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Mary I of England

Mary I of England

Mary I of England was the first Queen of England and Ireland. She reigned as the fourth Tudor monarch from 1553 until she died in 1558. Mary I ruled during the period known as the Mid-Tudor Crisis and is best known for her religious persecutions of Protestants, for which she was nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary’.

Just how bloody was Bloody Mary, and what was the mid-Tudor crisis? What did she do except persecute Protestants? Was she a successful monarch? Read on to find out!

Mary I of England’s Biography: Date of Birth and Siblings

Mary I of England Portrait of Mary I of England StudySmarter

Mary Tudor was born on 18 February 1516 to King Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess. She reigned as monarch after her half-brother Edward VI and before her half-sister Elizabeth I.

She was the eldest of Henry VIII's surviving legitimate children. Elizabeth was born in 1533 to Henry's second wife Anne Boleyn and Edward to his third wife Jane Seymour in 1537. Although Edward was the youngest, he succeeded Henry VIII as he was male and legitimate: he ruled from the age of just nine until he died at age 15.

Mary I did not immediately succeed her brother. He had named his cousin Lady Jane Grey as successor but she only spent nine days on the throne. Why? We'll look at this in more detail shortly.

Portrait of Mary I of England, Wikimedia Commons.

Did you know? Mary also had another half-brother named Henry Fitzroy who was born in 1519. He was a son of King Henry VIII but was illegitimate, meaning he was born outside the institution of marriage. His mother was Henry VIII's mistress, Elizabeth Blout.

Background to Mary I's Reign

Mary I faced a tough situation when she became queen: the mid-Tudor crisis. What was this and how did she handle it?

The Mid-Tudor Crisis

The mid-Tudor crisis was a period from 1547 to 1558 during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I (and Lady Jane Grey). Historians disagree about the severity of the crisis, but some say the English government was dangerously close to collapsing during this time.

The crisis was due to the rule of their father, Henry VIII. His financial mismanagement, foreign policy, and religious issues left a difficult situation for his children to deal with. The Tudor period, in general, saw a large number of rebellions, which continued to present a threat, although the Wyatt Rebellion Mary I faced was much less of a threat than the Pilgrimage of Grace under Henry VIII.

Mary's decisive rule alleviated the impact of food shortages on the poor and rebuilt some aspects of the financial system. Despite this, Mary struggled greatly with foreign policy, and her failures in this arena contributed to the reasons why her reign is seen as part of the mid-Tudor crisis.

The big issue of the time, however, was religion and the English Reformation.

The English Reformation

Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon on 15 June 1509 but became dissatisfied with her inability to give him a son. The King began an affair with Anne Boleyn and wanted to divorce Catherine but divorce was strictly forbidden in Catholicism, and at the time England was a Catholic nation.

Henry VIII knew this and tried to have a papal annulment granted instead, arguing that his marriage to Catherine was cursed by God since she had previously been married to his older brother Arthur. Pope Clement VII refused to allow Henry to remarry.

Papal annulment

This term describes a marriage that the Pope has declared invalid.

Tudor historians argue that the Pope's refusal was largely due to political pressure from the then Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who wanted the marriage to continue.

Henry and Catherine's marriage was annulled in 1533 by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a few months after Henry had married Anne Boleyn in secret. The end of Henry's marriage to Catherine made Mary I an illegitimate child and ineligible to succeed to the throne.

The King broke with Rome and the Catholic tradition and made himself head of the Church of England in 1534. This began the English Reformation and saw the transformation of England from a Catholic to a Protestant country. The conversion went on for decades but England was fully cemented as a Protestant state during the rule of Edward VI.

Although England became protestant, Mary refused to give up her Catholic beliefs which were said to have greatly strained her relationship with her father Henry VIII.

Mary I of England's Accession to the Throne

As we have already mentioned, Mary did not succeed Henry VIII after his death as Edward VI was the legitimate male heir. Her sister Elizabeth was also illegitimate by this time as Henry had her mother Anne Boleyn executed by beheading, and married Jane Seymour - Edward's mother.

Just before Edwards VI's passing, Edward alongside the Duke of Northumberland, John Dudley, decided that Lady Jane Grey should become queen. Many feared that if Mary I acceded to the throne her rule would bring more religious turmoil to England. This was because Mary I was well known for her continued and fervent support of Catholicism.

John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, led the government of Edward VI from 1550–53. As Edward VI was too young to rule alone, Dudley effectively led the country during this period.

Consequently, the Duke of Northumberland proposed that Lady Jane Grey be crowned queen in order to maintain the religious reforms introduced during Edward VI's reign. In June 1553, Edward VI accepted the Duke of Northumberland's proposed ruler and signed a document that excluded Mary and Elizabeth from any succession. This document cemented that both Mary I and Elizabeth I were illegitimate.

Edward died on 6 July 1553, and Lady Jane Grey became Queen on 10 July.

How did Mary I become Queen?

Not taking kindly to being excluded from the throne, Mary I of England wrote a letter to the privy council asserting her birthright.

Privy council

The Privy council acts as the official body of advisers to the sovereign.

In the letter, Mary I of England also noted that she would pardon the council's involvement in the plan to remove her succession rights if they crowned her as queen immediately. Mary I's letter and proposal were rejected by the Privy council. This was because the council was largely influenced by the Duke of Northumberland.

The Privy council backed Lady Jane's claim to be queen and also stressed that the law had made Mary I illegitimate so she had no right to the throne. Moreover, the council's reply warned Mary I to be very wary of trying to stir up support for her cause amongst the people because her loyalties were expected to be with Lady Jane Grey.

However, the letter was also copied and sent to many large towns in an effort to gain support. The circulation of Mary I's letter gained her a lot of support as many people believed that she was the rightful queen. This support allowed Mary I to put together an army to fight for her rightful place as queen.

News of this support reached the Duke of Northumberland, who then attempted to assemble his troops and squash Mary’s attempt. Just before the proposed battle, however, the council decided to accept Mary as Queen.

Mary I of England was crowned in July 1553 and coronated in October 1553. Mary's legitimacy was confirmed by law in 1553 and Elizabeth I's right to the throne was later returned and confirmed by law in 1554 on the condition that if Mary I died childless Elizabeth I would succeed her.

Mary I of England's Religious Reformation

Having grown up a Catholic, but seeing her father reform the church from Catholicism to Protestantism, mainly to annul his marriage to her mother, religion was understandably a big issue for Mary I.

When Mary I of England first came to power, she made it clear that she would practice Catholicism but stated that she had no intentions of forcing a mandatory conversion back to Catholicism. This did not remain the case.

  • Soon after her coronation Mary arrested several Protestant churchmen and imprisoned them.

  • Mary even went on to get her parents’ marriage ruled as legitimate in parliament.

  • Mary was initially cautious when making religious changes as she did not want to incite a rebellion against her.

The First Statute of Repeal

The First Statute of Repeal was passed during Mary I's first parliament in 1553 and repealed all religious legislation introduced in the reign of Edward VI. This meant that:

  • The Church of England was restored to the status it had under the 1539 Act of the Six Articles, which upheld the following elements:

    • The Catholic idea that the bread and wine at communion really did turn into the body and blood of Christ.

    • The view that people did not need to receive both bread and wine.

    • The idea that priests must remain celibate.

    • Vows of chastity were binding.

    • Private masses were permitted.

    • The practice of confession.

  • The 1552 Second Act of Uniformity was repealed: this law had made it an offence for people to skip church services, and all church of England services were based on the Protestant 'Book of Common Prayer'.

These earlier changes were quite well received, as many people had retained Catholic practices or beliefs. This support wrongly emboldened Mary to take further action.

Problems began for Mary I of England when she went back on what she had initially stated and engaged in discussions with the Pope about returning to the papacy. However, the Pope, Julius III, urged Mary I to proceed with a level of caution in such matters to avoid causing a rebellion. Even Mary I's most trusted advisor, Stephen Gardner, was cautious about restoring the authority of the Pope in England. While Gardner was a devout Catholic, he advised caution and restraint when it came to dealing with Protestants.

The Restoration of Papal Supremacy

Mary I of England's second parliament passed the Second Statute of Repeal in 1555. This returned the Pope to his position as head of the Church, removing the monarch from this position.

Mary I of England was decidedly cautious and did not reclaim the lands taken from the monasteries when they were dissolved during her father Henry VIII's reign. This was because noblemen had benefited a great deal from owning these formerly religious lands and had become extremely wealthy through their ownership. Mary I was advised to leave this issue alone to avoid upsetting the noblemen of the time and creating a rebellion.

Additionally, under this act, heresy laws made it illegal and punishable to speak against Catholicism.

Papal supremacy

This term describes the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church giving the Pope full, supreme, and universal power over the whole church.


Heresy refers to a belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (especially Christian) doctrine.

The return of Cardinal Pole

Cardinal Pole was Mary I's distant cousin and had spent the past twenty or so years in exile in Rome. Many Catholics fled to continental Europe during the English Reformation to avoid religious persecution or any curtailment of religious freedoms.

Cardinal Pole was a prominent figure in the Catholic Church and narrowly missed being elected Pope by one vote. After Mary ascended to the throne, she summoned Cardinal Pole back from Rome.

Although initially claiming his return was not to destroy any reforms implemented by the protestants while he was away, Cardinal Pole assumed his role as papal legate upon his return. Soon after this, Cardinal Pole was instrumental in overturning many of the reforms introduced by Edward VI and the Duke of Northumberland.

Papal legate

The Papal legate is the Pope's personal representative on ecclesiastical or diplomatic missions.

Religious Persecution

Following the Second Statute of Repeal in 1555, Mary I launched a repressive campaign against Protestants. The campaign led to numerous religious executions and awarded Mary I of England the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.

Mary was known to be extremely cruel when punishing those who committed religious crimes. During this time, she burned people at the stake and is reported to have executed around 250 protestants by this method.

Mary I's rulership ended with the nation becoming majority Catholic, yet her cruelty led to many people disliking her.

The success and limitations of Mary's restoration

Mary managed to reverse the legal aspects of Protestantism implemented during Edward VI's reign, and she did so without rebellion or unrest.Despite Mary's success in restoring catholicism to the kingdom, she effectively destroyed her popularity with her subjects through tough punishment.
Many in the kingdom compared her religious reformation to Edward VI's, her half brother, and former king. Edward had implemented a strict form of Protestantism without committing harsh and lethal religious punishments.
Cardinal Pole was unable to restore Catholic authority to its former state. Even though many in England were Catholics, very few supported the restoration of the Pope's authority.

Mary I of England's Marriage

Mary I of England faced immense pressure to conceive an heir; by the time she was crowned queen she was already 37 and unmarried.

Tudor historians report that Mary was already suffering from irregular menstruation when she acceded to the throne, meaning her chances to conceive were significantly lowered.

Mary I had a few viable options for a match:

  1. Cardinal Pole: Pole had a strong claim to the English throne himself, as he was the cousin of Henry VIII but had yet to be ordained.

  2. Edward Courtenay: Courtenay was an English nobleman, a descendant of Edward IV, who had been imprisoned under Henry VIII's reign.

  3. Prince Philip of Spain: this match was strongly encouraged by his father Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was Mary's cousin.

Mary I of England Portrait of Mary I of England and Prince Phillip of Spain StudySmarter

Prince Philip of Spain and Mary I of England, Wikimedia Commons.

Mary decided to seek marriage to Prince Phillip. However, Parliament tried to convince her that this was a risky decision. Parliament thought that Mary should marry an Englishman, for fear that England may be overcome by the Spanish monarch. Mary refused to listen to parliament and regarded her marriage choices as exclusively her business.

As for Prince Phillip, he was extremely reluctant to marry Mary I of England as she was older and he had already managed to secure a male heir from a previous marriage. Though Phillip was hesitant, he followed his father’s command and agreed to the marriage.

Wyatt Uprising

The news of Mary's potential marriage spread quickly, and the public was enraged. Historians have varying opinions about why this happened:

  • People wanted Lady Jane Grey to become queen or even Mary's sister, Elizabeth I.

  • A response to the changing religious landscape in the country.

  • Economic issues within the kingdom.

  • The kingdom simply wanted her to marry Edward Courtney instead.

What is clear is that a number of nobles and gentlemen began to conspire against the Spanish match late in 1553, and several risings were planned and coordinated in the summer of 1554. Under the plan, there would be risings in the west, on the Welsh borders, in Leicestershire (led by the Duke of Suffolk), and in Kent (led by Thomas Wyatt). Originally, the rebels planned to assassinate Mary, but this was later dropped from their agenda.

The plan for the western uprising came to an abrupt end when the Duke of Suffolk was unable to gather enough troops in the west. Despite these circumstances, on 25 January 1554, Thomas Wyatt organized around 30,000 soldiers in Maidstone Kent.

In an instant, the Queen's privy council assembled troops. 800 of Wyatt's troops deserted, and on 6 February, Wyatt surrendered. Wyatt was tortured and during his confession implicated Mary’s sister, Elizabeth I. After this, Wyatt was executed.

Mary I of England and Prince Phillip married on 25 July 1554.

False pregnancy

Mary was thought to be pregnant in September 1554 as she stopped menstruating, gained weight, and began to exhibit symptoms of morning sickness.

The doctors pronounced her pregnant. Parliament even passed an act in 1554 that would make Prince Phillip the regent in charge if Mary passed from childbirth.

Mary was not pregnant however and after her false pregnancy, she fell into a depression and her marriage fell apart. Prince Phillip left England for combat. Mary had not produced an heir, so in accordance with the law enacted in 1554, Elizabeth I remained next in line to the throne.

Mary I of England's Foreign Policy

One of the key reasons Mary I of England's period of rulership was considered to be in ‘crisis’ was because she struggled to implement effective foreign policy and made a series of mistakes.

CountryMary's foreign policy
  • Mary I's marriage to Philip of Spain, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, cultivated a strong relationship with Spain and the nations in the Holy Roman empire.
  • Traders viewed the marriage favourably as it would bring them far greater wealth and opportunities than before, as the Netherlands was part of Philip of Spain's inheritance.
  • This strong alliance with the Emperor and Spain was not supported by all of England. Some believed that Britain could be dragged into the French-Spanish wars.
  • Though their marriage agreement included safeguards to prevent England from entering Spain's wars, the agreement did stipulate that Philip could assist Mary in governing her kingdom.
  • Those who initially viewed her marriage to Phillip as a trade opportunity soon realised that this was not the case. Although Mary I had ties to the Spanish mercantile empire since she married Prince Phillip, the nation refused to allow her access to its very wealthy trade routes.
  • Mary I's personal efforts to establish her own path in the mercantile trade largely failed and England did not benefit from Mary's foreign policy. Tudor historians argue that Mary I relied too much on her Spanish advisors, who were working to better the position of Spain, as opposed to England.
  • Prince Phillip tried to convince Mary to engage England in a war against France. Although Mary had no real objections, her council refused on the grounds that it would destroy their established trade route with France.
  • In June 1557, England was invaded by Thomas Stafford, who had once been involved in the Wyatt Rebellion. Stafford seized Scarborough castle with the help of France and this led to England declaring war with France.

  • England managed to defeat France in the battle of St Quentin but soon after this victory, England lost its French territory, Calais. This defeat was damaging because this was England’s last remaining European territory. The taking of Calais tarnished Mary I's leadership and exposed her inability to enact successful foreign policies.

  • During the reign of Henry VIII, he had become the King of Ireland as well as England after the defeat of the Earl of Kildare. When Mary became Queen of England, she also became Queen of Ireland, and during her leadership, she tried to continue the conquest of Ireland.

  • During Henry’s reign, he passed the Crown of Ireland Act which forced the Irish to conform to English customs. This act expected the Irish subjects to conform to the English language and even dress like the English. Many Irish people had hoped that when Mary rose to power, she would be merciful and reverse this because Ireland was staunchly Catholic.

  • Although Mary I of England was Catholic, she also believed in increasing her power as a monarch, and this meant she clamped down hard on the Irish rebels.

  • In 1556, she approved the introduction of plantations. Irish lands were confiscated and given to English settlers but the Irish fought back ferociously.


The Irish plantation system was the colonisation, settlement, and effective confiscation of Irish lands by emigrants. These emigrants were of English and Scottish families in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under government sponsorship.

Economic changes during Mary I of England's reign

During Mary’s rulership, England and Ireland experienced continual wet seasons. This meant that the harvest was bad for several years running, which negatively impacted the economy.

Mary I did, however, have some success regarding the British economy. For instance, under her rulership, financial affairs were under the control of the Lord Treasurer, William Paulet, first Marquess of Winchester. In this capacity, Winchester was incredibly knowledgeable and competent.

A new book of rates was published in 1558, which helped increase crown revenues from customs duties and was very useful for Elizabeth I later on.
According to this new book of rates, custom duties (taxes) were imposed on imports and exports, and whatever revenue was accrued went to the Crown. Mary I had hoped to establish England's role in the merchant trade, but she was unable to do so during her rule, but this law proved invaluable to Elizabeth I during her reign. The Crown benefited greatly from the new rates book because Elizabeth managed to cultivate a lucrative mercantile trade during her rule.

In this way, Mary was a vital Tudor monarch in helping England's economy by increasing the long-term financial security of the Tudor crown. It is because of these reasons that many Tudor historians argue the mid-Tudor crisis was exaggerated, particularly under the leadership of Mary I.

Mary I of England's Cause of Death and Legacy

Mary I died on 17 November 1558. Her cause of death is unknown but it is thought that she died from ovarian/uterine cancer, having suffered from pain throughout her life and a series of false pregnancies. As she had not produced an heir, her sister Elizabeth took over as queen.

So, what is Mary I's legacy? Let's look at the good and the bad below.

Good legaciesBad legacies
She was the first Queen of England.Her reign was part of the mid-Tudor crisis, although how far it was a crisis is debated.
She made decisive economic choices that helped the economy recover.Her marriage to Philip II was unpopular, and Mary's foreign policy was unsuccessful largely due to the marriage.
She restored Catholicism to England, which many were happy about.She earned the nickname 'Bloody Mary' due to her persecution of Protestants.
Her plantation system in Ireland was discriminatory and led to religious issues in Ireland throughout history.

Mary I of England - Key Takeaways

  • Mary Tudor was born on 18 February 1516 to King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

  • Mary returned the Church of England to papal supremacy and forced Catholicism on her subjects. Those who went against Catholicism were charged with treason and burnt at the stake.

  • Mary married Prince Phillip of Spain and this led to much discontent in the kingdom and culminated in the Wyatt Rebellion.

  • In 1556 Mary approved the idea of plantations in Ireland and attempted to confiscate lands from Irish citizens.

  • Mary attempted to engage in a war against France alongside Spain. However, England ended up losing their territory of Calais, which was a disastrous blow for Mary.

  • The economy suffered rather badly in both Edward VI and Mary I of England’s reigns. During Mary’s rulership, England and Ireland experienced continual wet seasons. Mary also failed to create a viable mercantile system.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mary I of England

Mary I of England wrote a letter to the privy council asserting her birthright to the English throne. The letter was also copied and sent to many large towns to gain support. 

The circulation of Mary I's letter allowed Mary I to gain a lot of support as many people believed that she was the rightful queen. This support allowed Mary I to put together an army to fight for her rightful place as queen. 

She was the first child of King Henry VIII, the Tudor monarch. However, after Henry VIII divorced her mother Catherine of Aragon Mary was made illegitimate and removed from the Tudor throne succession.

After the death of her half-brother King Edward VI, who took her place as first in line for the throne, Mary I fought for her succession rights and was declared the first Queen of England and Ireland.

Bloody Mary was Mary I of England. She ruled for five years (1553–58) as the fourth Tudor Monarch, and she passed away from an unknown cause in 1558.

Elizabeth I, who was Mary’s half sister.

It is thought that Mary I died of ovarian/uterine cancer as she had been suffering from abdominal pain.

Final Mary I of England Quiz


What religion was Mary I of England?

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Who were Mary I of England’s parents?

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Henry VIII and Catherine Aragon of Spain

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What happened when Henry VII tried to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon?

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The Pope refused to annul his marriage, and this led to Henry VIII removing the pope as the head of the Church and appointing himself the head of the Church of England. 

Henry then used his religious supremacy to annul his marriage to Catherine, and this led to Mary being eliminated as an heir to the throne.

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 Why did Mary I of England have to fight for the crown?

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Just before King Edward VI (Mary’s half-brother) died he and the Duke of Northumberland concocted a plan to eliminate Mary as heir to the crown. 

They granted Lady Jane Grey, a distant relation of Henry VII the crown, however, Mary assembled an Army and won the crown.

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Why did Mary I of England gain the nickname “Bloody Mary”?

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Mary gained this name from her very violent religious pogroms against protestants during her rulership. 

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Who did Mary I of England marry?

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 Prince Phillip of Spain

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In what year did Mary I of England have a false pregnancy?

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In what year did Mary I of England approve plantations in Ireland? 

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 Why was the economy so bad during Mary I of England’s rule?

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The economy was bad because England and Ireland experienced extreme wet seasons and terrible harvests. 

Mary also failed to create a mercantile trade system which many other kingdoms had begun to be extremely wealthy from.

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What territory did Mary I of England lose after her war with France?

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