Book Review: The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his Daughter Mary by Melita Thomas

By Johanna Strong

With the growth of revisionist Marian work, scholars have begun to challenge the traditional view of Mary I, England’s first crowned queen regnant (1553-1558), as a religious zealot and tyrant. Instead, she has been revealed as a highly competent, politically savvy queen. In this revisionist scholarship, though, Mary’s personal relationship with her father, Henry VIII, is often overlooked or under-analysed. Melita Thomas’ The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his Daughter Mary provides an answer to this oversight, adeptly exploring ‘how the personal and the political were woven into the tapestry of [Henry and Mary’s] relationship’ (page 24) from Mary’s birth in 1516 until Henry’s death in 1547.

As Thomas notes, ‘Bloody Mary is now becoming Tragic Mary. […] But there is more to the story of Mary than tragedy’ (22). A popular history approached largely with the rigour of an academic biography, The King’s Pearl is divided according to contemporary milestones such as betrothals in Mary’s childhood and the succession of mother and stepmothers. Interestingly, the chapters are largely organised according to the women in Henry VIII’s life, presenting this work as a female-based study, a valuable perspective in the growing field of queenship studies. Throughout, Thomas works to place Mary into a larger European context, clearly highlighting how Mary’s childhood – and indeed her relationship to her father – was greatly influenced by European politics and diplomacy. The narration of the many childhood betrothal negotiations can, at times, become overwhelming simply as a result of the complex tensions between England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire as played out through a vast number of ambassadors and emissaries. Thomas, however, effectively uses this structure to address the nuances of each set of negotiations and conveys their consequences and ramifications on Mary and her status as princess and presumptive heir to Henry.

In depicting Mary as more than bloody or tragic, Thomas assigns Mary agency, ensuring that this biography does not fall into the trap of portraying Mary as a victim of the ruthless politics surrounding her. For example, Mary’s time as Princess of Wales, despite her never being granted letters patent or officially invested with this title (76), makes up a significant portion of analysis of one of Thomas’ early chapters, in which she demonstrates the extent to which Mary fulfilled the role of heir to Henry VIII and established and maintained relationships with her future subjects in her capacity as Princess (78). Of particular interest is the discussion surrounding Mary’s curation of her personal and political network, the subject of Thomas’ ongoing doctoral work. Further, Thomas details Mary’s cunning while she was in her sister Elizabeth’s household at Hatfield; feeling under threat, Mary felt her only option was to ask for help from the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys. Unable to contact him directly and forbidden from sending messages or speaking to her supporters, Thomas brings to life the tension of the moment when Mary was forced to openly speak with her former doctor in Latin, telling him – the contents of her speech unbeknownst to the other household staff – of her insecurity (152).

In addition to including the more popular aspects of Mary’s early life, which often feature in biographies of England’s first crowned queen regnant, Thomas provides new insight into Mary’s often discussed health. Whereas others have generally accepted the popular theory that Mary suffered from gynaecological complaints throughout her life, Thomas hypothesises that perhaps she instead was ailed by digestive problems, an insight garnered from correspondence between Mary and Chapuys (165). Likely a result of aiming this biography for a popular audience, though, not all material is footnoted, making it challenging as a historian to further pursue the argument. The lack of rigorous footnotes also proves a barrier to readers who want to follow the trail of primary sources which make up Thomas’ argument. In spite of these challenges, Thomas’ work reads as an excellently-research biography detailing a relationship in Mary’s life which is often passed over in favour of her time as queen. The primary source foundation of Thomas’ argument is reinforced by her use of secondary research, at once positioning herself in the current literature while being guided by the contemporary early modern sources.

Moreover, Thomas pairs analysis of the court and Mary’s place in it with examinations of the psychological consequences of Henry and Katherine of Aragon’s annulment on Mary, ultimately tying the actions of her parents to Mary’s own mindset during her tenure as queen. Throughout the annulment proceedings, Mary observed her parents following their consciences, ultimately teaching her, ‘at a very impressionable age, […] that the dictates of conscience must be followed, regardless of how unpalatable the outcome might be’ (116). Thomas also includes discussion of how Mary upheld her royal status throughout these uneasy years, detailing the gifts that Mary continued to give and receive from the court (125-128). Though it feels, at times, that Mary becomes lost in the narrative surrounding Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn, Thomas’ examination of Mary’s life in this decade remains insightful and thought-provoking. While Mary’s relationship to the court has largely been studied in other biographies, Thomas highlights instead the relationship that Mary had with her father, retelling the familiar annulment narrative from a new perspective.

The King’s Pearl is thus a splendid biography of Mary, founded on widespread research and an obvious dedication to retelling Mary’s relationship with her father from Mary’s perspective. Where many biographies of Mary’s early life focus on her role as royal child and heir, Thomas pays particular attention to how historical events would have been experienced and perceived by Mary. While most narrative of the annulment proceedings naturally centre around Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, Thomas successfully analyses this event from Mary’s point of view, centring the narrative around this royal daughter instead of simply interspersing her throughout the familiar narrative. Tracy Borman praises Thomas’ work as ‘a stunning achievement’, a statement with which this reviewer concurs. While there are slight challenges for academic readers – such as the sparsity of footnotes and the inconsistent quotations – Thomas’ work is a foundational introduction to Mary’s early life and is an essential framework to understanding Mary’s relationship with her father and with English monarchical rule more broadly.

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