Saturday, May 15, 2010

The First Queen of England: The Myth of "Bloody Mary"

Author:Linda Porter
Publication Date:2008
Length:About 418 pages, not including Index and Bibliography
Cost:List price is $27.95
Where Did I Hear About It:Browsing through the Biography section of the local library

The Backstory

Mary Tudor, later Mary I of England, was the only living child produced by the union of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. She was born in 1516, the first child to survive after her mother's four miscarriages, one stillbirth, and the death of an infant son in his second month of life. At first, the fickle Henry was encouraged by his little daughter, taking her as a sign of healthy sons to follow. When he eventually lost all hope of other heirs by his wife, he took steps to have his marriage to Katherine annulled, and later, Mary bastardized. Mary and Katherine, physically separated but in regular correspondence, were suddenly thrust backstage. Henry severed England's ties to the Roman Catholic church, thereby allowing him to put away Katherine and take a new wife in the form of the much maligned Anne Boleyn. In the meantime, Mary was urged, coaxed, and threatened into renouncing her titles and rightful place in the English succession. Upon the birth of her sister, Elizabeth, she was sent to live in her household and serve her as one of her maids of honor--an unprecedented move against the heir presumptive to the throne. After her mother's death, she bowed to pressure from all sides and admitted the illegitimacy of her parents' marriage and thus, her own illegitimacy.

Relations between Mary and her father improved through the intercession of three of his subsequent wives, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Parr. Upon Henry's death in 1547, both Mary and Elizabeth were still considered illegitimate, but they were written into the succession after their brother, Edward. Edward, a fervent Protestant, was extremely hard on Catholic Mary, desperate to make her conform to the laws of the land. Mary, conscious of having bowed to pressure regarding her legitimacy, was unwilling to breach her conscience a second time. Equally heavy coercion had no effect on the practice of her religion. However, things were bad enough that Mary considered escaping from England to her Hapsburg relations on the Continent. It is fortunate that she did not take this course of action--Edward was dead in 1553, the victim of a respiratory infection. Edward and his council attempted to subvert Mary's succession by declaring her cousin, Jane Grey (see above) queen, but this was short-lived.

Mary was queen for a very short time, but she was England's first woman monarch in her own right. She and her council ruled the country effectively, attempting to adapt an English version of Catholicism to the changes that had already taken place in the church. She had a very effective council, and her many years of struggle had produced a capable, strong woman with the resolve to lead the country. She married Philip of Spain in 1554, but Philip's priorities were in the Low Countries, and although he was kind to Mary, he was less-than-content with a bride 11 years older and having remained so long content single. Mary suffered two "phantom pregnancies," and she died in 1558. Philip and Mary never had children, so she was succeeded by her younger sister, Elizabeth.

Mary is a much maligned character in English history, often viewed by seemingly objective historians as both a less-desirable precursor to the more famous Elizabeth and as a momentary set-back to England's inevitable course towards patriotic Protestantism. She earned the nickname "bloody Mary" after sentencing 300 Protestants to death by burning for heresy.

What About the Book?

This was an exceptionally enjoyable book, which I didn't expect. I figured that Mary's life would be a good follow-up to Jane Grey, and I enjoyed this biography far more. Linda Porter is a very good writer--capable of taking complicated historical documents from the period and transforming them into a coherent narrative, easily readable by the least proficient historians. Although over 400 pages long, it doesn't feel that way to the reader--the reader is constantly seeking to learn more, to read one last page, and it is a hard book to put down.

The history is good in this book--Porter clearly takes her information from existing sources. She is mindful of the weaknesses of some of these sources and the authors who composed them, and this is a point she makes often to her readers. However, this is a biography of Mary and not an examination of why Mary obtained the nickname "bloody Mary," which makes the title deceiving. She does flesh out Mary's character in ways that other authors have entirely ignored--Porter did not come to the table having formed any opinions about Mary, and she allowed the available sources to tell her who Mary was rather than relying upon the prejudices of generations of previous historians, colored by the magnificence of Elizabeth's reign.

There is the occasional flaw in her work--on the minor side, she includes a portrait that probably isn't Mary and identifies it as the queen about 7 years before she was crowned. The sitter is a very matronly, but very attractive woman, who bears no resemblance to portraits of Mary known beyond a doubt to be her. Given there are so many likenesses of Mary to choose from, this choice seems a poor one. In addition, the end of the book wasn't quite as good as the rest. Porter covers Mary's reign in the context of its events. It reads like a chronology rather than a biography, with fewer insights into Mary and her view of the events of the day. She indicates that Mary wrote often to her husband, Philip, but she doesn't reference many, if any, of those letters, and they are probably the key to seeing events from Mary's point of view. Porter also asserts that Mary died of a viral fever that was widespread in 1558, and other biographers seem to believe that Mary had some form of cancer as evidenced by her last phantom pregnancy.

The Epilogue of the book was probably the biggest let down. Rather than examine the development of the myth of "bloody Mary," like the title implies, Porter gives a rundown of what happened to each of the biography's characters in a post-Mary world. Although interesting, I think that the reader would have been more interested in how Mary's reputation was blackened in subsequent years. Porter does touch upon this in the narrative, but only one source is referenced several times without further examination.

Overall, this is an exceptional read--it puts Mary in a whole new light, even for people who have been studying the Tudor age for some time. It also breeds a sense of respect and understanding for Mary in the reader that has hitherto been undeveloped and even stifled by our perception of Elizabeth, constructed by countless histories, biographies, TV miniseries, and movies.

Rating:8.5, maybe even a 9
Buy it or Borrow it:This is a tough one. I liked it enough that I wouldn't have minded adding it to my library, and I will probably read it again somewhere along the line. If you find a good used copy of this, it will probably go for under $10, and if so, it is well worth opening your wallet. You probably can find a softcover edition of this, too--if not now, then, soon--and that would be worth it. However, if you're skeptical about the content, and perhaps even don't like Mary much, you may want to scout it out in a library first, just to make sure you'll like the content.

1 comment:

Kittie Howard said...

I've also read this book but thought Porter created more than wrote about a Mary that was a 'Bloody Mary', perhaps for an angle that would prompt attention, don't know. However, like you said, it's a good read, a very enjoyable book. I think Porter's a better writer than Fraser. And I think you did a terrific job with this review, stating events then your comments. Well done!!