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1553, Mary Tudor became Queen of England. As a devout Catholic, she made it her mission to stamp out Protestants who challenged her regime, hence the name, “Bloody Mary”.

But it’s all too easy to view England’s first female ruler as a barbaric woman who lacked a moral compass. The truth is much more complex, and given the ordeals she suffered during her youth, it’s hardly surprising she grew up to hate Protestants.

Adolescent trauma

Mary’s mother — Catherine of Aragon — was the first wife of King Henry VIII. She was a Catholic and had a direct influence on her daughter’s religious education.

But when Catherine failed to produce a male heir, Henry sought a new wife. The Pope denied the king’s request for a divorce, so Henry established his own church (the Church of England) and married Anne Boleyn, who was a Protestant. Catherine, meanwhile, was banished from the king’s court and forced to live in an isolated castle.

Mary was devastated by this turn of events. Henry refused to allow the two women to visit each other, believing they would plot to overthrow him. Mary was also stripped of her valuable jewels, her titles, and would no longer inherit the throne. Elizabeth — Henry and Anne’s daughter — was now next in line.

A painting of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, c. 1537 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

To make matters worse, Mary was forced to leave her country manor and aid the new princess. She was treated like a servant, and when people came to visit the young Elizabeth, Mary would be locked inside her room with the windows nailed shut.

The king’s attitude towards Catholicism only worsened with time. He severed ties with the Pope, closed down Catholic monasteries, sold church land, burned the bones of saints, and executed those who rebelled against his Protestant regime.

Tragedy and triumph

Catherine became incredibly ill in 1535, yet Henry still denied Mary’s request to go and see her. Inevitably, she died without saying goodbye to her daughter, and Mary was heartbroken.

Far from taking pity on her, Henry forced Mary to sign a document saying the Pope had no authority in England and her parents’ marriage had been unlawful. Mary refused to sign but was forced to comply when she was threatened with violence.

Henry was kinder once the document had been signed. He lavished Mary with gifts — including a new white horse — and revised the order of succession so that she would come before Elizabeth.

This was a massive error. Though Henry did manage to produce a male heir with his third wife, Jane Seymour, the young Edward died of lung disease after six years on the throne, and Mary was next in line.

Edward’s councilmen did not approve. They wanted Lady Jane Grey, who was one of Edward’s Protestant cousins, to be queen. But despite Henry’s best efforts, England remained a largely Catholic country, and most people supported Mary.

A painting of Lady Jane Grey’s execution in 1554 by Paul Delaroche, 1833 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Bloody Mary

A painting of Bloody Mary by Hans Eworth, c. 1555 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On the 19th of July 1553, Mary became Queen of England. But at the age of thirty-seven, she was past her physical peak and burdened with poor health.

This didn’t stop her from getting to work, however. She was convinced God had put her on the throne for one reason: to reverse the Protestant Reformation.

Under Mary’s rule, it was illegal for Protestants to preach, the Book of Common Prayer was banned, and any form of Protestant writing was subject to removal. Catholic rituals were also made custom once again. And as for those who actively rebelled against Catholicism, death soon followed.

Executions were made public. Groups of Protestants were burned in front of large crowds as a warning to those who were unhappy with Mary’s laws.

Some fled England in the wake of the new regime, whilst others voiced their outrage as their fellow Protestants were burnt alive. For many, Catholicism was becoming inseparable from brutal, immoral persecution. The dead became martyrs, and some of their bodies were kept as holy treasures.

In total, three hundred Protestants were publically executed during Mary’s five-year reign.

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