Aug 31, 2010

Book Review: Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock
Random House, September 7, 2010 USA
Pages: 416
Hardcover 978-1-4000-6609 $28.00
(UK: Bloomsbury May 4, 2009)
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: 3.5 stars, bordering towards 4

She was the first woman to inherit the throne of England, a key player in one of Britain’s stormiest eras, and a leader whose unwavering faith and swift retribution earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Now, in this impassioned and absorbing debut, historian Anna Whitelock offers a modern perspective on Mary Tudor and sets the record straight once and for all on one of history’s most compelling and maligned rulers.


Though often overshadowed by her long-reigning sister, Elizabeth I, Mary lived a life full of defiance, despair, and triumph. Born the daughter of the notorious King Henry VIII and the Spanish Katherine of Aragon, young Mary was a princess in every sense of the word—schooled in regal customs, educated by the best scholars, coveted by European royalty, and betrothed before she had reached the age of three. Yet in a decade’s time, in the wake of King Henry’s break with the pope, she was declared a bastard, disinherited, and demoted from “princess” to “lady.” Ever her deeply devout mother’s daughter, Mary refused to accept her new status or to recognize Henry’s new wife, Anne Boleyn, as queen. The fallout with her father and his counselors nearly destroyed the teenage Mary, who faced imprisonment and even death.

It would be an outright battle for Mary to work herself back into the king’s favor, claim her rightful place in the Tudor line, and ultimately become queen of England, but her coronation would not end her struggles. She flouted the opposition and married Philip of Spain, sought to restore Catholicism to the nation, and fiercely punished the resistance. But beneath her brave and regal exterior was a dependent woman prone to anxiety, whose private traumas of phantom pregnancies, debilitating illnesses, and unrequited love played out in the public glare of the fickle court.

Anna Whitelock, an acclaimed young British historian, chronicles this unique woman’s life from her beginnings as a heralded princess to her rivalry with her sister to her ascent as ruler. In brilliant detail, Whitelock reveals that Mary Tudor was not the weak-willed failure as so often rendered by traditional narratives but a complex figure of immense courage, determination, and humanity.

You must forgive the length of this review. It is indicative of a thought process of my views on Mary and my struggle to find the inner persona of Bloody Mary. Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII is well known as Bloody Mary due to the many burnings of the heretics during her reign as queen. Daughter of the pious Katherine of Aragon, Mary was strictly Catholic and refused to acknowledge anything other that Catholicism just as she refused to acknowledge her half-sister Elizabeth I as anything other than the whore's daughter. Queen Elizabeth seems to be the one who is remembered more fondly than Queen Mary, even though it was Queen Mary who was the first female anointed queen. Why is Elizabeth the more exalted? Is it the fact that Elizabeth reigned for a longer amount of time and therefore was privy to more successful events such as the defeat of the Spanish Armada? Was it because of the reign of James I after Elizabeth I that everyone started to realize what they were missing once Elizabeth was gone? The reign of Mary was a difficult one with a strained marriage to King Philip of Spain, which the Englishmen did not appreciate a Spaniard and his consorts infringing on their territory. But Mary was always her mother's daughter, and embraced her Spanish blood along with her uncle Charles V as well as the Catholic religion. The stubbornness and defiance of Mary has always intrigued me, and I am always eager for more light to be shed on the figure of Queen Mary I, who is often overshadowed by her terrorizing father and later the successful reign of her sister.

The purpose of reading biographies for me is to gain further insight into the actual character of the person, and to find some sort of hidden truth that I had previously missed. The persona of "Bloody" Mary is one that has been debated for many years and I wanted to form my own opinion about her. I have read several novels on Mary, but nothing non-fiction that specifically focused on Mary. Those novels would also slant one way or the other in regards to Mary's character: she was either a religious zealot or a victim of her father's tyranny. Perhaps she was a little of both. I wanted to discover something tangible that would help me to form a better opinion of her; perhaps something that I had not grasped previously.

With this Tudor biography we are thrusted quickly into the Anne-Boleyn-hater world. Anna Whitelock, author of Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen presents Bloody Mary's biography in such a way as to martyr Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor while throwing the whole mess of blame on to Anne Boleyn's doorstep. What I wanted out of this book was another look at Mary along with some little known tidbits and facts, yet I had not expected the extreme slant against Anne Boleyn. Even I realize that Katherine was treated unfairly when Henry's devotion turned to Anne, but was it all Anne's fault for the events that occurred that lead to Katherine and Mary's fall from their father's grace? Anna Whitelock believes it so. She heavily relies on Chapuys, the imperial ambassador for Charles V, cousin to Katherine, and later Simon Renard. Can we expect an unbiased view from Chapuys?

Whitelock writes: "When Anne went to visit her daughter {Elizabeth} at Hatfield in March, she wasted no time in humiliating her {Mary}. She 'urgently solicited' Mary to visit her and 'honour her as Queen' saying that it 'would be a means of reconciliation with the King, and she would intercede with him for her'. Mary replied that 'she knew no other Queen in England except her mother' but that if Anne would do her that favor with her father she would be much obliged."

Why does Whitelock see this as only being humiliating to Mary?  Why can't she see it as Anne extending an olive branch to her step-daughter to try and keep the peace, with which Mary spurned and shoved away? This point of view and the authors tone turned me off, but once we got past the Anne Boleyn period the author was more pragmatic in her telling of Mary's story. And since Mary's story is reflective of the times themselves, the author then went into the main events of England with more detail than I needed, especially where the rest of Henry's wives were concerned. I am annoyed with the fact that with each Tudor-themed read they must then go into the monotonous stories of the succession of Henry's six wives. The issue at hand was Mary Tudor, and I didn't get any information about Mary as the author told the seemingly obligatory six wives story. The relationships of the wives with Mary were not expounded upon either.

The six wives period is heavily laced with Mary's father instructing her to abandon her mother's wishes and to obey Henry as Supreme Head of the Church. This was the main storyline for several chapters. Finally, Henry dies, Mary's young brother Edward is King, and then Edward takes up the task of harassing Mary about her religion. To Mary's credit, she never disavowed her Catholicism and always stood firm in regards to hearing mass. Even when I had thought it would just be so much easier to live in peace with the kingdom and to go with the flow of the reformation, I was empathetic towards Mary during this time. She was resolute in the manner even after she realized that many of her staunch supporters were punished or killed because of their loyalty to Mary. I would have been interested to read about how Mary reacted to these punishments towards her supporters, but all the author lets through is the fact that Mary moans that she is losing her friends. Is this a selfish motive or was she truly bemoaning their fate? Mary even had the notion to flee England when the pressure for her to convert became too much, but she stood her ground and realized her place was in England and that her destiny was to be its Queen.

When Edward took the throne, the will of Henry was disregarded when Edward Seymour became the Lord Protector. Henry wanted the council of sixteen to help advise Edward but "it was agreed" that Edward Seymour was the best choice as a Lord Protector. Eventually he steps on too many toes and is done away with. Nearing his death and fearing the work he has done is about to be thwarted by the Catholic Mary, Edward declares both of his sisters as illegitimate which means that the Duke of Northumberland's plans to gain the throne for his own son Guildford could actually work if he married Lady Jane Grey, the next relative in line. Once Edward VI dies, Mary rightfully seizes the chance to rise up and grab the throne herself. This is where I hoped the biography would take off, which was a little more than halfway through the book. She seemingly was the opposite of her brother in beliefs; the author writes that Edward changed his father's will and the succession that Henry had laid out which had recognized Mary and Elizabeth. Again, there was a lot of back story that could have been told here, but we merely get the fact that John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland was an upstart and he was dealt with summarily after his plan for Lady Jane to become Queen had backfired.

What was heartening was the support for Mary at her accession. I had never read such a swift but thorough account of the rising for Mary to win back the throne. The people loved her, she was their once revered Queen's daughter, and they were ready for the reform against the papistry to end and the destruction of the monasteries to be over. The people were beginning to show signs of their hatred of a currupted government and Mary was a beacon for Catholicism and to restore a sense of righteousness back to the royal crown. An interesting point that was made by the author was the fact that after years of relying on the Imperial ambassador and Charles V to help Mary's cause, they decided to not help her win her crown back, as he didn't think she would be the victor. Whitelock portrays the procession and coronation with an eye for detail unlike I have previously seen. I was amazed at how much the English were ready to welcome Mary as their Queen, regardless that she was a woman. It seems the government under the Lord Protector of Edward VI and then the Dudleys along with the Edwardian Reformation was a bit too much for the common people. Another interesting note was that the everlasting 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, held Mary's crown for her during the coronation festivities.

Mary's relationship with her husband Philip seemed to cause the most discontent to her people, and the fact that she failed in providing an heir. Mary was willing to ignore her people's wishes when she chose to marry Philip, stating that it was for the good of the realm and to secure the Catholic religion for England's future. Yet, the false pregnancies seemed to turn the people against her, as she lost their favor when she could not secure the Catholic succession, just as her mother could not provide her husband with the longed-for male heir. All eyes turned towards Elizabeth, the next obvious successor, who was Protestant, but the daughter of the hated Anne Boleyn. Which religion to choose? Did some choose Catholicism only to survive Mary's reign, knowing that soon Elizabeth would pick up the task of the late King Edward's reformation?

I would have enjoyed seeing more of Mary's sister, Elizabeth I and how their relationship grew or faltered, but there was not much that included Elizabeth during the bulk of the biography except that Mary did not trust her and supposed her to be her mother's daughter and a heretic. Elizabeth was implicated in the several plots that occurred during Mary's reign, but nothing was proven. Edward and Mary seemed cordial enough until Edward became the Protestant leader and Mary skirted around Edward the issues as much as possible.

To move onwards to the writing itself, the sixty-six chapters were extremely short, which makes for an easy look-back type process if you wanted to look into a specific aspect of Mary's life. The writing was clear and concise and full of details in regards to Mary, but was lacking that a-ha moment of insight for me. The tempo was even and undramatic which made the getting through the book a longer process. I have now gained a new-found respect for Alison Weir, whom others tend to criticize when her sentences contain words such as "could have" "would have" and "perhaps", but I missed that train of thought in this biography. In contrast, Whitelock stays true to the well known story and the repeating of 'letters and papers' even though she tends to rely on not so reliable sources. There were more issues discussed in this biography than are typically addressed in novels, such as those that concerned the many plots that rose against Mary, which helped to illustrate the amount of unrest that Mary's reign carried. Since I was looking for more insight into the character of Mary, I would have appreciated further intuition which Weir would typically provide with her pondering style of commentary.

There is not an extreme wealth of new information for the Tudor buff with this biography, but plenty of facts that may help to form your own opinion on Mary Tudor, a much misunderstood figure. The author did well when exuding the nuances and the religious beliefs of the times.With the quick chapters and the look at some issues that have not been overly written of before, this would be an excellent read for those who are looking for a look at the Tudor times that Mary lived in and ultimately reigned over. Overall, I came away with the feeling that Mary was not as much a "misaligned" figure as some like to claim. She was stubborn and adamant with her religion which is admirable, yet the amount of intolerance she expressed is still something that I cannot condone. She relied on her husband Philip for affairs of state, as Whitelock stated that she wrote to him imploring him to come back to England to help to control her government. Bringing a foreigner like Philip, who also brought England to war with France, was not something that England was ready for. The acts of Mary should not be reflected on the writer, though, and I would recommend this biography for those who would like to glean more information regarding the beliefs of Mary and to gain an accurate portrayal of England during Mary's reign. I am still on the hunt for something that would make me more empathetic towards Mary, I really want to like her, but no matter how hard Whitelock tried to show Mary as a misunderstood woman I could not garner that full realization with this telling, though I do agree with the characterization of "the complex figure of immense courage, determination and humanity".

I found this interesting quote regarding this book, which I agree with in all ways except the great verve part:
'This rollercoaster of a story is told by Whitelock with great verve and pace...It is good to find this book saluted as 'an impressive and powerful debut' by David Starkey: he has recently been quoted denouncing the feminisation of history by women biographers. Clearly he is able to lay aside such sentiments when faced with a proper historical work. Quite right too.' (Antonia Fraser, Mail on Sunday)