18 February 2016 marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of Mary I at Greenwich Palace in 1516. Our curator, Katy Barrett took a look into her turbulent life.
Better known as Mary Tudor or ‘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. Why not treat yourself to a Bloody Mary, in her honour, while you read?
Mary was not only born at Greenwich Palace, but 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, and this church would continue to be important in Mary’s life.
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, like many of poor Mary’s engagements was short lived. It was cancelled three years later, in 1521, and a new treaty arranged a possible marriage to her 22-year-old cousin Charles V, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor. The following year he 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, finding 360 in public premises, 29 in private houses and stabling for 88 horses. While this gave Charles ample time to see the intelligent six-year-old Mary, this engagement too was cancelled a few years later.
Henry’s divorce from her mother, his remarriage to Anne Boleyn, and Anne’s execution in 1536, made an unsettled period for Mary. 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 only so far as Mary’s conscience permitted, as she remained loyal to the Pope. This was later the guiding principle of her reign.
On succeeding her brother Edward VI to the throne in 1553, Mary tried to return the church 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 the town. In July 1555, two senior friars complained of being stoned by local ‘lewd persons’ when arriving back from London.
Mary continued to use the Palace as a seat of the court, maintaining the armour manufacture and jousts there, as under her father, though little is known of them in her reign. After her marriage to Prince Philip of Spain (the future Philip II) in 1554 – which Mary pushed through a resistant parliament, desperate to marry and conceive a Catholic heir – he too may have spent time in Greenwich on his two extended visits to England. Although Mary twice thought herself pregnant both proved to be false alarms. 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.
It was also in 1558 that Flemish artist Anthony van den Wyngaerde produced his charming aerial drawings of Greenwich Palace from both the north and south, which are one of the best sources for how the palace then looked. As Philip II was his patron, it was most likely Mary’s marriage that brought Wyngaerde to England.