Queen Mary I of England

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Queen Mary I was England's first female monarch to rule in her own right. Her reign was short but eventful, punctuated by a large number of religious persecutions that earned her the name "Blood Mary."

She was born on Feb. 16, 1516, in Greenwich, England. Her father was Henry VIII, and her mother was his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Queen Mary I

Mary was an intelligent child and soon could speak French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. She proved an adept musician as well, especially on the harpsichord. One thing that stayed with her throughout her life was a weak constitution. She was often ill as a teenager.

The practice in those days was for monarchs to promise their young children in marriage to children of other monarchs, in order to pursue or cement a political alliance. This was the case with Mary:

  • Her father, Henry VIII, started this process when she was just 2, seeking to marry her to the Dauphin, the son of France's King Francis I. That engagement ended after three years.
  • The next year, her parents announced her engagement to Spain's king, Charles V, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles was 16 years older than Mary. Three years later, he broke off the engagement.
  • In 1526, when Mary was 10, Henry sought to have Mary wed King Francis I himself. That engagement fell through as well.

When Mary was 17, her father broke with the Catholic Church, divorced Catherine, and married Anne Boleyn. The new queen had a daughter, named Elizabeth and then convinced Henry to declare Mary illegitimate; further, Mary was forced to be a lady-in-waiting to her infant half-sister. What Mary might have considered the ultimate outrage was that her mother was sent to a series of other damp and unpleasant residences, with few staff to look after her. Henry forbade any sort of mother-daughter reunion; and when Catherine died in 1536, Mary had to mourn her from afar.

In 1537, Henry finally got the male heir that he wanted when his third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to a boy named Edward. (Henry had had Anne Boleyn beheaded the year before.) Edward became king 10 years later and embarked on a campaign of strengthening the move toward Protestantism and away from the Catholic Church that his father had nominally begun. Mary was still very much a Catholic, and this added to the tension between the two siblings. Parliament in 1549 passed an Act of Uniformity that allowed for an English Prayer Book and required English people to use it in their worship. Mary refused to obey the law and continued to conduct her own private worship–following her Catholic upbringing, of course. A threat of war by her cousin, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, kept her from being arrested.

King Edward VI

In 1553, Edward, who had suffered from a weak constitution for most of his life, became ill. He had nearly died more than once when he was very young, including a simultaneous bout with measles and smallpox. This time, he was believed to have contracted tuberculosis. He made his final public occurrence on July 1, appearing thin and weak, and died five days later, at Greenwich Palace. He was 15. In his will, Edward had declared his wishes that his successor on the throne of England be not either of his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, but his first cousin, the Lady Jane Grey. She survived for nine days as the nominal leader before she was deposed by the next crowned monarch, who became Mary I.

Queen Mary I

Mary was 37 when she took the throne as the first woman to rule England in her own right. She wanted a child and heir to succeed her on the throne and married Spain's King Philip II (who, technically, was not king until the year after their marriage). Mary also abolished all of the laws that Edward had enacted, regarding the Church of England as supreme, and embarked on a campaign of religious persecution, punishing people for worshiping according to the tenets of the Church of England and not embracing Catholicism as their religion. Mary encouraged the arrest and punishment of people who disobeyed a new heresy law, and some estimates are that the government carried out the death by burning sentences of nearly 300 people (including Thomas Cranmer, the onetime Archbishop of Canterbury). This is how Mary came to be referred to as "Bloody Mary." More than 800 people fled England to avoid capture on similar grounds.

Mary and Philip had no children. Philip spent most of his time in Spain, leaving Mary to govern on her own. The English-Spanish marital alliance was unpopular both in England and in France. In fact, England and France went to war, resulting in France's reclaiming of Calais, the last place on the Continent that England still controlled. (England had controlled Calais since Edward the Black Prince had seized it in 1347, during the Hundred Years War.)

English businessmen struggled during Mary's reign. In her five years on the throne, England suffered through some very wet years, which resulted in famine. As well, her marriage to Philip did not result in a corresponding expansion in trade between England and other European powers.

Mary was ill late in her life. Many historians think that she had cancer. She died on Nov. 17, 1558, at St. James Palace in London. Succeeding her on the English throne was her younger half-sister, Elizabeth, who became Queen Elizabeth I.

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