Mary, the daughter of the much-loved Katherine of Aragon and much-married Henry VIII, came to the throne on a wave of popularity. After Jane Grey was deposed, Mary rode into London with 800 nobles and gentlemen and her half-sister Elizabeth, with whom she was fairly close at the time. The new Catholic queen quickly made her position clear by releasing the Catholic Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Gardiner from the Tower of London. Her brother, Edward VI, had been a staunch, even fanatical, Protestant. Under Mary’s reign, things would be a bit different.
Shortly after her accession, Mary declared that she would not compel any of her subjects to follow her religion. That promise didn’t stand for long. By the end of September leading Protestant churchmen were imprisoned, and her first Parliament, which assembled shortly after her coronation, declared the marriage of Henry and Katherine valid and abolished Edward’s religious laws. Church doctrine started moving steadily back towards the Catholic way of doing things.
Mary was already in her late 30’s by the time she came to the throne, so one of the first things she did was set about finding a husband so she could birth an heir that would keep the Protestant Elizabeth off the throne. Her cousin, Charles V, suggested she marry his son, Prince Philip of Spain. A portrait of the prince duly arrived and Mary took one look at it and declared herself in love with him. Bishop Gardiner and others tried to persuade her to marry an Englishman instead, fearing England would be taken over by the Habsburgs, but Mary refused to listen. Word of the impending marriage leaked out and received a chilly reception from the people of both England and Spain. When Mary put her foot down and insisted the marriage go forward, insurrections broke out, including one led by Thomas Wyatt in Kent, which aimed to put Elizabeth on the throne. Wyatt was arrested and executed, and Elizabeth was imprisoned first in the Tower and then was placed under house arrest at Woodstock Palace.
Although Mary claimed to be in love with Philip, it seems he didn’t return her affections. He accepted the marriage purely for political reasons, and really, it wasn’t a bad deal for him. Under the terms of the marriage treaty, he was styled King of England, and all official documents had to be dated with both his and Mary’s names. Parliament would be called under the couple’s joint authority, and coins were struck with both their heads on them. The two were married at Winchester Cathedral on July 25, 1554, just two days after their first meeting.
Philip, another Catholic, saw it as his duty to see Protestantism abolished in England. He persuaded Parliament to repeal the religious laws passed by Henry VII and return the English church to Roman jurisdiction. The pope approved the deal in 1554, around the same time the Heresy Acts were revived.
The Heresy Acts gave Mary free reign to start burning Protestants, creating a reign of terror known as the Marian Persecutions. Wealthy Protestants hotfooted it to the Continent while those less fortunate were left behind to practice in secret or risk the pyre. After being forced to watch the executions of Bishops Ridley and Latimer, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer panicked and repudiated Protestant theology, promising to be a good Catholic. While this should have saved him, Mary was not in a forgiving mood and sent him to the stake anyway. Before he was burned, he withdrew his recantation. Almost 300 people were executed, and the whole matter was so unpopular that even a member of Philip’s ecclesiastical staff thought they were a bit much. While Mary may have thought the burnings would make her countrymen good Catholics again, all it did was exacerbate anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feelings amongst the English.
The September after her marriage, Mary started showing signs of pregnancy. The following April, Elizabeth was released from house arrest and called to court to witness the birth of her replacement. But no child ever came; it’s thought that Mary suffered from a phantom pregnancy. Humiliated and frustrated, Philip abandoned his heartbroken wife to go command his armies against France in Flanders. Mary fell into a deep depression.
Philip stayed away until 1557, when he returned to ask his wife to help with his war against France. She was fine with that, but her councilors opposed it on a number of grounds, chief amongst them that England was in a bad situation financially and really shouldn’t be going off to war. They only agreed to declare war after Thomas Stafford invaded England with French backup in an effort to depose Mary. In January 1558, the French took Calais, England’s last remaining territory on the European mainland. The loss was a blow to the English, and Mary’s prestige was irretrievably damaged. The Protestants started agitating again and circulated seditious pamphlets throughout the country.
Mary fell ill in May 1558 and lingered until November, when she died at the age of 42. She was buried in Westminster Abbey on December 14, in a tomb she would, interestingly, later share with her Protestant sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth duly succeeded and remained on the throne for more than 40 years, becoming a legendary monarch whose memory all but blotted out that of England’s first Queen Regnant, Bloody Mary.