Remembering Mary: Examining the Creation of Mary I’s Legacy in the Historical Narrative

By Johanna Strong

Feature Image: Hans Eworth, Mary I, 1556-1558, National Portrait Gallery

The Queen is dead; long live the Queen! Though this phrase has been uttered only once in English history, its context is not as well-known as it should be. Many will be quick to identify that the second queen in question is Elizabeth I, who came to the throne on November 17, 1558. Many, though, might struggle to identify her predecessor: Mary I, England’s first crowned queen regnant.

Mary came to the throne after the death of her brother Edward VI and the ‘Nine-Day-Queen’ Jane Grey in July 1553. Largely hailed as the rightful queen after Edward, Mary began her reign quite popular with her people, but as her rule progressed many became uncomfortable and upset with her decision to marry Philip II of Spain. Anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic sentiment in Marian England reached a peak with Wyatt’s Rebellion in early 1554, though Mary also faced much criticism particularly from English exiles on the Continent.

These anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic sentiments became stronger after Mary’s death on November 17, 1558. Elizabeth’s accession as England’s second queen regnant meant that English people had to find a reason to criticize Mary that went beyond the fact that she was a woman in a traditionally male role. Soon, Mary’s Catholicism and her Spanish heritage were being used as a way to unfavourably compare her to the unmarried and seemingly more ‘English’ Elizabeth. As Elizabeth’s reign progressed, English Catholics became a greater concern to the Crown and Spain became an even larger threat to England’s hopes of empire. By 1588 and the Spanish Armada, Spain had been cemented as an English enemy and therefore so had Mary, by association with Spain through her mother and through her husband Philip II.

Lucas de Heere (probably after), Mary I of England and Philip II of Spain, Royal Museums Greenwich

Mary’s legacy has largely been a result of these anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic sentiments, a legacy which continues through to the modern period. In recent years, revisionist works by Dr Valerie Schutte, Dr Sarah Duncan, Dr Susan Doran, Dr Thomas Freeman, Dr Anna Whitelock, Dr Linda Porter, and others have begun to change modern perceptions of Mary, eschewing her ‘Bloody’ nickname.

A good case study of the emergence of Mary’s legacy in the Elizabethan period occurs in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments – better known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Its publication in 1563 created a new English narrative about Protestant martyrdom. Once it was ordered to be placed in all cathedral churches, Foxe’s work became accessible to all English people, solidifying a Protestant narrative for English history. Though Foxe was concerned that writing in English – as opposed to Latin – would make his work seem less respectable academically, it meant that the text was accessible to any literate English person. Those who could read could therefore access the text while the illiterate could still access the many woodcuts which Foxe included. His work and the Bible became staples in cathedral churches and therefore in English theological life.

Acts and Monuments was reprinted multiple times in Foxe’s own lifetime. As editions were produced, Foxe received accounts from those who had witnessed the executions of strangers and from family and friends who had witnessed loved ones die. He edited these accounts to eliminate any inconsistencies which appeared. He had received some criticism from English Catholics about these inconsistencies so he wanted his accounts to be as airtight as possible so that his narrative of Protestant persecution under Mary couldn’t be undermined. Even after Foxe’s death, Acts and Monuments saw many reprints, such as in 1684 when there were rumours that Charles II would order its re-placing in English cathedrals.

Mary’s posthumous legacy has often been unfavourable to her as a queen and as a woman, but with ongoing research building on the strong foundation of recent revisionist works there is hope for significant change in the coming years.

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