Mary I 1516–1558 Queen of England

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Mary I
Queen of England

The life and reign of Mary I of England were shaped by the decision of her father, Henry VIII, to break with the Roman Catholic Church. Henry wanted to divorce Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir to succeed him on the throne. Because the Catholic Church did not permit divorce, Henry tried to convince the pope to annul* his marriage. Unsuccessful in that effort, the king persuaded Parliament that the pope had no authority in England.

In 1533 the English archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared Henry's marriage invalid. Mary, 17 years old, had suddenly become illegitimate. She was kept under virtual arrest in the household created for Elizabeth (Elizabeth I), her infant half-sister by Henry's second wife. Outraged by her father's behavior, Mary suffered extreme stress and frequent ill health.

Upon Henry's death in 1547, the throne passed to Edward VI, Henry's son by his third wife. The teenage Edward died in 1553, and Mary claimed the crown, backed by a majority of the nation. She lost considerable support, however, when she made it clear that her main goal was to restore Roman Catholicism to England. She was heavily influenced by her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor* Charles V, and she married his son, Philip, prince of Spain (later Philip II). The marriage was controversial and unpopular in England.

The following year, 1554, proved to be the most successful of Mary's reign. Philip helped negotiate a return to good relations with the pope, and in the fall Mary was declared pregnant. However, by the summer of 1555, the queen's pregnancy had failed—and there is some doubt whether she had ever been pregnant. Most people realized that the 39-year-old queen was unlikely to have an heir and that her half-sister Elizabeth, whom Mary disliked and distrusted, would probably succeed her on the throne.

Philip left England and turned his attention to taking over his father's many responsibilities as Charles V gradually withdrew from public life. The quality of government in England declined as experienced advisers died and Mary appointed less able men to take their place. Her chief adviser was her cousin Reginald Pole, a Roman Catholic cardinal. Together they focused on making sure that people became good Catholics and on persecuting Protestants. In 1556 Thomas Cranmer, who had played a key role in Protestantism in England, was burned to death at the stake.

The second half of Mary's short reign was grim. Poor harvests and an 18-month-long influenza epidemic weakened the nation. Relations with the Roman Catholic Church worsened after Philip went to war with Pope Paul IV in Italy, and England was drawn into the war on Philip's side. The French seized the port of Calais, England's last possession on the European continent.

The queen's health, never strong, began to fail. Finally, with great reluctance, she named her half-sister Elizabeth as heir to the throne. Mary had been devoted to England, and despite her pride and stubbornness she had done her duty as queen to the best of her abilities. Elizabeth, however, hated her, and when she came to the throne she did nothing to glorify the memory of Mary I.

(See alsoEngland; Protestant Reformation. )

* annul

to declare legally invalid

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body composed of several states in central Europe that existed until 1806

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Mary I 1516–1558 Queen of England

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