Thursday, 21 July 2011

Review of Doran and Freeman (eds.), Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives

Oh, I have waited for this book for so long!...

Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman (eds.), Mary Tudor: Old and New Perspectives (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 345pp. £15.99.

In the wake of an revival of interest in Mary Tudor, namely in her personal history and the religious policies of her reign, it is refreshing to have a study that steps back and reconsiders the foundations of the belief that Mary’s life and reign were abject failures. Readers of this blog do not need to be told that Mary has long been considered a disappointment – worse still, as a tyrannical or hysterical queen whose rule was marked by indefensible cruelty. Biographies of Mary briefly discuss the origins of this reputation but there has not been a full study into the history of Mary’s posthumous reputation and the changing nature of scholarship on her.

Fortunately ten historians have addressed this gap and produced one of the most important studies on Mary in recent years. This volume consists of a series of articles and an introduction, all original, nearly all controversial. Which naturally makes this book an impressive and exciting read!

The scope of topics is varied. The book is divided into two sections, with the first examining the reputation of Mary and her reign after her death, and the second offering new examinations into aspects of her life and rule ‘which were distorted by centuries of myth and misrepresentation’ (p. 15). Mary’s religious policies are naturally a hot topic but it is by no means the singular issue. Her education, relationships, and her ability to govern independently and decisively, along with that pressing and often neglected issue of Mary’s role as England’s first crowned queen regnant, are all considered with fresh new perspectives offered.

The book starts with a bold claim that sets the tone perfectly for the volume. The reader is told that had Mary the fortune of living longer – let’s say another decade – ‘almost certainly, England would be Catholic and probably Scotland as well, since the Scottish Protestants would not have had the crucial backing from England that they received at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign’ (p. 1). Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman even undermine the argument that Elizabeth I’s accession was a sure thing, saying that had Mary lived longer providing time for Mary, Queen of Scots to be widowed and back in Scotland, there was the possibility of the young Scottish queen having the chance to claim the succession, or even Lord Darnley, the son of Mary I’s favourite, Margaret Douglas. Fortunately this book is not a series of ‘what ifs’ that are useful in reiterating the success of Mary’s policies up till her death and even longer had she lived on but can prove tedious, if not futile, arguments. The contributors are all concerned in placing matters in the context they occurred to prove Mary’s accomplishments and make a case for how unjustifiable this poor image of herself and her reign is.

The first article is by Doran and appropriately examines the perception of Mary through the eyes of Elizabethan Protestants. Doran indicates how Mary was perceived in a rather complex way by these Protestant writers; clearly there was no standard view of her. They may have all agreed in the ‘absurdity’ and sacrilegious nature of her religious views and policies, but quite a few conceded that she was an amiable figure, if not weak willed and thus no tyrant. Consequently others, namely Mary’s bishops, were selected as scapegoats for the persecutions of that reign. There were of course exceptions to this – as the work of John Foxe clearly illustrates – but Doran makes the excellent point that in the late sixteenth-century Mary was not perceived as the ‘bloody’ queen we are so familiar with. We can thank developments in the seventeenth-century for that (a time when, Freeman notes in another article, the term ‘Bloody Mary’ was used repeatedly and thus popularised). Doran also refers to the often lack of references to Mary in Elizabethan works, attributing this to a conscientious desire by some writers to focus their narratives on the Marian martyrs. By ignoring Mary they were denying her the glory and fame that was seen as the rightful properties of those she had persecuted.

Victor Houliston continues the focus on the Elizabethan period, albeit he is concerned with Elizabethan Catholics and their perceptions of Mary. He examines the usual suspects – prominent Catholic polemists like Allen, Persons and Sanders – many of whom naturally felt an affinity to Mary’s reign and were keen to preserve her reputation as a godly, charitable and virtuous woman. A particular point I found interesting is reference to some Elizabethan Catholics being uncomfortable with the policies of Mary’s reign, namely the burnings. Houliston mentions that Sanders, writing in the 1560s, argued that some fellow Catholics assumed an ‘air of pity’ and condemned the persecutions (p. 43). Houliston’s end point, that there existed an ‘icon’ of Mary who ‘reflected the glory of Catholic Europe’ is certainly one to consider though I came away from the article intrigued by Catholic disapproval in Mary than her status as an exemplary figure. Though maybe any disdain for Mary was worn away by the persecutions that Catholics themselves faced throughout Elizabeth’s reign. Critical comments dating to the 1560s could easily be transformed after decades of hardship prompting nostalgia for Mary’s ‘Catholic England’.

Paulina Kewes and Teresa Grant’s respective articles both consider contemporary political developments and their effect on the reputation of Mary. Kewes examines the legacy of the 1553 succession crisis during Elizabeth’s reign when the absence of an acknowledged heir led not only to speculation and intrigue about who should succeed Elizabeth, but even to notions that the next sovereign should be appointed, ‘elected’, by the elite. The memory of Mary was a powerful tool to use here. Though those who advanced the idea of an elected monarch did not want to say that Edward VI’s own appointment of Lady Jane Grey was a good thing, for that would have greatly offended Elizabeth as it had done Mary, they did use the example of Mary’s reign as reason enough not to have another Catholic monarch. And given that the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots was practically Elizabeth’s heir in all but name for many years, it is easy to see why Protestant polemists would drag up the example of Mary Tudor to advance their argument that they should have some say in the appointment of the next king or queen.

Grant meanwhile looks at the slightly later years – the rule of the Stuarts – where the memory of Mary was equally important. Anti-Spanish feeling was rife at certain periods especially post Gunpowder Plot (1605). This naturally led to criticisms of Mary, characterised as subservient to Spain and to her husband, Philip. But Grant also identified attacks on Mary’s personality as well. In the early seventeenth-century play, Sir Thomas Wyatt, she is depicted as materialistic (linking, of course, to the then prevailing stereotype of Catholicism as a worldly faith marred by avarice), as well as being insincere. She is first presented to the audience as like a ‘nun’, steadfast in her faith, only to swiftly agree to marriage and adopting a fixation with her frequently absent husband. She was by now seen as a woman who lacked judgment and sought poor counsel.

The theme of Mary as a woman who was unprepared to act independently, and when she did she failed miserably, is one which has widely been supported in works on Mary till present day (as we are reminded on several occasions in this book). One of the most controversial issues relating to this is Mary’s involvement, or more accurately her responsibility, in the notorious burnings of the Protestants. Here two of the contributors of this volume disagree. In his article on the Marian persecutions, Thomas Freeman’s argues for Mary’s zealous backing of the policy, noting her ‘acute interest in and oversight of the burnings’ (p. 172). This is at odds with Judith Richard’s article which seeks to stress the involvement of local authorities in the process of trying heretics. Richards does not deny Mary’s support for the policy but her insistence on the role of others in the effort conflicts with the rest of her article. Firstly her claim is not backed with nearly enough evidence as Freeman backs his own with. Secondly, Richard’s article principally concerns Mary’s abilities as queen, her thorough grounding of the law, and her often astute, if not reasonable, way of handling situations. It is clear that local authorities played a role – no one could claim Mary was alone in enforcing and defending the policy – but her support for the decision and even her interventions in the process are documented more than once. Arguably Richards’ view is inconsistent – maybe too favourable? But she does raise several other excellent points, not least that the perception that Mary’s actions were controlled by her ‘hysteria’ is an absurd, prejudicial view, with little historical basis. Worrying, this grossly outdated view is still being voiced. Richards observed that only recently the Wikipedia page for Mary presented as fact that her probable phantom pregnancies and the alleged trauma or ‘hysteria’ that such an event procured, was the reason for Mary’s persecutions of the Protestants!

Mary’s role in the affairs of her reign is also discussed in the late William Wizeman’s article on the religious policies of her reign. In many respects the article is an excellent summary of recent works into the vitality and successes of the Marian Church, not least the Eamon Duffy’s impressive Fires of Faith. Wizeman also advances the argument he has made previously – that Mary’s church was not an insular establishment, but important to consider in context of the ‘Counter Reformation’ sweeping Europe. He provides ample examples of Mary’s England being a breeding ground for Catholic talents, many of whom would later emerge as significant figures of the ‘Counter Reformation’. Unlike Duffy who ascribes Cardinal Pole as the leading figure of Mary’s church, Wizeman recognises Mary’s initiative and believes she was self-consciously presenting herself as a ‘chief model of the faithful and devout layperson’ (p. 167). This is an appealing point. As Mary shunned the headship of the church and acknowledged papal supremacy, her role as that of the exemplary follower instead makes a lot of sense. One thing that Wizeman leaves open for others to examine further is whether Mary was involved in ‘self-fashioning’. I found this fascinating not least because it is something I touched upon in my MA work in regards to the way in which Mary presented herself prior to her succession. Certainly it would be too cynical to say that every act of charity and good deed was committed by Mary consciously to cultivate a specific image, but like many contemporary monarchs and especially Elizabeth I later, she was deeply concerned with her image and of the need to encourage support for herself and her policies.

Mary’s education has frequently been ignored or touched upon lightly in biographies, but two articles in this volume seek to address the prevailing crude notion that Mary was, in the words of Geoffrey Elton, ‘rather stupid’. Andrew Taylor’s assessment of the young Mary’s education and knowledge of humanist texts is admittedly stifled by the lack of evidence we have on this in the years before the collapse of her parents’ marriage. Yet both Taylor and Aysha Pollnitz make the comparison between Mary and her great grandmother Margaret Beaufort, a patroness of renowned learning. The influence Katherine of Aragon had on her daughter has long been recognised and is backed by Taylor and Pollintz, but the impact of Beaufort (dead before Mary’s birth) is a new and intriguing one. It was Margaret, Pollintz argues, who set a standard for subsequent aristocratic women in devotional habits and patronage of scholars and colleges. Mary was the true heir of this legacy. Pollintz uses as example of this Mary’s involvement in the translation of Erasmus’ Paraphrase on John, encouraged by stepmother Katherine Parr, then at the centre of a remarkable scholarly circle of court women. The uncompleted translation proved Mary’s competence as translator along with her ability to exploit her position as a royal female to help advance the ‘enstruccion and edifynge of whole realms in the knowleage of god’, a view strongly felt by Parr (p. 132). Pollintz shows it was a belief that Mary continued to take very seriously as queen.

What though of the pitfalls, if any, of this book? The articles largely focus on Mary’s posthumous reputation in text throughout the centuries, including some fascinating discussions on presentations of her in children’s textbook from the nineteenth-century onwards. But there is no exploration of the way in which she was portrayed through images. It should be remembered that significant developments in the production of prints, especially in techniques in the late seventeenth-century and throughout the eighteenth century, led to the mass production of cheap prints of images. There began a roaring trade of prints of prominent persons, including past English monarchs and other royals. Countless images of Mary were produced for popular consummation and not all were mere copies of contemporary portraits of her. Portraits of her prints started to introduce references to the burnings; she became immortalised as ‘Bloody Mary’, her name forever linked to the most scandalous aspect of her reign. Along with portraiture, perhaps we should also address Mary’s reputation in film and TV, which reaches large audiences and frequently affects popular perceptions of her more so than academic studies, as well as her appearance in historical fiction.

That said there is little to complain about this book. It is undoubtedly an important text in our understanding of Mary and her reign and draws attention to areas where there is so much potential for further research (particularly the question of gender and Mary I, as Thomas Betteridge notes in his article). In the appendix is provided a thorough list of the Marian martyrs (with plenty of footnotes; always a good sign!) Will this book make much of an impact? I sincerely hope so and, given the names involved in this book, the relatively low price of it, and the original nature of its focus, it will attract attention. But can we ever put aside longstanding anxieties about Mary’s reign that have plagued accounts of it? As Freeman notes, Mary ‘has continually been judged by the standards of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and not surprising, has been found wanting’ (p. 100). The authors are correct that is about time we form our own understanding, but it is a difficult process, unsettling for some, that perhaps is not as easy as Freeman’s allegory to the art restorer ‘carefully removing the layers of overpainting to reveal as much as possible of the original portrait that lies beneath’. The question of course – can we ever find the real Mary?