Mary Tudor and Elizabeth – almost a beautiful story

The Tudors: a Mangled Fairy-Story

by Gwydion M. Williams

The Tudor dynasty in England only lasted three generations, but left England changed utterly. They passed on a complex legacy to the Stuart dynasty, which itself failed after four generations as monarchs of England and Scotland. Six generations of the unimpressive Hanoverian dynasty then kept the country stable through its dramatic transformation into an industrial society.[A]

If there was a destiny that shaped Great Britain’s rise, then it wasn’t a destiny that cared anything for Christianity in either its Protestant or Roman Catholic versions. Nor for the happiness of individual monarchs, most of whom had tough and disappointing lives. But the continuing uncertainty over royal power meant that monarchs needed Parliament and it remained significant. Similar institutions in other parts of Europe tended to lose importance, be forgotten or be suppressed. In the long run there were benefits from the divisions of power, but in the short term it was painful.

The continuous uncertainty was also very bad for Ireland, which kept getting hit by the backwash of English politics. Interventions by Anglo-Norman lords like Strongbow (Richard de Clare) might have modernised the kingdom, as the Bruce family did in Scotland. But this line of development coincided with the rule of Henry 2nd, one of the strongest-ever English kings. He was powerful enough to thwart independent developments in Ireland, and also to get official approval from the Pope for his claim to be Lord of Ireland, the papal bull Laudabiliter. Ireland was not strong enough to continue separately in the face of English claims, but English power was never enough to assimilate Ireland.

Ireland got caught in the cross-fire of a wider politics where the centre of gravity was always England, but Scotland played a crucial role. And it was pretty stressful for everyone, with the British Isles getting pushed down a path of development that no one had sought or foreseen.

England went through a cycle of civil wars between heirs of the sons of Edward 3rd. His heir would have been Edward the Black Prince, but he died before his father and the succession passed to Richard 2nd at the age of 10. Richard took a lax view of religion, and in this era the creed of Lollardry became important. This was a prototype Protestantism – though both this and various forms of Gnostic creed had been continuous challenges to mainstream Catholicism for most of its history. The Albigensians of southern France were a more serious problem for Rome, but not relevant to British history.

What was called Lollardry stems from the teaching of John Wycliffe. He ventured to translate parts of the Bible into Middle English, defying the official doctrine that it had to be left in an official Latin translation that only a minority could read. Thus the start of Genesis became:

1 In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe.

2 Forsothe the erthe was idel and voide, and derknessis weren on the face of depthe; and the Spiryt of the Lord was borun on the watris.

3 And God seide, Liyt be maad, and liyt was maad.

4 And God seiy the liyt, that it was good, and he departide the liyt fro derknessis; and he clepide the liyt,

5 dai, and the derknessis, nyyt. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, o daie. [E]

Wycliffe was also a believer in Consubstantiation rather than Transubstantiation. Both doctrines are rooted in the Christian metaphysics that had been elaborated from Aristotle. Both considered that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion could become substantially the body and blood of Jesus, while retaining the overt appearance of bread and wine. But Consubstantiation holds that the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which remain present. Transubstantiation says it ceases to be bread and wine, apart from just appearing to be so.

More importantly, Wycliffe held that wealth was bad for the Church, and so were attempts to wield political power. This was probably why Wycliffe and some of his fellow dissenters were supported by some English nobles, notably John of Gaunt, second son of Edward 3rd. Things got more complex with the Peasants Revolt of 1381, which included an element of Lollardry but which was also a protest against the ruling class in general. Most English people at the time lacked full legal freedom: their status is nowadays called ‘serfdom’, but serfdom and slavery are not far apart. The full Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘serf’ as ‘slave or bondman’ and cites David Hume’s History of England as saying “A great part of them were serfs, and lived in a state of absolute slavery or villainage”.[D] And a highly patriotic English history for children called Our Island’s Story and written in 1905 sums it up as follows:

“The King did not keep any of his promises to the people. ‘Slaves you are, and slaves you shall remain,’ he said savagely, when the danger to himself was over. It [241] seemed as if the rising had been in vain. But that was not so. Many masters freed their slaves, and although years passed before all were free, Watt Tyler’s rebellion was the beginning of freedom for the lower classes in England.” [B]

Modern historians tend to be more evasive about the time when a majority of English people definitely were slaves. It’s more comfortable to see it as applying just to Africans in the 19th century. But it was much older and wider, including many criminals or rebels shipped to the West Indies, North America or Australia.

Mainstream English slavery is made to seem milder by calling it ‘serfdom’, though the distinction wasn’t often made at the time. Serfs had an advantage over other slaves only in that they were tied to a piece of land and could not legally be sold away from it. Of course legality was not always respected: Bristol’s first recorded involvement in the slave trade was as a centre for selling English slaves to Ireland:

“Archbishop Anslem, at the London Council of 1102, denounced the practice of selling Englishmen as ‘brute beasts’; his pious contemporary Bishop Wulfstand preached against the practice of selling English slaves from Bristol to Ireland.” [C]

The complex politics of the reign of Richard 2nd culminated in his deposition by John of Gaunt’s son, who became Henry 4th. Needing legitimacy, he made peace with the church and took some measures against the Lollards. Not that it became clear-cut: Sir John Oldcastle was one of a group of ‘Lollard Knights’ and also mentor to the future Henry 5th. Shakespeare’s play Henry 5th originally parodied Oldcastle, but some of Oldcastle’s descendents were still alive and powerful, so the character was renamed Sir John Falstaff. Here and elsewhere, Shakespeare was great at inventing memorable characters and wildly inaccurate in his history.

The early death of Henry 5th left his son Henry 6th as infant king of England and France. But his regents made a mess of things and lost most of France – this was the context of Joan of Arc. After France was lost, Henry 6th rule was successfully challenged by Richard Duke of York, who had a plausible claim to the throne in his own right. A very complex civil war followed, culminating in Richard 3rd pushing aside his nephews to take the throne, probably murdering them though this remains disputed. His position was in any case doubtful enough to undermine support for him against Henry Tudor, a rather weak claimant in the Lancastrian line. Surprisingly, he won when Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, and therefore became Henry 7th, the first Tudor. He also married Elizabeth of York, sister of the presumed-dead ‘Princes in the Tower’. Not that it is certain they were dead by then: several claimants launched rebellions claiming to be the younger of the two princes, and possibly one of them really was.

Whatever about that, Henry 7th survived and prospered. He arranged an advantageous marriage for his elder son Arthur to a Spanish princess. When this son died, the fate of Catherine of Aragon was a little uncertain. She might marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry, or perhaps not, it partly depended on whether the marriage had been consummated. A papal dispensation was required and was duly received. It seems young Henry was keener on the match than his father, who however died in his early 50s. And so the new king Henry 8th took Catherine of Aragon as his lawful wedded wife.

But was it lawful? No one seems to have doubted it for many years, and Catherine of Aragon duly gave birth to several babies suitable to carry on the line – but none of them lived. Rather, none lived except one girl called Mary. Could she inherit? Her Spanish relatives certainly thought so: her parents were Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who had merged their realms into what became the Kingdom of Spain. But England had never had a successful female monarch: the previous attempt for a King’s daughter to succeed had led to the chaos and breakdown of the wars of Stephen and Matilda, resolved only when Matilda’s son succeeded as Henry 2nd after Stephen’s own elder son and heir unexpectedly died.

Henry 8th needed a male heir: this was more important than his feelings for Anne Boleyn. But the pope refused to annul his marriage to his brothers’ widow, a relationship condemned in some parts of the Bible and which Henry saw as the cause of his misfortunes. Public opinion was very much for Queen Catherine against Anne Boleyn, but public opinion was a weak force in that era. Armies counted, and Queen Catherine’s relatives had armies in Italy strong enough to intimidate the pope. Her elder sister Joanne had married Charles of Hapsburg, and though Joanne went mad and never exercised any real power, their son was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful single ruler in Europe between the decline of Rome and the rise of Napoleon. Catherine of Aragon was his aunt, Mary Tudor his cousin, and he naturally wanted to keep Catherine as Queen and Mary as heir of England. He also oversaw the Council of Trent, which established modern Roman Catholicism with doctrines like Transubstantiation made part of the required beliefs.

Henry 8th had at times been an ally of the Hapsburgs, but it was a different matter to see his own realm swallowed up by them, which did almost happen. When he could not got papal approval to dissolve his marriage, Henry broke with Rome. This required some concessions to England’s Protestants, though nothing much. Of course Protestantism was also fragmented into rival sects with different degrees of religious radicalism. Henry preserved most Latin-Christian traditions, he just denied that the Bishop of Rome was head of the Church.

He and other critics of papal had a reasonably good case. Christianity as the established Church of the Roman Empire had had five Patriarchs, at Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. When the Roman Empire broke up, the Christian Church fragmented into ethnic blocks. Greek-speakers dominated, but obscure theological disputes tended to become symbols for wider politics. Nestorianism became the creed of most Christians in Persia, conveniently separating them from the Roman state, Persia’s main rival. Nestorian Christians spread their creed much further east: the mother of Kublai Khan was a Nestorian Christian and other Nestorian Christians were a major influence in the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan. Meantime other theological losers formed the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy, which includes the majority of Ethiopian Christians and also the Coptic Christians of Egypt, whose liturgical language is a descendant of the tongue of the Ancient Egyptians.

The split between the Greek core and the Latin-Christian west was more complex and gradual. And it wasn’t really led by Rome, which was however much the most senior church in the Latin-Christian world. It was believed that Peter the Apostle was the first Bishop of Rome, though this is open to question and it is notable that the story of Paul of Tarsus in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ breaks off just before his arrival in Rome. There is a remarkable lack of early documentation about how Rome’s first Christians were actually organised, and also nothing in the Bible about how either Peter or Paul died. Tradition has both of them killed in Rome by Nero in his grand persecution, but the only known accounts come long after the event.

During the Dark Ages of Latin-Christian Europe, Rome was a convenient centre and the Bishop of Rome often a useful defender of bishops against kings who wanted to dominate the Church in their realm. The Papacy was also a tempting prize for the different factions within the Church. It had also been moved to Avignon from 1309 to 1378, and a return to Rome was followed by a schism from 1378 to 1417, with rival popes at Avignon and Rome, and briefly three rival popes. Papal power was never the same after that, but it remained significant, though usually dominated by whoever dominated Italy.

At the time when Henry 8th wanted his marriage annulled, Emperor Charles 5th dominated Italy, Rome ruled in favour of his aunt Catherine as Queen of England and mother of the heir, and so Henry 8th repudiated Rome. He later repudiated Anne Boleyn as well, having her executed in May 1536. Catherine had died in January 1536: Anne had produced one female baby (the future Queen Elizabeth) and then miscarried twice, possibly three times. It must have suited Henry to get rid of her, on charges of adultery, incest and witchcraft, and leave himself free to re-marry. He might also in principle have reconciled with Rome at this point, but the preceding disputes must have created enough bitterness to prevent this.

It was ‘third time lucky’ for Henry, his new wife Jane Seymour produced a healthy son, though she herself died. By this time England was drifting towards Protestantism, and the massive upheaval of the Dissolution of the Monasteries was beginning. Popular opinion was probably against it, but the nobility got the property, including some of those who stuck to Catholic religious views. Henry had three more marriages, the first two not of great consequence. But his final wife Catherine Parr was a genuine convert to Protestantism and influenced him in that direction. She also managed to raise his three children as a real family, despite the difference over religion and the likelihood of a future power-struggle.

The position was delicate. Henry’s son was bound to succeed as Edward 6th: the validity of his mother’s marriage could not be disputed. But Henry had also had Parliament confirm that his heirs after Edward were first Mary and then Elizabeth. This meant that the realm’s direction might change drastically depending on who lived and who died, as fact happened. The succession would also be at risk if Henry 8th died while Edward were not old enough to rule, which also happened. Tudor males tended to be short-lived: Henry 7th died at 52, Henry 8th at 55, and Henry 8th‘s maternal grandfather Edward 4th had died at 40. That early death had led to the usurpation by Richard 3rd – who was in his early 30s at the time – and the presumed murder of Edward 4th‘s sons Edward 5th and his younger brother Richard.

This time round, things were less tense. Henry 7th had killed off a lot of those with royal blood, for actual or supposed treason. Among the survivors there was a strong tendency to produce girls – there is some evidence that mothers are more prone to have girls when their position is insecure, which was true of everyone with enough royal blood to be seen as a threat or an opportunity. There were not even plausible illegitimate offspring: Henry 8th had acknowledged Henry FitzRoy as his own and made him Duke of Richmond and Somerset, but he died as a teenager. There were no plausible alternatives apart from the new king’s elder sisters, and prejudice against female rulers was strong.

Edward 6th had a short but stressful reign. He was a committed Protestant, and had he lived he might have consolidated Protestantism much sooner and more solidly than actually happened. But he was too young to rule, and the Council that Henry 8th had appointed to rule for him until he was old enough was not a success, even though most of them were Protestants. It began with the king’s uncle Edward Seymour taking over as regent and then having a bitter quarrel with his own brother. Thomas Seymour had married Catherine Parr, the widow of Henry 8th,but also took an interest in the young Elizabeth Tudor. This strengthened after Catherine Parr died in childbirth, and there was a bitter quarrel between the two brothers which ended with Thomas being executed as a traitor. Soon afterwards Edward Seymour was overthrown by the Council, briefly imprisoned, reinstated in a subordinate role, then executed as a traitor for having plotted to get power back. He may also have tried to defend the common people against the big land-owners, but this is disputed.

His replacement was John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who fared little better. He might have done OK if Edward 6th had lived, but in fact he died at 15. Dudley unwisely attempted to install Lady Jane Grey as queen, after getting her married to one of his sons. This soon collapsed: most of the kingdom recognised Mary Tudor as the rightful heir. She rode into London in triumph, with her sister Elizabeth at her side.

And here, briefly, it might have seemed like a fairy-tale ending. Or might if you take a Roman Catholic view of English history. Mary had endured much and never rebelled against her father’s authority, apart from refusing to give up her Catholic belief. Now she was undisputed queen, unmarried but not yet 40, so quite capable of founding loyal Catholics line of Tudor descendants.

At first her rule was undisputed, so she pardoned ‘Queen Jane’. And she was on good terms with her sister Elizabeth, though she had been a teenager when Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn had displaced Mary’s mother Catherine of Aragon and Mary herself was for a time deemed illegitimate. She had put up with all this and was willing to be forgiving. At the start of her reign, all looked set for a glorious period in history.

Then things went wrong.

Mary Tudor wedding Phillip of Spain was a massive error. The bulk of the population liked its own Catholic traditions but did not like foreigners. She should have wed some respectable Catholic noble, preferably an English one. Marrying the most powerful monarch in Europe made the English feel threatened with becoming a subordinate realm under Spanish dominance.

Despite this, Mary did return the realm to Catholicism. A deal was arranged whereby Catholicism was restored but monastic land seized by Henry 8th remained with its possessors. It was a weak pope who made this deal, Julius 3rd, very different from the warlike Julius 2nd who was Michelangelo’s patron. Apart from the brief recovery of England, which had happened without him, Julius 3rd was chiefly noted for a suspicious relationship with a teenage beggar-boy whom he adopted and made ‘Cardinal-Nephew’. Though he had had a senior position at the Council of Trent, very little was done about reform in his five-year reign. His successor Marcellus 2nd lasted just 22 days, despite being only 53. Then came Paul 4th, first of a series of popes who saved Catholicism by their highly authoritarian rule. But that was too late to help Mary Tudor.

Mary Tudor does not deserve her title of ‘Bloody Mary’. She did no more killing than the other Tudors: it was the nature of politics in those days. She did blunder by having some 300 Protestants burnt as heretics, most notably Thomas Cranmer, Henry 8th‘s Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer had recanted and should not have been burnt under existing rules. Of course Mary had reason to hate him: he had become Archbishop without having held any previous senior office and was probably advanced because he had been the chief advocate against the validity of Catherine of Aragon’s marriage. But Mary had broken the rules as they were then understood, which is not wise for any monarch to do.

Her tying of England to the Hapsburg cause and the loss of Calais to the French was another disaster, and maybe encouraged a loss of confidence in Roman Catholicism among those who were not committed to one particular religious view. Priests have always been viewed as ‘Luck-Mongers’, and a religion that seems unlucky will lose support.

What was really disastrous for Mary was her failure to produce an heir. Her marriage to her close cousin Phillip of Spain was foolish biologically as well as politically: the royal lines of England and Spain had intermarried several times and sterility is common when there is too much interbreeding. Worse, Mary appeared to become pregnant and this was generally believed to be real, but it seems to have been a ‘phantom pregnancy’. She was another Tudor who died young, at the age of 42, though the stresses and failures of her reign must have contributed to her early death.

Mary Tudor was one of many sad little victims of the processes of history. She tends not to be seen as a tragic figure, but she should be, and someone should attempt a history on those lines. [Or an historic novel.]

The possibilities that Mary missed were realised by her sister Elizabeth, even though she came to the throne with a very weak position. Her biggest advantage was that the main alternative was Mary Queen of Scots, a descendant of Henry 7th‘s daughter Margaret, whereas Lady Jane Grey and her two surviving sisters had been descendants of a younger daughter Mary. Spain did not want England and Scotland ruled by a queen with strong links to France, and also Mary Queen of Scots was an inept ruler who was suspected of murdering her first husband and who was deposed. Elizabeth’s decision not to marry was politically smart: she always kept the rival powers guessing, and rivalry between Spain and France was the dominant feature of Western Europe in this era.

The Stuart succession was almost an accident: Elizabeth always avoided making a decision about the succession. Lady Jane Grey’s younger sisters were plausible heirs, but both died before Elizabeth. One produced a son, who was however passed over in favour of James Stuart, King of Scotland. But the Stuart line had never been entirely in control of Scotland – a surprising number of them had been deposed or murdered by other Scots, or killed in civil wars against rebels. The English state machine accepted them but was never unconditionally loyal. The ‘British Wars’ of the 1640s to 1660s established that no one faction could really control the state, and a balance of power was accepted. But insiders knew that there had been a lot of dishonesty, and there was a lot of private religious skepticism.

To repeat what I said earlier, if there was a destiny that shaped Great Britain’s rise, then it wasn’t a destiny that cared anything for Christianity in either its Protestant or Roman Catholic versions. Nor for the happiness of individual monarchs, most of whom had tough and disappointing lives. But it may have been ideal for the rise of Britain as an industrial power and as a world-empire that was content to rule overseas territories and never seriously tried to unify Europe under its rule, as the Spanish and French had done.

England had had more than 200 years of intermittent Civil War, beginning with the Wars of the Roses and ending (though no one knew this at the time) with a relatively stable Constitutional Monarchy established in 1688. During this period, no monarch felt secure and all of them executed a lot of actual or supposed traitors. There was also a continuing struggle over religion from the reign of Henry 8th, which became mixed in with dynastic and personal rivalries. When the monarchy was strong it was authoritarian and destroyed the independence of the nobility, who became courtiers.

English government became competent in the 16th century, parliamentary in the late 17th or early 18th centuries. It was definitely not democratic before the 1880s. Current talk of ‘democracy’ identifies it with the Anglo system, ignoring the messy way in which this system evolved and the fact that it had fixed forms well before it became broadly democratic. The surprise is not that such a system often fails when transplanted in a finished form to alien society: the surprise is that it has quite often succeeded.


[A] The ruling Tudors were Henry 7th, Henry 8th and his three childless children: Edward 6th, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor.

The Stuarts in England were James 6th & 1st, his son Charles 1st, Charles’s sons Charles 2nd and James 7th and 2nd. Accepting the successful rebellion of 1688 as valid, they continued with James’s elder daughter Mary Stuart as co-ruler with her husband William of Orange, cousins and childless. Finally the younger daughter, Queen Anne, who had numerous unsuccessful pregnancies, several short-lived babies and one son who lived to be eleven. Had Bonnie Prince Charlie become king he would have been a sixth generation of Stuart. He and his brother both died childless.

The relevant Hanoverians are the four kings called George, William 4th who was a son of George 3rd and then Victoria as daughter of another son of George 3rd. But George 3rd was the grandson of George 2nd, so it was six generations. After Victoria and Albert it was a dynasty of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, changed to Windsor in World War One,

[B] []

[C] The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas, Picador 1997, page 35

[D] Hume History of England. (1762) I. App. ii. 404

[E] []. This part of the Bible was probably translated by Wycliffe’s associates rather than the man himself.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2011.

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