The Life and Historical Reputation of Mary Tudor

Chapter 11 : Royal Marriage

Few people realise that England once had a King Philip and that he was the husband of Mary Tudor. The new Queen’s decision to marry Charles V’s son, her first cousin once removed, was made only after much soul-searching. Mary believed she must marry but, on a personal level, was not keen on the prospect. The choice of Philip was a natural one. He was from her mother’s family, was of suitable regality (there were many, including in her own household who wanted Mary to marry an Englishman but she balked at the idea of marrying a subject) and he was Catholic.Spain was a long-time ally of England and France was still the natural enemy. For reasons of religion and of state, Philip of Spain, as he is generally known, was a fitting consort. But he was not, as he found out when he read the terms of the marriage treaty in which Mary had taken a keen interest but he had no part, to be her equal in ruling England.

Already widowed and with a young (and progressively unstable) son, he was eleven years Mary’s junior. To say he did not want to wed her is something of an understatement. They were married on a very wet day at the end of July, 1554, in Winchester Cathedral. Mary was thrilled by her husband, whose fair hair betrayed his Burgundian rather than Spanish ancestors and whose correct manners and solicitous behaviour gave no inkling of the distaste he felt. Starved of affection for many years, she allowed herself to fall head over heels in love.

Before the marriage, she had survived a serious rebellion led by the Kentish gentleman, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and fallen out with her sister, who was implicated in the plot and whose knowledge of it remains unclear. Mary’s doubts about Elizabeth, who was, of course, her heir until she had children of her own, were compounded by Elizabeth’s unsatisfactory answers when questioned about her involvement in the conspiracy and the Queen’s growing inability to trust the adult daughter of Anne Boleyn, a young woman of great presence who instinctively connected with the English people in a way that the shy and short-sighted Mary could not.

The Queen was encouraged in her views by the Imperial ambassador, the wily Simon Renard, who was constantly reminding Mary of the potential threat her sister, known to have Protestant sympathies, represented. Elizabeth ended up in the Tower under arrest in March, 1554, though she was only there for a short time and had a suite of rooms with her own attendants. Released after a couple of months to house arrest at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, Elizabeth was the bane of the life of her custodian, Sir Edmund Bedingfeld. She only returned to court – and then briefly – when the birth of Mary and Philip’s child was believed to be imminent. Except, of course, that Mary was never pregnant at all.

Mary’s false pregnancy is one of the saddest aspects of her difficult life. Again, detractors have managed to make out that this episode shows her at her most credulous and stupid, a little woman who wanted to be a mother so badly that she made it all up. Mary was godmother to many children, as was the custom for high-born ladies at the time, but we cannot know how strong her own maternal desires really were. She wanted a child to ensure her throne and the Catholic religion that she was determined to restore – and to give England a greater role in Europe.

It is true that Mary was surrounded by sycophantic servants who must have realised well before the Queen herself accepted the fact that she was not pregnant. Most of her ladies were guilty of encouraging her in her hopes. Yet false pregnancies were not at all uncommon at the time and Mary was no more guilty of self-delusion than many. When it became obvious that she was not carrying a child, Mary had to endure the double disappointment of her husband’s departure for Brussels, where he was urgently needed to govern the extensive Habsburg lands in northern Europe. The episode of a weeping Mary waving goodbye to him from a window as he boarded a boat at Greenwich is a good story made highly unlikely by Mary’s failing eyesight.