Friday, 5 September 2014

Part 4: Can Mary I's reputation be salvaged?

This section considers the work and varying success of 20th and 21st century historians in revising academic perception of Mary as a failure and a bloody tyrant.

20th and 21st century rise of the revisionists:
The lack of success of 19th century attempts to salvage Mary’s reputation was followed by a surge of revisionist works addressing the issue from the late 20th century to present day. Mary has become something of a fashionable topic in recent years with twenty books focusing on her life and reign being published since the 1990s; significantly more than there have been on her more famous father. The most controversial aspects of Mary’s reputation, such as her personality, religious policy, marriage and loss of Calais, have been tackled by successive historians in recent years influencing a turn in the tide of academic opinion towards Mary.

In recent years several historians have reassessed Mary’s character and have found it almost irreconcilable with the hysterical queen documented by early writers. Froude’s argument purporting Mary’s hysteria and madness has been dealt a significant blow by the discovery that a nineteenth century historian had mistranslated and therefore misinterpreted a letter written in 1531 which described Mary’s illness. The translation read that she had something “the physicians call hysteria”, allowing subsequent historians to present Mary as a hysterical and mad figure, when in fact the letter said that Mary was suffering from a ‘malfunction of the womb’.[1] The mistake occurred due to the Greek word for womb being the source of the word ‘hysteria’. This ‘malfunction’ was an affliction that Mary suffered throughout her life particularly at the time of her parents’ divorce and later phantom pregnancies; giving nineteenth century historians more material with which to portray Mary as mad. This revelation has refuted the argument that Mary was hysterical and it has cast doubt over the ‘little woman’ argument that stemmed from this.

Portrait of Thomas Wyatt the Younger c.1540-42 (son of
Sir Thomas Wyatt the poet) who led a rebellion against
Mary's rule in  1554. He mustered a force of 4,000 rebels
who marched on London from Kent and came within
 half a mile of Mary herself. However the rebellion was
overcome after Mary made a rousing speech at the Guildhall
which rallied the people to her cause leading to the capture and
execution of the rebel leaders, including Wyatt.
The ‘little woman’ argument has been attacked by several historians on the grounds that Mary’s character is simply not compatible with the weak figure supported by nineteenth and twentieth century historians. Throughout her turbulent life Mary displayed extraordinary courage, such as during Wyatt’s rebellion in 1554 when she delivered a phenomenal speech, which rallied the people to her cause and “she even asked to go and fight herself...however [that] was not permitted to her”.[2] A further example of her strength is when she emerged from her confinement in 1555 after her first phantom pregnancy despite the humiliation and malicious rumours to rule the country once again. So while her personal tragedies contributed to the formation of the ‘little woman’ approach, the way that Mary dealt with these tragedies undermines it. Mary’s strength of character meant that she was no ‘little woman’ and as said by Linda Porter “to dismiss her life as nothing more than a personal tragedy is both mistaken and patronising.”[3] 

The Marian burnings have fuelled the development of Mary’s reputation for the past four hundred years so revisionist arguments that Marian religious policy was successful have been highly controversial. It is undeniable that the burnings were horrific and they are in no way excusable or negligible, but this was not the view amongst contemporaries so revisionists have argued that to understand the burnings presentism must be avoided. Richards has argued that rather than being inordinately zealous in the persecutions Mary was just being “a thoroughly conventional person”[4] and that there was, by the laws of the times, a secular justification for the burnings. Mary had restored the heresy laws by act of parliament in November 1554; this had been approved by both Houses and the Privy Council, indicating that there was widespread support for the burning of heretics within Marian government. This also demonstrates how heresy was perceived as both a religious and secular crime because a heretic would be disobeying both God and English law. In agreement with this Christopher Haigh suggests that there was also support for the punishment of heretics amongst the common people because they feared heretics and had little sympathy for them. At the burning of Christopher Wade in 1555 cherries were sold to the spectators and in response to his last speech they threw faggots at him to fuel the fire and silence him[5]; hardly the actions of a sympathetic or horrified crowd. Therefore in Mary’s England “Protestants were horrified [by the burnings], many committed Catholics approved [and] the rest watched curiously as the law took its course”,[6] demonstrating how the burnings did not cause people to perceive Mary as bloody in her lifetime. 

The Martyrs' Memorial which stands in Oxford
outside Balliol College. It was built in 1843 to
commemorate the lives of those who were martyred
under Mary's rule and it stands testament to the fact
that the horrific burnings of Mary's reign will not
be forgotten.
 In addition to the events and consequences of the burnings, the success of the persecutions has also caused much debate. Haigh argues that they were unsuccessful as Protestants were not intimidated, with burnings continuing into the final weeks of Mary’s reign. However this has been challenged by Eamon Duffy who suggests that the burnings were successful within the bigger picture of the Marian Catholic restoration. The burnings had little chance of fully eradicating Protestantism in England but Duffy argues that they served to frighten many Protestants into exile or outward conformity, which led to a significant reduction in the number of burnings by 1558. This can be viewed as a success because it allowed for the re-Catholicisation of England to continue without being undermined by open displays of Protestant defiance. Duffy has been criticised for this stance with some suggesting that his adherence to Catholicism influenced his more positive perception of the persecutions; however Duffy’s interpretation is not new with John Stuart Mill making a similar argument in his 1859 essay, ‘On Liberty’. Mill observed that “the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods...In Spain, Italy, Flanders, the Austrian empire, Protestantism was rooted out; and, most likely, would have been...in England, had Queen Mary lived...Persecution has always succeeded.”[7]  So over the course of Mary’s reign the persecutions can be seen as having had a degree of success in repressing opposition to the re-Catholicisation of England. 

While the burnings have been the focus of the debate surrounding Mary’s reputation it must be stressed that they were only a minor part of Marian religious policy. Persecution was merely a method of enforcement, the policy as a whole included a range of measures, such as education and preaching. Education was particularly favoured by the queen who was generous to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, leaving them each £500 in her will[8], to ensure that they produced erudite Catholic scholars and priests. The success of this is clear from the resistance that Elizabeth I faced from Mary’s Catholic bishops after her accession. Mary also favoured education through the publication of religious texts, with Bishop Bonner being instructed to produce a catechism for children and printers receiving royal licenses for the production of primers and homilies. Despite traditional assertions that preaching was neglected by the Marian clergy there is evidence to suggest that preaching was used with success, particularly in the case of what Duffy calls ‘preaching tours’ where Catholic preachers were sent to Protestant hotspots, such as Essex and East Anglia. To prepare priests for this Cardinal Pole established seminaries which further educated the clergy on self-discipline and theology. Duffy argues that through this use of education and preaching the Marian reformation set an example for the Counter-Reformation with aspects of the English reforms inspiring the measures outlined at the 1563 Council of Trent.[9]  Marian religious policy comprised of more than persecutions and to a large extent it successfully restored Catholicism in England. 

Detail of Philip and Mary from the Tudor allegorical
portrait c.1572. The whole portrait also features Henry
VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I. You can see the whole
portrait here.
Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain is another controversial aspect of her reign and traditionally it has been viewed as the greatest mistake of her reign. David Loades maintained a form of the ‘little woman’ approach towards Mary in arguing that she saw her gender as a liability so married to gain an emotional prop and male co-ruler[10]. This interpretation has been countered by several historians who argue that the marriage was purely political and that Mary maintained her autonomy as queen. Marriage was considered as a high priority at the beginning of Mary’s reign, primarily for dynastic reasons. There was no viable Catholic heir to succeed Mary so she married in the hope of producing one. Philip of Spain was chosen on account of his impeccable royal lineage and because their child would have become the most powerful ruler in Europe, inheriting England, Burgundy and the Netherlands. So it was a marriage of political expedience. In the sixteenth century a married woman had little independence, as upon marriage her property and rights were subsumed by her husband. So, as was feared at the time of Mary’s marriage and suggested by Strickland, there was the risk of Philip seizing power and Mary’s kingdom being subsumed into his growing empire upon their marriage. However this did not happen because Mary and her council devised a stringent marriage treaty, which bound Philip to uphold English laws and prevented him from installing Spaniards to English offices, thereby protecting Mary’s position as queen. Thus Loades’ argument has been challenged by the assertion that the marriage was politically motivated and did not interfere with Mary’s independence as queen. 

The loss of Calais is a further component of Mary’s bloody reputation which has been used to demonstrate her ineptitude. However, recently several historians have suggested that while it wounded England’s pride it was not a significant loss. Judith Richards has questioned the extent to which Calais’ loss was felt by the English, arguing that there was not a unanimous sense of despair. Some individuals were accepting of the loss, with parliamentarians in February 1558 arguing that the French “took nothing from the English but recovered what was their own”[11]; however the majority of the population, including the queen, were distraught at its loss. Perhaps the parliamentarians with their political experience were able to see the potential benefits of losing Calais. Loades has argued that there were several benefits as the loss of Calais was a positive development financially and diplomatically. The Calais garrison had been very expensive to maintain, costing £5000 more than the revenues of the town[12], making it an economic liability and increasing the strain on the crown, which was in £200,000 of debt.[13] Losing Calais alleviated some of the financial pressure on the crown and enabled it to make some progress towards achieving solvency. It has also been argued that the loss of Calais enabled England to progress diplomatically because it served to shift England’s focus away from France. Without a foothold there England had less cause for policy centred on France and this allowed for further development of the Muscovy Company, which formed an enduring trade relationship with Russia, and paved the way for the Elizabethan exploration of the Americas. Therefore the loss of Calais drew a line under the dominance that France had held in English foreign policy since the Hundred Years’ War and allowed England to progress into a golden age of exploration. This view of the loss of Calais has now been accepted by many historians leading to the loss of “another useful rod with which to beat [Mary’s] reputation”.[14]

Thus far the work of revisionists has served to salvage Mary’s reputation to a large extent in academic circles with the majority of historians accepting that Mary was not bloody and that her reign was not a complete failure. Certain issues such as the loss of Calais and Mary’s character are now largely resolved with Calais’ loss being seen as beneficial to England and Mary being considered the most warm hearted and courageous of the Tudor monarchs. Marian religious policy and the Spanish marriage have proved to be more controversial with some historians still doubting the success of both and considering them detrimental. However the debate generated from this has unveiled a wealth of different interpretations, many of which are more positive and consider the Marian regime to have been more effective in its aims than previously thought.



[1] Richards, Judith M Mary Tudor p 51-52
[2] Whitelock, Anna ‘Woman, Warrior; Queen?’ in Tudor Queenship: the Reigns of Mary and Elizabeth ed. Hunt, Alice and Whitelock, Anna p 177
[3] Porter, Linda Mary Tudor: The First Queen p 418
[4] Richards, Judith M Mary Tudor p 193
[5] Haigh, Christopher English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors p 233
[6] Haigh, Christopher English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors p 234
[7] Mill, John Stuart On Liberty p 23-24
[8] Richards, Judith M Mary Tudor p 191
[9] Duffy, Eamon Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor p 8
[10] Loades, David Mary Tudor p 265
[11] Richards, Judith M ‘Reassessing Mary Tudor: Some Concluding Points’ in Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives ed. Doran, Susan and Freeman, Thomas S p 212
[12] Loades, David The Life and Career of William Paulet (c.1475-1572): Lord Treasurer and First Marquis of Winchester p 103
[13] Miller, Merton H and Upton, Charles W Macroeconomics: A Neoclassical Introduction p 164
[14] Richards, Judith M ‘Reassessing Mary Tudor: Some Concluding Points’ in Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives ed. Doran, Susan and Freeman, Thomas S p 212

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