Bloody Mary, Quite Contrary
A Legend of Mary Tudor, Queen of England
retold by S.E. Schlosser
“Mary, Mary…” the half-heard whisper woke her in the darkness before dawn.
Darkness. How appropriate. These days, it seemed as if her whole life was in darkness.
It had not always been this way. She was born at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich, England on February 18, 1516. As the eldest daughter and only surviving child of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was baptized a Catholic shortly after her birth.
Mary lived the life of a privileged Princess in the English court. Then things began to go wrong. The King wanted a son to rule after him. So Henry the VII changed his religious affiliations from Catholic to Protestant, annulled his marriage to Mary’s mother and married Anne Boleyn in the hopes that this new Queen would bear him a son.
Mary was embittered by her father’s treatment of her mother and angered by his blatant religious heresy. It was not right that the King and his people should abandon the Catholic Church just because the King’s wished to annul an unwanted marriage. To Mary’s further outrage, Queen Anne – following the birth of her daughter Elizabeth - pressed for an act of Parliament to declare Mary illegitimate. This placed the former princess outside the succession to the throne. To add insult to injury, Mary was forced to serve in the household of her young step-sister as a reminder of her new status as an illegitimate child. The memory made Mary’s stomach roil. She rolled over in bed and pulled the pillow over her head.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary…” the dream whisper came again. Mary clapped her hands over her ears to block it out. The dream voice had plagued her sleep ever since her father’s annulment. It was true she felt contrary most of the time, these days. Angry with her parents. Angry with the country that would change its religion at the whim of their King. Angry at everything.
As the sky outside the window turned gray with the approaching dawn, Mary continued to brood on the bloody reign of her royal father. In 1536, Henry had Anne Boleyn beheaded and married his third wife, Jane Seymour, who gave birth to Edward, the long-desired male heir. Jane Seymor insisted that the king make amends with his daughter Mary, and so she re-entered the royal court. But Mary was an outsider now. She was a faithful Catholic and everyone around her was a despised Protestant.
“How does your garden grow,” the dream voice murmured soothingly to Mary as the sun rose over the horizon.
When her father died, Mary's half-brother, Edward VI, took the throne. He was a consumptive young man, and Mary knew his reign would not – could not last. But Edward was a Protestant and did not want his Catholic half-sister to take the throne. At the contrivance the powerful Duke of Northumberland, Edward had his cousin Lady Jane Grey appointed as the heir to the throne. When Edward died, Lady Jane would be the new Queen of England, and the Duke could control her through his son.
Edward fell very ill at the age of 15. Mary was on her way to visit her dying half-brother, when a breathless spy hailed Mary’s entourage and told Mary her brother had died and that the Duke of Northumberland had seized control of the Tower of London and its armory. He had posted a double line of armed guards round Greenwich Palace to prevent news of the King’s death from becoming known and had ordered out a cavalry troop to capture Mary.
So Mary hid from the Duke’s troops at Sawston Hall, the home of her loyal subject Sir John Huddleston. She had spent a restless night in four-poster bed the Tapestry Room of Sawston Hall and now lay brooding over the unfairness of fate in the dim light of morning.
“Quite contrary,” the dream voice murmured again.
All at once, Mary heard a shout from the roof. She sat up in bed, alarmed by the cry. A moment later a maid ran into the room to tell her that a band of cavalry were rapidly approaching the house. Mary was disguised as a milkmaid, and hustled out of the house and into the courtyard, from which she rode pillion behind one of Sir John`s grooms while Sir John himself escorted her.
When they looked back from the hilltop, they saw the Duke of Northumberland’s men setting fire to the house, angry that Mary had escaped their grasp escape. Mary drew in a proud breath from her perch behind the groom and said to her host and rescuer: "Let it blaze. When I am Queen I will build the Huddleston’s a better house."
She kept her word. Mary wrote a letter laying claim to the English throne and raise an army against Northumberland. As soon as Northumberland was defeated, Mary ordered Sawston Hall rebuilt. She later honored Sir John with a knighthood and appointed him a Privy Counselor, Vice-Chamberlain and Captain of Her Majesty’s bodyguard.
“Queen at last,” Mary gloated when she finally sat alone in front of her palace mirror before bed. For a moment, she saw flames flickering around her head and torso, but it was only a sudden blazing of the wood in the fireplace as a pine bough caught fire. Tomorrow, she would begin repealing those shameful religious edicts put in place by her half-brother Edward VI. She would bring Roman Catholic faith back to England.
“We need to bring back the old heresy laws. That is what We must do,” Mary murmured to herself as she lay down.
On the edge of sleep, she thought she heard the dream voice whisper: “How does your garden grow?”
Mary’s Catholic reforms were not popular among the nobility. This proved to Mary how corrupt her country had become under the Protestant faith. She was determined to secure a Catholic succession; knowing that if she remained childless, the throne would pass to her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth. At the age of 37, she had no time to waste. To accomplish her goal, she arranged to marry Philip, King of Spain.
Philip was a handsome fellow, ten years younger than Queen Mary. She was smitten with him as soon as she saw his portrait. Phillip was less taken with her, but he conducted himself in an acceptable manner during their wedding and afterward. In September of 1554, a court doctor told Mary that she was pregnant. At 38, there was much concern that she would not survive childbirth. The Council ruled that – should Mary die in childbirth - the British throne would pass to her child and not to her husband. Realizing that t Council would never let him rule England, Philip gave up all pretense of regard for his wife or his unborn child.
Mary’s heart was broken by her husband's withdrawal. As she awaited her confinement, she turned her attention to something she could control--the punishment of heretics. In February, 1555, she had two Protestant clergy burned at the stake. That night, she dreamed of the fire at Sawston house. In her dream, she saw the faces of the dead Protestants hovering in the flames and heard a voice whispering: “Mary, Mary quite contrary. How does your garden grow?”
Shortly after Easter, Mary went to Hampton Court for her confinement. On April 30, a rumor spread that she'd given birth to a healthy son. But when no official word came from Hampton Court, the public realized the rumor was false. May came and went. Queen Mary was still childless. By June, it was apparent the Queen had a false pregnancy, probably brought on by her intense desire to have a child.
In her anxiety and confusion, Mary blamed the Protestant heretics for bewitching her so that her long-desired child could not be born. In a bitter twist of fate, her husband Philip left England soon after Mary came out of confinement and he stayed away from her for two years while he fought a war against France.
This was the final straw for Mary. In her mind, the Protestants had cost her the succession and her husband. She would make the heretics pay dearly for such interference. There were so many Protestants in England that Mary could not order executions fast enough. Every Protestant she burned at the stake was another win for her poor unborn child and for her dead mother whom the king had divorced. People started calling the Queen "Bloody Mary," but she did not care. She had to wipe the Protestant scourge from the face of England.
And then her husband Philip returned in 1557. Hope blazed in Mary’s heart. She had another chance at redemption. Surely this time she would bear him a son. It was true that he had only returned because he needed England’s help in his war with France. And she knew that he had brought a mistress with him. But Mary didn’t care. Only the conception of a Catholic heir was important now. Mary ignored the mistress and attempted to reconcile with her husband and win his war for him. She failed in both regards. Phillip lost his war and left Mary for good this time. Still, Mary fooled herself into thinking she was pregnant again. When nine months passed and no child came, Mary sank into despair.
Late in the fall of 1558, an extremely ill Queen Mary lay brooding on her bed, watching the flames from the fireplace flicker in the mirror. Thoughts whirled through her feverish mind. Her Roman Catholic beliefs had lost her the support of the nobles and most of her countrymen. And her childless state and the edicts of the Council had lost Mary her husband. Now some court wag – if she knew who she would have him beheaded! – had invented a nursery rhyme aimed at her. As she gazed unseeing into her mirror, Mary heard the dream voice that had plagued her most of her adult life, chanting the words to the nursery rhyme:
“Mary, Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.”
Such an innocent-sounding rhyme! But the garden in the rhyme actually referred to the number of Protestants she had sent to the graveyard. The silver bells and cockleshells were torture devices. And the pretty maids in a row were guillotines. How dare the nobles mock her! How dare they?
Mary felt death tiptoeing nearer. And there was no child. No one to prevent her Protestant half-sister from taking the throne. Mary felt a tear roll down her cheek and drop to the pillow beneath her aching, heavy head. On the edge of sleep, Mary thought she heard the dream voice crooning: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary. How does your garden grow?” She closed her eyes and felt her soul dropping away from her weary body in death….
“Mary, Mary quite contrary.” The dream voice spoke sharply. Bloody Mary snapped awake, feeling lighter than she had in many years. She frowned, puzzled by what her eyes beheld. She saw a back-to-front picture of her bedchamber; as if she were looking at it through a mirror. Standing in front of the mirror was her half-sister Elizabeth, wearing an elaborate coronation gown. Ladies-in-waiting fluttered about Elizabeth, making last-minute adjustments to her apparel.
Mary was furious. How dare her Protestant half-sister flaunt herself in a coronation gown as if she were the Queen! Bloody Mary flung herself forward, wanting to tear the lovely garments from her half-sister’s body and wipe the satisfied smile from her face. Mary’s body slammed into unbreakable glass. With a scream of rage, Mary pounded her fists against the barrier until blood poured down her arms.
Suddenly, Mary felt flames licking the bottom of her skirt. Blistering heat burned her skin and blew her hair up in an aureole around her face, twisted up with hate and pain. Blood from her hands dripped down the inside of the mirror and pooled around the flames without extinguishing them. Mary screamed, but no sound came out of her parched lips as the dream voice whispered triumphantly: “Bloody Mary, quite contrary: How does your garden grow?”
*Editor’s Note: Queen Mary Tudor died at St. James Palace in London on November 17, 1558. During her reign, she had nearly 300 persons burned at the stake for heresy. Among them was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.
You can read all our Bloody Mary stories on the Bloody Mary Legends page.