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The Real Bloody Mary

Updated on May 4, 2018
Elijah DeVivo profile image

Elijah is a best-selling author and columnist for an award-winning blog.

all photos contained within this article do not belong to me
all photos contained within this article do not belong to me

Most everyone has heard of the game Bloody Mary. The game consists of standing in front of a mirror and saying the name expecting some ghostly apparition to appear in the reflection. What you may not know is where the name “Bloody Mary” came from. Far before pop culture and urban legends was a time when Mary Tudor sat on the throne of England. This woman would go on to be given the title Bloody Mary as her reign was filled with terror. Mary, a religious fanatic, sent her people into a state of panic. She beheaded anyone who opposed her and was so determined to bring back Catholicism as the predominant religion that she burned hundreds alive. Mary exacted her revenge on the people of England in her five-year rule and went on to become the most hated queen in British history.

Henry VIII, Mary's father.
Henry VIII, Mary's father.
Catherine of Aragon, Mary's mother.
Catherine of Aragon, Mary's mother.
Anne Boleyn, Mary's stepmother.
Anne Boleyn, Mary's stepmother.

Early Life

Mary Tudor was born to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1516. This was a joyous occasion for mostly everyone in England, but Henry VIII was deeply disappointed, his wife had not given birth to a male heir. So desperate was he to have a son that it almost unphased him when Mary was born. Mary was the only child between Catherine and Henry, Catherine had miscarriages or delivered still born children. Mary went on to live a privileged lifestyle, she was waited on hand and foot and received the best education in England. Mary’s mother was Spanish and so Mary learned to speak Spanish at an early age and spoke it often. Mary’s picture-perfect life was about to come crashing to an end.

When Mary’s mother went through menopause it was now apparent that Henry VII would have no male heirs and Mary was destined to be England’s first queen. This, however, never happened. Henry VII desperately wanted to have a son, and so he attempted to have his marriage annulled and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. He claimed the reason for an annulment was that it was not even a legitimate marriage because Catherine had been married to his elder brother previously. The pope saw through this excuse and denied the annulment. Henry VIII would not accept this answer and so he abandoned the Catholic faith and converted to Protestantism. Catherine and Mary were mortified by the conversion because they were devout Catholics and believed it to be the one true religion. Henry VII secretly married Anne Boleyn as she was pregnant, and the Archbishop of Canterbury granted the annulment. Not only was this devastating to Catherine but it was devastating to Mary. Mary’s mother was left by her father for a “whore”. Mary also came to the realization that if the marriage was never legitimate then she was born out of marriage making her illegitimate. Mary the princess was now Mary the bastard daughter.

The bond between Mary and Catherine became unbreakable after the annulment. They referred to Anne Boleyn as “the whore” and thought she had no right to be queen. They viewed the king equally as bad and damned the marriage. Mary and Catherine were fiercely Catholic, and England was quickly becoming a protestant kingdom, they could not come to terms with the fact that the king was promoting heresy. They were dedicated to do anything in their power to restore the true word of God. The catholic church was Mary and Catherine’s world and to lose that was unbearable.

Her religion was not the only thing that sparked her malevolence. When Catherine fell ill, Henry removed her from Mary’s side and placed her in another room. Mary never saw her mother again and never got to say goodbye. I think that this was ultimately what corrupted her (and rightly so).

Mary grew accustomed with how unpredictable life was, everyone and everything she held dear to her were taken. She became psychologically unwell. Her constant fears of being executed sparked out of control. Her animosity for her father and step mother Anne were very evident and only put her at risk.

With every step down in life there are steps up, and Mary soon learned of this. In an odd chain of events Anne Boleyn was beheaded by Henry VIII. “The whore” was dead but not before she gave birth to Mary’s step sister Elizabeth.

Henry VIII eventually had a son with his third wife Jane Seymore and this became a huge issue with Mary’s plan to take the throne. Prince Edward was a male and thus the next in line for succession. Not only was the thought of losing the crown disturbing but as time went on Mary came to realize her step brother was even more devoutly protestant than their father was. Mary was not going to allow a heretic to further pollute the minds of her soon to be subjects.

The moment of hope had arrived, Mary’s father finally died, and she viewed this as a window of opportunity. Prince Edward was only nine years old and strangely enough the child could become king under advisement by protestant officials. This seemed to be the end to Mary’s religion as she knew it, but when Edward fell sick and died all her fears went away and she prepared to be coronated.

Lady Jane Grey, Mary's cousin.
Lady Jane Grey, Mary's cousin.

Lady Jane Grey Conflict

Yet again another obstacle occurred, many petitioned that instead of Mary becoming queen, her cousin Lady Jane Grey should become queen. Lady Jane Grey was just sixteen years old yet she, a girl, was far more educated than most older men. She knew Latin, could write in Greek and even learned Hebrew at age fifteen. She was fiercely protestant and so Edward’s advisors suggested she be queen.

Mary was not only filled with hatred and religious devotion, she was also cunning. She told the people of England that she was a Tudor and that Tudor blood should continue to reign while they were still alive. She used this to her advantage and conveniently forgot to mention her plans to restore Catholicism. In fact, Mary never mentioned anything about religion in the slightest to divert attention from her true intentions.

Lady Jane Grey was made queen but only for a little over a week. The people of England demanded that Mary be crowned. In 1553, in her thirties, a bitter Mary Tudor was crowned Queen of all England and Ireland. She prepared to seek vengeance onto all who were responsible for the pains she endured. Because of her endeavors to not mention her religious plans, she won support from both Catholics and protestants. Little did anyone know what turmoil awaited them.

Not a moment was wasted before Mary began to reverse the protestant grasp on England. She had stain glass reinstalled and brought back the traditional Latin mass. She believed it to be her moral duty to undo what her father and step brother had done to the kingdom.

To further prove how cunning she was, she had her cousin little Jane Grey accused of treason but then later showed her mercy. As time went on Mary realized that her cousin must be gotten rid of to prevent a threat to the throne. Jane Grey was yet again accused of treason and was convicted. Her sentence was death through burning or beheading depending on what her majesty felt best appropriate.

When Lady Jane Grey was brought to the execution room she recited Psalm 51 and handed her gloves and handkerchief to her servant. The executioner dressed in black stood with an axe at his side and asked her for her forgiveness in what he was about to do. Jane told him she forgave him and asked him to end her quickly. She blindfolded herself and had trouble finding the block. She laid her head upon the block and spoke the last words of Jesus Christ “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit”. At that moment the axe was brought down bringing an end to Jane and the beginning of Mary’s vengeance. Not only was Lady Jane Grey killed but her husband and father as well.

Mary Tudor and her husband Philip II of Spain
Mary Tudor and her husband Philip II of Spain

Her Reign of Terror

To further cement herself in the catholic faith, Mary married Philip II of Spain who was also devoutly catholic. This was outrageous for protestant England, a Spaniard, and catholic at that had become king! There was a rebellion that followed, and Mary crushed the rebellion and had them all hanged as punishment. This wasn’t enough for Mary and she was determined to show all whom plotted against her what would happen if they did.

Mary’s next plan was diabolical, she would rearrange the laws in her favor. The laws were changed, anyone who committed heresy would be burned at the stake. However, the definition of heresy was determined by Mary herself, and that meant not being true to the catholic faith.

The first burning was described to be so horrific. The protestant priest whom was burned took hours to die, and he kept on reciting biblical passages even when his jaw was blackened, and his tongue was swollen by the smoke and flames.

No one was spared by Mary, even her sister Elizabeth was imprisoned. Execution by burning was a horrible way to die, one would feel horrible pain and slowly burn over the course of hours. The flames would cause horrible pain initially as it burned the pain receivers in the skin. The muscles would cook, and blood would boil black all while being alive. Eventually the skin and fat would liquify and burn off which only fueled the fire.

No one was shown mercy. Women, children and elders were burned alive. One case, a pregnant woman was convicted and instead of waiting Mary had her burned. During the burning she gave birth, and the baby was thrown into the fire with their mother.

Mary viewed heresy as being so evil and poisonous that it was rooted in the very flesh of a person and the only way to purge this poison was to have it burned out by the flames of purification.

The burnings took place one at a time or in mass burnings, where numerous protestants were tied to the same stake and burned. In the course of just three and a half years over three hundred had been burned at the stake. That is one person burned to death every three days. The cities of England were constantly riddled with ash piles and the smell of burnt flesh polluted the air.

Mary’s health deteriorated over her reign, she was not only constantly ill but also had phantom pregnancies. She would swear she was pregnant, even feel pain and movement, but a child was never born. She even missed her menstrual cycles. Some historians believe that this was a psychological issue, and some believe it was something physical, like a tumor (which makes sense because she later died from cancer).

Towards the end of Mary’s reign, she somewhat reconciled with her sister Elizabeth yet still distrusted her. Her chronic illness flared up and when she began dying of cancer Mary fought with every last breath to reform the nation.

The archbishop who ended her parent’s marriage was the next one on Mary’s list. She apprehended him in court for two years. Thomas Cranmer was in Mary’s eyes no better than the devil himself. He had not only destroyed her parent’s marriage, but he had let Anne Boleyn, a common whore, marry her father. Cranmer caused Mary’s mother to become an illegitimate queen and caused Mary to become a bastard who’d go on to being mistreated for the rest of her childhood. On top of these crimes against her blood came the crimes committed against the church. He advised Henry VIII as a protestant, he partook in the separation of England from Catholicism, he denounced the pope and advised her brother Edward during his reign. Even Lady Jane Grey was appointed by Cranmer. The ultimate offense was that he turned the nation further away from Catholicism which was a blasphemy so heinous that Mary sought him to be burned.

Mary had him publicly ridiculed and shamed for two years. He became so mentally unstable that he actually believed he was a heretic and was guilty. He pleaded and begged for forgiveness and said countless times that he was wrong. Normally with heresy, one is only executed when they’re not just wrong but continue to be wrong without fail and apologies. For example, if one stated that the Pope was unbiblical then they would be patronized and warned never to do so again. If they showed remorse they were shown mercy in return but if they continued with their heresy they would be burned alive. This was not the case with Thomas Cranmer. He recanted his religion so many times and instead of being shown mercy, Cranmer was shown the flames of hell. Thomas Cranmer was nearly seventy years old when Mary burned him at the stake. She found him to be such a vile criminal that she continued to let him burn far after he had died until there was nothing but ash.

This event ultimately became her undoing. Protestants were of course mortified by what was happening but even Catholics were horrified. Catholics agreed that Protestantism wasn’t completely true but to kill them over it, and in such a horrific way (burning), seemed to be corrupt. Catholics were shocked at the brutality and also embarrassed. Their protestant friends, neighbors, even family members were burned one by one and no one could stomach it any longer.

Ironically even the pope denounced the practice of burning at the stake. Mary was inspired by her Spanish grandparents and their part in the Spanish Inquisition, a time where protestants were burned at the stake and Jews were expelled from Spain under Torquemada. The Vatican opposed this practice vehemently.

The burnings of heretics
The burnings of heretics

Mary's Death

The cancer within Mary spread and she became even more ill. Her kingdom was in shambles and Protestants and Catholics alike wanted her reign to end. All the while a flu was raging throughout England and she suffered a military failure: the British stronghold of Calais was taken by the French. Even her husband abandoned her. Mary thought that all these disasters happening at the same time may have been because she angered God.

“When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais in my heart”. These words were spoken by Mary shortly before she died in 1558. Her five-year reign of terror had ended and her efforts to reverse Protestantism failed when her sister Elizabeth took the throne. Elizabeth, Good Queen Bess, became the most famous queen in history and brought a time of unification as well as a time of artistry (Elizabethan Age).

Whether she was misunderstood and a product of her environment or an evil fanatic we may never be certain. What we are certain of is that Bloody Mary went down as one of the worst monarchs, and the most hated queen in British history.

Mary I of England
Mary I of England

From the movie "Elizabeth"

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