Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bloody Mary by Carolly Erickson (1978)

I swear I didn't forget about this blog, I've just been busy ready the rather long and dense, but extremely readable and enjoyable Bloody Mary by Carolly Erickson (1978). My always awesome friend Chad, who shares my love of the Tudors, kindly lent it to me, and I'm very glad he did.

While I've read quite a few books about Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and even the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, I'd never read that much about Mary. Her reign, squeezed between the brief reign of her younger half-brother Edward after Henry's death, and the very long and stable reign of her half-sister Elizabeth, is mostly remembered for the hundreds of Protestants that were burned at the stake as she tried to bring the country back to Catholicism. Mary's story, however, is much more complicated and tragic than just the five years that she served as the first official Queen of England, and Erickson's book paints a sympathetic portrait of this often demonized woman.

Mary was the only surviving child from the union of Henry VIII and the Spanish Catherine of Aragon. She was raised as a princess, although not as a potential ruler, since Henry always held out for the possibility of a son. Mary was 17 when Henry declared his marriage with Catherine to be invalid and broke with the church to marry Anne Boleyn. Princess Mary soon became both a bastard and a religious liability to her father. Mary was not allowed to see her mother, lost her royal privileges, and was routinely harassed about her faith. The marriage plans and engagements that were so much a part of her life up until that point were all severed, and although Mary's treatment and position at court became better through the course of Henry's four other wives, she led a stressful and unstable existence for the next eleven years.

When her father died and her nine-year-old brother took the throne, Mary's Catholicism became even more of a burden. England was run by a Council of Regents and corruption, famine, and religious turmoil further battered the country. Edward IV died in 1553, at the age of fifteen, and after brief skirmish, Mary became the Queen of England. Erickson gives us a view of Mary at the beginning of her reign as a strong and pragmatic ruler who inherited a lot of debt and religious confusion. She was determined to bring England back to Catholicism, but realized that she would need to move slowly. She was an excellent public speaker, and was initially beloved by her subjects, particularly those who wished to return to the Catholic faith.

You'd think everything would finally start going Mary's way, but she ended up deciding to marry Prince Philip of Spain, her cousin Charles V's son who was set to inherit much of his father's empire. Philip was a politically logical match, but he was eleven years younger than Mary's virginal 37, and the two had little in common besides their faith. For her part, Mary was desperately in love with Philip, and their marriage led her to make religious reforms and commit to foreign wars that she might not have otherwise considered. After two false pregnancies and a lot of grief, Philip went off to govern his other territories and never returned to England.

When Mary died in 1558 at the age of 42, England celebrated the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, re-embraced Protestantism, and did not particularly mourn the death of their barren Catholic queen. Mary had a hard life, but was an intelligent and strong ruler when she was given a chance, and its sad that she wasn't able to do more for England that she did.

Erickson's book is well-researched and very readable -- often more like a novel than a history book. My only qualm is that the photographs in the book include three pictures of Henry VIII, three pictures of Elizabeth I, and even a picture of Mary Queen of Scots (who hardly enters into Mary Tudor's story at all) but NO pictures of Mary I herself. The only picture of her is on the front of the book (and plenty of pictures are available). It's like the book designer just did a quick search for "Tudor dynasty" and put in the first eleven pictures that showed up.

Overall, though, this is a wonderful book, and a must-read for anyone interested in the Tudors. Thanks Chad!

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