A Catholic queen of England

A portrait of Mary painted around 1550 by Anthonis Mor, who was a Dutch painter much admired by the Kings and Queens of Europe. He was court artist to Philip II during the time this portrait was painted. It now hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.


On Sunday 1st October 1553 Mary Tudor was crowned Mary the first Queen of England. Her processional route was lined with players from Genoa and Florence who performed pageants as the population of London celebrated. A conduit at Cornhill along the route of the royal procession was said to be “running with wine.” At the head of the procession were the Privy Council, followed by senior nobles. Next came Mary’s coach, drawn by six horses. She wore a gown of purple with ermine edges and on her head rested a  heavy circlet of gold studded with so many jewels that she had to hold up her head with her hands. Following Mary’s coach was another carrying Princess Elizabeth and Anne of Cleves and was in turn followed by another carriage of ‘gentlewomen.’

 When she reached the City, her carriage stopped, and the Recorder of London read a speech professing the loyalty of the people of the city, and presented her with a purse of golden threads containing a thousand gold coins. Finally, around eleven o’clock, she entered Westminster Abbey for her coronation. Before her, walked the Bishop of Winchester and her Councillors, the earl of Arundel carrying the ball and sceptre, the Marquess of Winchester carrying the orb and finally the Duke of Norfolk, who carried the crown. Following her, were young Elizabeth and Anne of Cleaves. England’s new queen slowly proceeded through the abbey along a raised walkway whilst four barons of the Cinque Ports walked alongside her supporting a canopy above her.  She prostrated herself before the alter on a velvet cushion whilst prayers were read over her, and the Bishop of Chichester preached a sermon on the obedience owed to a monarch. She in turn, made her own oaths to England, before laying prostrate once more as the Abbey choir sang Veni Creator Spiritus. Accompanied by her ladies, Mary then went to change in preparation for her anointing with holy oil. She had refused to be anointed with the Protestant oil that Edward had been anointed with at his coronation, and sent to the Catholic Bishop of Arras for ‘untainted’ oil.

In a petticoat of purple velvet, she lay before the altar and was anointed on her shoulders, breast, forehead and temples by Stephen Gardener, the Bishop of Winchester. Dressed once again in her robes of state, she received the sword, the sceptre and orbs, and was crowned with the crown of Edward the confessor, the imperial crown, and finally a custom-made crown. The ermine furred crimson mantle was put around her shoulders, and she sat in the coronation chair as the nobles filed past to pay homage to their queen. At four o’clock in the afternoon, Mary led her entourage to Westminster Hall for the coronation banquet accompanied by her ladies Elizabeth and Anne of Cleaves. The celebrations lasted well into the night.


As soon as news of Mary’s coronation reached Spain, Charles V ordered his ambassador to suggest a marriage to his son, Prince Philip. Philip was less than enthusiastic about the idea. Mary was 37 and not good looking, but he realised that this was a perfect opportunity to cement an alliance with England and reverse the reformation. He was a widower ten years younger than Mary and realised that this would be a marriage of convenience, but a King’s duty must always override his wishes. Mary was attractive in another way. She was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, who was the youngest daughter of Queen Isabel of Spain. There could be no stronger link than belonging to a noble Spanish, Catholic family.

At that time, England was not a rich or powerful nation. The final Years of Henry VIII saw a decline in England’s prosperity, and his succession of divorces had fractured alliances and destabilised the nobility. The catastrophic rift with the Catholic Church had driven another wedge into the country, dividing communities and engendering hostility. His sacking of the monasteries and the looting of their wealth had horrified and frightened many.

The decade after his death was even worse. The council that had ruled during Edward’s youth had presided over a number of changes that brought higher prices and the introduction of new laws that saw the enclosure of common land, higher rents and the eviction of long term tenants. Corruption and profiteering was widespread, and a new level of people growing rich on the backs of the agricultural workers caused jealousy and hatred. Many welcomed the stability that having Mary as Queen could bring.

Philip II of Spain, painted by Titian and now hanging in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.


Philip II, was probably going to be the most powerful man in Europe. His father was Holy Roman Emperor and ruled over the Netherlands, Aragon, Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Austria, Tyrol, Naples and Sicily, Styria, Carinthia and Germany. He of course ruled all of unified Spain and her new acquisitions in Mexico, Peru, the Caribbean, Islands and the Isthmus of Panama. His father’s reign is still called “The Golden Age of Spain.” During Phillip’s reign, Magellan’s discovery of a group of islands in an ocean half a world away which they named the Philippines in his honour, made the influence of Spain global, and earned it the title later stolen by England as the “Empire on which the sun never sets.”

You can imagine how Mary felt. Philip was reported to be a charming, good-looking, quiet, dignified young man. He had to be the catch of the century. Mary was excited by the prospect of marrying Philip. She had seen his portrait and considered him to be very handsome and with her cousin’s blessing for the wedding, she must have felt overjoyed with such a match.

After years of being brushed aside as an unwanted girl by her father Henry VIII, and persecution by Anne Boleyn, Mary was at last going to be Queen of a Catholic England, blessed by the Pope and backed by the might of Philip’s empire. What could possibly go wrong for her? She was soon to find out.  In November 1553 a Parliamentary delegation formally requested that she choose an English husband. They explained that the reason for their petition was "to prevent us from over-running by strangers." It was not lost on Mary that all the delegation were Protestants.

In secret, a group of four rebel leaders formed together under Thomas Wyatt, who was a landowner in Kent. Each of the three other plotters would raise rebellions in their counties of Herefordshire, Devon and Leicestershire. There was also the French ambassador, Antoine de Noailles, who knew that a Spanish King on the throne of England was not in the best interests of France. 

Thomas Wyatt painted by Hans Holbein the younger around 1540


Affairs took a turn for the worse, when an informer named William Thomas claimed that the conspirators in fact intended to assassinate the Queen, naming John Fitzwilliam as the assassin. They planned to converge on London, on 18 March 1554 and replace Mary with her half-sister Elizabeth, who would then marry Lord Devon, their selected candidate as King. Meanwhile, a fleet of French ships would patrol the channel to prevent Philip II of Spain from reaching England. When one of the plotters was arrested in Devon and tortured, he revealed the scope of the plot and led the rebels to increase the pace of their plans. One of his co-conspirators was caught spreading alarm by predicting a Spanish Inquisition of Protestants in England. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he was warned and fled to France.

 Sir James Croft, who had been a supporter of Lady Jane Grey, delivered a message to young Elizabeth at Ashridge House in Hertfordshire, before realizing that his part of the uprising was doomed to failure and gave himself up. He was later released and promptly joined Wyatt’s uprising. A terrified, but innocent Elizabeth, now realized that she would be implicated in the plot. Lady Jane Grey and her husband were still in the Tower, and when Mary discovered that Jane’s father had also joined Wyatt, she very reluctantly ordered their execution to prevent them being used as a rally point for the rebels.

Meanwhile, in the Channel, the French ships which were to aid the rebels were unable to hold their positions and had to return to French ports. Only Wyatt had any success in raising an army. On January 22 1554 he called a meeting of his friends at his castle of Allington, and the remaining rebels fixed 25 January as the date of the uprising. On the 26th, Wyatt occupied Rochester and issued a proclamation of his intent to the county. Hundreds of country people and local gentry rallied to his side, but they suffered a defeat at Hartley Wood on the 28th. Nevertheless, they pressed on to London gaining supporters in Kent, where the prospect of a Spanish King was also unpopular. Many boroughs were deserted by their defenders, who either disbanded or went over to Wyatt, whose forces had grown to 3,000 men. A detachment of the London trainbands was sent against him under the command of the elderly Duke of Norfolk, but they also joined the rebels, raising their numbers to 4,000, while the Duke fled to London.

Worried that she would become the rebel’s new champion, Mary had Elizabeth brought to court where she lived in mortal fear. The rising now seemed so formidable that the Queen and Council sent a deputation to Wyatt to ask for his terms. He demanded that the Tower of London should be surrendered to him, and the Mary was to be put under his charge. Initially sympathetic, London now turned against Wyatt for his insolence, and Mary was able to rally the capital to her cause by giving a rousing speech on the 1 February at Guildhall.

Wyatt’s army reached Southwark on 3 February, and Mary’s supporters occupied London Bridge in force. The rebels were unable to break through the barricades into the city and Wyatt was forced to retreat from Southwark by the threats of Sir John Brydges, who was prepared to fire on the suburb with the guns of the Tower. Wyatt marched his men to Kingston, where the bridge had been destroyed by the defenders. His men repaired it and crossed over. At first they met little resistance as they marched through the streets of London, but were stopped in force by the inhabitants of Ludgate, where the rebel force broke up and was forced to retreat.

Finally, after being beaten back and his army routed, Wyatt surrendered, and was tried and executed along with approximately 90 other rebels. Many of them were hanged, drawn and quartered and Wyatt was brutally tortured in the hope of extracting a confession implicating Elizabeth. He was beheaded at Tower Hill and his body quartered before the crowds. As a tiny quantum of solace, the Crown at Wyatt’s trial acquitted him of any intention to actually harm the Queen.

Elizabeth was interrogated and in danger of execution, but showed her mettle with clever and intelligent responses, in which she maintained she had been unaware of the planned uprising. Nothing could be proved, but she remained imprisoned as a precautionary measure. She had narrowly evaded the block for the second time in five years, but she was more aware now than ever, that as long as she was alive, she would be a threat to Queen Mary.

The now undisputed Queen of England, Mary began preparations for her marriage to the King of Spain, and nothing was going to stop her.