The Myth of Bloody Mary



How much of history can we trust? Asking that question leads to a disquieting silence, because if we begin to question established history, it unravels. The truth is, we can accept nothing and must question the motives and sources for everything that is established as fact. In doing that, we find the “facts” less factual than we might have thought, and that history is often defined not by the reality, but the perceptions and biases of those who recorded it.

This is never truer than in the case of Mary Tudor. Though her sister and father had many more executions during their reigns, it is she who has become known as “Bloody.” Her father’s death toll estimates at 74,000, including cousins, wives, trusted advisors, politicians, friends, governesses to the royal children, and clergy. A large portion of that number comes from the Pilgrimage of Grace, where a great many loyal Catholic subjects rebelled against the oppressive new Reformist regimes that destroyed their Churches and forbid them from practicing their faith. Henry VIII is the true “bloody” tyrant, but Mary is given the title for the 284 Reformists burned at the stake during her reign, if you go by the numbers in The Book of Martyrs first published in 1563.

The author, John Foxe was a Reformist; his intention was to draw attention to the lives of the martyrs and discredit and vilify Catholics. The book was widely read by the Puritans, and helped mold public opinion in negative ways toward Catholic monarchs, which was helpful in dissuading the public from trying to place a Catholic usurper (Mary Queen of Scots) on the throne. The stories were reinforced over time, while Reformist historians swept the bloody, barbaric actions of Reformist monarchs under the rug. What better way to stay in power than define the opposition as a bloody tyrant?

Mary’s reputation started with a bias, continued with an agenda, and despite its questionable and biased origins, is still propagated as fact, which means we must ask the reason why? What purpose other than continued prejudice against her faith causes us to care more about those martyred under her reign than that of any other British monarch in history? All we know about Mary’s reign and how the populace responded is propaganda; we can’t trust it.

Doubts about the reliability of Foxe’s statistics are based in the statements he produces as “facts” refuted by his contemporaries (certain nasty stories about Sir Thomas More are based in slander from the period, and More refuted them violently, denying that he tortured people for information; he did put them in the stocks, but did not “flog Reformists” in his garden—he had a man flogged for flipping women’s skirts up over their heads during Church prayers). Fox is unreliable, but a defense was made for him in the 1930’s by Historian J.F. Mozley, who doubted that one could “invent” the stories in Book of Martyrs. Considering his agenda (he was openly, unapologetically biased toward the Reformists), can we trust him to have researched this without a foregone conclusion?

The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 by Eamon Duffy mostly focuses on the beliefs of the period, but contains a whole chapter on Mary challenging our ideas of her reign. It asserts that England did not yield to Reform; Henry’s break from the Catholic Church was seen by the populace as a means of obtaining a divorce from a beloved queen, and when Mary took the throne, despite her assertion that she would not outlaw Lutheranism, many Churches voluntarily reinstated their Latin Mass and original prayer books and teachings, to general public satisfaction, because the populace had never truly abandoned their traditional roots. The Marian regime came up with a long-term plan to gradually reinstate Catholicism, and incorporate Reform in the publication of an English Bible and new liturgies. Duffy states the burnings, while deplorable, were “accomplishing what the Marian regime” intended to do, and that was bring order. The fires were “slacking off” toward the end of her reign and may have soon ceased completely. It does not justify the actions of her government, but it does raise the question of if Mary had not died so young, whether history would have seen her in a far different light (without Reformist bias) once she reformed the Church.

In Foxe’s Reformist eyes, Mary was a loathed Papist murderer. His prejudices have carried on into modern times, reinforced by ongoing distrust and hatred for Catholics generated during the English Reformation. In Duffy’s eyes, as a self-confessed “cradle Catholic,” she is neither saint nor monster, but overshadowed by the burnings of the period, which prejudice the reader and make them less inclined to see her as a well-intentioned but misguided advocate for a different brand of religious reform in England that, had it been allowed to continue, might have been successful. Both men are biased, but together they present a complex woman about whom, tragically, the entire truth will never be known.

Reformist influences in England and by extension, in the United States, have gone a long way in the unfair vilification of Mary; her representation as a brutal and unpopular ruler during her reign (instead of cast that way after her death) is reinforced by cultural depictions of Mary that show her in a negative light while casting Elizabeth in a favorable one. Much emphasis is placed on Elizabeth’s virtues, reminding us of her long, prosperous, popular reign, her feminist ideals, and her victories against the Spanish Armada, while showing us a nation terrorized by the Catholic Mary, who burns “heretics” every day and “sleeps with a sword under her pillow,” she is so afraid of the populace that despises her. Bias toward Elizabeth is also reflected in the greater emphasis on her parents over Mary’s, and how their mothers are portrayed.

The “love affair” of Henry and Anne Boleyn has been told many times, and with only a few exceptions the story begins when Anne first catches his eye. She is young, pretty, opinionated, and feisty; his Catholic wife, Katharine of Aragon, is dowdy, boring and old, and he had to marry her against his will. In truth, Katharine was immensely popular, wore a constant smile, and kept the company of the period’s greatest intellectuals. Though devout, she loved art, literature, and music; her court was known for dancing, pageants, and entertainment. Her love story with Henry is as romantic and tragic as that of Henry and Anne Boleyn… so why has it never entirely been told?

Favoritism toward Elizabeth, her mother, and Reform, and bias against Mary, her mother, and Catholicism is obvious… my question is, now that we are aware of it, when will it end? ♥


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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