Princess Mary Tudor: No Other Queen But My Mother
On 18 February 1516, at four o’clock in the morning, Queen Catherine gave birth to a daughter who was named Mary…. As at every birth to every royal lady at this time, “a prince” had been confidently expected. The arrival of a princess meant that celebrations were suitably scaled down. For example, messengers who brought the — modified — good news to the University of Cambridge received a mere 28s 6d from the proctors, plus some muscadine wine; whereas the messengers who had broken the news of the birth of the short-lived baby prince in 1511 had received both more money — 40s — and more wine.
— Antonia Fraser, The Wives Of Henry VIII, p. 72
The new princess may not have been quite what her parents wanted, but they could quite reasonably have expected to give her a (living) brother before long; after all, when Mary was born, Henry VIII was only twenty-four years old and Catherine had just turned thirty. Thirty was not exactly the first flower of youth but it usually meant at least ten more years of potential childbearing (and it’s worth remembering that Anne herself most likely did not have her first child until she was past the age when Catherine had her last). But Catherine would have only one more child — another girl, born in 1518, who did not live — and by the time Anne Boleyn came onto the scene around 1526, Princess Mary appeared destined to become the first Queen of England in her own right, and one for whom a great match to the ruler of another country would of course have to be made.
Mary had already been living in her own household apart from her parents when Henry began making moves towards an annulment and, eventually, reducing her to being “the Lady Mary”, his now-illegitimate daughter. Responsibility for Mary’s miserable adolescence of isolation from her mother, loss of marital prospects, illness, fear of poisoning, and losing her household to be made a servant to her own younger sister must ultimately be laid at Henry’s feet, though it’s understandable that Mary herself blamed Anne, the stranger and interloper, rather than her father, who had once valued her so highly, bragging of her accomplishments to diplomats and calling her his “pearl”. Anne herself did little to counter the image of a wicked stepmother; her angry insistence that Mary should acknowledge her as queen was matched only by Mary’s equally stubborn refusal to do any such thing, or even to give the appearance of having done so. As a result, the two met very seldom and their encounters were fraught. In The Life And Death Of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives describes what the stakes were for Anne:
This is not to say that Anne was guiltless. Chapuys’ letters are full of her railings against Mary and of her lurid threats to “curb her proud Spanish blood.” But much though the ambassador warned of poison and worse, Anne was ranting, not thinking. There is an obvious ring of truth in his story that, assuming she would be regent if, as expected, Henry went to Calais to meet Francis I again, Anne swore to seize the chance to put Mary to death. When her brother pointed out, very simply, that this would would anger the king, she retorted that she did not care, even if she was burned for doing it. So Anne’s language was violent and threatening, but this sprang not from malevolence but from self-defence. For Henry, Mary was a disobedient child. For Anne, she was much more. Her obstinacy was an insult, a denial of Anne’s own identity and integrity …. In canon law — and this fact was widely appreciated at court — a child born to a couple who at the time were apparently lawfully married, remained legitimate even if it was subsequently found that the union had been invalid. If anyone had, as the lawyers put it, been conceived “in good faith”, that person was Mary, and by refusing to recognize the priority of Elizabeth she was in effect asserting her own claim to be heir to the throne. For Anne, therefore, the negative policy of disciplining Mary and excluding her from court was a defeat; every day that she withheld the positive endorsement of Anne’s title made the queen’s weakness more obvious. Active conformity alone would do. Anne knew that the stakes could not be higher. “She is my death, and I am hers.” (Ives, 198)
The need to shore up her own position by subduing Mary would explain why Anne, who made it so clear that she disliked the girl, nonetheless tried numerous times to bring her back into her orbit; at least one attempt to coax her while Anne visited Elizabeth at Hatfield House was rebuffed, and on another occasion Anne sought Mary out when someone mistakenly told her that Mary had done her reverence when both women were in a chapel. The last communication between two women appears to have been when, just after Catherine’s death, Anne sent a message via Mary’s governess Lady Shelton that if Mary would acknowledge her own illegitimacy and her father’s supremacy, Anne would treat her like her own daughter and demand only “minimal courtesies” (not a small concession when you’re the queen). Mary, unsurprisingly, refused once again. For her, there was still “no other queen but my mother.” It was shortly after this that Anne sent a letter to Lady Shelton mentioning that if she had a son, as she expected she soon would, Mary might find it was too late to reconcile with her father — “I have daily experience that the king’s wisdom is such as not to esteem her repentance of her rudeness and unnatural obstinacy when she has no choice.” (Ives, 199). What Anne felt about this eventuality is something we can never know, but she certainly wasn’t wrong in her estimation of “the king’s wisdom.” But a few months later it was Anne’s turn to suffer from the results of his wisdom, and only after her death did Mary realize that the demands for her submission to the new order were not going to cease. Her eventual submission and subsequent decades of resistance to the new religious rules her father and younger brother imposed, and her eventual ascendancy to the throne and ultimately misguided efforts to bring back the old anti-heresy statutes all belong to a time when Anne Boleyn was an embarrassing, unmentionable memory at the English court. Inevitably, however, they have ended up coloring the way she’s portrayed in novels centered around Anne. The young Mary, well-educated, intelligent, stubborn, and poorly treated by anyone’s standards, is often haunted by the shade of the older Mary who, while well-intentioned and kind to her household, also sought and obtained revenge not only against the people who had injured her in her youth, but against others who had done no more than share these others’ ideology.
Mary can never really be a major character in these books, as she and Anne were so seldom in the same place and while it’s possible for a novelist to arrange unmentioned meetings between Anne and various people who aren’t important enough to have their whereabouts constantly accounted for, even the most creative imagination would have difficulty in substantially enhancing the relationship between Anne and a girl who was deliberately kept physically apart from the court and who explicitly refused to meet the story’s protagonist unless she was forced to. It has happened on occasion, though — in at least two YA novels — Anne Boleyn And Me (2004) and Doomed Queen Anne (2002) Anne insists on twisting the knife by forcing Mary to be present for the birth of Elizabeth, imagining that she’ll be witnessing the birth of the brother who will indubitably supplant her. In Doomed Queen Anne, she tries to take the humiliation a step further.
I had to break her will, to force her to acknowledge me as queen. And so every day thereafter I summoned Lady Mary from what I hoped were her uncomfortable quarters to stand or kneel by me until I thought of some demeaning chore for her to perform. Eventually I hit upon a fine idea: I ordered her to help me to my chamber pot.
The book is aimed at an audience too young to know that Groom of the Stool was a highly respectable position at court and that in reality, this is just about the last job Anne would have asked Mary to do (would you want a mortal enemy assisting you in that particular capacity?) Novels intended for adults have had to walk a finer line — unless they’re in the small minority of books which treat Anne as an outright villain and cartoonish Wicked Stepmother, they have to find another way to handle the question of Mary’s and Anne’s relationship.
One approach, of course, is just to ignore it. This was common early on, when Anne’s story was largely being told through plays and poems and as Mary was seldom even referenced, let alone appearing on stage, it was natural to eliminate anything but the most minimal references to her. This wasn’t necessarily done in order to make Anne look better — lots of characters, including Anne’s sister and most of her alleged lovers, were often ruthlessly pruned away if they weren’t completely essential to the drama. It could result in some odd final moments, though, since one long-accepted if not necessarily completely true story is that Anne apologized to Mary, via Lady Kingston, in her last days. A typical historian’s rendition is in C. St. George’s Civil And Ecclesiastical History Of England, Vol I (1829). By his account is that “on the evening previous to her execution, falling on her knees, she requested Lady Kyngston, who was sitting in the room, to go in her name to the lady Mary, to kneel before her in like manner, and to beg of her to pardon an unfortunate woman the many wrongs she had done her.” (474)
This story resulted in scenes like the one in Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) in which Anne makes her final confession to Thomas Cranmer and then has a last request:
There is but one
In all this world, my memory names, hath cause
To think of me as her enemy,
The Lady Mary; for a dying woman
Entreat her pardon.
What Anne needs to be pardoned for, since she’s previously been portrayed as a complete paragon, is almost as interesting a question as what Mary’s reaction would be to receiving that message from Cranmer, of all people. A similar apology-out-of-nowhere turns up in Anne Boleyn (1875), only this time the messenger is Margaret Wyatt:
Chief I pray pardon of the Lady Mary
For aught she may have suffered at my hands
Or for my cause. (Rising) And that done, there is nothing
But thanks and still thanks for your loving kindness
In this my sore strait and my doleful prison.
The scene of Anne kneeling to Lady Kingston and asking Mary’s pardon by proxy would be used to excellent effect by later writers, but the lack of previous interaction in these stories made it more of a puzzling than an affecting moment.
Another approach favored by some of Anne’s more extreme partisans was to portray Mary as a sullen, off-putting, depressive complainer, and how could you expect Anne to be sympathetic to a creature like that? Norris And Anne Boleyn (1844) features a Mary who, at the age of twelve, is already a grim and malicious proponent of Catholicism, and whose villainy extends so far as to employ a dwarf woman who has “great pretensions to sanctity — some, even, to prophecy.” We’re told that Mary regarded “these offensive qualities” as a great recommendation for “her secret inquisitions.” (Subtle!) If you’re wondering what nefarious deeds she puts the servant up to, it’s sending her to the Blackfriars court to find out what whether her own parents’ marriage was going to be annulled or not. Sometimes you just can’t do anything right.
In Anne Boleyn: An Historic Romance (1842) Mary is described as one whose “womanly nature was blighted” by “early afflictions, wounded pride, and the influence of a gloomy and superstitious faith”. Rather unfairly, Mary is unfavorably compared with Mildred, the fictional heroine of the novel, who puts up with a ridiculous string of disasters without so much as one complaint thanks to the fact that she has the incomparable gift of being able to read the Bible in English. The reader is left with the impression that Mary brought it all on herself by sticking to the Vulgate. Smearing Mary to excuse Anne isn’t confined to the distant past; Anne Boleyn (1985) describes Mary against all historical evidence as stupid and badly-educated, with the implication that she held out against Anne only because she was too ignorant to understand Anne’s reasoning.
But most Anne partisans aren’t that harsh; generally Mary’s treatment is either soft-pedaled — in To Die For (2010) Mary and Elizabeth “share” a household, which is a diplomatic way of putting it, and in The Concubine (1963) Anne’s rages disappear and her attempts to bring Mary round are simply attempts to protect her from Henry’s eventual wrath, even though Mary bitchily asks her maids about Elizabeth’s “father, Mark Smeaton” — or used to demonstrate someone’s evolving character. It’s never Mary herself whose character is seen to develop; as I said earlier, she just isn’t onstage enough for that to happen. The person whose character develops is usually Anne herself — she begins by being young, proud and temperamental, but marriage to Henry and the birth of Elizabeth gradually temper her until she realizes how much her treatment of Mary must have hurt her. The apology to Lady Kingston at the end usually demonstrates real regret or, at the very least, real concern for Elizabeth’s future treatment at the hands of her sister. In The Favor Of Kings (1912), it’s both — Anne wonders fearfully “Would Mary wreak her hate on [Elizabeth]?”. She proceeds to summon Lady Kingston, who protests at sitting while her queen kneels (and, in a nice moment, realizes that she hasn’t actually knelt before anyone since her own coronation).
“I am a condemned person [said Anne] …. and have no estate but for clearing of my conscience. I pray you sit down.”
”Well,” Lady Kingston quizzically returned, “I have often played the fool in my youth and to fulfill your command, I will do it once more in mine age.”
Anne charges her “That you will so fall down before the Lady Mary’s grace, and in like manner ask her forgiveness for the wrongs I have done her. Till that is accomplished my conscience will not be quiet.”
This is a pattern followed by many, many books since then, and dramatically speaking it’s a good one. Almost always the young, impetuous, nasty Anne is restrained in her worst excesses by someone close to her — true to Chapuys, that person is often her brother George. In Anne Boleyn (1932) George pleads with the pregnant Anne to be kinder to the people around her: “Your son will need a mother well with the world. For his sake I beseech you to be kinder to the Queen and Princess Mary —“ It goes over about as well as you’d expect, considering that George forgetfully called them “Queen” and “Princess.” More often, George’s cautions to Anne have less to do with Mary specifically and more about not losing her temper in general, but it’s not hard to trace this depiction of George back to the Chapuys letter in which George is quoted as having told Anne to cool down when she was raging about Mary.
George is often bounced from his position as Cautioner In Chief if the book is told from the point of view of a female confidante or Mary Boleyn — then she’ll be the one restraining Anne, as in The Last Boleyn (1983) “I do not wish to have your pious lectures about anything,” Anne tells Mary, “including that the little bastard Mary Tudor should be allowed to visit her Spanish mother. She must be made to serve as Elizabeth’s handmaid and companion. Do not be so grieved. It will be a good lesson for her.” A notable exception to the Compassionate Mary Boleyn model is found in Blood Royal (1988), where Mary Boleyn, who thinks Mary Tudor is spoiled and vindictive, decides Anne is being unfair but doesn’t really care. “Tudor offspring probably needed more slapping than they received.”
But even though Mary must of necessity be a fairly static character in books which are centered around her first stepmother (books like The King’s Damsel , while still “about” Anne, have her as more of a co-star than the sole focus) occasionally authors will find ways to let in glimpses of a different aspect of her, and these grace notes will often broaden the world of the book considerably in comparatively few words. In The Queen Of Subtleties (2004) the confectioner Lucy Cornwallis, as she’s making marzipan for a feast for Anne Boleyn, remembers the one time she was brought to Queen Catherine and her daughter to show them two sugar subtleties — Mary being too young to attend the feast they would be displayed at.
The princess was a miniature and slender version [of her mother], from the same incline of the head down to the relaxed clasp of her hands. Nothing babylike about her, barely childlike. Girlish, though, yes; that same lively smile. Mother and daughter, like a pair of girls. Could have been sisters. The queen spoke to her little girl in rapid but heavily accented English — all about sugar, and feasts — but somehow simultaneously there was an undertow of something else, presumably Spanish.
Anne Boleyn (1957) isn’t the only book to be written from multiple points of view (though that seems to have fallen out of fashion lately) but it has by far the most in-depth portrayal of Mary considering how little we’re actually able to see her. The scene in which Anne meets with Mary while visiting Elizabeth in 1534 alternate between Anne’s and Mary’s points of view: we see Anne’s underlying anger at Mary, her reluctant admiration for her tenacity, and above all Anne’s fear of what Mary’s continued refusal will bring: “only eighteen and a prisoner, her submission would quiet half the malcontents in England.” Anne is so afraid that Mary will eventually bring down the wrath of the Emperor Charles that she’ll offer her anything permissible to bring her back.
”The King’s will can’t be flouted, Mary. All his subjects have learned this except you, and I’ve come to see you today to try and reason with you for your own sake. The King married me and made me Queen. It’s so, whether you like it or not, and refusing to admit it will only bring you pain without changing anything. Be sensible and trust me. I would like to be your friend. I have a daughter of my own now, and I’ll treat you as affectionately as a second mother, if you’ll let me … Come to court and make your curtsy to me, and I promise you needn’t give place to your sister Elizabeth in order of precedence.”
To Mary, who wants so badly to be reconciled with her father, this is “a temptation straight from hell … if Mary did as this woman said, it would all be over. It sounded so easy. Come to court and curtsy to me. Come to court; live in the luxurious apartments she remembered, move freely among gay young companions … and see the King, her father … she had only to break her promise to her mother and she could be riding to London within twenty-four hours.”
She can hardly bear to turn away from her own personal version of being shown all the kingdoms of this world and tell Anne that the only Queen is her mother; unlike most of the static, stubborn Marys whom we see only from Anne’s point of view, we can see just how much it costs this one to give up the chance of getting her old life back. Anne’s fury after her refusal is so uncontrolled that Mary realizes “the creature was afraid. In spite of her rich clothes and her self-assurance, Mary had lived with fear long enough to sense it at close quarters. Anne was very much afraid of something.” As Anne departs and Mary stays, once alone, both of them are in tears. Anne is not particularly sympathetic, and Mary is already developing the rigidity that will serve her so badly in later years, and at the same time we see how Henry VIII’s love blighted both of them.