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: “Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile” by Julia Fox

Sister Queens book cover

In the never-ending quest to discover if Juana of Castile was really mad or not, I picked up a copy of this book to read. Having read plenty of biographies of Katherine of Aragon, I wasn’t as interested in this part of the story but Fox does present Katherine in a slightly different light which is always refreshing. But I have to confess, as I was reading the beginning of this book I became a little annoyed. It’s not really a serious biography of these two women at all.

My recent reading has been of more thoughtful biographies and analyses of history such as Bethany Aram’s “Juana the Mad” so Fox’s book seemed on the simplistic side. It reads more like historical fiction. However, that being said, the deeper I got into the book, the better I liked it. There are some great descriptions of certain events in Tudor history with some wonderful detail, essentially bringing the events to life. The recounting of the death of Katherine is really moving.

There could have been a lot more about Juana in this book but I understand why there isn’t. Juana’s time in public life was short having spent the majority of her later years in custody. And we don’t really know that much about how she actually felt or what is accurate according to the chroniclers who wrote according to their own personal agendas. I think Fox is more than fair to Juana in being somewhat neutral and not describing her as a raging lunatic.

After saying all this, I’m still going to recommend this book because Katherine and Juana are still captivating historical characters. Tudor history lovers will find it interesting and those who want to learn a little more about the sisters’ upbringing in Spain and basic facts about Juana will enjoy it.