The Credo of Mary I (Tudor)
History remembers Mary I as “Bloody Mary”; “the Spanish Tudor”; the embodiment of everything extreme. Unlike Elizabeth I whose iconic portraiture presents an elaborately confected enigma the picture history paints of Mary I from her portraits is of a narrow-minded religious bigot. It is all a little cartoonish.
In fact, Mary’s educational and spiritual inheritance – for they were at this time one and the same – was progressive and humanist and imbued with the ideals of the Catholic Reform movement. That movement had found lay patronage from the second half of the fifteenth century principally in the lands of ducal Burgundy – the homeland of Erasmus – in the Castile of Queen Isabella and the Aragon of Ferdinand – the homeland of Juan Boscan and Juan de Valdes – and in the city-states of northern Italy and in Rome dominated by the time of Mary’s birth by Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Mary’s parents – Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon- brought together two of these strands of culture and spirituality. In her last years as Queen, Reginald Pole drew the third Italian and Roman strand into her life. However, by then decades of strident debate had unalterably changed some minds whilst leaving the majority unmoved. Yet it is vital not to overlook the fact that the very course of religious debate had modified everyone’s ideas about which aspects of Christian faith truly mattered.
Mary’s grandmother, Elizabeth of York, inherited from her father Edward IV, approbation for all things Burgundian. The manners of the English court borrowed heavily and consciously from the court of Charles the Bold whose only daughter, Mary of Burgundy, later succeeded him and governed the provinces of what then became the Netherlands. Elizabeth’s second son, the future Henry VIII was much influenced by the courtly culture of his mother’s household. Unlike his elder brother Arthur, young Henry spent much of his early and formative years in the entourage of Elizabeth of York where scholars, poets, musicians and the humanities flourished.
Catherine of Aragon grew up in her mother’s Castilian court where Queen Isabella was a major patron of both the New Learning and the spirituality of the Catholic Reform movement. This was that same movement that was particularly influential in the Reformed Augustinians and therefore also shaped Martin Luther’s spirituality. The Friars Observant and the Reformed Carthusians of whom Isabella had been patron in Spain were both brought to England under Catherine’s patronage.
Mary’s education was informal until the middle 15250’s. She was precocious particularly in Latin. Much has been made of the influence of Mary Tudor’s principal tutor – the misogynist scholar, Juan Luis Vives. Born in Valencia in 1493, Vives, like most of the scholars of his time was educated widely in Europe. He attended both the universities of Paris and Padua before settling in Bruges. He was a follower of Erasmus but was regarded in his own right as something of an expert in pedagogy and a champion of the education of aristocratic women and of inductive methods of reasoning based on experiment and exercise rather than metaphysics and intellectual speculation. His choice as Princess Mary’s was significant comment on reforming credentials of both young Mary Tudor’s parents. Her personal spirituality was therefore shaped both by the Humanist educational curriculum and by her parents’ sympathies with Humanism and the Catholic reform movement of which both were patrons.
Mary was much more intellectually apt than is usually credited. She spoke Latin and French with ease and she read and translated Latin with subtle fluency. The extent of her gift can be found in her translation of the Paraphrase of St John’s Gospel by Erasmus which was actually published in 1548 with a note of fulsome praise from Thomas Cranmer amongst others. Mary was modest about her accomplishments, but this was a world where women were expected to be modest particularly about their intellectual abilities. Noblewomen danced and played musical instruments; they acted in masks and recited verse to applause; and they embroidered, but, they did not debate or argue or reason in public.
History has made much of Mary’s mother’s religiosity. Catherine of Aragon was indeed deeply spiritual, and the trauma of the Divorce made her more so. However, public religiosity was also a royal affectation. Like the Henry VIIII, Catherine enjoyed the company of scholars and the culture of the classics. She gave personal audience to Erasmus too and offered him her patronage. It is true she kept the hours of the Friars Observant when she was in Greenwich rising at the same time as the monks to be at Matins and staying to hear the first Mass of the day. However, Elizabeth of York had kept those same hours in Lent and Advent and Margaret Beaufort’s household was known throughout Europe for its fastidious religious observance. Margaret Beaufort indeed was Bishop John Fisher’s first royal patron.
Like the Cathedrals of Europe, royal courts kept their time by the observance of the hours of religious devotion. All the offices sung in cathedrals were sung in the chapels royal and each day four masses were said in court: the Mass of Apostles after Matins; the Mass of Blessed Virgin after Lauds; the Mass of the Dead after Prime; and the Mass of the day – which was usually attended by both the king and queen when there was full court – after Terce at about nine in the morning.
The universal practice of princely households by the early sixteenth century was for the lesser masses also to be said privately in the oratory situated next to the royal closet which was beside the principal bedroom of the prince. The doors were left ajar, so the prince might “hear Mass” without necessarily coming into the Oratory. As in Cathedrals, when the Sanctus bells were rung everyone knelt until they were rung again after the elevations. Similarly, when the Angelus bell was rung everyone at court observed a brief silence and knelt until the bell was rung again. This was part and parcel of the world in which Mary and the other children of Henry VIII grew up. It was only after 1540 when Henry’s infected ulcerous legs made it impossible for him fully to participate in these ostentations that the English court gradually abandoned their observance.
Despite the trauma of the Divorce and the brief reign of Queen Anne Boleyn, Mary did not show any exceptional spiritual intensity. Her Privy Purse Expenses show us a young woman unremarkably fond of dancing; performing in masks at court; extremely fond of cards and gambling; and obsessed with clothes and jewellery. One of her first actions of the death of her father in January 1547 was to obtain access to the Jewel House and to the Wardrobe to fit out her new household.
In those same early months of the reign Mary also cleverly parlayed the pension given her in Henry VIII’s will into land – principally those of the Howard Dukes of Norfolk who had fallen into disgrace in the last weeks of her father’s reign. By the early 1550’s Mary had remade herself into a noble of first rank with an income of £3000 per year and a princely retinue to match and a ready-made affinity from her Howard vassals. She kept her household between the former Howard palace of Kenninghall and her mother’s favourite royal palace of New Hall (Beaulieu).
Edward was barely king four months before Mary was forced to take political sides. Previously she had been of best terms with dowager Queen Katherine Parr, but Mary broke with her over her clandestine marriage to Somerset’s brother, Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour. Her first venture into high politics since the fall of Anne Boleyn demonstrated Mary could play for high stakes. From this point Mary stealthily moved herself into position as the head of the conservative and traditionalist groupings who were looking for leadership. By 1549 she was widely talked of as a Regent in succession to the disgraced Duke of Somerset.
It was only at this stage that Mary’s religious sympathies became public. In 1549 she pointedly refused to have the new Common Prayer Book used in her household. However, her refusal was couched on pragmatic political grounds. She maintained that until the king was of age there could be no change in religion. Her household publicly observed outlawed ceremonies and her officers began to carry rosary beads and missals as part of their livery. Mary began attending Mass four times a day as her mother once had done at Greenwich. These gestures certainly demonstrated her religious affiliation. Whether they reveal an unusually intense personal spirituality is another matter.
By the late 1540’s what Christians meant by the Real Presence in the sacramental bread and wine had become the burning issue between Protestant and Catholic. Mary’s public conduct confirmed she, like the majority, firmly held to the traditionalist view: at consecration the bread and wine became Christ’s body and blood. This was certainly still the majority view at Mary’s death in 1558 and, beyond, well into the reign of Elizabeth I.
In the summer of 1549 Lord Protector Somerset gave an undertaking to the Emperor Charles V that Mary, the Emperor’s cousin, might continue to have the Mass in her household. In England’s governing class the matter of Mary’s Mass became a cause celebre for the next three years. However, after the execution of the Duke of Somerset in January 1552 a peace broke out between Mary and Edward and even whilst the young king pressed ahead with ever more radical reformation of the English church the privy council ceased to huff and puff about what was going on in Mary’s household.
In February 1553 Mary came to court for the first time in over two years. She was received with a great ceremony. After the meeting Edward made a series of land grants which further enhanced Mary’s status. She was recognised as the most powerful woman since the times of Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Whatever understanding had been reached between Edward and Mary was overtaken by events. The king’s persistent cold morphed into a tubercular infection. Edward VI died on 6th July 1553 and nine days later Mary by dint of her own efforts was queen.
With the return of Cardinal Pole to England in 1554 there followed a sustained effort to implement the ideals of the Catholic reformers of the early sixteenth century. These were to include funding diocesan seminaries for the education of priests as well as a renewed episcopate and a simplified Sarum Use to be used throughout England together with a restricted Sanctoral Calendar as championed by Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall in London in the 1520’s. There was a serious effort to ensure the episcopate became more spiritually active and engaged in these dioceses. Unlikely though it seems Bishop Edmund Bonner’s catechism is a model of this sort of episcopal leadership. Amongst the most notable of the Marian appointees are Bishop John White (Winchester) and Bishop Thomas Goldwell (St Asaph). Goldwell later became head of the English college in Rome and was to be the only English bishop to sit at the final session of the Council of Trent. The program was barely underway when Mary’s health failed. Her early death in November 1558 immediately followed by that of Pole himself doomed the project.
Finally, there must be mention of the political program of religious enforcement which included burning Protestant martyrs and which through Foxe’s Book of Martyrs has become the defining motif of the reign. It has been used to explain the failure to impose a “Spanish Catholicism” on England and to evidence Mary’s extremism. Foxe told only half the story, never discussing, for example, how actively Parliament and the authorities pursued the policy and how that might be explained. After the failed pregnancy of 1555 the chance of Mary and Philip having an heir was remote and that reality governed all. Pragmatically, the only way to ensure the religious policy was maintained politically was to eradicate the heterodox elements. Again, the intense persecutions were over by early 1558. There was no sign then the queen would be dead before everything was settled. If Mary had lived another three or four years there is no reason to assume that her policy would not have succeeded. Moreover, the chances were good of Mary ensuring her half sister was safely married to a Hapsburg grandee as part of the Peace that was being inaugurated at the time of her death. Perhaps this skirts too near to speculations of the sort historians are best to avoid but it emphasises the settled nature of the queen’s government in the middle of 1558.
Mary’s husband Philip II for example had no “Spanish” army in England. Nor was this Catholicism “Spanish” but, rather, English in sensibility and reformed in use. Inevitably we find it shocking that these executions were carried out by Englishmen on English men and women much as the martyrdoms of Catholics had been in the reign of Henry VIII and would be again in the reign of Elizabeth I. Historians in the past have therefore been tempted by a numbers game comparing the rates of the Marian executions which those of her predecessors and successors. Statistics cannot support an argument so utterly replete with hindsight. There can be little doubt the queen was at the centre of the political endeavour. And it is to political rather than religious reasons historians should look for some understanding of both the policy and its execution. Here the politics of succession clearly deserve to be given greater weight. There was a logic to Mary’s policy of enforced religious conformity, albeit a brutal one.
This brief overview of Mary’s religious beliefs leaves many questions unanswered. History may only glimpse personal faith through remnant words that happen survive in manuscript. The architecture of interior beliefs remains a puzzle not only because records are so incomplete but also because the conceptual framework which we own as part and parcel of the everyday of our lives and by which we explain ourselves to others was not part of the self-perception of men and women in Tudor England. Before the Enlightenment changed ideas of self-perception all thoughts about the sentient self were enwrapped in religious faith. That places a vast gulf between us and our experience of self and those who lived in through upheavals of Reformation and Counter Reformation
If Tudor historians are certain about anything you might think that it would be about the religious beliefs of Mary I. However, the evidence we have tends to present England’s first Queen Regnant as a traditionalist in the most pragmatic terms rather than the zealot propaganda has painted. It may be hard for us to think there was pragmatism in a politics which executed men and women for their faith. That was Mary I’s world much as it was the world of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.