Telegraph - Review by Frances Wilson - 3 November 2007
Mary, quite contrary
a richly researched biography of England's first queen
Tudor: the First Queen by
Linda Porter 400 pp. Portrait, £20
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
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