18 February 1516 – The birth of a fair princess
In the early hours of 18th February 1516, at The Palace of the Placentia in Greenwich, “was borne a fayre prynces and christened with great solempnitie, and named Mary.” This little girl was the future Queen Mary I.
She was a healthy baby and gave every indication of surviving. Mary was baptised into the Catholic faith on 20th February 1516 in the Church of the Observant Friars at Greenwich. The little princess was carried to the font by the Countess of Surrey and her godparents were Catherine Courtenay, Countess of Devon and daughter of Edward IV; Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence; the Duchess of Norfolk, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.
The following year, Mary became a godmother herself when she was named as one of the sponsors of her cousin Frances Brandon. Princess Mary had a wet-nurse, Katherine Pole (later Lady Brooke), and her own small household, with Elizabeth Denton in charge of the nursery at first, followed by Margaret, Lady Bryan, who was herself replaced, if intermittently, by Katherine’s dear friend Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. Her staff was attired in her personal colors of blue and green.
Henry VIII liked to show her off to foreign visitors and was known to take off her cap to reveal her long hair. ‘This child never cries!’ the King proudly told the French ambassador when Mary was two. When Katherine had led her by the hand into his presence, he would sweep her up in his arms and carry her round, bursting with pride. She, in turn, adored him. ‘See how she jumps forward in her nurse’s lap when she catches sight of her father!’ exclaimed the Bishop of Durham, an entranced observer. The king usually called her “The Greatest Pearl in the Kingdom”.
Mary had, like both her parents, a very fair complexion, pale blue eyes and red or reddish-golden hair. She was also ruddy cheeked, a trait she inherited from her father. She was always small for her age and tended toward thinness. Mary was ‘decorous in manners’, having been schooled rigidly to good behaviour from the cradle. As time passed with no miracle for her, Queen Katherine lavished her love and attention on the one child she had, Princess Mary. Whatever happened in the future, whether her prayers for a son were answered or not, this little gem of a daughter was nurtured and educated to become a queen. She might, after all, be Henry’s only heir.
Katherine of Aragon made sure Mary received a good education. Thomas Linacre was Mary’s first actual Latin tutor, but he died sometime in 1524. The Queen herself helped the child with her translations. Katherine invited the celebrated Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives to come to England and commissioned him to write a treatise on the general education of women, and an outline of studies for Mary. Vives’s curriculum was, by modern standards, severe for a child of seven, and involved much learning of the Scriptures, the works of the early Fathers of the Church, as well as the study of ancient classics and history.
Mary was a precocious child. When scarcely four and a half years old, Mary entertained a visiting French delegation with a performance on the virginals. At seven, she was an expert dancer, and – according to a Spanish envoy – twirled ‘so prettily that no woman could do better’. By age nine, Mary could write a letter in Latin. She also learned Greek, French, some Italian, and could understand Spanish. Mary learned the basic skills of riding side-saddle, sewing and embroidery and had a natural musical talent. She could play the virginals, the lute and the regal. She enjoyed horses and hunting throughout her life. Her love of dancing was matched by a keen eye for the latest fashions and the sumptuous clothes that went with them. Only gambling was, for her, a greater passion. But Mary was not merely frivolous. She was a caring employer and loyal friend.
In 1522, at the age of six, Mary was instead contracted to marry her 22-year-old first cousin, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He visited England and this afforded him some opportunity to observe his six-year-old cousin. We do not know how the tiny Mary felt. The pony and goshawk she was given about the same time may well have been more attractive preoccupations. On this occasion, Mary played the spinet and performed a French dance, the galliard. Perhaps when Charles arrived she wore some of the jewellery that had been specially made for her. We do not know whether she danced in person for her cousin, but it seems probable that her parents would not have missed the opportunity for Mary to impress.
Although she was never to see him again, Charles stayed in Mary’s mind. All her life she remembered his kindness to her, which seems to have been natural and not in any way forced. However, the engagement was broken off within a few years by Charles. The Emperor needed a bride nearer his own age and readily available. A man with his responsibilities could not wait for years and years, no matter how sweet his little cousin was. So he married the beautiful and wealthy Isabella of Portugal, and she soon produced the male heir for the Spanish Crown.
Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief adviser, then resumed marriage negotiations with the French, and Henry suggested that Mary marry the Dauphin’s father, King Francis I himself, who was eager for an alliance with England. A marriage treaty was signed which provided that Mary marry either Francis I or his second son Henry, Duke of Orleans, but Wolsey secured an alliance with France without the marriage.
One hopeful sign that Henry was not ready to exclude Mary from the succession was that he arranged for her to travel to Ludlow Castle in the English county of Shropshire, on the Welsh Marches, with an establishment of her own. Ludlow was the seat of power usually associated with the Princes of Wales and from where they governed Wales. Mary, only nine, was probably sent there as a first step of her future role as heir to the throne. And while Henry had not bestowed the title of Princess of Wales upon Mary officially, he had not given Wales to Fitzroy either. There were later rumours, almost certainly false, that the king planned to marry his bastard to his daughter.
At the center of her own court, Mary began to learn the art of governance. Her French tutor, Giles Duwes, portrayed Mary as a princely ruler and her court as a center of literary patronage, educated conversation, and gentle manners. Mary appears to have spent three years in the Welsh Marches, making regular visits to her father’s court, before returning permanently to the home counties around London in mid-1528.
“She is very handsome and admirable by reason of her great and uncommon mental endowments”
The French envoy, Turenne, reports on Mary in February 1527
She was the only surviving child of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and the first queen to rule England in her own right. Throughout the first thirty-seven years of her life, she was tossed about by the whims of her father and, later and perhaps more galling, her Protestant brother and his council.
It was perhaps inevitable that when she first tasted real power, the experience would be both intoxicating and unfortunate. When Mary came to the throne, she was thirty-seven years old. She had never been married though, in her youth, several matches had been suggested and abandoned.
She is known as Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of Protestants in a vain attempt to restore Catholicism in England. Mary was crowned on October 1553 and reigned until her death in 1558 at St. James Palace in London.