Monday, 25 May 2009

Medal commemorating the restoration of England to Catholic Communion, 1554 – and possibly Mary’s ‘pregnancy’?

In November 1554, England was officially received back to the Catholic Church. It was the moment Mary had been waiting for and to have this officially confirmed by Cardinal Reginald Pole, a leading churchman, Englishman and close friend of Mary’s, made the event even more significant. It was that month that Pole, after nearly twenty years of exile, returned to England as the papal legate. Mary wished to install him as her archbishop of Canterbury although Thomas Cranmer was still alive at this point thus Mary had to wait till his execution to bestow this on Pole. Nonetheless she did reverse the act of attainder that has been passed against him during Henry VIII’s reign in the parliament that met on the 12th November 1554 [1]. On the 22nd November, Pole landed at Whitehall, having travelled in the royal barge, and met Mary on the steps of the palace. She was accompanied by her new husband Philip and ‘she received him with great signs of respect and affection; both shed tears’ (Porter, p. 331).

The medal depicted here was struck to commemorate England’s return to Rome and Pole’s arrival in England to instigate this. Pole formally absolved the realm of past transgressions on St Andrew’s Day, 30th November, and the ceremony was greeted with much solemnity and emotion by Mary, Philip and the Commons. Mary had achieved the restoration of the old religious order; in the words of her biographer, David Loades, it ‘must have been the greatest moment of her life’ (p. 240). The medal captures this personal triumph.

The medal, made by the Paduan medallist Giovanni Cavino in 1554, depicts an allegorical scene. The symbolic figure of Anglia is depicted knelling before the pope and raising her hand forth, which he supports. By her is Pole wearing full cardinal attire, and to the right of Pole is the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was Mary’s cousin, father-in-law and protector throughout much of her life. Charles had been deeply involved in organising Mary’s marriage to his son Philip and in supporting Mary’s decision to restore England to the Catholic Church, which resulted in his presence on the medal. To the right are Mary and Philip, both crowned. Mary’s eyes remain fixed on Anglia, whilst Charles and Philip look pleasantly on at Mary. Above the whole group are the words ‘ANGLIA RESURGES’ – ‘England, you shall arise’.

On the reverse of the medal is an image of Pope Julius III, the contemporary pope, who Mary enjoyed good relations with. Julius had confirmed Pole’s appointment to England and although he initially pressed for former monastic lands to be resorted to the Church, he eventually conceded that ‘it would be far better for all reasons human and divine, to abandon all the Church property [in England], rather than risk the shipwreck of this understanding’ (Whitelock, p. 247). Unfortunately for Mary, a prosperous relationship with the papacy would eventually cease in the last years of her reign owing to the anti-Habsburg policies of Paul IV. [2]

The commemorative tone of the medal is notable. However there is another message, one which is subtle and hopeful. This can be seen in the figure of Mary. Although it is hard to completely establish Mary’s physique owing to the baggy nature of her dress, it is evident that she is depicted with a round stomach which she draws attention by laying her hand upon. All books that I have come across that include an image of this medal overlook the possibility that the medal is also drawing attention to Mary’s ‘pregnancy’ of 1554/1555. Yet it was around the time of the ceremonies which installed England back to the Catholic Church that Mary confirmed her condition. Personal confirmation came on the very day when she greeted Pole on the steps of Whitehall. His first words upon seeing her were, ‘Hail, thou art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed are thou among women’. Pole later retired and was subsequently greeted by one of Mary’s messengers who claimed that the queen had felt the child in her womb quicken when Pole had spoken the words to her. Quickening, the first moments of the child in the womb, was regarded as a confirmation of pregnancy in the early modern period and also a sign that the child was still alive. For Mary, the possibility of a Catholic heir was a joyous prospect and meant the security of her religious policies. Hence allusions to her pregnancy were entirely appropriate on a medal celebrating England’s return to the Catholic Church. Her condition was made widely known by the end of that month, again indicating the possibility that this medal, created near the end of that year, was purposely drawing attention to her pregnancy.

Unfortunately for Mary, the joy turned to despair when the pregnancy revealed itself to be fake in the summer of 1555 [3]. And with this came significant concerns about the succession and thus the sustainability of her religious policies. However references to the future worries about the succession that would plague the rest of Mary’s reign are practically nonexistent in this insightful medal from Mary’s Annus Mirabilis.

The medal has been recently included in Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (New Haven and London, 2009), plate 4.


[1] The bill of attainder against Reginald Pole was passed on the 19th May 1539. In January of that year his brother, Henry, Baron Montagu had been executed for allegedly plotting against Henry VIII (and he too was included in the bill along with their mother, Margaret Pole). Reginald Pole was in the Observant Franciscan house of Montili at Carpentras when this occurred.

[2] Divisions between Paul IV and Mary were also created when the Pope pressed for Pole to be sent to Rome to be tried on charges of heresy. Mary ultimately refused and her refusal to do so contributed to Paul IV’s demonstrations of gratification when he learnt of her death in November 1558.

[3] Limited work has been done into Mary’s ‘pregnancies’, although historians mostly agree that she suffered from cases of pseudocyesis, otherwise known as ‘phantom pregnancy’, whereby an individual exhibits signs of pregnancy but is ultimately not pregnant. For an interesting discussion into the possible biological and psychological causes of this see Judith Richards, Mary Tudor (Oxon, 2008), p. 173.


Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (New Haven and London, 2009), pp. 43-5, plate 4.
David Loades, Mary Tudor: A Life (Oxford, 1992), pp. 237-40.
Linda Porter, Mary Tudor: The First Queen (London, 2007), p. 331-33.
Judith Richards, Mary Tudor (Oxon, 2008), pp. 169-73.
Anna Whitelock, Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen (London, 2009), pp. 247-53.

1 comment:

  1. The false pregnancies must have been a bitter disappointment to her. Thank you, another informative post, as usual!