The sad life of England's first female ruler is rendered even more tragic in comparison with her half-sister and successor's reign. Poor Mary Tudor, destined - like her half-brother and predecessor - to languish between those two giants of English history, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Yet there is much to warrant even a brief examination of her life and reign. Though her hated half-sister would outshine her in virtually every sphere - physical, political, intellectual, artistic - Mary also had a formidable impact upon English history. Throughout the first thirty-seven years of her life, she was tossed about by the whims of her father and, later and perhaps more galling, her Protestant brother and his council. It was perhaps inevitable that when she first tasted real power, the experience would be both intoxicating and unfortunate.

Mary is known to popular history as 'Bloody Mary' for the execution of Protestants during her reign. Her determination to reestablish the Catholic faith in England was disastrous. Her personal life was equally tragic. She married Philip II of Spain, son of her former suitor and cousin, Emperor Charles V. Mary fell instantly in love; Philip stayed in England long enough to secure English gold for the Hapsburg military. Also, he faced cold political reality by forcing a rapprochement between Mary and her hated half-sister and heiress, Elizabeth. Mary died in 1558, after enduring a false pregnancy as well as the loss of Calais, the last English outpost on the continent.

Attributed to 'Master John', 1544

Click to view portrait.


The year 1554 was an important year for Princess Mary; though still considered illegitimate, she was reinstated in the line of succession by her father and parliament. The portrait itself was a sign of improved relations with her mercurial father. Since her parents' annulment in 1533, Henry VIII would not allow any portraits to be made of his eldest daughter, despite the requests of foreign ambassadors. But Henry's July 1543 marriage to the kindly Katharine Parr signaled a changed in Mary's status. Katharine deliberately set out to reconcile the king with his two daughters, and she succeeded quite well. Mary's reinstatement in the line of succession, her position as lady in waiting to the new queen, and the creation of this beautiful portrait were welcome changes in Mary's often sad and troubled life.

There is great stylistic similarity between this portrait and the portrait of Lady Jane Grey, also attributed to Master John. (Compare images below.) Mary wears a fashionable French gown and the background is vivid and very expensive azurite pigment.

Princess Mary, by Master John Lady Jane Grey, by Master John

And yes, I know the above right portrait is now considered to be Katharine Parr. However, I remain unconvinced by the 'evidence'; you can learn more about this issue at the Katharine Parr site.

Hans Eworth, c.1555-58
Click to view Portrait One - Portrait Two - Portrait Three

The first portrait was painted in 1554 and is perhaps the most famous image of the queen. It is a conventional pose and the queen appears quite confident, reflecting the celebration and optimism which greeted her ascension. She holds a red rose, as she does in the Mor portrait below. It was a personal symbol, referring both to the Tudor rose and her Christian name.

The second portrait was painted after Mary's betrothal to Philip of Spain, since she is wearing jewels he gave her to celebrate their engagement. The heavy gown indicates that it was painted in winter, and the pose is reminiscent of Holbein's portraits during Henry VIII's reign. (Compare it to his portraits of Anne of Cleves and Christina of Denmark.)

The third portrait was painted a bit later than the second, since Mary's face has aged slightly. In her right hand, she holds a document; in 1890, 'The Supplicate....' was found to be written upon the paper but that is not discernible now.

Anthonis Mor, 1554
Click to view portrait.
This portrait was made after Mary's July 1554 marriage to Philip II of Spain. The queen wears a wedding ring and a jewel given to her by Philip in June of that year. Mor accompanied Philip to England and his talent impressed the English nobility; Sir Henry Lee and Lord Windsor would visit Mor in the Low Countries in the 1560s to sit for portraits.
Mary was 38 years old when this portrait was done. There are three versions of the portrait; the other two are also signed by Mor, one hangs at the Gardner Museum in Boston and the other at the Prado in Spain. Stylistically, it is quite different from other conventional portraits of Tudor royalty. Mary is seated and her features are realistically done, unlike the iconographic images of her father and sister. Also, note the use of chiaroscuro; this was a new development in Tudor portraits but did not last. It contributes to the aesthetic appeal of the picture.

The style is comparable to portraits of other Hapsburg brides. Perhaps Mor's intention was to portray Mary as a Hapsburg consort rather than queen of England in her own right.

A follower of Anthonis Mor, c.1555-58
Click to view portrait.
This is an English copy of the famous portrait of Mary shown above. This scan is larger and a bit sharper.

British School, c.1550
Click to view portrait titled 'Lady in Black' (formerly titled 'Mary I').
This portrait was once assumed to be of Queen Mary I, but a 20th century exhibition supposedly put that assumption to rest. Full-length portraits from this period are quite rare, and so the lady must have been of some importance. The style of her gown can be definitively dated to 1550-54, and is in the French fashion. Its color indicates the sitter may be in mourning, and the gown and headdress are richly embroidered with jewels. The embroidered guards and black velvet partlet on this gown appear in Mary I's wardrobe accounts, but she often gave fabrics and old gowns to trusted servants. This lady may very well have received some parts of the gown from the queen and adapted them to fit her mourning attire.
This portrait is in the possession of the Huddleston family. One of their ancestors, John Huddleston, protected Mary at his home of Sawston after Edward VI's death, thus preventing her arrest by John Dudley's supporters. I have included the portrait here because some people still believe Mary I is the sitter; also, it's quite lovely in its own right.

Mary I and Philip II of Spain, from 'The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession', c1572, attributed to Lucas de Heere. This painting can be viewed at Sudeley Castle. I have cropped the image of Mary and Philip from the painting. Mary appears to the left of her father, Henry VIII; she and Philip are followed by Mars, the god of war.

A medal featuring an engraved portrait of Queen Mary I. This image also features an engraved medal of her husband, Philip.

A rare portrait of Mary as queen of England, date unknown

The 'Greenwich Marriage Portrait' of Mary and Philip II of Spain

Philip II of Spain

I will finish the commentary soon.

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