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‘Bloody’ Mary is the most unfairly treated woman in British history

Visitors from the 1550s would be baffled by the way Henry VIII’s eldest child is portrayed today

By on Friday, 16 July 2010

Is anyone in English history more unfairly treated than Mary Tudor, the first queen regnant of this country and a villainous figure unparalleled among our monarchs?

Visitors from the 1550s would be baffled by the way Henry VIII’s eldest child is portrayed, and would certainly not recognise the bloodthirsty, religious maniac of Whig demonology, who has now been turned into a child-scaring zombie. As the Herald reports:

A digital poster for the London Dungeon featuring the sudden transformation of Queen Mary I into a zombie-like character was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for scaring children.

The advert, which ran on digital screens on London Underground stations, featured an image of the 16th century queen sitting on a chair and then morphing into a monster with sunken eyes, pale skin, a wide-open mouth and a scarred face.

A spokesman for Merlin Entertainments, said the advert was supposed to show the “dark side of [Queen Mary's] personality and portray her as a villain”.

As Gerald Warner has pointed out in the Telegraph, Henry VIII killed 72,000 people during his reign, Mary 300, and yet one is “good king Hal”, and the other is Bloody Mary.

That epithet, according to Robert Lacey, was not invented until after the Glorious Revolution, which followed over 100 years of Elizabethan propaganda to blacken the name of the Protestant monarch’s half-sister. In contrast, their father genuinely was a monster who can easily hold his own with most 20th-century tyrants, and yet in English historiography his only crime was being fat.

Mary may have killed opponents, but this was not out of the ordinary for the 16th century. Indeed, she was famously merciful. Leanda de Lisle, author of The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey, asks:

“What about Elizabeth? People may be aware of the executions of Catholics, but there were many more people. After the 1569 northern rebellion, Elizabeth ordered that a man was to be hung in every village associated with the rebellions. It was on a similar scale to her father.

“Even Jane Grey’s tutor, the Protestant divine Michel Angelo Florio, described Mary as a ‘merciful princess’. The burnings began after Protestantism became equated with treason, just as Catholicism would be under Elizabeth, only we remember the latter because history is written by the winners.”

Indeed. Mary was certainly no worse on human rights than Elizabeth, but she was worse at getting her message across. Not for the last time, the Catholic Church would lose the PR battle.

  • Frank Somerville

    Try reading Dorothy Dunnett's 'Ringed Castle, penultimate in the Lymond series, for a more sympathetic acknowledgment of Mary's plight. Although primarily concerned with the doing of the Muscovy company and Russia, in the background is a Mary Tudor desperate to have children, to rule wisely and to to keep England out of the growing entanglement of continental war. May God have mercy on her soul.

  • B.R. Hughes

    Too true: history is indeed written by the winners. Please remember that being a Catholic was a crime in Britain until fairly recently and anti-Catholicism is alive and well in Britain today. In fact, it is enjoying a revival. Let us hope that Britain will choose to show itself to be a truly civilized country where all visitors are welcomed and treated with courtesy when our beloved pope comes over in September. Surely we do not want to be remembered as a country of futball hooligans and bigots or, Heaven forbid, as the country where the Vicar of Christ was murdered.