Mary I was England’s first queen regnant, that is, the first queen to rule in her own right rather than by being the wife of a reigning king. The daughter of King Henry VIII, Mary, a devout Catholic, ascended to the throne in 1553. During her five-year reign, she worked to restore Catholicism as England’s state religion and sanctioned the persecution of Protestants, hundreds of whom were burned at the stake, earning her the nickname Bloody Mary. Find out more about the turbulent life of this Tudor monarch.
1. She had lots of stepmothers.
Born at Greenwich Palace on February 18, 1516 (seven years after the 1509 marriage of her parents, King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon,) Mary was their only child to survive past infancy. In the 1520s, Henry, unhappy his wife hadn’t produced a male heir, decided to end their marriage and wed Anne Boleyn, the sister of one of his former mistresses. In 1527, Henry, a Catholic, sought an annulment from the pope, on the grounds his union with Catherine was incestuous and unlawful since she’d previously been married to his deceased older brother. When the pope refused to grant the annulment, the king broke with Rome, tied the knot with Anne in 1533 and became head of the Church of England. The king grew tired of his second wife and in 1536 had her beheaded after she was convicted of what were likely trumped-up charges of adultery. Henry had four more marriages: his third wife died shortly after giving birth to a son, his fourth marriage ended in annulment, his fifth wife was beheaded and wife No. 6 was still married to the king when he died.
2. Mary’s succession to the throne wasn’t easy.
Following her father’s marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533, Mary was declared illegitimate and removed from the line of succession to the throne. After Henry had Boleyn executed, the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth, also was removed from the line of succession. In 1544, Henry reinstated both daughters to the line of succession behind their half-brother, Edward, born to the king’s third wife in 1537. When Henry died in 1547, Edward became king. During the young monarch’s reign, Protestantism was established in England and Edward’s relationship with his Catholic sibling Mary was strained. In 1553, the teenage Edward became seriously ill and, not wanting Mary to claim the throne and restore Catholicism across the land once he died, he had her (as well as Elizabeth) removed from the line of succession. One of Edward’s advisors, the duke of Northumberland, is thought to have urged him to arrange for the throne to pass to the king’s Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey. When Edward died later that same year, Jane was proclaimed queen of England. Northumberland, Jane’s father-in-law, set out with forces to capture Mary, but before he could do so she raised her own army and rallied other supporters, prompting the royal government to switch its allegiance from Jane and declare Mary the legitimate queen. Jane, who had reigned for just nine days, was imprisoned in the Tower of London and Northumberland was executed.
3. Mary was engaged at age 2.
For royals like Mary, marriage was about dynasty building and diplomatic relations rather than love. When she was just 2, Mary was engaged to the son of the king of France, although the arrangement was terminated several years later and the young princess was betrothed to her cousin, Emperor Charles V, who was 16 years older. That engagement eventually ended as well. However, after Mary became queen, she was engaged to Charles V’s son, Prince Philip of Spain. More than a decade younger than Mary, Philip, also a Catholic, came to England to meet her for the first time in 1554 and the pair tied the knot two days later at Winchester Castle. After Charles stepped down as the king of Spain in 1556, Philip succeeded him and later became king of Portugal as well.
4. Her marriage plans sparked an uprising.
In 1554, a group of Englishmen, attempted to overthrow Mary, fearing foreign domination if Mary wed Spain’s Prince Philip and anxious about the monarch’s restoration of Catholicism. Referred to by historians as the Wyatt Rebellion, for one of the conspirators, Sir Thomas Wyatt, the uprising quickly failed. Afterward, around 100 people involved in the action were executed. Although Lady Jane Grey, the so-called Nine-Day Queen, had not been involved in the plot, her father was, and Jane subsequently was beheaded. Additionally, Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, was imprisoned in the Tower of London for several months and later placed under house arrest for a year, although there was no conclusive evidence she had any role in the rebellion either.
5. She had a false pregnancy.
Shortly after Mary wed at age 37, the queen and her doctors believed she was pregnant. She experienced morning sickness, her abdomen expanded and she reportedly felt the baby move. An official announcement was made that the queen was expecting and as the anticipated delivery drew near Mary retreated from public view for her lying-in period. Sometime afterward, word spread that Mary had given birth to a son and her subjects started celebrating. However, the news turned out to be only a rumor. More time passed, but a royal infant never appeared and eventually it became apparent one never would. Although it’s unclear exactly what happened, some medical experts now suggest the monarch might’ve suffered from pseudocyesis, a rare condition in which a woman has many of the symptoms of pregnancy (and in some cases even experiences labor pain) but isn’t in fact carrying a child.
Several years after her false pregnancy, Mary once again incorrectly thought she was expecting. She ultimately died childless.
6. She had hundreds of people burned at the stake—earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.”
Once in power, Mary worked to return England to Catholicism, restoring papal authority and undoing various reforms to the English church that had taken place under her half-brother Edward. She also resurrected the laws against heresy, and as a result nearly 300 Protestants were burned at the stake. Among those killed were Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury and an advisor to kings Henry VIII and Edward VI, Mary’s father and brother. Cranmer had declared the marriage of Mary’s parents unlawful so Henry could wed Anne Boleyn, and during the reign of Edward the archbishop promoted Protestantism. In the end, Mary’s goal of a Catholic England failed, as her successor, Queen Elizabeth I, took the nation back to Protestantism.
7. Mary lost England’s last territory in France.
The queen was dealt a blow in 1558 when the French captured Calais, a port town referred to as “the brightest jewel in the English crown.” A gateway for trade, Calais had been under English control since the 14th century. Upon learning the news that England had lost its last possession in France, Mary is alleged to have responded: “When I am dead and opened, you shall find Philip and Calais lying in my heart.”
8. She was overshadowed by her younger sister.
Mary’s five-year reign ended when she died during an influenza epidemic in 1558 at age 42 at St. James’s Palace in London. She was succeeded by her younger sister, Elizabeth, who ruled until her death in 1603. Elizabeth’s successor, James I, commanded that her coffin be placed on top of Mary’s in a vault at Westminster Abbey and had a large monument to Elizabeth erected at the site, while Mary only warranted a mention in an inscription on the monument. The gesture was symbolic of how Mary, the first English queen to rule in her own right, was overshadowed by Elizabeth, whose long reign is considered one of the greatest in the nation’s history. The Elizabethan era included voyages of discovery by such explorers as Francis Drake and William Raleigh, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and a flourishing of the arts, with Shakespeare producing a number of works during this period.