England’s first female monarch, Mary I (1516-1558) ruled for just five years. The only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Mary took the throne after the brief reign of her half-brother, Edward VI. She sought to return England to the Catholic Church and stirred rebellions by marrying a Spanish Habsburg prince. But she is most remembered for burning nearly 300 English Protestants at the stake for heresy, which earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary.”

Mary I: Early Life

Mary Tudor was born on February 16, 1516. She was the fifth child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon but the only one to survive past infancy. Educated by an English tutor with written instructions from the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, she excelled in Latin and, like her father, was an adept musician.

Did you know? Mary I of England and her half-sister Elizabeth I, the first and second queens to rule England, are buried in the same tomb in London's Westminster Abbey.

At age 6 she was betrothed to Charles V, the king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Charles broke off the engagement after three years but remained a lifelong ally. Henry desperately wanted a son as heir and sought permission from the papacy to end his marriage. When Pope Clement VII refused to grant the annulment, Henry declared himself exempt from papal authority, asserting that England’s king should be the sole head of its church.

Mary I: The Princess Made Illegitimate

In 1533 Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, who bore him a daughter, the future Elizabeth I. Mary was demoted from her own household and forced to take up residence with her infant half-sister. In 1536 Catherine of Aragon died at her castle in Cambridgeshire, Anne Boleyn was accused of treason and executed, and Mary was forced to deny the pope’s authority and her own legitimacy.

Henry married four more times before his death in 1547. He got his longed-for male heir in the future Edward VI, son of his third wife, Jane Seymour. Upon Henry’s death, the official order of succession was Edward, followed by Mary and then Elizabeth.

Mary I: Path to the Throne

Edward VI remained a minor for his entire six-year reign. The lords of Somerset and of Northumberland served as his regents, working to expand his father’s ecclesiastical changes. They also altered the order of succession to favor the Protestants, placing Henry VIII’s niece Lady Jane Gray next in line to the throne. When Edward died in 1553, however, Mary had her own succession strategy planned: Proclamations were printed and a military force assembled in her Norfolk estates. Pushed by Edward’s regents, the Privy Council made Jane queen but reversed course nine days later in the face of Mary’s popular support.

Mary I: Reign as Queen

After taking the throne, Mary quickly reinstated her parents’ marriage and executed Northumberland for his role in the Jane Gray affair. Her initial ruling council was a mix of Protestants and Catholics, but as her reign progressed she grew more and more fervent in her desire to restore English Catholicism.

In 1554 she announced her intention to marry Prince Philip of Spain, the son of Charles V. It was an unpopular choice for Protestants, who feared the permanent loss of Henry’s reforms, and for those who suspected a Spanish king would herald a continental takeover of England. Nevertheless, Mary moved forward with her plan, persuading Parliament to assent after Charles consented to leave Mary in full control and to keep the throne in English hands if the union produced no heirs.

Mary’s marriage to Philip was nearly as troubled as her father’s unions. Twice she was declared pregnant and went into seclusion, but no child was born. Philip found her unattractive and spent most of his time in Europe.

Mary I: The Protestant Martyrs

Mary soon moved from simply reversing her father’s and Edward’s anti-Catholic policies to actively persecuting Protestants. In 1555 she revived England’s heresy laws and began burning offenders at the stake, starting with her father’s longtime advisor Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury. Almost 300 convicted heretics, mostly common citizens, were burned. Dozens more died in prison, and some 800 fled to Protestant strongholds in Germany and Geneva, from whence they would later import the Calvinist tenants of English Puritanism.

The events of Mary’s reign—including attempts at currency reform, expanded international trade and a brief war with France that lost England its last French enclave at Calais—were overshadowed by the memory of the so-called Marian Persecutions. After her death in 1558, the country quickly rallied behind Henry VIII’s second daughter and England’s second reigning queen, Elizabeth I.