Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.-Anna Whitelock

Just as children have been taught for the past 450 years, I grew up knowing Mary I only as “Bloody Mary.”  She was the woman who persecuted Protestants, exiled her sister, Elizabeth I, and forced England into an unpopular alliance with Spain upon her marriage to Philip II.  However, in Anna Whitelock’s historical biography, Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen, we meet a woman who was every bit as courageous as her grandmother, Isabella of Castile, and had to fight just as hard for her crown.  This is the story the history books don’t teach and one I hope after reading this review, you’ll walk away finding Mary to be a slightly more likable figure in world history.

When I started writing this review it read like a history lesson.  There was so much I wanted to say about Mary, but I’m going to try and focus on Whitelock’s books specifically.  After all, this is a book review, right?  Right!

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog.  I’m also an Anglophile.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that I have become intrigued by Mary Tudor.  Several recent books including The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter, and Mary Tudor: The Tragical History of the First Queen of England by D.M. Loades are proof that I am not alone in my genuine liking of Mary.  These texts exonerate Mary, explain her immense contributions to the reshaping of the English monarchy, and demonstrate that the seeds of hatred planted by her detractors all the way back in 1558 are finally being reconsidered.

Whitelock takes us chronologically through Mary’s life using countless historical resources including letters written by Mary herself.  After the divorce of her parents; Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, Mary was declared a bastard and only had a chance of becoming queen if her younger half brother, Edward VI, died without issue.  Mary was unloved by her father, kept away from her mother, and tormented by her stepmother, Anne Boleyn.  She was also condemned for her Catholic beliefs during the Protestant reign of Edward VI.  It seemed that life was one hardship after another for Mary.  Fortunately, Mary’s tribulations only made her stronger and eventually won her the admiration of the people and the crown of England.

In 1553, Edward VI died and the Protestant regime place Mary’s cousin, Jane Grey, on the throne.  Mary was not discouraged and raised an army that overthrew the government and Mary was declared the rightful queen.  Mary was beloved by the people throughout most of her five year reign and Catholics rejoiced at Mary’s plans to return to the old faith.  Unfortunately, her inability to produce an heir to the throne and the nearly 300 burnings of Protestants caused much unrest among the people and when Mary died in 1558, England was ecstatic when Elizabeth took the crown.

What historians forget and Whitelock points out is that Elizabeth owed everything to Mary.  Mary paved the way for all queen regnants by showing the world that a woman could rule in her own right.  With no one to love her, Mary’s Catholic faith was all she had so it’s really not surprising that she worked so tirelessly to bring England back into the Holy See.  However, Elizabeth cast aside the memory of her elder sister and Mary’s tomb was buried under the rubble of broken altars during Elizabeth’s reformation.  It’s ironic that three years after her death, Elizabeth was moved into Mary’s tomb and the two of them have spent the last 400 years side by side.

All this and more can be found in Whitelock’s book.  She does an excellent job of putting the reader in the moment and really feeling for Mary.  I do want to point out that poor editing diminishes the book to some extent.  For example, the book states that Mary died in 1557, but all historical documents and countless other texts confirm that it was 1558.  Being a historian, I’m sure Whitelock knows this and the mistake was the fault of an editor.  Did I mention that bad editing is one of my pet peeves?  Anyway, if you want to learn more about Mary, English history, or just want a good old fashioned Medieval soap opera, grab a copy of Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock.  I truly hope that this book and other texts will change the popular opinion of Mary I, my favorite monarch.

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