annual tradition of holding bonfires and burning effigies in commemoration of The Gunpowder Plot under James I of England, but also in remembrance of the seventeen Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake for their faith during the reign of Mary Tudor. It's a fun-packed occasion for families and people of all ages, and many come from near and far to watch. However, I wanted to pause and reflect on the queen and her notorious reputation as a persecutor. 


  The memory of no English sovereign has been so execrated as that of Mary Tudor. For generations after her death her name, with its horrid epithet ('bloody Mary') was a bugbear in thousands of Protestant homes. It is true that nearly 300 persons were burnt at the stake in her short reign. But she herself was more inclined to mercy than almost any of her predecessors on the throne. Stubbs speaks of her father's "holocausts" of victims. The persecution of Papists under Edward was not less rigorous than that of Protestants under Mary. When her record is compared with that of Philip of Spain, with his Council of Blood in the Netherlands, or of Charles IX. in France, she appears as an apostle of toleration. Why, then, has her memory been covered through centuries with scorn and obloquy?
  Froude will have it that it was due to a national detestation of the crimes which were committed in the name of religion. Those who take a more detached view of history can find little evidence to support the assumption. The nation as a whole seemed to acquiesce in the persecution. The government was weak, there was no standing army, and Mary, like all the Tudors, rested her authority on popular sanction. Plots against her were many, but they were all suppressed. Parliament met regularly. It was not the submissive parliament of Henry VIII. Plagued by faction and external pressure from French and Imperial ambassadors it thwarted some of Mary's dearest projects. For some time it offered opposition to, if it did not actively resist, the Spanish marriage. It was inexorably opposed to the restitution of church property. It refused to alter the succession to the Crown as Mary wished. But it never remonstrated against the persecution of Protestants. It cheerfully revived the old acts for the burning of Lollard heretics. Froude suggests that Englishmen were aghast at the use to which they were afterwards put. But though parliament after parliament was summoned after the Smithfield fires had been lit, there was no sign of disapproval or of condemnation. The Wyatt rebellion, which almost saw her deposed, had hardened Mary's resolve against heretics. When Edward died, there was an instantaneous return to Catholicism. When Mary died, Elizabeth had to walk warily in bringing about innovations in religion. Mary was crowned with the ceremonies of the Catholic Church. When Elizabeth was crowned, nearly all the bishops, including the "bloody" Bonner, attended, and the service of the mass was used. Harpsfield, the notorious Archdeacon of Canterbury, the last man to condemn heretics to the stake in England, publicly stated, weeks after the accession of Elizabeth, that there should be no change in religion. Later generations, judging events and characters by their own standard, have pitilessly condemned the Marian persecutions. The Englishmen of those days were not so squeamish.
  It cannot be denied that Mary became unpopular after her intention to marry Phillip of Spain. Foreigners might sit on the throne of England, but they had to rule as English sovereigns and rest their power on the support of the English people. This intense national jealousy was unhappily aroused by Mary. The strict limitations which were placed on her husband's powers should have warned her of her danger. Philip was allowed the empty title of king, but from the realities of power he was studiously excluded. Philip was careful to maintain the spirit as well as the letter of his obligations. He made no attempt to encroach upon the sovereignty of Mary. He advised her, as it was his duty to do, but he did not interfere with the government of the country. No Spanish troops were landed in England, even when war had broken out with France, and the coasts of England were unguarded. Yet the morbid suspicions of the people were not allayed. The Dudley plot and the Stafford invasion were justified by their authors, not on the ground of Mary's bloody persecutions, but because it was feared that Philip was planning a coup d'├ętat. Mary's popularity began to wane with her marriage; it sunk lower and lower till it almost disappeared when England was dragged into a war with France in the interests of Spain. St. Quintin and Gravelines for a time roused a feeble enthusiasm for the war, but the loss of Calais finally extinguished the Queens popularity. Mary is reported to have said that if her body were opened Calais would be found written on her heart. Froude disbelieves the report. But whether the story be apocryphal or not, there is no doubt that the loss of Calais was accountable, if not for the death of the Queen, for the permanent destruction of her fame.
The odium in which Mary's memory was held was turned to account by the friends of the new religion. Early in the next reign there appeared one of the most remarkable books ever written—Foxe's Book of Martyrs. The authenticity of its narrative has been impugned by Lingard and other Catholic historians; Froude bears testimony to its trustworthiness wherever it can be tested, except when it deals with purely hearsay evidence. When Foxe's narrative of the horrible Guernsey case was challenged by a Catholic controversialist in the reign of Elizabeth, the matter was inquired into, and the account was found to be absolutely true. No one will be found, however, in these days to assert that a book, written by an avowed partisan, in an uncritical age, recording transactions of which from the very nature of things he could have had no personal knowledge, was not too highly coloured in parts and in others absolutely untrustworthy. Few books, nevertheless, have exercised a more abiding influence on the course of our national life. Its simplicity, its directness, its poignant style, and its dramatic power combined to make it an English classic. If it loaded Bonner and Gardiner with shame and hatred, it fixed for three centuries the popular estimate of Mary Tudor. Froude used it with extraordinary skill. His relation of the death of a young Protestant martyr, an apprentice from Essex, taken as it is almost bodily from Foxe, must thrill even yet the least emotional of his readers. The permanence of Mary's hideous title and her abiding unpopularity are more due to the compelling power of a work of genius than to any outstanding demerits, as judged by contemporary standards, in the Catholic Queen.
Instead of being condemned to eternal infamy, poor Mary Tudor might well have expected a more just as well as a more charitable verdict from posterity. From her girlhood to her grave her story was tragic in its sadness. When she was in the first bloom of maidenhood, she was taken by her father to hold her Court of the Welsh Marches at Ludlow in 1525. The title of Princess of Wales was not conferred upon her, but she was surrounded by all the pomps and emblems of sovereignty. The Court was the Princess's Court, as it had been Prince Henry's Court in her father's youth. Three years later she was degraded from her high estate, and deprived of her Court. Henceforth, throughout her father's reign, she was known as the Lady, not the Princess, Mary. She was old enough to feel all the bitterness of her mother's tragedy. She remembered to her dying day the humiliation of the Boleyn marriage. She never ceased to resent the birth of her sister Elizabeth. Her brother Edward was born in lawful wedlock after Queen Catherine's death, and Mary was always perfectly loyal and obedient to him as she was to her father. But she looked with cold disfavour, mingled with morbid jealousy, on the budding promise of Elizabeth. Her very existence was an insult to Mary's mother and a menace to Mary's religion. If Elizabeth was legitimate, Catherine of Arragon was rightly divorced, and Mary herself had no claim to the throne other than by her father's will. Elizabeth could never be reconciled to Rome without casting an aspersion on Anne Boleyn's honour.
No woman was ever more lonely or loveless than the ill-starred and ill-favoured Queen Mary. She had no near relatives in England except Elizabeth, and Elizabeth, by the irony of fate, was worse than a stranger to her. The awful solitude of a throne excluded her, even more than her own ill-health and brooding temper, from the joys of friendship. Philip of Spain was at once her nearest relation on her mother's side, and the only man she ever confided in except Cardinal Pole. She lavished all the pent-up affection of an unloved existence on her husband. She was repaid by cold neglect, studied indifference, and open and vulgar infidelity. Philip made no pretence to care for his wife. She was older in years, she was ungainly in person, she possessed no charm of manner or grace of speech, her very voice was the deep bass of a man. In the days of her joyous entrance into London, amid the acclamations of the populace, her high spirit, her kind heart, and the excitement of adventure lent a passing glow to her sallow cheeks. But ill-health and disillusion followed. She became morbid and sullen, sometimes remaining for days in a dull stupor, at other times giving way to gusts of hysterical passion. But beneath her forbidding exterior there beat a warm, tender, womanly heart, which yearned for some one to love and to cherish. Her mother had died when she was yet young, her father never encouraged her to display her affection for him, and she was verging on middle age before she saw Philip. He became her hero, her master. Wifely obedience became to her the greatest of virtues; she held herself and England at his service. She longed for a son who would bind her husband more closely to herself and who would save England from the hated Elizabeth, and still more from Elizabeth's hated religion. When old and ill, and on the brink of the grave, she still cherished the vain dream of giving birth to the saviour of England and the champion of the faith.
But her historian detractors dwell with malicious irony on the frustration of the poor woman's hopes. They cover the incident with a ridicule which must jar on all sensitive minds. No purer soul ever set himself to right the world than Reginald Pole; no one failed more completely in his cherished plans. He and Mary died on the same day; the bells that tolled their knell rang out the order for which they stood. But the utter failure of their hopes roused no emotion save that of bitter contempt in some historians. They saw no merit in the "hysterical dreamer" who had sacrificed his all for his religion; they saw no pathos in the life of that lone woman who was condemned, almost from her cradle, to a loveless existence and a forlorn death.  Froude's final epitaph on her is that "she had reigned little more than five years, and she descended into the grave amidst curses deeper than the acclamations which had welcomed her accession." The only excuse they can find for her is that she was suffering from "hysterical derangement" akin to insanity, which placed her absolutely under the domination of Gardiner and Pole. When we remember her magnanimity towards Lady Jane Grey at her accession, when we contrast her conduct towards the formidable Elizabeth with Elizabeth's subsequent conduct towards Mary Queen of Scots, her generosity to the causes she had at heart with Elizabeth's unfailing parsimony, and her open and straightforward dealings both in matters of Church and of State with her sister's mean and tortuous subterfuges, we may well extend not only our pity to the woman, but some tribute of admiration to the Queen. At least we may agree with Froude that "few men or women have lived less capable of doing knowingly a wrong thing."


W. LLEWELYN WILLIAMS



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