Forget her bloody reputation, Mary I was loved in her lifetime

Mary I from a painting by Antonis Mor

There will be no ‘Mary I and her People’ exhibitions to match that of Elizabeth I currently showing at the National Gallery. While Elizabeth I is regularly voted our most popular ever monarch her Catholic elder half sister remains associated with her late seventeenth century sobriquet, ‘Bloody Mary’. It is assumed she was hated in her lifetime. In fact she was a popular queen, and one from whom Elizabeth learned much.

Mary’s accession to the throne in 1553 was not a smooth one. Her half brother, Edward VI, was a passionate Protestant, and when, aged fifteen, he fell gravely ill he wrote a will that excluded Mary from the throne. Instead it was left to his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey. The majority of the political elite signed up to Edward’s will, and the Imperial ambassadors, reporting to Mary’s most powerful ally, her cousin the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, advised him to accept the situation as a fait accompli. But Mary proved to be made of sterner stuff than the Imperial ambassadors, launching a successful coup against Jane with the support of large numbers of the ‘common people’.

England was not then a predominately Protestant country. The fact Mary was a Catholic did not, therefore, greatly trouble her subjects. More important to them was Mary’s impeccable royal heritage. Each of her four grandparents was the head of their royal house, and, of course, her father was Henry VIII.

In the years that followed Mary’s accession there would be several attempts to overthrow her, but they involved only a minority of Protestants who were prepared to risk death to install a monarch who shared their beliefs – and they were no more popular in England than the Catholics who would later attempt to overthrow Elizabeth. These attempts did, however, impact on Mary.

The merciful queen of 1553, who kept executions of those who had opposed her to a minimum, vanished after a Protestant led revolt against her in 1554. That February saw the execution of the sixteen-year old Lady Jane Grey and a year later the burnings of heretics began – 284 of them, the majority being ordinary people.

Remarkably, to the modern mind, these horrors did not much dent Mary’s popularity. Protestantism was as associated with treason under Mary, as Catholicism would be under Elizabeth (arguably more so). And like Elizabeth, Mary was adept at allowing others to take the blame her more ruthless decisions. It was said, and widely believed, that Mary had been pressed into having Jane beheaded, and the same was suggested of the burnings, said to be encouraged by the Spanish, or by priests. It is also worth remembering that, in any case, burning heretics was widely accepted as a public good, and the ghastly reality of it was witnessed only by relatively small numbers of Mary’s subjects.

Seven months after the burning had begun, and following four months of seclusion during which Mary had suffered a phantom pregnancy, she emerged in public to the scenes we might associate with Elizabeth. People thronged the streets from Hampton Court to Greenwich to see her, and when they spotted her there were great shouts of acclamation.

Although it is often claimed that Mary did not have Elizabeth’s personal charisma, she too possessed qualities in this regard. They had been demonstrated most clearly in 1554, when a speech at the Guildhall had roused London in her defence against the most dangerous revolt of her reign. Mary had said then that she was married to her kingdom, describing her coronation ring as a wedding band, and her love of her subjects as that of a mother for her children.

These were phrases and motifs that Elizabeth would use repeatedly and would become absolutely central to her queenship. But while the dark side of Gloriana is forgotten, Mary is remembered predominately as a figure of gothic horror.