By Samantha Wilcoxson
Mention the name of Elizabeth I and visions of a glorious queen with red-gold hair immediately come to mind. She shepherds her people and stands firm against the Spanish armada. Her devotion to her subjects is so complete that she cannot even bring herself to find a spouse. Long after her death, Queen Elizabeth I is adored, possibly more so than she was during her lifetime.
In contrast, her older sister, Queen Mary I is remembered as ‘Bloody Mary’ when she is remembered at all. The sisters shared the auburn hair that they inherited from their father, Henry VIII, but that is not all they had in common. A closer look reveals that Elizabeth learned much about ruling as queen regnant from the example of her sister.
The role modelling that Mary provided for Elizabeth began long before either of them became queen. The girls were often part of the same household when Elizabeth was young, beginning with Mary’s forced servitude in the infant Elizabeth’s household as part of Henry’s striving to emphasize that it was Elizabeth who, at that time, was princess while Mary was a bastard. By the time both girls were brought to court by stepmother Katherine Parr, both were bastardized princesses.
Mary’s early roles in Elizabeth’s life would have demonstrated how to be pious and submissive in the face of adversity. Elizabeth would get a different view of what positions a woman could fulfill when her father went to war in France, leaving Katherine as regent with Mary at her side. Katherine Parr was an important person in the lives of these motherless girls. She showed that a woman could order a kingdom just as well as a household, and both girls took note.
Both Katherine and Mary offered Elizabeth examples on the effects that the wrong marriage could have on a woman’s life. If she were not haunted by the fact that her mother had been executed by her father, Elizabeth need look no further than Katherine and Mary for further reasons to remain single. Thomas Seymour, Katherine’s fourth husband, gave Elizabeth an early lesson in flirtation, if not more, and was executed for treason shortly after Katherine’s death following childbirth. Mary’s marriage to Prince Philip caused an uproar of rebellion as the efforts to restore Catholicism became fused with England’s marriage to Spain in the minds of Englishmen.
However, Elizabeth took note of the finer details of Mary’s reign and used them to her advantage when her turn came. While the lack of a husband caused its own problems, not the least of which was the end of her family’s dynasty, Elizabeth had learned from her father’s marital scandals and the repercussions of her sister’s choice that it was safer to remain alone. Elizabeth is famous for stating, “I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England.” What is not so widely remembered, is that Mary said almost the same thing.
In 1554, with Wyatt’s Rebellion underway, Mary decided to address the people of London and encourage them to rise up in her defense. She said, in part, “What I am loving subjects, ye know your Queen, to whom, at my coronation, ye promised allegiance and obedience, I was then wedded to the realm, and to the laws of the same, the spousal ring whereof I wear here on my finger, and it never has and never shall be left off. . . . I cannot tell how naturally a mother loveth her children, for I never had any, but if the subjects may be loved as a mother doth her child, then assure yourselves that I, your sovereign lady and your Queen, do earnestly love and favour you. I cannot but think you love me in return.”
Elizabeth was a clever woman, better at reading political situations than Mary ever was. She was quick to use language and strategies that had worked for her sister, but also eager to put distance between herself and the memory of the aged, childless queen and learn from Mary’s mistakes.
Where Mary had seen herself as the spiritual leader of her people, Elizabeth understood that changing times made Head of the Church of England a difficult title to bear. Mary had believed that it was her duty to reconcile her kingdom to Rome and her people to God, but Elizabeth was careful to keep her faith more private than any previous ruler of England had. She saw, as few monarchs of her day did, that religion was becoming an issue that people were no longer united in.
Elizabeth used this difference between herself and her sister to bolster her position. In turn, Mary’s name was blackened. The harsh sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’ was never applied to the devout queen during her lifetime, but the sister who benefitted from her example also found that she appeared more glorious if her predecessor seemed evil in comparison. Instead of receiving credit for demonstrating that a woman could reign, Mary became the enemy whom Elizabeth triumphed over. Yet, Elizabeth would not have been the success that she was without the sister who paved the way for her.
Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock
The First Queen of England by Linda Porter
The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Samantha Wilcoxson is the author of the Plantagenet Embers Trilogy. An incurable bibliophile and sufferer of wanderlust, she lives in Michigan with her husband and three teenagers. Her most recent novel, Queen of Martyrs: The Story of Mary I was recently released and is available in paperback and on Kindle. You can connect with Samantha on her blog or on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
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