How did Queen Mary I of England earn the name “Bloody Mary”?

Queen Mary I of England earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” due to her intense persecution of Protestants during her reign from 1553 to 1558.

She was the first queen regnant of England and was resolved to return England to Roman Catholicism after her father, King Henry VIII, had separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.

To achieve her goal of re-establishing Catholicism as the state religion, Mary I carried out a series of prosecutions against Protestants, which are collectively referred to as the Marian Persecutions.

During her five-year reign, it is estimated that about 300 Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy, creating a climate of fear and earning her the epithet “Bloody Mary”.

These actions were part of the wider European conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism at the time, but the intensity and brutality of the persecutions were particularly notable in Mary’s case. The nickname has persisted as a symbol of religious intolerance and persecution.

Mary I of England

Mary’s reign, deeply influenced by her faith and conscience, was marked by her fervent endeavor to restore Catholicism in England, resulting in the infamous Marian Persecutions where hundreds of Protestants were executed, earning her the moniker “Bloody Mary.” Mary, believing steadfastly in her mission, remained unswerving in her pursuit to re-establish the traditional Catholic faith in England, a journey imbued with a sense of divine destiny and righteousness. Portrait by Flemish painter Hans Eworth

Exact reasons why Mary relentlessly persecuted Protestants during her reign

At age nine, Mary became the nominal head of the government of Wales, a symbolic role signifying her as the heir of England. This was part of a tradition where the heir to the throne would complete their education and learn the business of ruling in Wales.

Tragedy, however, struck in 1528. She returned to her father, Henry VIII’s court amidst political turmoil due to his decision to divorce her mother, Catherine of Aragon, for Anne Boleyn.

The next five years were marked by Henry VIII’s relentless efforts to lawfully divorce Catherine, strongly impeded by the Pope. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer defied the Pope to arrange the divorce, earning Mary’s enduring animosity. And in 1533, Henry married Anne, and Elizabeth was born, supplanting Mary’s inheritance.

Mary and her mother were compelled to renounce their titles and were humiliated, with Mary even serving Elizabeth and being declared a bastard.

Queen of England

Mary I, as the first woman to claim the English throne successfully, initially enjoyed widespread support, particularly from England’s Roman Catholics, despite facing competing claims and significant opposition. Image: Mary in 1544

Mary suffered cruel treatment at the hands of Anne Boleyn and her aides. To make matters worse, she was disowned by her father for refusing to accept the divorce. Henry insisted that Mary and her mother recognize him as the supreme head of the Church of England, causing further estrangement due to their staunch Catholic beliefs.

She quickly reestablished England’s relationship with Rome and began the persecution of Protestants, burning over 300 for their beliefs, which severely damaged her reputation.

Mary saw the trial of Cranmer as a chance for revenge for his role in her parents’ divorce. During the trial, the former Archbishop of Canterbury renounced his life’s work as he hoped to secure a pardon from Mary. Despite his recantations, Mary ordered him to be burnt at the stake, further tarnishing her image.

The Trial of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

The Trial of Thomas Cranmer (1580)

Another point worth mentioning is that Mary’s proposed marriage to Philip II of Spain caused divisions, leading to a rebellion by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger aiming to install Elizabeth on the throne. From the legislative building, Mary made a passionate appeal to the people of London. She successfully rallied support, suppressed the rebellion, and imprisoned Elizabeth.

Mary faced declining health in the later part of her reign. By May 1558, her condition had deteriorated significantly, and she experienced considerable pain, possibly due to ovarian cysts or uterine cancer, although the exact cause remains unknown due to the limited medical knowledge of the time.

Mary I died on 17 November 1558, at the age of 42, at St James’s Palace. Her death occurred during an influenza epidemic that was sweeping through the region, an epidemic that also claimed the life of Archbishop Reginald Pole on the same day.

What happened after her death?

After Mary’s death in 1558, she was succeeded to the throne by Elizabeth. The new English monarch had a different approach to religion than her sister. Elizabeth was a Protestant and, soon after ascending to the throne, she implemented the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, a series of laws and reforms, to re-establish Protestantism as the state religion. The settlement aimed to assert the independence of the Church of England from the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church while creating a middle ground to accommodate a degree of religious diversity.


Known as “Bloody Mary” due to her persecutions, her reign is marked by her severe religious policies and her relentless pursuit of revenge against those who wronged her and her mother. Her harsh actions, combined with other difficulties such as famines and disease outbreaks, severely damaged her reputation and credibility both at home and abroad.

Other major facts about Mary I and her reign

Queen of England

Mary I of England, often referred to as “Bloody Mary,” is infamous for her persecution of Protestants, during which over 300 were burned at the stake for heresy. Her efforts to re-establish Roman Catholicism in England were met with resistance by many Protestants, who refused to renounce their faith.

Mary Tudor, born to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon on February 18, 1516, at Greenwich Palace, was a significant figure from birth, being the first surviving child of her parents after several failed pregnancies. Despite her importance, her gender posed a barrier, as women had not ruled England at the time; typically, royal women were destined to marry and share reign with their husbands.

From her early years, Mary was engaged in political machinations, with her betrothal being used to forge alliances. Initially betrothed to Francis, Dauphin of France, and later to Charles V, her engagements served as diplomatic tools, highlighting her substantial value in international relations due to her status as heir to the English throne.

Raised with an acute awareness of her Spanish heritage by her mother, Mary was bilingual in Spanish and English and identified strongly with her Spanish lineage. Mary, a cultivated individual, enjoyed music and dancing and was cherished by her father, Henry, who referred to her as his “pearl in the world.” Education played a crucial role in her upbringing, and she was schooled meticulously, especially in Latin, preparing her to assume a traditionally masculine role as the ruler of England.

On August 3, 1553, Mary asserted her claim to the English crown, proceeding to London in a grand procession, met by joyful crowds and visual displays of welcome. Her rise to the throne was emblematic of her triumph over opposition, met with evident public emotion.

Mary I of England, married to Philip II of Spain, believed she was pregnant at least twice during her reign, but both instances turned out to be false pregnancies or phantom pregnancies. After Philip’s visit in 1557, she believed herself to be pregnant again, expecting a child in March 1558. In anticipation of the birth, she made provisions in her will, naming Philip as the regent during the minority of their supposed child.

However, no child was born, and as Mary’s health deteriorated, she had to confront the reality that she would not have a biological heir to succeed her. With no child of her own to inherit the throne, Mary was forced to recognize her half-sister, Elizabeth, as the lawful successor to the English throne.

Mary I, wishing to be buried beside her mother, was instead interred with half-sister, Elizabeth I, in Westminster Abbey. James I added an inscription highlighting their royal status and sisterhood, expressing a hope for resurrection, acknowledging their differences in beliefs and reigns.

Mary I’s will expressed her wish to be buried next to her mother, Catherine of Aragon, but instead, she was interred in Westminster Abbey and shares a tomb with her half-sister, Elizabeth I. Image: Tomb of Elizabeth I and Mary I in Westminster Abbey

Questions and Answers

Around 800 Protestants fled to avoid Mary I’s severe heresy laws. Those remaining faced executions, leading to widespread anti-Catholic sentiments. The executed, including Thomas Cranmer, were posthumously venerated as martyrs. Image: Mary shilling

How did Mary I’s victims become martyrs?

After ascending to the throne, Mary I initially proclaimed that she would not force her subjects to adhere to her religion.

However, within a month, prominent Protestant leaders like Thomas Cranmer, John Bradford, John Rogers, John Hooper, and Hugh Latimer were imprisoned.

Mary’s first Parliament in October 1553 legitimized her parents’ marriage and repealed the religious laws instituted by Edward. The Church doctrine was reverted to the form outlined in Henry VIII’s 1539 Six Articles, which, among other directives, reinstated clerical celibacy and resulted in married priests losing their benefices.

More than 700 affluent Protestants, including John Foxe, escaped into exile to avoid religious persecution. Those who remained and continued to publicly profess their Protestant beliefs were subjected to heresy laws, leading to the first executions in February 1555, including notable figures like John Rogers, Rowland Taylor, and John Hooper.

Around 800 Protestants fled to avoid Mary I’s severe heresy laws. Those remaining faced executions, leading to widespread anti-Catholic sentiments. The executed, including Thomas Cranmer, were posthumously venerated as martyrs. Image: Archbishop Cranmer being burnt at the stake on March 21, 1556 having been accused of supporting and writing heretical works

Those who were executed during Mary’s reign, particularly the Protestants who were burnt at the stake for refusing to renounce their beliefs, were venerated as martyrs by fellow Protestants and later Protestant narratives.

The stories of Mary I’s victims were recorded and disseminated by Protestant writers, notably in John Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” (published in 1563, shortly after Mary’s death), which detailed the accounts of the sufferings and executions of Protestants under Mary I’s reign. The portrayal of these individuals in such works emphasized their faithfulness and steadfastness in their beliefs despite facing torture and death, thus solidifying their status as martyrs in the eyes of subsequent generations of Protestants.

The martyrdom of these individuals became a crucial part of Protestant identity and narrative, serving to validate the Protestant cause and to vilify Mary I and her Catholic reforms. The impact of these martyrs persisted, shaping the religious landscape and influencing perceptions of Catholicism and Protestantism in England and beyond.

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