Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Books about Queen Mary I

Mary I by Hans Eworth c.1554

I have to say I've always loved an underdog and Mary I must be one of the biggest underdogs in history as somehow she won and held the English throne when all the odds were against her. I consider her to be one of the most underrated figures in British history as time and time again she has been written off as 'Bloody Mary' Gloriana's hysterical Catholic sister who some claim looks a bit like Jimmy Krankie (not sure that I see the resemblance though). For many people all they know of England's first Queen regnant is that she burned hundreds of people at the stake for their religious beliefs and therefore must deserve her bloody reputation. But I like her, flaws and all, so in this post I am going to recommend some books on Mary for those who wish to learn more about her, so that they can reconsider or reconfirm their views whatever they may be.

Mary Tudor: The First Queen by Linda Porter 
This book is a historical biography that provides a good introduction to Mary's life and times. The reader is introduced to a Mary who is intelligent and vibrant but left scarred by the emotional distress that she experienced during her parents' volatile divorce. The author's empathetic discussion of Mary's travails does not dismiss her as hysterical or take a 'little woman' approach, rather it presents an understanding view of her struggles while also acknowledging the bravery that she maintained. In the 418 page book around 10 pages are dedicated to the more controversial topic of the burnings; this provides an adequate introduction as there is discussion of the impacts of the persecutions, the response to them and Mary's involvement but I would say that this book is better as an introduction to Mary as a person rather than Marian policies/politics. Overall I would recommend this book to those looking to learn more about Mary's character and life because it presents a balanced and entertaining account of a much maligned monarch.

Mary Tudor by Judith M Richards 
This is one of my favourite books on Mary as it's relatively short at 242 pages but it still presents a rounded view of Mary taking into account her failures and successes. The book is written in an incredibly clear and readable manner through the way that the author uses a series of subheadings within the chapters of the book. For example within the chapter titled 'Religious trials and other tribulations' there are subheadings such as 'Mary's voice in English government' and 'The Marian burnings revisited', these allow the reader to closely follow the arguments presented while also making it easier to dip in and out of the book. This book details Mary's life and reign but rather than being a straightforward biography it embarks on some political and legal analysis of her policies and actions. Therefore I would recommend this book as a kind of stepping stone from historical biography into more academic works.

The Actes and Monuments by John Foxe 

I believe that to properly gain an understanding of Mary I, you ought to consider her critics' perception of her. One of her harshest and most vocal critics was John Foxe, the man who essentially initiated the blackening of Mary's name through his 'Actes and Monuments', which is also known as 'The Book of Martyrs'. Although not explicitly about Mary this book does devote a considerable amount of time to the persecutions that occurred in her reign and her involvement in them. It is certainly not a book for the faint hearted as ultimately it is recording the stories of martyred Christians in what is verging on gleefully grisly detail. Despite this it is fascinating as it provides a contemporary view of Mary from one of her biggest critics and by reading it you can begin to understand why this work has had such a momentous impact on Mary's reputation. It is very black and white with Foxe making his 'Protestant good, Catholic bad' distinction painfully clear at times. They say that history is written by the winners and unfortunately for Mary's reputation John Foxe was on the winning side so it is his perception of her that has percolated through the centuries and created the enduring sobriquet of 'Bloody Mary'. I would recommend this to those who are curious about the origins of Mary's bloody reputation with the warning that it doesn't make for pleasant reading.

Mary I England's Catholic Queen by John Edwards 
As a historian specialising in English and Spanish history John Edwards' biography of Mary addresses her position as a member of both the English and Spanish royal houses. Edwards made use of British and continental archives to piece together a picture of Mary that extends beyond the confines of the country in which she was born and died. It analyses the importance of family to Mary and through this her relationships with her Hapsburg relatives is extensively covered, which is a refreshing alternative to discussions of her siblings and oh-so-famous father. Religion is also explored effectively with past heresy cases in England being used to demonstrate that the Marian persecutions were not an entirely new phenomena. All in all this book is a good read for both Tudor newbies and veterans as it covers the 'standard' bases of Mary's life while also introducing more original arguments using a wider European perspective to create an engaging biography.

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