Portrayals of Mary Tudor, Princess and Queen of England

18th February 2014
Today is the birth-date of Mary Tudor (1516-1558), the first-born of King Henry VIII and subsequently Queen of England herself in 1553. While glancing through some of her portraits the other day, it struck me how many different interpretations there are. These are, in fact, mostly derived from just two basic templates - likenesses painted during her lifetime and which subsequently spawned numerous imitations over the years. I think these originals can give us a fascinating insight into the character of the woman herself . They demonstrate how the burdens of Queenship etched their cares upon her face as time went on.

Mary Tudor as princess

To begin, we should just take a look at a couple of portraits made of her as princess. The first shows her at the age of around ten years, and reveals a face of considerable maturity and intelligence. The red hair of her parents very much in evidence, too.
young Tudor lady, princess Mary Tudor, with red hair, french hood
The earliest serviceable likeness of Mary, around the age of ten years - attributed to Lucas Horenbout.
The next, attributed to the artist known as Master John, an oil on panel dating from 1544, shows Mary some years later at the age of 28.
a young Tudor woman in orange-red bodice and french hood, the princess Mary Tudor
Princess Mary - attributed to Master John - 1544
Though perhaps not an altogether flattering image, Mary still appears youthful, with an upright stance and relatively untroubled brow. She would already have been through a period of great sorrow and frustration, however. The upheaval of the English Reformation under the reign of her father; the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the attempt to relegate her Catholic faith to the margins of English society. Enormous changes in such a short period.

By this juncture, also, she would have witnessed the divorce, humiliation and death of her mother. And she would have endured her father's continuous string of failed marriages - not to mention the executions of Queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard along the way. Quite a lot for any young woman to contend with - in this, perhaps the most dysfunctional family of all time.

Mary Tudor as Queen

After becoming Queen herself in 1553 we see an increase in official portraits and the origin of those prototypes upon which subsequent images would be based. Here, firstly is a trio of paintings (cropped for purposes of the montage) by the brilliant court painter of the time, Hans Eworth, housed in The Bridgeman Art Library and the National Portrait Gallery. Already, Mary is coming to look more stately and self-confident, yet with still a certain approachability and not without charm.
trio of portraits of a young Queen Mary Tudor in regal gowns, high collars
And here is the famous seated portrait of Mary that bears the signature of Anthonis Mor, made after Mary's marriage to Philip of Spain in 1554, replete with the jewels given to her by her new husband - notably the great 64.5 carat pearl, still known as the 'Mary Tudor Pearl' (not to be confused with the more modest La Peregrina pearl, by the way).
Tudor Queen seated with high collar and pearls, french hood, half profile
Mary I by Anthonis Mor.
large pearl
The spectacular pearl itself.

Premature aging

Mary Tudor is just 38 years of age in these portraits, but already looking much older than her years. The jaw is set obstinately. A new intensity and visible strain are beginning to show. Already the worries and cares of her position have begun to take their toll on her appearance.

She had by this time already survived one rebellion. And she had overseen the executions of Lady Jane Grey, the Duke of Northumberland and Sir Thomas Wyatt (the younger). Emotionally draining times, for sure - not to mention all the implications of an unpopular marriage to Philip the Spanish King. Here, too, perhaps we can already perceive the beginnings of the defiance and intransigence that would mar the unfortunate final years of her reign. The paintings themselves are housed at the Prado in Spain, and one in the Gardner Museum in Boston.

Finally, here are a few subsequent representations, for interest only, since they really tell us little about the character of the woman. 'Copies of originals or portraits 'after' those original artists, like Eworth, who would have painted directly from life. There are many like these that have proliferated down the centuries.
trio of images of Tudor Queen Mary, not thought to be based on life

History's verdict

So, what exactly, at a distance of over four and a half centuries, are we to make of Mary, the first Tudor Queen? Eventually to be known as Bloody Mary due to her religious persecutions, she did, however, present an entirely reasonable and even benign countenance to the world during the early months of her reign. She also showed remarkable courage and genuine qualities of leadership on several notable occasions. For instance:

    1) Her decisive action in anticipating her capture after the death of her half-brother Edward VI when she escaped by riding incognito through the night to the safety of Norfolk. And later to her own stronghold of Framlingham Castle.

    2) Her subsequent robust claim to the legitimacy of her title.

    3) The campaign she organised to topple the assumed government of Jane Grey and the Dudleys in the Summer of 1553.

    4) Her famous Guildhall speech early in 1554 that demonstrated her bravery and determination during Wyatt’s Rebellion.

     5) During the fighting that ensued, she steadfastly refused to abandon London and Westminster. She sat instead in Whitehall while her troops fought and defeated the rebels in the streets outside.

At the time, these actions earned her the admiration of whole swathes of the populace. This would perhaps indicate how easily she might have slipped into the role of 'Gloriana' herself. A role that would have been way-ahead of her half-sister Elizabeth who followed her reign in 1558, and for whom it conveniently fell to preside over one of England’s greatest period of cultural excellence and economic expansion. Those years could so easily have belonged to Mary. Or at least a good few of the earliest of them.

It is all too easy to dismiss Mary. She has become a popular figure of ridicule - even exploited at Haloween, for example, in Bloody-Mary costumes. She has also appeared in the occasional grotesque publicity campaign for exhibitions or tourist attractions.
double image, horror representation of Mary Tudor changing to vampire
Cashing in? The poster for a well know London attraction that had to be withdrawn in 2010.


Books by the shed-load have been written on the subject, and novels a-plenty, too, speculating on her bitterness towards those who resisted the counter-reformation she sought to establish during the 1550's. Writers do love a good villain, a good 'baddy' - and nobody does 'baddy' quite as readily as poor Mary Tudor. Consequently, we often forget there was a real person with the same feelings that we all share. That huge gulf between her times and ours gets in the way: times that could not be more different in character and between which there is inevitably a huge difference of understanding and sympathy.

Perhaps if she had not made certain mistakes, those very mistakes that Elizabeth herself avoided.

1) Marrying and allying herself to an unpopular foreign prince.

2) Insisting on trying to give birth to an heir later in life - probably not at all advisable with all the dreadful complications and descent into ill health that followed.

3) The often cruel and merciless persecution of her own people, inspired by the influences of the Inquisition.

Without these errors, we might today be looking back with fondness to the ‘Golden Age of Mary’ instead of Elizabeth. An England sitting proudly on the corner of Europe as a Catholic nation instead of a Protestant one. Many of the subsequent wars and disturbances that sought to assert the return of the old religion during and after her half-sister Elizabeth’s reign, from the Spanish Armada, through the Stuart uprisings of the 18th Century, right up to those frequent and tragic disputes that arose with Ireland in recent times, might never have occurred. Admittedly, though, others might have arisen in their place.

What if ...

It is a tantalizing ‘what if’ scenario. There are, I know, novelists out there who enjoy writing alternative histories of that kind. I am not one of them. But there is no doubt about it: in any alternative life of Mary Tudor there would surely be much fertile ground.

One can only wonder what might have been.
text against dark purple background with small crescent moon image linking to Tudor novel information
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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