Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review: Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen

by Anna Whitelock. Random House: 2010 (purchased by reviewer partially with a gift card).

From Random House's promotional material: She was the first woman to inherit the throne of England, a key player in one of Britain’s stormiest eras, and a leader whose unwavering faith and swift retribution earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Now, in this impassioned and absorbing debut, historian Anna Whitelock offers a modern perspective on Mary Tudor and sets the record straight once and for all on one of history’s most compelling and maligned rulers.

Though often overshadowed by her long-reigning sister, Elizabeth I, Mary lived a life full of defiance, despair, and triumph. Born the daughter of the notorious King Henry VIII and the Spanish Katherine of Aragon, young Mary was a princess in every sense of the word—schooled in regal customs, educated by the best scholars, coveted by European royalty, and betrothed before she had reached the age of three. Yet in a decade’s time, in the wake of King Henry’s break with the pope, she was declared a bastard, disinherited, and demoted from “princess” to “lady.” Ever her deeply devout mother’s daughter, Mary refused to accept her new status or to recognize Henry’s new wife, Anne Boleyn, as queen. The fallout with her father and his counselors nearly destroyed the teenage Mary, who faced imprisonment and even death.

It would be an outright battle for Mary to work herself back into the king’s favor, claim her rightful place in the Tudor line, and ultimately become queen of England, but her coronation would not end her struggles. She flouted the opposition and married Philip of Spain, sought to restore Catholicism to the nation, and fiercely punished the resistance. But beneath her brave and regal exterior was a dependent woman prone to anxiety, whose private traumas of phantom pregnancies, debilitating illnesses, and unrequited love played out in the public glare of the fickle court.

Anna Whitelock, an acclaimed young British historian, chronicles this unique woman’s life from her beginnings as a heralded princess to her rivalry with her sister to her ascent as ruler. In brilliant detail, Whitelock reveals that Mary Tudor was not the weak-willed failure as so often rendered by traditional narratives but a complex figure of immense courage, determination, and humanity.

I agree with the publisher's statement in the last sentence: Anne Whitelock does much to address some of the commonplace characterizations of Mary and her reign. The biography comprehensively covers Mary's life beginning with the circumstances of her conception and birth, the marriages arranged for her while still a little child, her education, and all the trauma of separation from her parents, the years of tension over "The King's Great Matter", culminating in Katherine of Aragon's death and later the oaths Mary was forced to swear, her conflict with Anne Boleyn and relations with other stepmothers up to Henry VIII's death (Part One: A King's Daughter). In Part Two, A King's Sister, Whitelock focuses on Mary's determination to practice her Catholic faith freely in spite of pressure from her much-loved half-brother and his council--and then covers her tremendous victory over Northumberland, demonstrating her determination and her ability to rally supporters to her cause.

In Part Three, A Queen, Whitelock even more dramatically depicts Mary's achievement in becoming the first Queen Regnant of England, dealing with a council of men who doubted her ability as a female to rule, who had supported Northumberland's coup against her or who even had bullied her to give up the Catholic Mass. Mary's courage and rousing rhetoric to persuade Londoners in support against the rebellion led by Thomas Wyatt are clearly a high point in this section, as she wins her people over again to defend her. She clearly states that her first loyalty is to her people and that she would not marry if she thought such a relationship would endanger England. They rally round her and support her, based on her expressed care and concern for them. After Wyatt's rebellion is defeated, Mary cannot afford the mercy she had shown Jane Dudley and her spouse, especially when Jane's father had taken part in the attempted coup.

In Part Four, A King's Wife, Whitelock covers the most delicate territory: the heresy trials and subsequent burnings at the stake of bishops, preachers, lay evangelicals, those who committed sacrilege in their opposition to Catholicism, heretics (by any Christian standard), and Thomas Cranmer, Mary's bete noire. She also addresses one of the saddest episodes of Mary's life when she believed, in error, that she was pregnant, preparing to deliver a child, having prayers said, anticipating that she would have an heir to succeed her. Chapter 58 is a remarkable chapter, describing Mary's wholehearted participation in bathing the feet of 12 poor women and touching the ill. Otherwise, Whitelock effectively presents details about Mary's relationships with Reginald Pole, her cousin and Archbishop of Canterbury--whom she protects from the Pope; Elizabeth, her half-sister--whom she does not completely trust and yet, preserving orderly succession, must acknowledge as her heir; and Philip, her husband--to whom she would not submit as Sole Queen of England, even though he wanted to reign equally with her.

Perhaps this is a trend: both Tremlett and Whitelock construct their narrative with short chapters dedicated to a single event, issue, or theme. While this makes for a nice pace, sometimes I missed the breadth and depth of a more tradition biographical structure. I empathize with Anna Whitelock's feeling that she has written the book she always wanted to write about Mary I, first queen regnant of England, who really proved her father wrong--a female could rule England, administer the realm, defeat rebellions, and deal with war and peace. As other recent biographers like Judith Richards and Linda Porter have noted, her short reign made Elizabeth's reign possible.

After this long visit with the Tudors (Meyer's book, Hoskins', Tremlett's and now Whitelock's), I think I'll explore another era.


  1. Mary I is and was so misunderstood. Thank you for the review.

  2. I think the three biographies published in the last few years (by Judith Richards, Linda Porter, and Anna Whitelock) should eliminate that misunderstanding! See my review article on First Things:

  3. I read a library copy of this book last year and enjoyed it. I'm waiting for the softback edition!