The True Story Behind The Sinister Nickname Of Queen “Bloody Mary”

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It’s July 1553, and Mary Tudor has just succeeded to the throne of England and Ireland as Mary I, the first woman to rule both countries. The principal story of her life has been one of bitter dynastic rivalry. The main theme of her reign will be deadly religious controversy. And it’s the latter that will lead to her nickname: “Bloody Mary.”

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Born in 1516, Mary Tudor’s birthplace was the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, a few miles down the Thames from London. Her father was King Henry VIII, and her mother was his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s late brother, Arthur. This was a detail that would later haunt Mary, as we’ll see.

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Mary was the only child of Henry and Catherine who lived past infancy. Catherine suffered a series of miscarriages, stillbirths and early child deaths. Henry became convinced that she would never provide him with what he craved, a male heir. And in 1525 he transferred his affections to one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn.

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But Henry had a tricky problem. Much as he wanted to wed Anne Boleyn, who he hoped would bear him a son, he was still married to Catherine. And as a Roman Catholic, he could not divorce without a special dispensation from the pope of the day, Clement VII.

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However, Pope Clement said no. Catherine was aunt to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Pope was anxious not to offend him. Henry, never one to observe diplomatic niceties, went ahead and married Anne Boleyn anyway in a secret ceremony in 1533. Anne was already pregnant by Henry.

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Henry justified his desertion of Catherine, and what appeared to be a bigamous marriage to Anne Boleyn, with some tortured logic. He claimed that because Catherine had previously been married to his older brother Arthur, that meant that his marriage to her had been incestuous. Therefore it had been an invalid union.

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The Pope was unimpressed by this spurious turn of logic and excommunicated Henry from the Catholic Church. Undeterred, Henry reacted by setting up his own Protestant church, the Church of England. He had no further need of vindication from Rome. But there were consequences for Mary.

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If Henry’s marriage to Catherine was null and void, Mary would become illegitimate and ineligible to be an heir to the throne. Anne Boleyn now gave birth in September 1533 to Elizabeth, Mary’s half-sister, who would go on to become Elizabeth I. Anxious to promote her own daughter Elizabeth, Anne now moved against Mary.

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Anne persuaded Henry to pass an act through Parliament formally declaring that Mary was illegitimate so that she could not be an heir. What’s more, Mary now had to serve as a lady-in-waiting to her younger half-sister Elizabeth. But Anne Boleyn’s influence over Henry soon began to wane.

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In fact it waned so much that in 1636, Henry decided he needed another change of wife. Anne Boleyn was obviously an obstacle in the king’s way. So she was tried and found guilty of adultery with five men, one of them her own brother. She also faced a count of witchcraft. Found guilty, she was beheaded in May 1536, an emphatic if brutal way to get rid of an unwanted spouse.

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Henry married his next wife, Jane Seymour, just 10 days after Anne lost her head. Jane did actually manage to deliver a live son for Henry, Edward, and he now became heir to the throne. After Anne Boleyn’s execution, Mary had been allowed back into the royal fold and she became second in line for the throne after her half-brother Edward.

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Henry VIII died in 1547, and Edward became King Edward VI, although he was only nine years old. He was aided in his kingly duties by a council of 12 men who had been named in Henry’s will. It’s worth noting that like his father, Edward was a determined Protestant, as were his advisers.

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Edward’s reign didn’t last long since he died at the age of 15. One of Edward’s leading advisers, the Duke of Northumberland, declared that Lady Jane Grey, his own daughter-in-law, should succeed to the throne. Indeed Edward had stated in his will that Jane should accede to the throne and that Mary should not. The point was that Jane was Protestant. Mary was still an ardent Catholic.

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Lady Jane Grey’s accession to the throne was deeply unpopular in England, and her reign lasted just nine days. Mary, who had earlier fled when Edward’s death was imminent, now returned to London in triumph to take the throne. The Duke of Northumberland, Lady Jane Grey and her husband were all executed.

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Despite her father Henry’s founding of the Church of England, Mary was determined that the country would return to Catholicism. Now queen at the age of 37, she set her heart on marrying the Catholic king of Spain, Phillip II. There was no time to lose. She was 37 when she came to the throne. If she did not produce an heir, her half-sister Elizabeth, a Protestant, would succeed her.

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So unpopular was her proposed marriage to Phillip that a rebellion broke out in England in 1554. Sir Thomas Wyatt led an armed force on London. Mary was able to crush this rebellion, and she went on to marry Philip. In the event, the marriage did not produce an heir. But Mary continued with her promotion of Catholicism.

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At Phillip and Mary’s insistence, Parliament now returned England to Catholicism. Mary brought back old laws, which made heresy illegal and punishable by draconian measures. The proscribed punishment included burning at the stake. And now, Mary began her persecution of Protestants in earnest.

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The killing started in February 1555. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who had been thrown in prison, was compelled to witness the burning at the stake of two of his bishops, Ridley and Latimer. Under this duress, Cranmer deserted Protestantism and rejoined the Catholic Church.

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But Mary had Cranmer burnt anyway, and he withdrew his recantation at the 11th hour before his execution. And the horrific experience of being executed by burning at the stake was the fate of some 300 Protestants over the next three years. These victims of rough justice became martyrs in the eyes of their fellow Protestants.

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Mary became deeply unpopular with her own subjects. And they hated her husband Phillip just as much. But it was Mary who attracted a nickname that has stayed with her from the 16th century up to this day. For her barbaric killing of so many on purely religious grounds, she’ll likely forever be known as “Bloody Mary.” She died childless in 1558 aged 42 to be succeeded by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth, the very outcome she had so feared.

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