Mary I: England's Catholic Queen

October 6, 2011

Balanced views of Mary I are rare. She is more often than not cast as the "Bloody Mary" of Protestant legend: reactionary, obsessive, persecuting - and, while we're on the subject, short and ugly as well. Those who rightly seek to explode the prejudice behind that caricature can sometimes get carried away by their own passionate defence, until burning people at the stake comes to seem entirely laudable. Then there are those whose inadvertent chauvinism produces the suggestion that she "would have made an excellent housewife". As a Catholic, and a woman, with a Spanish mother and a Spanish husband, she can be readily lambasted as superstitious, inept, peculiar and unpatriotic, and she usually is, even today.

John Edwards has neatly avoided all these pitfalls, and produced a magisterial and very readable biography that gives a balanced, compassionate yet shrewd evaluation of Mary's character and a richly detailed account of her reign. He writes with great fluency, delicate touches of humour and a calm, thoughtful approach to the many historical debates involved. He also does what no one else has managed to do; he places her firmly in a European context, as the granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the cousin of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the wife of the future Philip II of Spain. Unlike most Tudor historians, Edwards is equally at home in the Vatican archives or the libraries of Madrid, bringing a wealth of new material to light.

Mary emerges as a troubled but often impressive figure, respon-sible for many of the achievements usually credited to her father or sister. She was a Tudor, but she also remembered her "fiery Trastamaran ancestors", and there was good Spanish precedent for the way she seized the throne in 1553. She was England's first queen regnant (Matilda doesn't count), and it is clear that nobody knew quite how to deal with this state of affairs. But Edwards gives a vivid sense of both the uncertainty and the innovation that resulted, as well as the arresting details, such as the "female cavalry escort" in Mary's coronation procession.

He notes that Spanish biographies of Philip II pay little attention to Mary, just as English accounts of Mary all but ignore her husband; by contrast, he gives Philip his due place as Mary's consort, a Tudor version of Queen Victoria's Prince Albert. He also gives a masterly account of Mary's personal faith, neither accusing nor excusing, nor assuming that "Catholic" will cover it. Her strong devotion to the sacrament echoed that of her mother and grandmother; her humanist scholarship resembled that of Queen Katherine Parr, whose books she inherited; she was educated and progressive as well as devout, but when faced with heresy she put the life of the soul above that of the body. We have always known that Mary's religious convictions were important; we now have a clearer idea of what exactly those convictions were.

Edwards is equally at home with the big European picture and the small significant detail. We note the Dutch acrobat on the weathercock of St Paul's at the coronation; the Queen trying to sit on the floor next to the Duchess of Alba in an attempt to flatter the Spanish grandee; the Spanish description of Londoners as "white, pink and quarrelsome" - and full of beer. There are interesting accounts of a number of tangential subjects, including 16th-century obstetrics, debates about clerical marriage, Spanish enthusiasm for Arthurian legend and the theology behind the heresy laws.

Most of all, however, Edwards has comprehensively defeated a persistent and painful historical myth and replaced it with something more complicated, more human and much more accurate. This is the best biography of Mary we have yet seen.

Mary I: England's Catholic Queen

By John Edwards. Yale University Press, 336pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300118100. Published 28 September 2011.

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