Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Review of John Edwards, Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen (2011)

Last week’s holiday provided me with the perfect chance to read the latest biography of Mary. Perhaps not ideal beside-the-pool reading, but I wasn’t disappointed...

John Edwards, Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), 387pp. £25.

Works on Mary I and her reign do not reach the number of studies on her father and half-sister. Still, she is the subject of a fair number of biographies. Compare this to biographies of Henry VIII; Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII, first published in 1968, still remains the leading account of this monarch’s life. Mary, on the other hand, has at least five biographies to her name published since 2006 (not counting reprints), all of which are readily available in mainstream book shops. This includes the latest offering, by John Edwards, which has already been heralded as ‘the first time we have a proper account of her with a fully European-wide perspective’ (Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch) and ‘the best scholarly biography of Mary I’ (Professor Ethan Shagan). And such comments are not far off the mark.

John Edwards’ book forms part of the Yale English Monarchs Series which already includes separate biographies of the Tudor kings. The works, or at least the ones I have read, act as introductory texts yet are also incredibly valuable to those rather clued up on the various figures. Having read nearly all the biographies of Mary published in modern times, it is easy to get – dare I say this? – slightly bored of reading lengthy discussions on Mary’s parental and maternal ancestry at the beginning of each biography along with a very detailed account of Katherine of Aragon’s time in England before her daughter’s birth, her marriage to Prince Arthur, then to Henry VIII, the accompanying treaties, etc. Edwards is particularly skilled in providing the reader with the necessary details, naturally of great benefit to those new to Tudor history, whilst not diverting from his subject. It is a very subtle way of dealing with the always essential but sometimes burdensome context.

It’s best to start with the positives of this book and there are many. Undoubtedly this biography is the most important one of Mary in regards to her marriage, her husband’s role as King of England, and Anglo-Spanish relations in general throughout the course of Mary’s lifetime. Edwards is a Modern Languages Faculty Research Fellow in Spanish at Oxford University and specialises in Early Modern Spain. He has already written a joint biography on Mary’s maternal grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, along with a separate one on Isabella. He is an authority on the Spanish Inquisition and Spanish religious influence in mid-Tudor England. His knowledge of Spanish sources of this period shines through this book. Not only has he exhausted Spanish archives for primary sources (some of which are not used in other works on Mary) but he is mindful of secondary Spanish sources. I was impressed (and jealous) that he got hold of María Jesús Pérez Martín’s María Tudor: La gran reina desconocida (Madrid: Ediciones Rialp, 2008) which clearly helped guide him to certain primarily materials in Spain. The result of such wide-ranging research, unconfined to the libraries and archives in the UK, is a marvellous account of Mary’s relationship with her Habsburg relations. Or, as Diarmaid MacCulloch nicely put it, Mary as ‘a Trastamara princess as well as a Tudor’.

There is ample information on Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain, namely the complicated route to the union, Philip’s attitudes to becoming King of England, and of the grand plans Philip’s father Charles V had for his dynasty. The personalities of these Spanish figures and their relationships with one another are discussed in more detail than I have seen elsewhere in works on Mary. I’ll give you an example of this – Edwards points out that by the early 1550s Philip and Charles’ relationship was suffering somewhat, that Philip, understandable for his age, wished for more independence, and his plans for this often put him at odds with his father. We are also told that Philip, who wished to marry Maria of Portugal by the time Mary became queen came to understand his father’s desire for him to marry the new queen of England and instead of assenting to his father’s plans he decided not to lose face by turning the situation around and announcing to Charles that he had decided to break off marriage talks with Portugal through his own initiative (p. 147). It feels as if a battle of wills was in effect here, with Mary’s marriage being the policy of several characters – Mary, Charles, Philip – all of whom liked to think they were in control of the entire affair. A very insightful and personal account of the road to Mary’s marriage.

Edwards’ discussion of Philip’s own role as Mary’s consort is superb. Philip’s own anger at the terms of the marriage treaty, his involvement in English affairs, his recognition of the implications the Habsburg conflict with France had on England, and his admiration and later frustration with the English is laid out well. Alongside this is plenty of analysis of how Philip’s Spanish attendants regarded Mary’s realm. We are reminded of how highly the Spanish regarded English history and myth (Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table especially). Philip was also committed to such tales and ‘fully shared the popular taste of western Europeans for the romances of chivalry’ (p. 185). Upon marrying Mary ‘he seems to have slipped immediately and naturally into the chivalric role’ that the monarchs, male always before Mary, were expected to adopt (p. 210). This leads to some interesting questions about the negotiation of roles between Mary and Philip as well as how Mary was able to maintain her authority and declare her powers as queen regnant to be equally to that of a king’s, yet recognise that certain aspects of rule had been appropriated by her male counterparts. The sense I got from Edwards’ work is that Mary and Philip were a productive partnership with Mary perceiving her husband to be useful in carrying out the tasks denied to her sex (whether it was associated with chivalric orders and their rituals or, more pressingly, the matter of the battlefield). That is not say Edwards ignores the blatant conflicts that the marriage caused, including Philip’s own exasperation at the marriage treaty that placed great restrictions on his involvement in English affairs. Edwards also believes there was a sense of a culture clash that led to confusion and outright hostility between the Spanish visitors and the English. Occasionally he provides some amusing antidotes to highlight the problems in Anglo-Spanish relations. When, for example, the high-ranking Spanish noblewomen, the duchess of Alba, was greeted in Southampton alongside the recently arrived Philip, the earl of Derby attempted to welcome her in the English custom by kissing her on the lips (p. 185). Such was not the practice in Spain and it led to an awkward moment where the lady stiffened before politely accepting such informal English etiquette.

As already noted, Edwards has written about the Spanish Inquisition and Spanish religious influence in Marian England. These themes are further explored in this book. The reader is provided with an excellent overview of the legacy of heresy trials in England by the time of Mary’s reign, along with an understanding of contemporary attitudes towards heresy on the continent (especially pp. 254-8). Like several recent historians, including Thomas Freeman, Edwards does not seek to ignore Mary’s own support for the infamous heresy trials. His work is also in line with the arguments of the late William Wizeman in seeking to perceive the religious policies of Mary’s reign as part of the so called Counter Reformation in Europe. Mary’s church was not a standalone example to be examined as such but part of the wider Catholic Church influenced deeply by European churchmen including the many that formed part of Philip’s entourage. This in essence is the argument of Edwards’ book. Mary’s reign should not be examined merely in context with events that occurred in England beforehand, including Henry VIII’s break from Rome in the 1530s and even the Tudors whole establishment on the throne in 1485. The actions of previous Tudor monarchs especially in regards to the church are certainly important but a deeper understanding of the European political stage, papal affairs throughout these years, and the role European religious and political thinkers had in Mary’s England is imperative in our understanding of the first Tudor queen’s reign.

That being said there were some aspects I had issues with.

When discussing Mary’s decision to conform to her father Henry VIII’s demands in 1536 – to recognise her father as head of the church, his marriage to her mother Katherine as unlawful and thus herself as illegitimate – Edwards argues that Mary’s ‘emotional prop in the succeeding years’ was the pope and not her cousin Charles V (p. 50). But he fails to provide sufficient evidence to show such a connection between Mary and the pope. We are told that Paul III allowed Mary’s confessors to absolve her in secret (Edwards seems to be relying upon ambassador Chapuys’s letters for this though it should be noted that Chapuys was inconsistent in his claims that a) Mary was concerned about seeking papal approval for her actions and b) that the papacy was that directly involved). Edwards then fails to discuss the papacy much in the following pages. When he refers to the pope does he specifically mean Paul III? If so there really is little evidence in this book that Paul III was ever an ‘emotional prop’ for Mary. Paul III may have (allegedly) allowed Mary that one concession but, as Edwards also mentions, he ‘would not give her licence to renounce secretly her submission to her father, and hence continue to be regarded as a Catholic in the eyes of the Church’ (p.50). He even credits this unfavourable decision as adding to Mary’s turmoil over the rejection of her faith (p.52). Some emotional prop.

On the same issue, Edwards also appears to contradict himself about Mary’s religious views from c.1536-47 and her attitude towards her submission. Clearly he regards the submission as disingenuous and stresses that Mary wished for the pope to absolve her in secret so she could be a practising Nicodemite. He mentions this, for example, on p. 68. On the bottom of the same page he goes on to state that ‘it is particularly important to note that Mary seems at this time to have accepted the state and nature of the Church as Henry left it’ (pp. 68-9). What he is referring to here is the conservative nature of many aspects of Henrician doctrine which suited both Henry VIII and Mary. I entirely agree with Edwards on this point, and it is an argument that Judith Richards promoted with great effect in her book Mary Tudor. But Edwards’ recognition that Mary could worship in her father’s church and was accepting of the nature of it does conflict with his previous arguments that its state was so unpleasant to her – in danger, she believed, of threatening her soul – that she sought papal approval and was distraught at the problems she encountered in this. His repeated comparison between Mary and Nicodemus is not a neat one. Mary’s own religious approach was much more complex as was her attitude to papal authority. It would certainly have helped had Edwards mentioned Richards’ work and tackled it head on, and/or discussed more of the nature of Henry VIII’s church.

Then there are the errors. I’m rather forgiving of the odd slip-up because I’m certainly prone to them (and not just the odd one!). But Edwards has the misfortune of repeating some of these mistakes. On at least two occasions he states that Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and Mary’s aunt, was the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots (p. 63, p. 76). Remarkable given Margaret had died the year before granddaughter Mary of Scotland’s birth. What makes this mistake even sillier is that earlier he correctly identified the Scottish queen’s mother as Marie de Guise and later on talks about Marie’s role as regent. Edwards also states that Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon was Cardinal Reginald Pole’s nephew (p. 149). He was not. Edwards names Mary’s sister-in-law, the widowed duchess of Richmond, as ‘Elizabeth Howard’ though she was another Mary (p. 102).At one point Edwards refers to a letter by Jane Grey ‘apparently written to Mary’ (pp. 115-6), which was actually a conversation Jane had with an individual in the Tower recorded by one ‘Lea’ (probably Richard Lea, a London goldsmith). The text in question is discussed well in Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. (Thanks to the Lady Jane Grey Reference Guide for pointing that error out to me.)

The book jacket declares the biography to be ‘original and deeply researched’, offering ‘fresh understandings of her religious faith and policies, as well as her historical significance in England and beyond’. It succeeds in this and it is certainly a biography that should be consulted by any Mary/Tudor scholar. Those looking for a biography that merely discusses Mary’s personal history – who wish for another presentation of what Edwards’s brilliantly calls the ‘‘little woman’ approach’ to Mary (p. 105), that dwells on her ‘tragedies’ and purports an image of her as a domesticated queen denying her of any acumen and unable of governing decisively – will be disappointed. But it is his refusal to support such an image that attracts me to this book. It manages to cover a wide range of themes, contains an excellent bibliography and regular footnoting (though I felt at times Edward could have referenced more). The seventeen illustrations, though in black and white, have very detailed labels. The Mary that emerges from this book is a queen convinced that God favoured ‘and done great things for her, by bringing her to both throne and marriage’ (p. 347). It was such ideas that encouraged Mary’s steadfastness and determination, not always wisely pursued but nonetheless apparent and sometimes courageous. But it is not admiration of Mary that Edwards seems to seek. It is the recognition that she was monarch with achievements, long since ‘undermined and attacked’ but nonetheless present and necessary to appraise. He is neither the first nor the last historian to recognise the successes of Mary’s reign and to defend her ability to govern. But he is one of the first to have taken her role as a Habsburg wife very seriously.