Although there was jubilation at Greenwich at Mary’s birth, Henry VIII was disappointed in that Catherine of Aragon had failed to deliver a son. Mary would be the only one of Catherine and Henry VIII’s children who would live to adulthood. In an age when monarchs were preferably men, young Mary’s purpose diplomatically was to secure a strategic nuptial alliance for her father.
In Henry VIII’s eyes, the only way to secure the throne in the Tudor family—and to make it a true dynasty—was to have a male son who would succeed him as king. Consequently, Henry began his quest to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry again in the hopes of producing a male Tudor heir.
However, to assure the succession of the Tudors to the throne, Mary was recognized by her father as princess of Wales, which meant that, should her father die without male issue, she would succeed him as Queen Mary I.
In the end, Henry had his marriage to Catherine of Aragon dissolved, and he wed his mistress Anne Boleyn, who was crowned queen of England in 1533. Pregnant at the time of her marriage to Henry, she gave birth to the princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I, in September 1533. Still the king determined to have his way in all things, Henry was frustrated in his pursuit of a male Tudor heir.
In 1534, Henry had Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy, which made him the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, known as the Church of England. As far as Princess Mary was concerned, she was placed in almost double jeopardy, because she still held out for her mother and for the Catholic Church.
Boleyn was her bitter enemy, especially after the birth of Elizabeth as Mary’s rival for the throne, and it was feared that Boleyn would demand Mary’s execution. Finally, under the entreaty of the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, Mary assented to the Act of Supremacy.
When Anne Boleyn was executed for adultery in May 1536, much of the danger passed for Mary. Henry’s next wife, Jane Seymour, finally provided a male heir, Edward VI, in October 1537. Seymour began a reconciliation with Mary, who still had a spot in her father’s heart as his “chiefest jewel.”
Tragically, Jane would die soon after childbirth and Edward would only rule from 1547 to 1553, at which time Mary became queen. When Mary ascended the throne in July 1553, she trod lightly at first on the issue of religion, not wishing to shake England by revoking the Act of Settlement and the new order that had come with it.
However, Mary did have Henry’s divorce from her mother declared invalid, legally making Elizabeth a bastard. The half sisters carried on harsh competition for a rightful claim to the throne. Elizabeth was implicated in two plots against Mary, one led by Sir Thomas Wyatt in 1554 that caused Elizabeth to be sent temporarily to the Tower of London.
Eventually Mary’s affection for the Catholic Church brought personal disaster. In November 1554, Reginald Cardinal Poole brought from the Vatican the terms by which Rome would accept England back into the church—all those who had carried out the Act of Settlement must be judged as heretics and condemned to execution. Almost 300 would be executed, including Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who had also approved of the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine.
Mary sacrificed the affection of her people, not a few of whom had supported her during her years of exile. She compounded her error by marrying Philip II of Spain in July 1554. Mary’s legacy in England included the loss of Calais to France’s king Henry II in January 1558. It was the last possession England had left in France from the Hundred Years’ War.
Indeed, there is much reason to think that Philip only wed Mary to draw England into the enduring feud between Spain and France, hoping to tip the balance in favor of Spain. Plagued by ill health and foreign adventures, Mary I died in November 1558. Before her death, she had provided that Elizabeth would succeed her on the throne as the rightful queen.