Book Review: Mary Tudor

I’ve just finished reading Anna Whitelock’s Mary Tudor:  Princess, Bastard, Queen, and I’d like to comment on it while it’s still fresh in my mind.  Heaven knows, nothing seems to stay there for very long any more!

I seem to have spent a lot of time with the Tudors lately, even though I didn’t watch the TV series (the inaccuracies put me off, and I really wasn’t interested in all the onscreen sex).  We did the dramatic reading of A Man For All Seasons at the book club, Ricardo and I watched a British-made 3-part historical study of Henry VIII on the Knowledge network, and then followed that up with three hours or so of Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I.  At any rate, when I saw a review for this book, I thought I would like to know more of this figure who is only really remembered as “Bloody Mary’, and I requested it from the local library.

Whitelock takes the reader from Mary’s birth to her death, giving us not only the details of how she lived all the various phases of her life, but also keeping us abreast of the political situations, not only in England but also in Europe, which had great effects on what happened to Mary.

She starts by showing us that “Mary’s relationship with her mother is key, and Katherine must be understood not as a weak, rejected wife but as a strong, highly accomplished, and defiant woman” and a figure of “immense courage.”  She shows how Mary later outmaneuvered those around her and used her troops to actually gain the throne she was entitled to through her father’s decisions about the succession, then preserved that throne against rebellion and brought the Catholic religion back to her kingdom.

Whitelock does not overlook the actions against heresy that were taken in Mary’s time, but does point out the many cases in which Mary would have preferred to deal mercifully with the heretics but others made the decisions to burn them.  She also shows us  instances in which it is Mary’s decision–she never attempts to whitewash Mary, only to portray her as fully as possible.

 We see Mary going from being the indulged little favourite of her father to being ignored and pushed away while she is still a teenager and her father is infatuated with Anne Boleyn, then having to give up her title as Princess and, under threat of death, sign a formal acknowledgement of the illegitimacy of her mother’s marriage and her own bastard status.   We see Mary fighting, over decades, to be allowed to practice her own religion.  Her eventual marriage with Philip of Spain has disaster written all over it, and her phantom pregnancies and continued ill-health contribute to a growing rebellion among many of her people.

Overall, we see Mary as a “conscientious, hardworking queen who was determined to be closely involved in government business and policy making…”  She is also shown as a woman who lived by her conscience, was prepared to die for her faith, and expected the same high-mindedness of others.

I found this a very readable book.  The material presented is well-supported by notes and references, yet is not dusty-dry but accessible to the ordinary reader.  Whitelock keeps her chapters short and closely focused, and although lots of details are provided of customs, households, regalia, and even notes in cipher written by ambassadors, she does not allow Mary’s story to fall beneath too much weight.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more of the period, the Tudors, or Mary, the Catholic queen of England.

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