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Queen Mary I – Reign of Fire and Faith

Our stories

Thu 16 Nov 23

Queen Mary I, also known as Mary Tudor, was a significant figure in English history, ruling as the first female monarch of England from 1553 to 1558. Often remembered for her staunch devotion to Roman Catholicism and the harsh measures she took to restore Catholicism in England, Queen Mary’s reign was a tumultuous and divisive period that left a lasting impact on the country’s religious landscape. 

Early life at Greenwich Palace 

Greenwich Palace, which was located on what is now the Old Royal Naval College, played a significant role in Mary’s life, particularly during her early years. 

Mary spent much of her early childhood in Greenwich, especially during the reign of her father, King Henry VIII. The Palace served as a place of great significance in her formative years and influenced her upbringing and education. 

As the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary’s birth was a momentous occasion celebrated at Greenwich Palace. Born on February 18, 1516, she was baptised in the Palace Chapel (located where the Queen Anne building stands today). Being the only surviving child of Henry and Catherine, Mary was initially considered the heiress to the English throne. 

Throughout her early childhood, Mary received an excellent education, typical of royal children during that period. At Greenwich, she was taught by renowned scholars, receiving instruction in languages (including French Spanish and perhaps Greek), music, dance, needlework, and religious studies. Her mother played a significant role in shaping Mary’s religious convictions, instilling in her a deep devotion to the Catholic faith. 

Turmoil for the Tudors 

Mary’s life in Greenwich took a drastic turn when her parent’s marriage was declared null and void by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of their inability to produce a male heir. This led to Mary’s designation as a bastard, and her title of Princess of Wales was stripped away. 

Subsequently, in January 1533 Mary’s father married Anne Boleyn, who just over seven months later gave birth to Elizabeth, Mary’s half-sister and the future Queen Elizabeth I. The birth of Elizabeth further complicated Mary’s position in the royal family, and she faced estrangement from her father and the new Queen. 

Despite the family’s discord, Mary’s status improved after the death of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and the subsequent marriage of Henry to Jane Seymour later that year. With the birth of Edward VI in 1537, Mary’s half-brother, she was once again recognised in the line of succession, though after Edward and Elizabeth. 

After Henry VIII passed away in 1547, the reign of her half-brother King Edward VI, brought a more positive time to Mary’s life in Greenwich. Whilst Protestant himself, Edward allowed Mary to openly practice her Catholic faith both in Greenwich and at other royal residences. However, this was not done without reproach. When Edward was dying, he tried to deny Mary’s right to succeed by arranging for Lady Jane Grey, who was a protestant, to succeed the throne in her stead. Lady Jane Grey, commonly known as the Nine Day’s Queen, managed to claim the throne of England and Ireland from 10 to 19 July 1553. 

Religious struggles and reign as Queen 

After Edward’s death in 1553, Mary became Queen, making her the first ‘Queen Regnant’ – a queen who rules a country as the primary monarch rather than simply as a consort. However, her commitment to restoring Catholicism in England led to significant religious upheaval during her reign. Soon after her accession to the throne, she aimed to reverse the Protestant reforms implemented by Edward and returned the country to the authority of the Pope. 

Although Greenwich Palace remained an important royal residence during Mary’s rule, her time there as Queen was marked by political and religious struggles. Her health began to decline, and she spent increasing amounts of time at other royal residences, such as Richmond Palace and Whitehall Palace. 

Legacy and final days 

Her reign was marked by a zealous campaign against Protestant dissidents. Hundreds were burned at the stake for refusing to convert to Catholicism, and it is estimated that about 800 Protestants left the country during this time. These actions left a dark stain on her legacy and caused lasting animosity toward her rule, which explains why she was nicknamed “Bloody Mary”.  

Despite her best efforts to solidify the Catholic faith in England, Mary’s short reign ended with her death on November 17, 1558, at St. James’s Palace, London. Her half-sister, Elizabeth I, succeeded her, and the religious landscape of England shifted once again.