Book Review: Mary I
Yale University Press, 2011
John Edwards’ densely-packed new biography of England’s Queen Mary I (handsomely produced by Yale University Press) joins an almost embarrassingly crowded field. Whether owing to a resurgence of interest in all things Tudor or a resurgence in wary awareness of religious fanaticism, the production of volumes on the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon has reached a level never before seen in Tudor studies. A new comprehensive biography seems to appear just about every year, like crocuses budding in a chilly garden: David Loades’ Mary Tudor in 2006, Linda Porter’s Mary Tudor in 2007, Mari Jesus and Martin Perez’ Maria Tudor in 2008, Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faith in 2009, and these have been supplemented by an endless stream of journal and monograph articles, a long succession of tense actresses assaying the part in TV and movie dramas, and of course a bumper-crop of cameo appearances in historical fiction (although this last is certainly not a new phenomenon). Suddenly, it seems, Mary Tudor is finally coming close to edging her half-sister Elizabeth out of the spotlight – a rivalry Edwards consistently reminds us split the two young women for the whole of their lives:
On the face of it, Elizabeth made a straightforward, if spectacular, gesture of welcome to the new Queen. According to contemporary accounts, she rode with an armed escort of about a thousand horsemen, including her gentlemen arrayed in the green-and-white Tudor livery, to meet Mary. Thus the two entered London together, on 3 August 1553, with more or less equivalent forces, since Mary was accompanied by her gentlemen preceding her and her ladies following, and a cavalry escort of 700. But many people knew at the time that Elizabeth’s behaviour was not straightforward at all. She had, after all, stolen Mary’s thunder by entering London before her, with her massive escort, on 29 July, to stay at Somerset House, which had previously been the town residence built by the late duke and lord protector, Edward Seymour, but was now her own.
Considering the fact that the early death of Henry VIII’s only legitimate male heir Edward VI left these two half-sisters as the country’s most visible prospects for the throne, it’s only natural that Elizabeth should take up so much space in a biography of Mary – indeed, posterity has never been able to resist comparing the two (in the early years of her reign, Elizabeth encouraged such comparisons – provided they ended up in her favor; printers who extolled Mary’s virtues in preference to Elizabeth’s got their presses smashed and their hands chopped off). What’s unexpected and extremely refreshing about Edward’s book, however, is the space it gives to the other key figure who shared – and attempted to commandeer – the royal stage with Mary: Prince Philip of Spain, the most powerful man in the world, who became King of England when he married Mary in 1554. Unlike so many of Mary’s past biographers, Edwards has spent long and fruitful hours exploring the vast Spanish-language sources that inform her life (his bibliography contains a multitude of untranslated works), and the result is both a stronger appreciation of Mary’s diplomatic and strategic insight and also a richer understanding of Philip’s time in England. Edwards is correct in insisting that although Mary showed far more governmental initiative than she’s usually credited, she wanted Philip to rule equally alongside her – or maybe even a little bit more equally, as befit her concept of a proper wife:
Although she restored the traditional statutes and ceremonies of both of this order [of the Bath] and of the Order of the Garter, which Edward VI had tried to reform, once Philip arrived he seems to have slipped immediately and naturally into the chivalric role. … It has not always been clear to English historians, but is evident from his exploits during his European tour of 1548 to 1551, that Philip loved these activities and was extremely good at them, not least in their romantic aspect.
Any treatment of Philip must touch on another much-vexed subject: Mary’s competence. She was the first queen regnant in England in centuries (although historians who say ‘first queen regnant ever’ are skipping some names), and the typical biographical line has stressed that Mary’s five years on the throne were but a fitful prelude to her sister’s much longer reign – that Mary was withdrawn and maladroit with the public, blinkered in her private world of religious zealotry. Edwards demolishes this stereotype in many of his book’s best passages, reminding readers that the functional history of the Tudor era is very much still being written:
When studying the past, scholars perhaps naturally tend to concentrate on the media with which they make their own living, which in most cases means printed text. Thus a massive amount of effort has gone into examining the minutiae of the reformers’ disputes and propaganda. In contrast, Mary and her supporters have often been accused of neglecting print, and thus, on the assumption that the printed word is everything, losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the great majority of the English population. It now appears that this view was and is largely based on a failure to examine the evidence available.
Mary commissioned devotional primers (and intended at least some of them for wide public distribution); she hosted many public events – jousts, masques, concerts – and according to contemporary evidence, when she managed to forget her many cares, she was capable of huge mirth and sly wit. Reading Edwards’ book brings this second, lesser-known Mary to vivid life. By the time she’s sickening and dying, we feel like we’ve met her for the first time.
“When Mary returned to London, at the end of August 1558,” Edwards tells us, “she entered her apartments in her favourite St. James’s Palace and never left them alive.” His book’s final pages are turned over to an absorbingly detailed account of Mary’s decline and death – and to the inevitable attempts as assessing her legacy. This was the section of the book where I most confidently expected an even-handed itinerary of the many evils Mary I allowed to be committed in her name. I got this instead:
… in the turbulent circumstances of Mary’s reign it is unlikely that England could have avoided the actions against religious dissenters which, at the time of her accession, were already being vigorously applied on the Continent, notably in the Netherlands, France and Spain. That Mary’s policy in this respect represented a specific response to a specific problem is suggested by other evidence, which shows her to have been in every other way a kind and affectionate woman …
To put it mildly, this won’t do at all. Those “actions against religious dissenters” being “vigorously applied” in the Netherlands, France, and Spain constituted the Inquisition, and citing their prevalence in other countries is a weird kind of passive bullying: Mary didn’t ‘apply actions’ – she burned people at the stake. Hundreds of people, most of whom where no more ‘religious dissenters’ than she herself was. She enthusiastically authorized a mania among her clerical followers that amounted to blood-lust, and many, many entirely harmless people died terrifying deaths as a result. It’s no good making quick reference to the turbulence of Mary’s reign – Elizabeth’s was no less turbulent, and she managed to get through it without burning quite so many people on the village green. “A specific response to a specific problem” is an odious little example of blame-negating doublespeak: since it can apply to anything, it means nothing. No matter how pleasant she was to her dogs, Mary I conducted an ideological terror campaign against her own subjects. Several of Edwards’ secondary sources attest to spiritual oppression, yet he’s curiously reluctant to fess up to it himself. I suspect that at some point in his prodigious researches, he found himself partially falling in love with his prickly, difficult subject. Certainly “a specific response to a specific problem” is just the kind of posturing nonsense protective lovers typically spout.
This one blind spot – however flagrant – can’t sully such a magnificent book, however. In its quiet, scholarly way, Mary I is a stunning, long-overdue success, taking the strengths of the last decade of biographies (and, oddly, a couple of historical novels, which are listed in the Bibliography without any explanation for what the hell they’re doing alongside works of scholarship) and transmuting it all into a work of genuine fascination, the Queen Mary I biography of our time. Very highly recommended.