To understand her we should have had to live with her the tragic youth during which she had hardly ever tasted happiness. She was scarcely two (1518) when her father took to mistresses and neglected her grieving mother; eight when he asked for an annulment of his marriage; fifteen when her parents parted, and mother and daughter went into a separate exile. Even when the mother was dying the daughter was forbidden to go to her.22 After the birth of Elizabeth (1533) Mary was declared a bastard, and was shorn of her title of princess. The Imperial ambassador feared that Anne Boleyn would seek the death of her daughter’s rival for the throne. When Elizabeth was moved to Hatfield Mary was compelled to go and serve her there, and to live in “the worst room of the house.”23 Her servants were taken from her, and were replaced by others subject to Miss Shelton of Hatfield, who, reminding her that she was a bastard, said, “If I were in the King’s place I would kick you out of the King’s house for your disobedience,” and told her that Henry had expressed his intention to have her beheaded.24 All that first winter at Hatfield (1534) Mary was ill, her nerves shattered with contumely and fear, her body and soul not unwillingly near death. Then the King relented and spared her some casual affection, and for the remainder of the reign her position eased. But as the price of this hard graciousness she was required to sign an acknowledgment of Henry’s ecclesiastical supremacy, her mother’s “incestuous marriage,” and her own illegitimate birth.25
Her nervous system was permanently affected by these experiences; “she was subject to a heart complaint,” 26 and she remained in frail health till the end of her life. Her courage returned when, under the Somerset protectorate, Parliament declared her heiress-apparent to the throne. Since her Catholic faith, bred into her childhood with Spanish fervor, and strengthened by her mother’s living and dying exhortations, had been a precious support in her griefs, she refused to abandon it when she hovered on the edge of power; and when the King’s Council bade her cease hearing Mass in her rooms (1549) she would not obey. Somerset connived at her resistance; but Somerset fell, her brother the King approved the order, and three of her servants, for ignoring it, were sent to the Tower (1551). The chaplain who had said Mass for her was taken from her, and she finally agreed to forgo the beloved ritual. Her spirit broken, she begged the Imperial ambassador to arrange her escape to the Continent. The cautious Emperor refused to sanction the plan, and it fell through.
Her moment of triumph came at last when Northumberland could find no man to fight against her, and those who came in arms to uphold her cause asked no pay, but brought their own supplies and offered their personal fortunes to finance the campaign. When she entered London as queen (August 3, 1553) even that half-Protestant city rose almost unanimously to welcome her. Princess Elizabeth came diffidently to meet her at the city gates, wondering whether Mary would hold against her the indignities suffered in Elizabeth’s name; but Mary greeted her with a warm embrace, and kissed all the ladies in her half-sister’s train. England was as happy as when Henry VIII, young and handsome and generous, had mounted the throne.
Mary was now thirty-seven, and heartless time had already crossed her face with omens of decay. She had seldom known an adult year without a serious illness. She was troubled with dropsy, indigestion, and racking headaches; she was treated with repeated bloodlettings, which left her nervous and pale. Her recurrent amenorrhea plunged her at times into hysterical grief with fear that she would never bear a child.27 Now her body was thin and frail, her forehead was wrinkled, her reddish hair was streaked with gray, her eyes were so weak that she could read only with the page held close to her face. Her features were plain, almost masculine; her voice was as deep as a man’s; life had given her all the frailties, none of the charms, of womanhood. She had some womanly accomplishments—she knitted patiently, embroidered skillfully, and played the lute; to which she added a knowledge of Spanish, Latin, Italian, and French. She would have made a good woman had she not been cursed with theological certainty and royal power. She was honest to the point of simplicity, incapable of diplomacy, and pitifully anxious to love and be loved. She had bursts of temper and shrewish speech. She was obstinate, but not proud; she recognized her mental limitations, and listened humbly to advice. She was inflexible only where her faith was concerned; otherwise she was clement and compassionate, liberal to the unfortunate, and eager to redress the wrongs of the law. Frequently she visited incognito the homes of the poor, sat and talked with the housewives, made note of needs and grievances, and gave whatever help she could.28 She restored to the universities the endowments filched from them by her predecessors.
The best side of her character showed in the relative tolerance of her early reign. She not only released Gardiner, Bonner, and others who had been imprisoned for refusing to accept Protestantism, but she pardoned almost all those who had tried to keep her from the throne. Some of these, however, like the Duke of Suffolk, she compelled to pay heavy fines into the treasury; then, the revenue being so aided, she reduced taxes substantially. Peter Martyr and other alien Protestants were allowed safe-conducts to leave the country. The Queen’s Council gave a hasty trial to Northumberland and six others who had conspired to arrest Mary and crown Jane Grey; all seven were condemned to die. Mary wished to pardon even Northumberland, but Simon Renard, now Imperial ambassador, dissuaded her. All the unforgiven three made a last-minute profession of the Roman Catholic faith. Jane Grey called the sentence just, and the confessions cowardly.29 Mary proposed to release her, but yielded so far to her councilors as to order her to be kept in loose confinement within the Tower grounds.30
On August 13 the Queen issued an official declaration that she would not “compel or constrain consciences” in the matter of religious belief;31 this was one of the first proclamations of religious tolerance by a modern government. Innocently hopeful of converting Protestants by argument, she arranged a public debate between opposed theologians, but it evaporated in bitter and inconclusive dispute. Shortly thereafter Bishop Bonner’s chaplain had a dagger thrown at him from a crowd that resented his Catholic preaching; he was rescued from death by two Protestant divines.32 Frightened out of her tolerance, Mary ordered (August 18, 1553) that until Parliament could meet and consider the problems raised by the conflict of faiths, no doctrinal sermons should be preached except in the universities. Cranmer, still Archbishop, was bidden keep to his Lambeth palace; he retorted with a blast against the Mass as an “abominable blasphemy”; he and Latimer were committed to the Tower (September 1553). Bishop Ridley of London, who had branded both Mary and Elizabeth as bastards, had gone to the Tower two months before. All in all, Mary’s conduct in these early months of her reign excelled, in lenience and tolerance, that of the other major rulers of her time.
The problems she faced might have overwhelmed one far superior to her in intelligence and tact. She was shocked by the confusion and corruption prevalent in the administration. She ordered the corruption to stop; it hid its head and continued. She gave a good example by reducing the expenses of the royal household, pledging a stable currency, and leaving parliamentary elections free from royal influence; the new elections were “the fairest which had taken place for many years.” 33 But her reduction of taxes left government income lower than outgo; to make up the difference she levied an export duty on cloth and an import duty on French wines; these measures, which were expected to help the poor, caused a commercial recession. She tried to arrest the growth of capitalism by limiting to one or two the looms that any individual might own. She denounced “rich clothiers” for paying low wages, and forbade the payment of wages in kind.34 But she could not find in her entourage men of the force and integrity required to implement her good will; and economic laws overrode her aims.
Even in religion she met with severe economic obstacles. There was hardly an influential family in England that did not hold property taken from the Church;35 such families, of course, opposed any return to the Roman faith. The Protestants, numerically a minority, financially powerful, might at any moment provide the sinews for a revolt that would place Protestant Elizabeth on the throne. Mary was anxious to restore the right of Catholics to worship according to their own ritual; yet the Emperor, who had been fighting Protestantism for thirty-two years, cautioned her to move slowly, and to be content with having Mass said privately for herself and her immediate circle. But she felt her religion too deeply to be politic with it. The skeptical generation that had grown up in London marveled at the frequency and fervor of her prayers, and the Spanish ambassador probably thought it a nuisance when she asked him to kneel beside her to ask divine guidance. She felt that she had a sacred mission to restore the faith that had become so dear to her because she had suffered for it. She sent a messenger to the Pope begging him to remove the interdict on religious services in England; but when Cardinal Pole wished to come to England as papal legate, she agreed with Charles that the time was not ripe for so bold a move.
The Parliament that met on October 5,1553, was by no means subservient. It agreed to repeal all the legislation of Edward’s reign concerning religion; it reduced to their earlier proportions the severe penalties prescribed in the laws of Henry VIII and Edward VI; and it graciously informed the Queen that “the illegitimation of your most noble person” was now annulled, and she had ceased to be a bastard. But it refused even to consider the restoration of ecclesiastical property, it resisted any hint that papal sovereignty should be acknowledged, and it left Mary the unwilling head of the English Church. By this authority she replaced Protestant bishops with the Catholic prelates that had been expelled; Bonner was again Bishop of London; Gardiner was again Bishop of Winchester, and a close adviser of the Crown. Married priests were dismissed from their parishes. The Mass was again allowed, then encouraged; and (says a Protestant historian) “the eagerness with which the country generally availed itself of the permission to restore the Catholic ritual proved beyond a doubt that except in London and a few large towns, the popular feeling was with the Queen.” 36 By an edict of March 4, 1554, the Catholic worship was completely reinstated, Protestantism and other “heresies” were made illegal, and all Protestant preaching or publication was prohibited.
The nation was much less disturbed by this return of the theological pendulum than by Mary’s marriage plans. She was constitutionally fearful of marriage, but she faced the trial in the hope of having an heir who would prevent the accession of Protestant Elizabeth. Mary claimed to be a virgin, and probably was; perhaps if she had sinned a bit she would have been less somber, tense, and certain. Her Council recommended to her Edward Courtenay, great-grandson of Edward IV, but his debauched ways were not to Mary’s taste. Rejected, he schemed to marry Elizabeth, depose Mary, enthrone Elizabeth, and rule England through her—never dreaming how little chance he had of dominating that virile lady. Charles V offered Mary his son Philip, to whom he was about to bequeath all but the Imperial title; and he pledged the Netherlands as a gift to any male issue of the marriage. Mary thrilled at the thought of having as her husband the ruler of Spain, Flanders, Holland, Naples, and the Americas; and her half-Spanish blood warmed at the prospect of a political and religious union of England with Spain. She modestly suggested that her greater age—ten years above Philip’s—was a barrier; she feared that her faded charms would not suffice his youthful vigor or imagination; she was not even sure that she would know how to make love.37 For his part Philip was reluctant; his English agents reported that Mary was “a perfect saint,” who “dressed badly”;38 could not something more alluring be found among the royal families of Europe? Charles persuaded him by pointing out that the marriage would give Spain a strong ally against France, and precious support in the Netherlands, which were bound to England commercially; perhaps Protestantism in Germany could be suppressed by the united action of Spain, France, and England as Catholic states; and the union of the Hapsburgs and the Tudors would constitute a power capable of giving Western Europe a generation of compulsory peace.
The Queen’s Council and the English people recognized the force of these considerations, but they feared that the marriage would make England an appendage of Spain, and would involve England in recurrent wars against France. Charles countered by offering, in his son’s name, a marriage contract by which Philip should bear the title King of England only so long as Mary lived; she was to retain sole and full royal authority over English affairs; she was to share all of Philip’s titles; and if Don Carlos (Philip’s son by an earlier marriage) died without issue, Mary or her son was to inherit the Spanish Empire; moreover, added the astute Emperor, Mary was to receive £60,000 a year for life from the Imperial revenues. All this seemed generous enough, and with a few minor provisions the English Council sanctioned the marriage. Mary herself, despite her modest timidity, looked forward to it eagerly. How long she had waited for a lover!
But the people of England resented her choice. The Protestant minority, which was bearing up under suppression in the hope that Elizabeth would soon succeed a fragile and barren Mary, feared for its life if the power of Spain should stand beside Mary in enforcing the Catholic restoration. Nobles rich in ecclesiastical property shivered at the thought of disgorging. Even Catholic Englishmen objected to putting upon the throne a dour foreigner who would doubtless use England for his own alien purposes. Protests were voiced everywhere in the land. The city of Plymouth, in panic, asked the King of France to take it under his protection. Four nobles laid plans for an uprising to begin on March 18, 1554. The Duke of Suffolk (pardoned father of Jane Grey) was to raise Warwickshire, Sir James Croft was to lead his Welsh tenants, Sir Peter Carew would rouse Devonshire, and Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger would lead the revolt in Kent. The elder Wyatt—the poet—had secured a mass of Church lands, which his son was loath to surrender. The conspirators made the mistake of confiding their plans to Courtenay, whose task was to secure Elizabeth’s co-operation. Bishop Gardiner, who had kept watch on Courtenay as a rejected and perhaps vengeful suitor for Mary’s hand, had him arrested, and Courtenay, presumably under torture, betrayed the plot.
The conspirators, preferring to die in battle rather than on the block, rose hurriedly to arms, and revolt flared up in four counties at once (February 1554). Wyatt led an army of 7,000 men toward London, and sent out an appeal to all citizens to prevent England from becoming an appanage of Spain. The Protestant part of the London populace set in motion a plan to open the gates to Wyatt. The Queen’s Council hesitated to commit itself, and raised not one soldier in her defense. Mary herself could not understand why the country that had so welcomed her accession should refuse her the happiness and fulfillment that she had dreamed of through so many years of misery. If now she had not taken matters into her own hands with unwonted resolution, her reign and her life would have soon ended. But she went in person to the Guildhall, and faced an excited assemblage that was debating which side to take. She told it that she was quite ready to abandon the Spanish marriage if the Commons so wished, and indeed “to abstain from marriage while I live”; but meanwhile she would not let that issue be made “a Spanish cloak” for a political revolution. “I cannot tell,” she said, “how naturally the mother loveth her child, for I was never the mother of any; but certainly if a queen may as naturally and earnestly love her subjects as the mother doth her child, then assure yourselves that I, being your lady and mistress, do as earnestly and tenderly love and favor you.”39 Her words and spirit were warmly applauded, and the assembly pledged her its support. Agents of the government were able, almost in a day, to muster 25,000 armed men. Suffolk was arrested, Croft and Carew fled into hiding. Wyatt. so abandoned, led his small force to battle in the streets of London, and made his way almost to the Queen’s palace at Whitehall. Mary’s guards begged her to flee; she would not. Finally Wyatt’s men were overcome; he yielded in exhaustion of body and soul, and was taken to the Tower. Mary breathed safely again, but she was never more the gentle Queen.