Rethinking Mary Tudor

Randall Stephens

Oh, much-maligned Mary Tudor. Forever linked to the word "bloody." A little like having "the Terrible," "the Cruel," "the Incompetent," "the Dangerously Stupid," or "the Bastard" forever fixed after one's name. Scourge of hot Protestants, Mary has not fared well with historians and other critics. In 1791 a writer in the London Review vented that Mary's wicked use of the Tower of London ranked "as bloody, as cruel, and as horrid, as any of the tales of the castle known by the name of the Bastille at Paris."

Enter Peter Marshall, who reviews four recent books on Queen Mary in the TLS. The title of his piece is particularly provocative: "Not a Real Queen? What Do Historians Have against England’s Earliest Queen Regnant – a Decisive and Clear-headed Ruler?":

England is no longer a Protestant nation, but the cultural templates of the past stubbornly resist resetting. Feminist historians have almost uniformly declined the invitation to laud the achievements of England’s earliest Queen regnant (in fact, much modern scholarship, as Judith M. Richards notes in exasperation, seems almost to proceed from the assumption that Elizabeth I was the nation’s first female ruler). Meanwhile, the judgement of the Enlightenment, in the person of David Hume, that Mary was “a weak bigoted woman, under the government of priests” has proved remarkably tenacious. It continues to characterize representations of the queen in popular culture, from Kathy Burke’s skilful cameo as a gibbering simpleton in Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 film Elizabeth, to Mary’s role in a recent Discovery Channel series on “the most evil women in history”. It is revealing that three of these authors begin their books with anecdotes about the negative or sceptical reactions of friends and colleagues on being told they were writing about “Mary Tudor”. >>>

See these related reviews:

Geoffrey Moorhouse, "Burning Questions: Geoffrey Moorhouse Wonders if Mary Tudor Deserves Her Reputation for Cruelty," Guardian, 4 July 2009.

Lucy Beckett, "Cardinal Values," Spectator, 17 June 2009.