Protestant martyrs and Tudor torture: Bloody Mary I wasn’t as bloody as Henry VIII

Holinshed’s Chronicles estimate that Henry VIII was responsible for 72,000 executions, and we can certainly count them in the tens of thousands. Two were his queens, to which we can add in order of precedence a duke, a marquess, a countess, three earls, two viscounts, a viscountess, three barons and three abbots.

Apart from the normal gruesome hangings, drawings and quarterings, Henry personally forced a change in the law in a 1531 Act passed in 1531, making poisoning a form of petty treason, the penalty for which would be boiling to death. Death did not come quickly – when the victim passed out with pain, he or she was lifted by chains until they regained consciousness and were lowered again, with the flesh peeling off. Because the heart was strong, the torture lasted over an hour, and much of the flesh could be cooked before the heart, lungs and brain were badly affected by the heat.

Yet we remember ‘Bluff King Hal’ (never called that in his lifetime), and term his daughter Mary I as ‘Bloody Mary’, primarily because of Elizabethan anti-Catholic propaganda. The daughter of Catalina of Aragon was born on 18 February 1516 at the Palace of Placentia, Greenwich, and Henry VIII invested Mary as the first Princess of Wales, with her being the first female royal to hold court at Ludlow Castle in 1525. However, when her mother fell from favour, Mary suffered, and from 1531, aged just fifteen, she was always kept separate from her mother, the queen. She could never see her again, but secretly wrote to her.

Like her mother, Mary refused to recognise Henry’s divorce, and unlike Mary, Ann Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth was recognised as a Princess of the realm. The teenaged Mary began to suffer from a variety of illnesses, undoubtedly stress-related. These plagued her until her death, causing such symptoms as severe headaches, nausea, insomnia, and infrequent menstruation. Anne took an equal dislike of Mary.

A 1544 portrait of Mary Tudor

Like her mother, Mary was a devout Catholic and she detested the religious changes of Henry VIII and her brother Edward VI. On Edward VI’s death, when Mary became monarch after the ‘Nine Days Queen’, Jane Grey, she had no real idea of how the nation had changed. She had spent the last few years isolated in the countryside, surrounded by a Catholic household, and sympathetic nobles. She never realised the extent of Protestantism in the vital areas of London and its surrounding countryside, and assumed that all of England wished to return to the early 1520s, the years before the break with the Roman church. On 12 August 1553, told her Council that she would not ‘compel or constrain other men’s consciences,’ and instead hoped her subjects would open their hearts to the truth and soon return to the true faith.

Mary believed that she must marry, as no woman had ruled England in her own right before, and was advised to marry the widowed Philip of Spain, heir to the Hapsburg Empire. Alone and unloved for most of her life, the 37-year-old chaste Mary agreed to marry the 26-year-old Philip in late October 1553.

Mary became Queen of Naples and titular Queen of Jerusalem upon marriage, and had no idea that there would be a hostile reaction, both from her subjects and the King of France. Philip was to be styled ‘King of England’, and Parliament was to be called under the joint authority of the couple, for Mary’s lifetime only. After her marriage, there were riots across the country.

Illustration in Foxe's Book of Martyrs showing the execution of the first Protestant martyr of Mary I's reign
Illustration in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs showing the execution of the first Protestant martyr of Mary I’s reign

Despite her age of 39, Mary announced in 1555 that she was pregnant. When it became clear she would never have a child, Mary believed that it was God’s punishment because she had not rooted out ‘heresy’ from across England. Catholic mass was restored in December 1553, and in 1554 the Act of Supremacy was repealed. In all about 275 Protestants were executed between 1555 and 1558, most of them being artisans from Southeast England. These deaths were not numerous in comparison with the violence that characterised the Reformation on the Continent, or in her father’s reign.

9781445650531With the loss of Calais came good news for Mary, who was sure she was pregnant again, at the age of 42. After the symptoms began to fade, Mary was left quite ill, and became progressively worse, possibly suffering from stomach cancer. She was lucid enough to agree to pass the crown to her half sister, adding that she hoped Elizabeth would maintain the Catholic faith in England.

After five years and four months on as queen, she died. Half Spanish, married to a Spaniard, and desperate for a child, Mary never understood her people properly. Mary was unmourned by most of the nation because of the burnings at the stake and the loss of Calais. Her last words were said to have been: ‘when I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying in my heart.’

Mary had been England’s first female ruler in her own right, without a male consort or acting as regent for an infant son, and historians recently have been far more sympathetic to her ‘unbloody’ reign.

Terry Breverton is the author of Jasper Tudor: Dynasty MakerRichard III: The King in the Car Park, and Owain Glyndŵr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales. His latest book, Everything you ever wanted to know about the Tudors but were afraid to ask, is available now from Amazon

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