Princess Mary Tudor

Princess Mary, 1521-1525. She's supposed to be really young in this
portrait,  between  five and nine years old.
This was during her engagement to Charles V.
She wears a brooch that says "The Emperor"
"The unhappiest lady in Christendom" was how Princess Mary Tudor described herself, and it was very apt. Mary's life was one of rejection and heartbreak. She was plagued by sickness and depression. Mary brought a great deal of  her unhappiness on herself because of her extreme stubbornness, but there's no doubt she had a bitterly hard life.

Mary was the only living child of Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon. She was born in 1516, and for most of her childhood, she was a pampered, cherished princess. Her father called her "the greatest pearl in the kingdom" and her mother - though strict - was very loving. Mary received an excellent education. At age four, she could play the virginals well enough to impress diplomats with her skill, and could speak Latin by age nine.

Though she was never formally invested with the title of Princess of Wales, she was treated as such. In 1525, she was sent to Wales to rule, as heirs presumptive were. She spent three years there, with frequent visits back home to court. For a time, it seemed the king accepted he would never have a son and Mary would be his heir.

Several marriages were proposed for her, including a betrothal to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles. But they never came to fruition, because beginning in around 1527, things had gone through a drastic change.

Henry had fallen in love with one of Katharine's ladies in waiting, Anne Boleyn. He wanted to annul his marriage to Katharine on the pretext that she had been first married to Henry's older brother, and the Bible forbade marrying the widow of one's brother. The real reason was that Katharine had never given Henry the male heir he longed for.

In refusing to accept her father's judgement that his marriage was invalid, Mary committed the cardinal sin of opposing Henry's will. She refused to accept that her mother had lived in sin with her father for the last twenty years, and she refused to accept she was a bastard, ineligible for the throne. In 1531, Katharine was banished from court. Mary, too, was sent away from the court, and separated from her mother. She would never see her again.

In her youth, Mary had the Tudor
red hair. It appears to have darkened
as she grew older.
Hereafter followed years of unrelenting misery for Mary. Stripped of her title, she was called "Lady Mary," instead of princess, and her household reduced to that of a gentlewoman. As a bastard, no prince or king wanted to marry her, and her father would not want to risk her becoming rich and powerful enough through marriage to challenge his heir for the throne.

It must have been a terrible shock for this young girl, once cherished and indulged, now rejected and insulted. Secret letters from her mother and her partisans urged her to remain stalwart and refuse to renounce her claim to the throne. Her relatives on the continent urged her to sign whatever her father demanded to save her life. Henry relentlessly badgered and punished her, sending away friends and favorite servants. Everywhere she turned was conflicting advice and there was no shelter from the storm. She was frightened. She was lonely. She was confused. She was grieving. Her nerves were shot. And it just got worse.

Anne was crowned queen in 1533. Increasing pressure was put on Mary to submit to her father's will and admit that her parent's marriage was invalid and she was illegitimate. Much of this harsh treatment she endured is blamed on Anne Boleyn, and undoubtedly Anne did say some harsh things, but Mary had stoutly rejected every kind overture Anne had made. Anne was exasperated by her stubborn, hostile stepdaughter. The king was outraged at his daughter's refusal to obey him and acknowledge that Anne was queen. Mary began to fear she'd be executed or poisoned.

In times of stress, Mary's fragile health broke down. She had irregular menstrual periods and terrible cramping. She suffered from migraines and shortsightedness, stomach upsets, and fevers. Except for a few severe spells, the king's doctors insisted it was nothing serious, and so the king dismissed it as malingering. Perhaps some of it was, but there's no doubt Mary was in severe distress. It only got worse after Anne Boleyn had a baby girl, Princess Elizabeth. Nobles arrived at her house and announced Mary had a half an hour to pack her belongings. She was to go serve Princess Elizabeth as a maid, under the supervision of Anne Boleyn's aunt, Lady Shelton. Lady Shelton was instructed that if Mary proved obstinate, she was to be beaten.

But Lady Shelton was not cruel, and she came to care for her charge. Mary's reaction to Elizabeth was also a surprise: she loved the baby. She spent hours with the infant, singing to her and playing with her. She also sewed clothing for the child in her spare time. However, she refused to accept her sister's superior status.

In the dining room, a place was laid for the Princess, though she would not be old enough to dine at the table for years to come. Courtiers were expected to bow to her seat as though she were there. Mary's plate was placed lower on the table, with the other maids. She refused to eat there, and took her meals in her room until Lady Shelton was ordered to put a stop to it. Afterward, Mary sat down at the table in her spot, but refused to eat. She ate only what little bits of food her servants smuggled to her in her chambers. She began to fall ill again.

Another storm was brewing. Her father had issued the Oath of Supremacy, which the head of every household was required to swear, or face charges of treason. It stated Anne was the only queen, and Elizabeth was England's heir, but worse - in Mary's eyes - the oath-taker had to swear the king was the head of the church in England, not the pope. Mary felt it was damnation to deny the pope's authority, and to swear she was illegitimate would be a lie. For the sake of her soul, she would do neither.

Fearing she would be executed for refusing to swear, Mary began to make plans to escape England and head to her family on the continent. She had to be dissuaded by Ambassador Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador and her staunch ally.

Katharine of Aragon died in 1536, having never seen her daughter again. Mary had begged to be allowed to visit her, to which the king replied he'd allow it as soon as she admitted the truth of her bastardy and his supremacy over the church. She was also denied permission to attend the funeral.

Shortly thereafter, Anne Boleyn herself died, executed by the stroke of a sword. Mary had believed Anne was the motivator behind her torment, but to her shock, the pressure on her only increased after Anne was dead. Nor did the demotion of Elizabeth from the rank of princess to bastard mean Mary's own restoration to the title. The king was now insisting both of his marriages had been invalid, and was busy entering into a third.

Henry sent the Duke of Norfolk to threaten Mary. Norfolk is recorded as having said if Mary was his daughter, he'd bash her head into the wall until it was as soft as a baked apple. When she refused, the king wanted to throw her into the Tower, but the council begged to allow her to be given one more chance.

In June of 1536, Mary finally broke under the pressure and signed the papers given to her, and she was forced to write her father a groveling letter. It was another six months before her father brought her back to court. They hadn't spoken in years at this point. When she arrived, her father said to the court at large, "Some of you were desirous I should put this jewel to death." The new queen, Jane Seymour, a partisan of Katharine and the Old Religion, replied that it would have been a shame to lose England's chief jewel. Henry patted Jane's pregnant belly and said, "Nay, Edward." At which point, Mary dropped in a dead faint. When she revived, Henry told her to be of good cheer, that nothing would go against her.

For a while, it seemed he was right. Mary socialized and moved from palace to palace with the court, Her financial records show she did quite a bit of card-playing. The king gave her gifts of money from time to time.

When Jane died from complications from childbirth, Mary acted as her chief mourner. One has to wonder if she was also mourning her mother at that funeral.

Throughout the rest of Henry's life, Mary more or less kept her head down. Some of his queens were kind to her. Mary still had friends and supporters, and the king had restored her to the succession, though he never made her legitimate. In the eyes of the people, she was the next in line after Prince Edward. That is why they rose for her when the young king tried to leave his throne to Lady Jane Grey.

When Mary came to the throne, she tried to reverse everything that had been done after her father fell under the spell of Anne Boleyn, hoping to restore the golden kingdom she remembered from her happy youth. But it seemed everything she touched turned to ashes.

She married, Philip of Spain, son of the emperor to whom she'd once been betrothed. Philip was not best pleased to be married to a woman somewhat his elder, whom he'd always addressed as "Aunt," especially when the marriage treaty severely limited any power he might have. He might be called "king," but it was only valid so long as Mary lived, and it came with no real authority. Mary had to consent to everything.

For her part, Mary was thrilled with the marriage. She was half in love with Philip before she ever even met him, more in love with the idea than the man himself. But Philip couldn't wait to leave to get back to his own country to rule. And once he was gone, Mary had a devil of a time convincing him to come back. As you read her story, you almost cringe for her. Mary thought the marriage would make her happy - as she remembered her parents' marriage being before Anne Boleyn came along and stole everything away - and instead, she ended up alone again. Rejected.

Neither did restoring the Church turn back the clock. She first promised the people she would not force them back to Catholicism, and then ... did just that. She seems to have genuinely believed once the Catholic Church was restored, people would flock back to it of their own accord. She tried to stamp out the "heresy" of Protestantism, but, to her bewilderment, it only continued to spread. It seems odd that a woman who revered martyred saints would fail to see why others' faith wouldn't be shaken by executions. But Mary stubbornly doubled-down, increasing the persecutions. It got to the point where her own husband was worried that the burnings could lead to an uprising and had his chaplain preach against it to distance himself from it.

She spent hours weeping in darkened rooms. Her realm was in turmoil. England was broke, and had lost Calais, its last piece of territory in France. Famine strafed the land. Her marriage was unhappy, her husband preferring to spend his time on the continent.

She suffered two phantom pregnancies, which could be attributed to the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Her physicians responded to her myriad of symptoms by bleeding her daily, further weakening her. Finally, broken down by poor health and heartbreak, the "unhappiest lady in Christendom" died in 1558 at the age of 42.

Mary was a complex person. She was a deeply unhappy woman, first persecuted by her father and then abandoned by the husband with whom she was passionately in love.

She was convinced the famines, false pregnancy, and other troubles, were a sign God was displeased she had tolerated heretics in her land, and so she persecuted them mercilessly. But she was also a woman who would dress up like a peasant so she could go out among her people incognito and distribute charity to those in need.

She wanted to be buried with her mother, whom she loved with fervor, and thought was almost a saint, yet she never built a suitable tomb for Katharine. She asked in her will that "honorable tombs" be built for both Mary and for Katharine, and for her mother to be disinterred from Peterborough and brought to lie beside Mary in Westminster. But this never happened, of course. Mary lies in her half-sister Elizabeth's tomb, beneath Elizabeth's coffin, given - for the final time - a subordinate role.

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