This book was originally published in 1978 and then reissued in 1996. It was about that time I was reading whatever I could get my hands on by Erickson such as “Great Harry”, “The First Elizabeth”, “Mistress Anne” and “To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette”. I also read this book then and remembered how much I liked it. I decided to re-read it, something I don’t normally do but my reading list included three other biographies on Mary Tudor and I wanted to see how this one measured up to more recent historical research.
Erickson’s work has withstood the test of time quite well actually. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that of the four biographies I’ve read on Mary Tudor, this is the best. They all have their charms of course and each one has a different focus. There is so much information on the reign of Queen Mary I that the narrative is similar in all the bios in most respects. What sets this one apart from all the others is Erickson’s brilliant way of inserting little captivating tidbits of history and insight concerning the Tudor era. There’s a lot of social history here that draws in the reader.
There is some great medical information regarding the sweating sickness and the influenza that reared its ugly head in the last year of Mary’s reign and may have actually caused her demise. She gives us insight into the depredations of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and how it damaged the lives of the nuns, monks and ordinary people. There are descriptions of the burning of heretics and how there was court intrigue and open fighting, including murder between the English courtiers and members of King Philip II’s Spanish entourage. I also love the anecdote concerning Elizabeth Crofts and the “voice in the wall” that disparaged Mary’s Catholicism as well as her marriage to Philip and touted the superior qualities of the Princess Elizabeth, Mary’s sister and Protestant heir.
Erickson gives the best explanation yet for the justification of the burning of heretics during Mary’s reign and puts it into the context of Europe in the mid-sixteenth century. It wasn’t just a matter of religion. Heresy was an existential threat to the government itself. Add into this mix the influence of the Spaniards, the Inquisition and the influential men around Mary who wanted to prove themselves to be good Catholics (Reginald Pole, King Philip, etc.) and you have the perfect storm to create a climate of fear and death.
Erickson was certainly one of the earliest historians who tried to rehabilitate the reputation of Mary Tudor. She gives great insight into Mary’s personality, courage and fortitude. Mary had to navigate a very narrow path between being the first Queen Regnant and being a wife who was obliged to obey and relegate herself to her husband’s commands as all women were required to do during this era. Mary was continually surprising her councilors and demonstrated great bravery during the showdown with Northumberland over Lady Jane Grey and during the scary Wyatt Rebellion when the insurgents were right outside the castles walls. Mary stood her ground and refused to leave. As I say, this book has withstood the passing of time since its first publication. It is a great read and I highly recommend it.