Mary I: The First Queen Regnant of England

Who was Mary Tudor, sometimes known as 'Bloody Mary'? During her turbulent life, Mary became the first ruling queen of England, led an unpopular Catholic reign, and condemned many Protestants to death. 

Was Mary I the first Queen of England?

Before Mary I, there had been other English queens who were the wives of the ruling King. However, Mary was the first Queen Regnant - a queen who rules a country as the primary monarch rather than simply as a consort.

Where was Queen Mary I born?

Mary I was born at Greenwich Palace on 18 February 1516. 

Known as Mary Tudor or sometimes ‘Bloody Mary’, her life as royal heir, illegitimate child and eventually monarch ebbed and flowed around Greenwich. As one of the queens to inhabit Greenwich prior to the building of the Queen’s House, we offer you some of her history here. 

Mary was not only born at Greenwich Palace, but also was baptized there, in the Franciscan Observant Friars church (at the west end of the palace). Her parents, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, had married there seven years earlier. This church would continue to be important in Mary’s life.

Painting of Tudors: Mary I and Philip II of Spain, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I
Mary I and Philip II of Spain, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I

Young love?

Aged two, on 5 October 1518, Mary was at Greenwich for a betrothal ceremony to Francois, Dauphin of France, who was also only two at the time. The Lord Admiral of France acted as the Dauphin’s proxy, placing a diamond ring on her finger. Mary is said to have asked ‘are you the Dauphin of France? If you are I wish to kiss you’. Two days later, the celebrations at Greenwich included jousts, a pageant in the Hall, and a banquet of 260 dishes.

Yet this engagement, like many of Mary’s other engagements, was short lived. It was cancelled three years later in 1521. A new treaty arranged a possible marriage to her 22-year-old cousin Charles V, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor.

The following year, Charles spent six weeks in England and was welcomed at Greenwich with even greater ceremony. He was housed in the king’s lodgings but brought a retinue so large that it could not be accommodated in the Palace. A survey of beds available in the town had to be made: 360 in public premises, 29 in private houses and stabling for 88 horses. While this visit gave Charles ample time to see the intelligent six-year-old Mary, this engagement too was cancelled a few years later.

Questions of legitimacy

Henry’s divorce from her mother, his remarriage to Anne Boleyn, and Anne’s execution in 1536 made Mary's childhood quite unsettled. Declared illegitimate, she spent time largely confined to Hatfield House in Hertfordshire until Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour promoted reconciliation. From then on she returned to spending time at Greenwich along with the other royal palaces. With Henry now self-proclaimed head of the Church of England, this rehabilitation was a somewhat uneasy one, as Mary remained a loyal Catholic. Her Catholicism became the guiding principle of her reign. 

How many people did Mary condemn to death? 

On succeeding her brother Edward VI to the throne in 1553, Mary tried to return England to the Roman Catholic faith. Her persecutions led 280 Protestants to be burnt at the stake over the next five years. At Greenwich, she reinstated the Observant Friars, whose friary Henry had first passed to the Augustinians and then dissolved in the 1530s. But Mary’s changes were not popular in Greenwich. In July 1555, two senior friars complained of being stoned by local ‘lewd persons’ when arriving back from London.

Marriage to Prince Philip of Spain

Philip II of Spain, 1527-98
Philip II of Spain, 1527-98

Mary married Prince Philip of Spain (the future Philip II) in 1554. She pushed the marriage through a resistant parliament, as she was desperate to conceive a Catholic heir. She continued to use Greenwich Palace as a seat of her court, maintaining the armour manufactury and jousts there, though little is known of them in her reign. Philip too may have spent time in Greenwich on his two extended visits to England. 

Although Mary thought herself pregnant on two occassions, both proved to be false alarms. 

When did Mary I die?

By 1558, growing increasingly ill and weak, she was forced to acknowledge her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth as her legitimate heir. She died at St James’s Palace on 17 November that year.

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