Friday, 29 August 2014

Part 3: Can Mary I's reputation be salvaged?

This section examines the development of Mary's reputation in the 19th century at the hands of various historians and how her bloodiness came to be cemented in public perception of her.


19th Century Development:
Mary’s bloody reputation was well developed by the nineteenth century, and it seemed immovable in Victorian society where Englishness and Protestantism went hand in hand. However her reputation was addressed by Frederic Madden, a palaeographer, and two notable historians, Agnes Strickland and James Froude, who sought to revaluate the traditional perception of Mary.

Illustration of Mary touching a woman to
cure scrofula (a disease also known as the King's
Evil).This is from 'Queen Mary's manual for
blessing  cramp-rings and touching for the evil'
As a palaeographer with access to a wealth of manuscripts from the sixteenth century Madden was able to compile and publish the pre-accession Privy Purse accounts of Mary in 1831. These are of particular significance as they were the first new sources published on Mary since the sixteenth century  and they provide objective evidence that can be used to form a picture of Mary’s character. Alongside the expenditure that one might expect to find in a Princess’ accounts there are also several instances of money being given to the poor or being spent on the care of individuals. In March 1538 Mary gave 26 shillings to the midwife of Lord Cobham’s child,  in May 1538 five shillings were “geven to a pore mayde in marriage”  and in September 1538 alone there are five instances of Mary giving alms to the poor.  So the idea of ‘Bloody Mary’ seems inconsistent with the picture that the accounts create of a woman who was charitable and caring. The accounts also provide evidence of Mary’s intelligence and administrative experience because several pages contain notes in the margin in her hand where she had corrected mistakes made by her clerks. Therefore due to Mary’s charitable nature and administrative diligence prior to her accession, which contradicts the nature of ‘Bloody Mary’, it seems as though the Privy Purse accounts laid the foundations for Mary’s reputation to be salvaged. This was certainly the aim of Madden, who in his introductory memoir of Mary expressed the hope that: “what is here supplied may induce a single person to judge of her more leniently, or to cause the vulgar appellation of ‘bloody Queen’ to be replaced by one of more truth”.  The ‘truth’ that Madden wanted was for Mary to be remembered as a charitable and pious individual whose burning of religious dissidents was an unpleasant, yet commonplace, aspect of sixteenth century religious policy carried out by both Protestants and Catholics.

The material provided by Madden’s publication of Mary’s Privy Purse Expenses was also used by later writers who tried to salvage Mary’s reputation. These later writers included Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland who included a sympathetic biography of Mary in the third volume of their ‘Lives of the Queens of England’, published 1840-48. The Stricklands wrote more favourably of Mary due to the sources that they used, such as Madden’s work and records held by the ancient Catholic families of England. In the 1800s the centralisation of the national archives was incomplete so many records were retained by the great families of England and prior to the Stricklands, who were able to use their personal connections, few historians had used the records held by Catholic families. The Stricklands acknowledged that these documents were “in direct opposition to the popular ideas of the character of our first queen-regnant”  and from these they constructed their own, unique, interpretation of Mary. This interpretation was more positive as the Stricklands found that Mary fitted Victorian ideals of womanhood more closely than their other subjects due to her modest, charitable and pious nature. So they, somewhat anachronistically, presented Mary as though she were a respectable Victorian woman. This then led the Stricklands to exempt Mary from responsibility for the burnings - circumventing the root of her bloody reputation. They argued that because Mary was a good submissive wife, her husband, Philip seized power and initiated the burnings. Therefore the Strickland sisters’ work attempted to salvage Mary’s reputation because it presented her as a figure that their contemporaries could relate to and Philip as responsible for the burnings.

Portrait of Agnes Strickland by John Hayes
c. 1846
However the fact that the Stricklands were female writers in an age of inequality marred their success. While their work was hugely popular with many readers in the Victorian era and gained the respect of some historians, such as Fran├žois Guizot, it was criticised by several male writers who were unwilling to take female writers seriously. The Stricklands faced much hostility and condescending criticism with one male writer describing her “in the...British Museum...carrying her notes in a little bag like any ordinary womankind...instead of a slow succession of elaborate volumes full of...accuracy and importance, it is a shower of pretty books...dainty  and personal, that fall from her hands. In short, it is not Edward Gibbon [a notable historian and MP], but Agnes Strickland, who introduces to our households the reduced pretension of the historic muse.”  Attitudes such as these meant that the Stricklands’ work did not have a significant impact on Mary’s reputation, particularly in academia, because it was not taken seriously by several of the period’s notable historians.

James Froude was another historian who wrote about Mary; volume six of his ‘History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada’, published in 1860, documented her reign. However, ultimately this was to the detriment of her reputation. Froude acknowledged that Mary was not naturally vindictive but he takes the ‘little woman’ approach  in arguing that the burnings of her reign occurred due to an unstable woman afflicted by a series of personal tragedies being thrust into a position of power. He suggests that Mary became self-deluded after her miraculous accession, believing that she had a divine purpose to restore Catholicism and overcome heresy. He illustrates this point by focusing on the phantom pregnancies that Mary suffered as he sees them as accelerating her descent into hysteria. Froude describes a pitiful figure who “would sit upon the floor, with her knees drawn up to her face, in an agony of doubt”.  He concludes that this doubt led her to believe that God was punishing her for not eradicating heresy in her kingdom so the burnings were renewed with vigour on her orders. Mary’s hysteria is also seen as the cause of the loss of Calais in 1558 as her indecisiveness allowed the French to seize the city. Calais had been the pinnacle of English pride because it was England’s last remaining French possession from the Plantagenet conquests of the Hundred Years’ War. The loss of Calais severely wounded English pride and fuelled the development of Mary’s reputation as it was used to demonstrate her ineptitude. It has also been used to demonstrate her lack of compassion as, famously, on her deathbed she supposedly expressed regret at the loss of Calais, saying that “When I am dead and opened you shall find Calais lying in my heart”.  So critics have marvelled at her apparent regret for a material possession but lack of remorse over the burnings. However there is no evidence that she actually uttered these words.  Therefore in the nineteenth century Mary’s personal tragedies and resulting hysteria were seen as the cause of her losing Calais and sanctioning the burnings, which Froude concluded “swathed her name in the horrid epithet which will cling to it forever.”

Chalk portrait of Froude by John Edward
Goodall c.1890
It is clear that Froude believed that Mary’s reputation could not be salvaged and his damning verdict of her as a hysterical bigot gave her reputation a tragic cast. Froude’s work was criticised by some academics, but it became a best-seller as it tapped into public feeling through its portrayal of Protestant England emerging from the shadow of Catholic Europe.  Its popularity influenced two further works which served to cement Mary’s reputation for the next century. One of these works was Tennyson’s play ‘Queen Mary: A Drama’, written in 1875, which portrayed Mary as hysterical and responsible for the burnings. The play ran for 23 performances with Philip II played by Henry Irving, whose fame drew large crowds to the early performances. The play reinforced people’s perception of Mary because the figure wailing and weeping on the stage before them corresponded strongly to historical works of the time. The strength of its impact is evident from the way that Froude told Tennyson that the play “hit a more fatal blow than a thousand pamphleteers”,  however Froude is hardly an impartial observer as in complementing the play he was also flattering himself. A twentieth century work of a very different nature was also heavily influenced by Froude; this was Arthur Dickens’ textbook on the reformation published in 1964. This book was very influential as it was used extensively in English schools and universities between the 1960s and 1990s, so several generations of students were taught ideas about Mary that were similar to Froude’s from the 1800s. Therefore Froude’s work influenced people’s perceptions of Mary from 1860 to the 1990s, ensuring the survival of Mary’s bloody reputation.

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