“Most humbly prostrate before the feet of your most excellent majesty, your most humble, so faithful and obedient subject, who has so extremely offended your most gracious highness that my heavy and fearful heart dare not presume to call you father, deserving of nothing from your majesty, save that the kindness of your most blessed nature does surmount all evils, offences and trespasses, and is ever merciful and ready to accept the penitent calling for grace, at any fitting time.”
This apologetic extract is from a letter dated 22nd June 1536 from Mary Tudor to her father King Henry VIII of England.
Mary was the child of one of the messiest divorces in English history. Her mother, the Spanish Infanta Catherine of Aragon, married Henry in 1509 on his accession to the throne. She had originally been married to his elder brother Arthur before his untimely death in 1502. Mary’s parents marriage was initially a happy one, but their fertility issues which resulted in no surviving sons took their toll. Only their daughter Mary survived childhood, and was therefore heir apparent. Although a woman had never ruled England in her own right before (not without lack of effort on Empress Matilda’s part in the 12th century) there were no legal reasons why they couldn’t. Catherine assumed Mary would be Queen. In 1525, when Mary was nine, she was sent to Ludlow to have her own household in preparation for her future role.
Yet Mary’s life changed forever in 1527 when Henry began to make efforts to repudiate Catherine. The king’s ‘great matter’ as it was referred too lasted an agonising six years. Ultimately Henry got his way and his divorce was finalised in May 1533. Henry had already jumped the gun though and married his long-term mistress Anne Boleyn in January 1533. This was partly so the child Anne was carrying (the future Elizabeth I) would be legitimate. This bitter divorce left Mary in a terrible position, both spiritually and emotionally. Henry had broken with Rome and Roman Catholicism to obtain his divorce and was now officially a Protestant. Mary, who had been raised a devout Catholic, refused to change her faith. Mary was formally declared illegitimate in the 1534 Succession Act. This altered Mary’s position so she was no longer a princess and heir apparent. Henry also refused to let Catherine and Mary see each other, even when Catherine was dying in 1535. In Catherine’s last letter to Henry she said “I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I heretofore desired“. These wishes were not met.
Mary’s grief and loneliness must have been soul crushing after her mother’s death. Nevertheless she tried to stayed steadfast to her mother’s memory and her faith. She refused to accept her parents divorce, blaming Anne Boleyn for her father’s behaviour. Anne certainly did not treat Mary well, encouraging tensions between father and daughter. Mary’s emotional issues resulted in physical health problems and she was ill frequently during these troubling years. With her mother gone, Mary was kept isolated and had few friends to rely on. The Spanish ambassador Chapuy’s encouraged Mary to accept Henry’s demands and reconcile. So with all this context in mind, we can better understand why Mary backtracked on her beliefs to write this letter. The letter acknowledged her demoted status, parent’s divorce and Henry as head of the Church of England. After receiving the letter Henry reconciled with Mary, which greatly improved Mary’s situation. On the birth of Prince Edward, Mary became his godmother and seemed relieved that there was now a male heir to inherit the throne. Throughout the rest of her father’s reign Mary lived a relatively peaceful life.
Despite losing her legitimate status in 1534 Mary did end up becoming Queen in 1553 on the death of her brother Edward VI. She was the first Queen of England to rule in her own right. Her reign wasn’t without it’s issues but that’s a subject for another blog post. Mary had a hard life, and it would be interesting to know what could have been had her parent’s stayed married…
What do you think of Mary’s letter? I’ve love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you don’t want to miss a post, make sure to sign up to my mailing list.
Mary I by Ann Weikel, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Catherine of Aragon by C. S. L. Davies and John Edwards, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Intimate Letters of England’s Queens by Margaret Sanders
Letter from Mary Tudor to Henry VIII in 1536: https://englishhistory.net/tudor/letter-of-princess-mary-to-king-henry-viii-1536/
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