The Tudor Book Reviews 7: Mary I: Gender, Power and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s First Queen by Sarah Duncan

The Tudor dynasty had ruled England for less than seventy years when Henry VIII’s eldest daughter seized power to rule as Mary I. Throughout the reigns of Edward VI, Henry VII and Henry VIII, the rituals and ceremonies of kingship affirmed the legitimacy of the young dynasty and its rulers. The coronation of a king, the negotiation and ceremony of his marriage, and the interplay between the ruler as dispenser of justice and his wife as an the intercessor on behalf of his weakest subjects all demonstrated the strength and authority of English monarchical government in the sixteenth century.

As a Tudor ruler, Mary I needed these ceremonies to affirm her authority but as England’s first undisputed female monarch, she had to modify rituals to address her subjects’ concerns about a woman’s right to sovereignty. In Mary I: Gender, Power, and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s First Queen, Sarah Duncan analyzes at the most important ceremonies of Mary I’s reign including her coronation, wedding, public judgements and religious observances to determine how Mary I affirmed her right to rule England as a female monarch.

The controversial five year reign of Queen Mary I has long been a favourite subject for Tudor historians and biographers. The traditional interpretation is that it was an unmitigated disaster, marked by a highly unpopular, childless marriage to the future King Philip II of Spain, and the mass burning of Protestants in a failed attempt to return England to Roman Catholic observance that earned the queen the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.” In Mary Tudor and Tudor England, David Loades and John Guy respectively argue that Mary I was a conventional sixteenth century woman, incapable of political manipulation or using her gender to her advantage.

Mary has been treated more sympathetically by revisionist biographers such as Linda Porter in The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary” and Anna Whitelock in Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queenwho point to the significance of her accomplishment in becoming accepted as a female ruler in a monarchical government that assumed the sovereign would be male. Duncan adopts a different approach than both the positive and negative biographies of Mary I, focusing on ceremonies and rituals instead of political events. Nevertheless, she clearly believes that the Queen’s ability to project an image of kingship to her subjects has been underestimated. English history might have been very different if Mary’s pregnancy had been genuine instead of the early symptoms of dropsy.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Mary I: Gender, Power, and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s First Queen is Duncan’s reexamination of the marriage of Mary and Philip. Even Mary’s most sympathetic biographers refer to the queen’s emotional attachment to Philip’s father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, her love of children and her admiration of Philip’s portrait as factors contributing to her unpopular marriage. Duncan’s analysis of the rituals surrounding the marriage negotiations, reveals that an unpopular foreign marriage gave Mary more political leverage to dictate the terms of her union than a popular domestic match with an accepted English noble.

Since Mary’s subjects feared Philip would wield power in England as Mary’s husband, the Queen insisted on a contract that preserved her rights as ruler, in the manner of her grandmother, Queen Isabella of Castille. Throughout their marriage, Philip and Mary often reversed the accepted gender roles within royal couples with the queen taking the initiative in their ceremonial courtship and Philip occasionally acting as an intercessor. Philip’s popularity appeared to increase when Mary seemed to be pregnant only to decline once more as Mary’s health deteriorated.

Mary I: Gender, Power, and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s First Queen is a fascinating look at the reign of Mary I through the ceremonies and rituals that legitimized her rule. Duncan’s extensive research and readable style will appeal to both scholars of gender and power in the sixteenth century and Tudor history enthusiasts interested in a fresh approach to the reign of one of England’s most controversial rulers.

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2 thoughts on “The Tudor Book Reviews 7: Mary I: Gender, Power and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s First Queen by Sarah Duncan”

  1. I have always felt a bit sorry for Mary Tudor. Her young life was blighted by her Father’s actions. First she was a much loved daughter, then when Anne Boleyn came on the scene she was pushed aside and separated from her mother. She must have been a very confused and frightened girl as well as lonely with no-one she could trust. Her actions after her brother’s death, showed her bravery though executing Jane Grey was I think unnecessary. Her religious fervour was always going to cause problems as was her choice of husband in Philip. I believe she was a very frightened and insecure woman and wonder if she really deserved the “Bloody Mary” of history. Was she really behind the burnings and executions of Protestants? Or was she used as an excuse for other’s actions?

  2. I have welcomed the shift in scholarly analysis of Queen Mary Tudor away from the traditional attitudes portrayed by her critics and religious enemies.
    A more factual analysis of the known facts making use of texts and transcripsts which are not confined to insular english writings in her sister’s subsequent reign and those of the anti-clerical century that followed, have in recent decades revealed a monarch and marian council who governed capably in the face of complex challenges in mid 16thc europe. Mary the first led the way for British female sovereign rulers and the recent historical rehabilitation of her monarchy and political and religious strategy is well overdue and to be welcomed by all factually and open minded historians and readers.

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