Daily Telegraph - Review by Frances Wilson - 3 November 2007

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Frances Wilson applauds a richly researched biography of England's first queen

Mary Tudor: the First Queen by Linda Porter 400 pp. Portrait, £20

There's something about Mary. Bastardised by her father, Henry VIII, abandoned by her husband, Philip II, overlooked for her sister, Elizabeth I, we might not remember her at all were it not for John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which recorded the 300 Protestants she burned at the stake in her four years of rule. Today her name is still as black as a charred corpse, but in Mary Tudor: the First Queen, Linda Porter puts forward an exhaustive and occasionally exhausting defence of the first queen regnant.

In her version, Mary was neither the "sad little woman who would have been better off as the Tudor equivalent of a housewife", nor the dour, embittered bride, more broody than bloody, nor the tyrannical religious maniac. Determined, clear-sighted and courageous, she was an educated Renaissance queen who loved music, art, ritual and ceremony. Her subjects, who in general liked her and approved of her Catholicism, took the burning of heretics in their stride; were it not for the popularity of Foxe's book, Porter says, the Marian burnings "might have become a mere footnote to history". And had she lived longer than her 42 years, Mary might have achieved the moderate Catholic reform she aimed towards and repaired some of the damage to church and state caused by her father.

Hers is a story we already know, but no amount of retelling can erase its grimness. The only surviving child of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, Mary was 11 when the king decided that his marriage was incestuous, his only daughter was therefore illegitimate, and those who practised Catholicism were outlaws. With Queen Katherine dismissed and Princess Mary stripped of her title, mother and daughter never saw one another again, and Mary was left to the care of her terrifying father and a succession of ghastly step-mothers, only the last of whom, Katherine Parr, she was to befriend.

Mary became queen following a coup that got rid of Lady Jane Grey. As there had never before been a woman on the throne in her own right, it was up to her to create the balance of feminine modesty and absolute power that Elizabeth would go on to perfect. She achieved this in the face of personal humiliations; having been publicly rejected by her father, aged 38 and to great opposition from her country, Mary married Philip II of Spain. Eleven years her junior, Philip was unable to disguise how little he desired his spouse - "it will take a great God to drink this cup", said one of the wedding guests - and to all intents and purposes he walked out once it transpired that the child she had been carrying for the previous nine months had been a fantasy.

The phantom pregnancy, passionately believed in by Mary - who grew larger, suffered morning sickness and felt the baby move - had been endorsed by the court, the doctors and the midwives. It was a desperate and pathetic episode, empathetically and intelligently discussed by Porter, who quotes Mary's cry to Frideswide Strelley, the only one of the royal women who doubted the pregnancy from the outset: "Ah, Strelley, Strelley, I see they all be flatterers, and none true to me but thou."

On her death from influenza, Philip announced that he "felt a reasonable regret". Elizabeth, her younger half-sister, who had been locked in the Tower for the bulk of Mary's reign, felt otherwise. Nothing Mary had requested of Elizabeth in her will was honoured. Her debts were left unpaid, her mother's remains were not moved to lie next to her own, the money she had directed to universities and hospitals was left unpaid, and the country turned Protestant.

The Tudors - thanks to Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Cate Blanchett - are currently more popular than the Windsors. But if we like to reimagine these mighty monarchs as glamorous figures, any interest in the dowdy Mary is more likely to do with the revival of religious terrorism. The days of Mary Tudor are not so different in one respect from those of Elizabeth II. As Portman [sic] puts it, "The belief that those who hold a different faith should suffer a horrible death sits deep in the human psyche. It is nothing new."

This is a richly researched, marvellously realised historical biography, which might not establish its subject as a humanitarian but shows that Mary certainly was contrary.

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