Book Review: “The Myth of Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter

This is the third biography I’ve read on my list in doing research. While they have all been good so far, this is the best for several reasons. It is clear that Mary has been much maligned by the vicissitudes of history. She is hated and misunderstood and is best remembered for the burning of heretics during her reign, mostly due to the work of John Foxe and his “Book of Martyrs”. Porter does a masterful job of cutting through all the myths and gives us incredible insight into the personality of Mary and the circumstances of her time as Queen of England.

Ms. Porter gives us a vision of what Mary was thinking from an early age and how she was treated by her parents. In the beginning, Mary was considered a sparkling princess, given a household of her own, the best classical education and music instruction, beautiful clothes and jewels. Even though she was not in the presence of her parents for any extended period of time, she adored them. This made it all that much harder for her to accept the high intensity treatment by her father when Henry VIII repudiated her mother and demoted Mary’s status. For a long time, Henry didn’t acknowledge Mary as his heir. He finally did and then withdrew the endorsement.

Mary never recovered from the stress of her complete and utter submission to her father. She then spent several years in relative peace, keeping her thoughts to herself and out of trouble. When her brother Edward VI reigned, Mary was under pressure again. When he died, Mary faced her greatest challenge. There were those who put forth Jane Grey as Edward’s successor and Mary risked all to take the throne from Jane. It was a great triumph and showed Mary’s courage and tenacity.

Once Queen, Mary had many issues to contend with. Her council was always at odds. Her choice of husband didn’t go down well and her phantom pregnancies were highly unusual. Philip did treat her appropriately and with complete respect but left England as soon as he could. There were several rebellions against her but she rose to the challenge and deflected the danger. Her efforts to return England to the Catholic Church didn’t make much headway. The kingdom suffered from famine and pestilence in the last year making things that much more difficult for Mary. In the end, Mary herself succumbed to the rampant influenza.

I loved this book for the insight into Mary’s personality and Mary’s vision for England. Of the three books so far, Porter gives the best explanation of Mary’s persecution and execution of the Protestant martyrs, putting it into the context of what was happening in Europe at the time. She also explains how Mary paved the way for her sister Elizabeth, giving her a template and good foundation for her long reign. Porter goes a long way toward restoring Mary’s reputation as the first English Queen Regnant. This is a really balanced reflection on her accomplishments.

Book Review: “Edward VI” by Jennifer Loach

Edward VI book cover

This biography is another volume in the Yale English Monarch series. Author Jennifer Loach, before her untimely death at forty-nine in 1995, was a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Somerville College, Oxford. Ms. Loach started out as an historian of parliament with a specialty in the Marian parliaments but she soon widened her field of study to cover European history in general and the reigns of Mary I and Edward VI in particular, bridging the gap between Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. Most of the work on the reign of King Edward VI had been published in the early to mid-twentieth century. In 1988, Loach was commissioned to write this book for Yale University Press and spent the last years of her life solely concentrating on its writing and publication.

It is unfortunate Ms. Loach died before the completion of the book. Her husband brought her notes and computer disks to Penry Williams and George Bernard, a student of Loach’s. The Preface of the book describes how these two editors managed to complete the project, a process in and of itself that is very interesting. Ms. Loach had discussed with them how she would construct the narrative of the book so they had a clear idea of her methods. For the reader, it is apparent the book was unfinished in some places although this doesn’t detract from the basic historical information provided.

Because Edward’s reign was short, he was young and had little say in the running of day-to-day government, it is necessary to concentrate on the regencies of his regime. This encompasses the retelling of the leadership of Edward’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, later Duke of Northumberland. In this volume, there is not a lot of detail about these men’s command but it is enough to give the reader an idea of the overall impact on the reign. Dr. Loach also gives a general overview of the social and economic difficulties of the reign as well as the religious policy.

The most interesting part of this biography is about the king himself. She tells us how Edward received one of the most complete humanist educations of his era. There is some fascinating information on Edward’s court and how he enjoyed magnificence, panoply and intricate ceremony and ritual, very much following in the footsteps of his father. Edward loved to dress in sumptuous clothes and personally participate in court entertainments as a performer and in inventing them. In many ways he was a typical sixteenth century teenager albeit fortunate enough to have a superb education and access to the royal treasury.

Loach includes an entire chapter on Edward’s last illness, containing her personal thoughts on a possible medical diagnosis for what ultimately proved to be fatal. The information on Edward’s “device” for changing the succession to Lady Jane Grey is most interesting. There is a brief description of Edward’s funeral and a chapter for what followed his death with the proclamation of Lady Jane Grey as Queen and how Mary fought to claim her throne and who fought with her. There are some wonderful illustrations in the book and an appendix describing a selected list of portraits of King Edward. This is a wonderful, no-nonsense history of the life and reign of the young King Edward.