Historical Reads: The Birth of “Bloody Mary”

Bloody Mary is the nickname history has given to Mary I of England, the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragorn. But is it deserved? Nancy Bilyeau ponders the question and explains how Mary acquired her bad reputation:

The succession crisis over James, Duke of York, directly led to the vilification of Mary Tudor. Fear that James, who converted to Catholicism, would succeed his brother, Charles II, gripped much of England. Should a Catholic become king, one politician warned, the kingdom would see persecutions as “bloody or bloodier than the ones in Mary’s reign.” An anonymous ballad in 1674 declared that after Edward VI died “Then Bloody Mary did begin/in England for to tyrannize.” She was used as a threatening memory of tyranny and death and slavish devotion to the Pope. This was the genesis of Bloody Mary.

The revolution of 1688 put a Protestant on the throne and the Act of Union in 1707 ensured that a Catholic could never rule England. But paranoia about Jacobite risings led to more and more denunciations of Mary I. Today historians agree that, no matter what one thinks of her later reign, Mary was an attractive young woman, well educated and exceptionally talented in music. She loved fine clothes, jewelry and gambling. She was a devoted godmother and generous friend right up until her death. But in the lowest point of Mary’s historical reputation she was depicted as not only bloodthirsty and tyrannical but also stupid and hideous.

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