Friday, 31 July 2009

Can historians now agree on the successes of Mary’s reign?

Peter Marshall has written an interesting article on the latest works on Mary’s reign (including Eamon Duffy’s engrossing study on the Marian Church):

The article ends on an optimistic note, and one I wish to share. But is Marshall correct when stating that scholars of this period can now be sure that had Mary not died in November 1558, her reign would not have been the disaster which has long been alleged?

Judith Richards, Eamon Duffy, Linda Porter and Anna Whitelock are not the first historians to advance favorable views of Mary or of aspects of her reign. They are not the first to challenge the assumption that her reign was one of complete sterility or the common longstanding belief that the Marian Church was bound to fail. Richards and Duffy in particular have constructed sound arguments that have contributed immeasurably to the perception of Marian regime as competent, but will their works be widely credited? Will historians of this period listen to these new ideas?

I am bit of a cynical person so my instant conclusion was that the new arguments, whilst encouraging, will not be as quickly and as widely credited as Marshall asserts. When Duffy’s book, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor had just been released, a review by David Starkey emerged in The Sunday Times. The review was somewhat hostile, accusing Duffy of lacking much sympathy for the persecuted Protestants of Mary’s reign. A positive review was found in The Telegraph, but the reaction of the paper’s readers hardly reflected the praise. One reader, clearly perturbed by Duffy’s (and the reviewer’s) tone, stated:

So adding a 'renaissance' storey to a mediaeval tomb acquits Bloody Mary of being a backward-looking religious tyrant does it? Anyone, but anyone, who advocates the burning alive of someone else whose opinion differs from theirs, far from being an emblem of 'modernity', is in fact a throw-back to the barbarian hordes."

Furthermore even scholars of Mary’s reign are not in agreement over the argument that a lack of time was Mary’s failure, not her policies. The prime example is that of David Loades, who has worked on Mary’s reign for decades. In his latest work on Mary’s life, Loades concludes that her reign ‘was a failure in terms or her own aims and proprieties’ (Loades, Mary Tudor: The Tragical history of the first queen of England, p. 212). He admits that she could not help being childless, could not avoid the poor harvests and certainly could not prevent dying only after five years on the throne. But he still focuses on the incompetency of certain policies and overall asserts that problems would have persisted had Mary lived longer than she did.

As someone planning to examine Mary's reign for my MA dissertation, I am naturally exciting about the new works and hope they will have a wide impact on scholarship not only of Mary’s reign but of sixteenth-century English religious, political and social history as a whole. But I think it will take some time for these views to be widely endorsed by certain academics and unfortunately much longer for the public as a whole to start adopting these ideas. The legend of ‘Bloody Mary’ will not go away easily.


David Starkey’s review of Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor:

Christopher Howse’s article on Mary’s reputation and Duffy’s latest work, in the Telegraph:

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Hooper Stake

I grew up near a number of Tudor-related places in South Gloucestershire. Fortunately several of these places have a connection to Mary I, primarily by her visit through parts of this region in 1525. The city of Gloucester is one such place. She stayed there, aged nine-years old, for several days in September 1525. [1] But Mary’s connection to the city is today remembered in another way. On 9th February 1555, Bishop John Hooper was burnt at the stake on St Mary’s street. Mary sent specific instructions regarding his death, stating he was to be burnt in his diocese, ‘for the example and terror of suche as he hath caused there seduced and mistaught, and bycause he hath done moste harme there’. [2] He was the first of the Protestant bishops to die, and unfortunately his demise was not quick. On the 5th February he was sent from London to Gloucester, having been officially condemned for heresy. About nine o’clock in the morning of the 9th he was led to the stake with, John Foxe alleged, 7000 persons watching. The number is extravagant, but the emphasis on the large crowds may have been accurate as Foxe notes that Hooper’s entry into the city had been witnessed by many. If the crowds wanted a spectacle then they could not have wished for a bloodier one. Apparently not enough wood have been set about him, and the wind blew the flames from Hooper. Foxe recorded that,

Within a space after, a fewe drie faggots wer brought, & a new fire kindled wt faggots, (for ther wer no more redes): & that burned at the nether partes, but had smal power aboue bicause of the winde, sauing þt it did burne his heare & swel his skin a litle. In the time of the which fire, euē as at the first flame he prayed, saying mildely and not very loud (but as one without paines:) O Iesus the sonne of Dauid haue mercy vpon me, and receaue my soule. After the second was spent he dyd wype both his eyes with his handes, and beholding the people he said with an indifferent loude voice: For gods loue (good people) let me haue more fire: and all this while his nether partes did burne. For the faggots were so fewe, that the flame did not burn strongly at his vpper partes. The third fyre was kindled within a while after, which was more extreme thē the other two: and then the bledders of gonnepowder brake, which did him small good, they were so put, and the wind had such power. In the which fire he praied, with somwhat a loud voice: Lord Iesu haue mercy vpon me: Lorde Iesu haue mercy vpō me. Lord Iesus receaue my spirite. And they were the last wordes he was herd to sound: but when he was blacke in the mouth, and his tonge swollen, that he could not speake: yet his lippes went, till they wer shrounke to the gommes: & he did knocke his brest with his hands vntill one of his armes fel of, and then knocked still with the other, what time the fat, water, and bloud dropped out at his fingers endes, vntil by renewing of the fire, his strength was gonne, and his hand did cleaue fast in knocking, to the the yron vpon his brest. So immediatly bowing forwardes, he yelded vp his spirite.

Thus was he thre quarters of an hower or more in the fire, euen as a lambe: patiently he abode the extremity therof, neither mouing forwards, backwardes, or to any of the sides: but hauing his nether partes burned, and his bowels fallen out, he died as quietly as a child in his bed...

Today a monument stands in memory of Hooper, built in 1862. It is one of several nineteenth-century monuments built to the Protestant martyrs. The creation of this memorial comes with an interesting story. During excavation to build the base of the monument, an item was found lodged in the ground. It was a stump of a charred stake.

The charred piece of wood is normally housed in the Folk Museum on nearby Westgate Street. The museum is situated in the sixteenth-century building in which Hooper is alleged to have been held the night before his execution..Access to the museum is free and the alleged piece of stake, along with other artefacts connected to Hooper, are usually on display. However when I last visited, the items had been moved to storage to make way for an exhibit on Gloucester during the English civil war. Fortunately the people who worked at the museum were extremely helpful and one employee allowed me into the storage room. I assumed that the stake was held in a glass cabinet but it was rather unceremoniously placed on someone’s desk!

The piece of wood has a plaque attached to it, stating:

This is a portion of the stake to which bishop Hooper was chained when he was burned to death in Gloucestershire in 1555. It is indentified by the position in which it was found, rammed round with stone below the surface on the spot described in Foxe’s Martyrology as that on which Hooper suffered and on which the Monument to him now stands. Its history from the time of its discovery being known, it has been purchased for presentation to the Museum at Gloucester at the joint expense of

W. P. Price. Commissioner of railways for the United Kingdom, and formerly M.P. for Gloucester
W.K. Wait. M.P. for Gloucester
C.J. Monk. Chancellor of the Diocese of Gloucester and Bristol and M.P. for Gloucester
Charles H. Hooper. Manufacturer Eastington. Stonehouse

It is impossible to determine whether the stake was actually used at Hooper’s execution, particularly as the same site was used for two subsequent burnings. If genuine, then it is certainly one of the most unusual, disturbing and poignant artefacts connected to Mary’s reign that I have ever seen.


[1] Mary probably stayed in St. Peter’s abbey (now the Cathedral) for an unknown number of days. W.R.B. Robinson, ‘Princess Mary’s Itinerary in the Marches of Wales 1525-1527: a Provisional Record’, Historical Research, 71, 175 (June 1998), p. 244.

[2] Eamon Duffy, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (New Haven and London, 2009), p. 115.

[3] Full text can be read here:

Friday, 10 July 2009

Did Jane Grey have a good claim to the throne?

On this day in 1553, Jane Grey, the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and great-niece of Henry VIII, was publicly proclaimed as queen of England in London. Amidst ‘a trompet blohying’, two heralds declared that the ‘lade Mary was unlawfully be-gotten’ thus Jane was now queen.[1]

Traditionally Edward VI’s ‘devise’ for the succession which deprived Mary and Elizabeth of the throne primarily on grounds of their illegitimacy and granted the kingdom to Jane, has been regarded as unlawful. The typical approach taken on this issue can be found in David Loades, Mary Tudor: The Tragical history of the first queen of England (2006), when he states:

‘Not only was parliamentary consent required for the change that he [Edward] was proposing, but as a minor he was not even capable of making a valid will. As the days ticked by Northumberland became increasingly desperate, even threatening violence against the obstructers. Eventually it was agreed that the only way to proceed was by letters patent, which would have to be retrospectively confirmed. Such letters were drawn up, but they never passed the seals, and thus were never properly validated, and so remained technically invalid.’ [2]

In such a narrative the actions of Edward, the duke of Northumberland and the conspirators remains highly dubious. Since Mary’s right to succeed was confirmed in a parliamentary statue (the Act of Succession of 1544, 35 Hen. VIII, c. 1), then the same administrative body was expected to be endorsed in the occasion that the monarch wished to remove Mary from the succession. Could the 1544 act be overturned just by Edward VI’s will? Or did parliament need to be included in all this?

In an article on Tudor dynastic problems, Eric Ives noted that Edward ‘was clearly copying his father’.[3] Many know of Henry VIII’s obsession with the succession that resulted in a string of marriages, and three separate parliamentary statutes explicitly concerning this subject. Cleary Henry believed that the monarch held the right to decide who his heirs should be and implement parliament to confirm this. His belief in the crown’s prerogative in matters of the succession went even further. The 1544 Act stated that the king ‘myght by the auctoritie of the saide acte give and dispose the ... crown ... by his letters patentes ... or by his last will ... to any person or persons’.[4] In other words if Henry, after endorsing parliament to confirm the succession, wished to subsequently change his heirs he had the power to make such an amendment by letters patent or in his will. In the end Henry chose to confirm the details of the 1544 act in his final will by stating again that all three of his children had a place in the succession. But he still held the power to state otherwise if he wished.

Edward's 'devise for the succession', 1553. Notice the change made on line four - after 'L Jane', Edward has inserted 'and her' so the line reads 'L Jane and her heires masles' instead of just 'L Jane heires masles'.

Although Edward laid out his succession in the ‘devise’ (which had to be modified because the first draft left the crown to Jane's ‘heirs masles’ and not actually to Jane herself), he did use letters patent to support such changes. Loades states that they were ‘never properly validated’, and certainly Edward came across opposition to his actions.[5] Nonetheless the letters patent were signed by many prominent figures in government, by judges and certain leading citizens of London.[6] But does this mean that Edward’s actions were entirely legal and that he reserved the right to change the succession purely because he was the monarch?

To argue that Edward did have the right to remove Mary and make Jane his heir is to infer that the 1544 act which allowed Henry to change his mind was a privilege that extended to subsequent monarchs. But when Henry oversaw the passing of the 1544 act did he ever intend for the clause that the monarch ‘myght by the auctoritie of the saide acte give and dispose the ... crown ... by his letters patentes ... or by his last will ... to any person or persons’ to be a power for all future kings (or queens) of England ? Or was he just concerned with himself?

Then there is another problem. Was Edward of a suitable age to make such actions? In 1544 Henry was a monarch in his fifties, who had exercised power for over thirty years. There was no outcry when he had this act passed. But Edward, though highly precocious for his age and concerned with administrative and particularly religious affairs, was only fifteen years old by the spring of 1553 and the country still had a lord president and a council that governed for him. When attempting to avoid conforming to the religious policies of her brother’s reign, Mary asserted that she would not recognise the laws owing to her brother’s tender age. For Mary, Edward’s policies were actually his councillors and she would not comply until he came of age to decide for himself. But her argument was not necessarily shared by all, and maybe Mary did not entirely endorse it. After all, Mary’s protests were all part of her attempts to avoid changing her own religious practise and to resist adopting the new policies which she regarded as heretical. It was therefore pragmatic to argue that these new laws were not legitimate and subsequently she should carry on endorsing the religious practise of her father’s reign. But many others did not show such defiance. Its notable how one contemporary judge, Edward Montagu, claimed that he had been troubled by the fact that Edward’s ‘devise’ conflicted with an act of parliament but Montagu did not state that he felt Edward was wrong in enforcing his royal will.[7] Rather, the judge argued, there were legal niceties that needed to be observed in order for Edward to go about appointing his own successors and in this circumstance they were not met. But even Montagu agreed to Edward’s changes in the end.

This post is full of questions and provides few answers. This ambiguity is caused by the fact that work on this subject is forthcoming and until publication it is hard to establish a definite position. The work in question is Eric Ives, Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (WileyBlackwell, Oct 2009) that is to propose that Jane had strong legal grounds for her succession. Whilst scouring the internet for any information about this study I came across the book’s table of contents. One chapter is entitled ‘The rebellion of Mary Tudor’ and relates to Mary’s accession and Jane’s downfall. It is certainly an interesting way of looking at this subject. Was Mary the rebel who overthrew Jane the queen?

Admittedly I have always perceived matters the other way around. Jane the imposter, Mary the rightful claimant. And I still question whether Edward’s actions can be regarded as legal owing to the absence of parliament in all this. Edward could of course not help the fact that his heath was rapidly declining and that he did not have the time to call parliament immediately to verify his changes. There is evidence, as Ives points out, that Montagu urged for a parliament to convene in September 1553 to authorise Edward’s actions which does indicate the importance placed upon using parliament to overturn the 1544 act and remove Mary’s right to succeed.[8] Nonetheless Ives’s future work raises interesting questions about the royal prerogative and whether Henry set a precedent for his heir to decide outside of parliament how the succession was to be determined.


[1] The diary of Henry Machyn, citizen and merchant-taylor of London, from AD 1550 to AD 1563, ed. J. G. Nichols, CS, 42 (1848), cited from David Loades, The Chronicles of the Tudor Queens (Gloucestershire, 2002), p. 5.

[2] David Loades, Mary Tudor: The Tragical history of the first queen of England (The National Archives, 2006), p. 97.

[3] Eric Ives, ‘Tudor dynastic problems revisited’, Historical Research, 81, 212 (May 2008), p. 268.

[4] Extract from 35 Hen. VIII, c. 1), cited in Ives, ‘Tudor dynastic problems revisited’, p. 265.

[5] According to contemporary chronicler Robert Wingfield, two lawyers (John Hales, the justice of the common pleas and John Gosnold, solicitor general), opposed the scheme.

[6] Jennifer Loach, Edward VI (New Haven and London, 1999), p. 165.

[7] Ives, ‘Tudor dynastic problems revisited’, p. 269-70.

[8] Ives, ‘Tudor dynastic problems revisited’, p. 270.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Review of Judith Richards, Mary Tudor (2008)

I wanted to find a detailed, excellently written review of Judith M. Richards’s biography on Mary. Unfortunately such reviews have been published in journals which, though I can access, I am not allowed to post elsewhere owing to tedious copyright issues! So I have decided not to be lazy and have written my own review. Needless to say it is not of the calibre of the others!


Judith M. Richards, Mary Tudor (Routledge, London and New York, 2008)

In 1557 the Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Michiel, wrote a lengthy report on the appearance and personality of Queen Mary I, that has become a valuable source in the examination of this figure. Mary was, he claimed, a woman of ‘wonderful grandeur and dignity, knowing what became the dignity of a sovereign as well as any of the most consummate statesmen in her service’. Yet despite such praise Michiel still argued that because Mary was ‘of a sex which cannot becomingly take more than a moderate part’ in administrative affairs, she must have therefore taken a more passive role in government. The ambassador’s claims show us the prejudice that Mary as a female ruler encountered throughout her reign, problems which Richards explores exceptionally well in this work.

Richard’s biography is superb in analysing the subject of female rule in the sixteenth-century and in the context of the reign of Mary Tudor. Previous work on English female rule has focused almost predominately on Elizabeth I. Yet as Richards identifies, Mary preceded Elizabeth and successful met challenges including attempting to curb the power of her consort, Philip of Spain. Richards effectively pushes aside the traditional notion of a weak-willed Mary who was under her husband’s thumb. Instead Mary appears as a ruler who was very wary of others encroaching upon her authority.

Aside from the useful discussions on queenship, there is also a revised and in-depth analysis of Mary’s faith and religious policies. Richards rejects the notion that Mary was the blindly devoted Catholic of Protestant myth. Instead Mary actually encountered problems with the papacy and ultimately defied the pope by refusing to send Cardinal Reginald Pole back to Rome so he may be tried on charges of heresy. As Richards notes, ‘her obedience to the Holy Father was always tempted by a strong sense of the proper limitations of papal authority within her kingdom’ (p.218). Overall subtle comparisons between Mary and her father Henry VIII, are made. It has never been popular to consider that the pair had much in common, particularly in regards to religion. But as Richards shows, Mary was also favourable to the English Bible having encouraged the preparation of another during her reign. She also agreed with the Henrician settlement on certain points; for example she and Henry were in agreement on the subject of clerical celibacy and the absolute necessity of recognising the real presence at the mass. And of course both conflicted with the papacy, albeit in varying degrees.

Mary’s relationship with France is covered well, and Richards presents the image of a queen who faced a rather hostile and often unreasonable French monarch. Richards implies that part of Henri II’s disdain was over Mary’s sex, reinforcing further the tribulations Mary faced as a queen regnant. Richards also argues that when England did go to war with the French, something historians have attacked as absolutely disastrous, there was a significant degree of support in England for the move. The biography also illustrates the alleged and genuine frustrations the English government had with the French prior to the declaration of war that indicates that decision to enter conflict was not solely or even mainly to do with support for the Hapsburgs.

However the biography is not without faults. I would have liked a larger section on the Marian persecutions as owing to its controversy and the fact that for many it has defined Mary and her reign, it is therefore a subject that needs much analysis. But perhaps Richards was making a point with the fact that only ten pages in her book are specifically dedicated to this. Her use of comparisons, between Mary’s reign and the rest of Catholic Europe (and Protestant Europe), and with the reign of Elizabeth I, was very useful. Arguably she could have gone further in such comparisons in her general argument that the Marian burnings were not incredibly unique. Overall Richards clearly indicates Mary’s role in the burnings and reveals an image of a queen who was actively involved in the policies of her reign. I think this is important to assert as Mary is a figure that can be liable to (and has actually been) represented in an extremely malicious or even very saintly fashion, both such views being gross exaggerations. Instead, as Richards shows us, she was an active sixteenth-century monarch like her father and her sister and just as we must recognise her participation in the successes of her reign, so we must identify her role in the actions which we are repulsed by.

In her own review of this book, Dr Lucy Wooding argued that more detail could have been included on the last three years of Mary’s reign. This is a valid point as some things are skipped over. If I am not mistaken Richards failed to mention the formation of the Muscovy Company in 1555, which marked significant trade links between England and Russia. Overall Ireland and Wales are rarely (if ever in regards to the latter) mentioned in this work.

Despite these criticisms, Judith Richards work on Mary is an engrossing, innovative study which has enriched scholarship on this period and will be extremely useful for historians and students of this era. It is a shame that this book has not received much publicity, whilst another and less superior recent biography on Mary has. This book, though useful for academics, is also accessible for those who know little about Mary and her reign and want a well written and fascinating biography. It lacks the syrupy sentimental language of popular history books, yet still provides us with excellent detail about Mary’s private life and character as well as the politics of her reign.