The Truth About Queen Mary I: How She Earned Her Nickname ‘Bloody Mary’

Queen Mary I aka Bloody Mary main

Bloody Mary (not the alcoholic drink) was Queen Mary, the first female ruling monarch of Great Britain. Her father, Henry VIII (of the six wives) established the Church of England, a Protestant church. Mary was baptized Catholic and believed that was the true faith. When she became queen, she tried to make England Catholic again, punishing hundreds of heretics (at least they were in her view). Many were executed. It was very bloody. Thus, her new nickname. She died after a short reign, succeeded by her Protestant half-sister, Queen Elizabeth. Who also had a nickname: The Virgin Queen.   

Bloody Marys

So, you did very well on that history final and went out and celebrated. Had a bit too much to drink. The next day, your best friend gave you her classic hangover remedy. A “Bloody Mary,” which has the added benefit of nutritious V8 juice. Who needs to eat vegetables? 

The red-colored juice is the usual explanation for how the “Bloody Mary” was given its name. But, this is not usually a blog about alcoholic drinks, except for that entry on Prohibition.  

It also is named for the Queen Mary of England. She is the “Bloody Mary” we are concerned about. She got that moniker from her reputation for spilling actual blood.

Is this reputation correct? Why was she so bloody? Now that you are sober again, you can read and find out.  

Background: Protestant Reformation 

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects religious liberty. This includes a ban on the “establishment of religion,” which involves mixing church and state.  

The amendment was ratified in response to an often bloody history of religious conflicts, including when governments fought over differing beliefs.  For instance, during the Protestant Reformation religious dissent led to not only new religions but also religious warfare.  

Henry VIII Has Six Wives (And Starts a New Church) 

King Henry VIII of England (famous for his six wives) established the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church) after the pope refused to grant him an annulment (religious divorce). Henry argued that his marriage violated the rules of the Catholic faith, but it was somewhat suspicious that he only made the claim after almost twenty years of marriage. 

Henry wanted a son and heir. England was not feminist enough yet to be comfortable with a queen leading them. Unfortunately, Henry and his wife Catherine (a passionate Catholic) did not have a son.

They did have a daughter, Mary, who was baptized as a Catholic. She was the only child, boy or girl, who survived childhood. 

Henry eventually obtained his divorce. His second wife only had a daughter (Elizabeth). Queen Anne was found guilty of treason and executed. Henry married again.

The new couple had a son, Edward (1537-53), but his mother soon died. Henry would marry three more times.  

Henry was now king of England and leader of the Church of England. Many battles were fought, sometimes bloody, over setting forth church rules. You’d better know them: opposition to the church could be considered treason. Are you not glad the U.S. has the First Amendment? 

King Edward VI: Boy King 

Henry died. Edward became a boy king, the power actually in the hands of his advisors. Henry arraigned for his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to be next in line for the throne. King Edward VI and his advisors, however, did not trust Mary. She was a Catholic. 

Edward could not simply give the throne to his Protestant half-sister (Elizabeth). The rules were that both sisters could be heirs or neither could be.

This policy was in place to prevent an unfortunate power struggle between sisters. Lady Jane, a cousin, became the new monarch. After Jane reigned only a few days in 1553, the forces of Mary gained control. 

A Catholic queen became the sovereign of Great Britain, who later executed Jane for treason.  

Queen Mary: Catholic Queen 

Queen Mary is also known as Mary I or Mary Tudor (to use her family name).  She was the first undisputed “Queen Regnant” of England.  Mary was a queen who ruled a country. 

Mary was born in 1516 and was unmarried when she took the throne. She married Philip in 1554. He would soon become the (Catholic) King of Spain.

The marriage to a Spanish noble, a Catholic one, was controversial. Wasn’t England now a Protestant country?

The news of Mary’s plan to marry Phillip led to a violent uprising. It was defeated. Mary married Phillip and continued her plans to make England a Catholic country again. 

Mary was a Catholic from birth. She never accepted the annulment of her mother’s marriage. For her, Catholicism was the true faith. Anti-Catholic policies were sacrilegious. A person who denied that Catholicism was the true faith could be declared a heretic, a capital crime. 

Bloody Mary 

Mary’s efforts to bring England back to the arms of Rome, to reunite England and the Catholic Church, led to the persecution of Protestants.

A prime example was the arrest and execution of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Mary had a special reason to dislike. He blessed the annulment of Henry and Catherine, Mary’s mother, and his marriage to Anne. 

Hundreds of Protestants, including the author of a popular book of martyrs, fled the country. Those who could not, largely ordinary citizens without much power, were burned at the stake. This cruel fate was the traditional means of punishing heretics.  

Close to three hundred died, some more dying in prison. This policy became known as the Marian Persecutions. The dead became martyrs.  Mary earned her moniker. Bloody Mary. 

Mary’s Short Reign 

Mary’s reign would be brief. She was mistakenly declared pregnant more than once but never had children. Already upset at her bloody pro-Catholic policies, her reign became even more unpopular when joining Spain in a war with France went badly.  

She died at age 42 in 1558 during a flu epidemic. (No flu vaccine back then.) Mary had no children, requiring her to make her half-sister Elizabeth her heir. To her dismay, the Protestant daughter of the woman Mary thought stole Queen Catherine’s rightful place at King Henry’s side would rule.

The English people gladly accepted Queen Elizabeth as their sovereign. She would reign for over forty years. Protestantism, without bloody treatment of “heretics,” was again the official religion. Elizabeth became known as the “Virgin Queen” (she never married).

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.