1558 was a fateful year for England which would have a fundamental impact on its future. Find out why.
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Last time we heard about how a fortuitous doomed rebellion gave Mary and Philip the leeway to achieve the very thing the royal council had always feared – that through this marriage England would be dragged into a war which was neither in her interest nor that she could afford. But there’d been a couple of early successes which was great, although since epidemic disease stalked the country this probably wasn’t the main interest of most people.
The Duke of Guise, commander of the French forces, had his beady eye on the shiny jewel in England’s crown, Calais. Although the fortress was in rather delapidated condition, English seapower meant that it could be quickly re supplied. So surprise was very important, and finding a way of stopping last minute re supply was also important. So in November and December 1557, French forces filtered into the Picardy region around the pale of Calais, like the agents of Sauron filtering into the Lothlorien and spread misinformation to the commander of the English garrison, Lord Wentworth. That misinformation had convinced Wentworth as late as 22nd December that the French were in no position to do anything and everybody could concentrate on the wasailing and a good time. But by 27th December the council at Calais finally realised that they’d be duped, and sent an urgent request for assistance to both the royal council in London and to Philip in the low Countries. Philip despatched 200 gunmen; the Earl of Rutland ran around like a blue arsed fly after receiving the orders on 29th December but getting an army together takes time. Nonetheless by 2nd January, he had set sail. And as long as Wentworth could just defend the walls for a few days, everything would be fine, since the English controlled the sea, and Fort Risban at the mouth of the harbour controlled access from the sea. And handily, Fort Risban was protected by the marshes.
1st January 1558 was very cold. Freezing cold in fact. So freezing cold that the marshes were frozen solid. And across the frozen marshes came Guise’s forces and on 2nd January to his horror Wentworth saw guns in front of Fort Risban and 27,000 soldiers investing Calais. As Rutland arrived with his relief force on 3rd January the welcome he received from Fort Risban was the gunfire not of salute, but of war. There was no way into the harbour.
Calais was overwhelmed within a week, and the nearby castles of Hames and Guines didn’t take much longer, under garrisoned and simply overrun, although Guines managed to hold out until 21st. The French could not have been more delighted. They recovered 3 month’s supply of food, a whopping 300 guns, and the last tiny vestiges of French humiliation from the 100 year’s war had been wiped from the shoe of French pride. The 5,000 inhabitants of the town were sent home, and the French set about re-incorporating the pale of Calais into France.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the fall of Calais was a jolly good thing, capital G capital T. It was an anachronistic survival of the old dynastic kingdoms and empires, and kept dragging English monarchs back to ancient glories and continental involvement, when it would be the Atlantic where the future lay. Of course no one knew that at the time. Though the very first tiny seeds were there. The Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands had been founded in 1551 by a group that included John Cabot’s son Sebastian. They started off by looking for a Northeast Passage to China, and most of their early journeys revealed nothing; but one of their number Richard Chancellor made it to Russia and travelled over land to Moscow, to his and indeed the Czar’s apparent delight. He came back clutching letters from the czar, inviting English traders and promising trade privileges, and in 1555 the company was recast with a charter from Mary, and began to establish trading links. Now I am not saying that England’s future lay in Russia, but it did lie in exploration and trade, not in continental wars. Discuss.
However this is all looking at history backwards. In January 1558 the news was received with universal gloom, and disembarking English families cannot have helped lighten the mood, a bit like the defeated Norman garrisons coming home in 1450. Blame went flying around; unfair blame at Philip for military failure, since it really wasn’t his fault. Totally fair blame for Phillip for the victualing licences for Calais all of which had gone to Flemings not English. But hate it or loathe it, none of it helped Mary’s reputation either for good governance or for luck.
And Mary of course very famously, was gutted, and according to John Foxe would later declare ‘when I am dead and opened you shall find Calais lying in my heart’. She, Phillip and the Count of Feria, Philip’s representative in England now, also knew where the blame lay. Calais was clearly a nest of protestant traitors, and Wentworth was the chief traitor, and unsurprisingly Wentworth’s feet hardly touched the floor before the rest of him ended up in the slammer. In Rome a Spanish Cardinal wrote
The Governor of Calais was a great heretic, like all those who were with him there…so I am not surprised at its fall
Philip immediately demanded that a plan be put together to recapture the town. The Royal Council demanded that a plan be NOT put together thank you. They estimated the army required would cost £170,000, money they did not have. They dourly declined to waste money on reclaiming a town which some of them considered a waste of space and hideously expense anyway; and even without that the war was costing and arm and a leg, and after a few months, the national debt was rising like a demented Phoenix from its pre-war level of £100,000 to £300,000. Feria was contemptuous of the council ‘I am at my wits end with these people’ he groaned. But the Council continued to see plenty of evidence that Philip gave not a tinker’s curse for English interests, and you know how cheap is the curse of a tinker. In February he ordered Mary’s household to raise an army of 3,000 German mercenaries to defend the Scottish Border from the French; this was a need the royal council thoroughly agreed with, the work was done, and the mercenaries paid £2,000…pricey but necessary so right you are Sah! Then in April Philip demanded them for use in the war in the Low Countries, and they were withdrawn from the tawdry business of defending England and sent to the coast to take ship for the Low Countries. Then to add insult to injury, when they arrived Philip decided he didn’t need them afterall, and disbanded the whole jolly lot of them. Cheek of it. But there’s more. He then sent a self-congratulatory letter to the Council saying well done me, I’ve saved you a whole bunch of money there by disbanding them. Grrr.
Mary was buoyed for a while by the knowledge that she was pregnant. She kept the good news under her hat until January when she was certain, and then told Philip the tidings of great joy, and spread the news around court. I am sorry to say that her news was received with widespread scepticism from the off this time. Philip wrote to Pole to say how happy he was…and then sent Feria to find out if the news had any truth to it. Feria wrote to Philip that Mary was
Making herself believe that she us with child, though she does not own up to it
Nonetheless in March 1558 Mary made her will, once more reflecting the dangers of childbirth,
Although I be at this present…in good health, yet foreseeing the great danger which by God’s ordinance remain to all women in the travail of children
If she died, then the throne would of course go to her child if it survived, while Philip would become Guardian and regent. But it was not long before Mary was once again forced to accept that it would not be so, and from May the reports of her condition are resolutely gloomy. Feria described how
‘she sleeps badly, is weak, and suffers from melancholy; and her indisposition results in business being handled more slowly than it need be
A favourite Tudor analogy of the state was the estate as a body with each part dependant on the other. And maybe it was especially so in 1558, because Mary’s decline and the consistently bad news seemed to affect other walks of life too.
Since the fall of Calais, not one third as many Englishmen go to mass as went before
Though that’s a biased report in all probability; Feria thought Pole was on the wrong track in his religious reforms, and was in the business of diss’ing him. But disease was raging, people were dying, the Queen had no heir, England had been humiliated by her traditional enemy. God had currently changed her nationality and was no longer an English.
It did not help Mary’s mood that her hated sister was full of beans. In February Elizabeth came to Somerset House in London ‘with a great company of lords and noblemen and noblewomen’, and although she would not stay long, all eyes turned to the person that looked increasingly like the future, despite Mary’s lack of confirmation of her as heir. Certainly, William Cecil was reading the runes. Although tradition has it that Cecil retired to his estates when Mary became Queen, this is not the case. Our William Cecil was what is commonly known as an Operator; he was often in London, working his contacts and keeping his connections, meeting with his friend Reginald Pole, sticking a thermometer in the bottom of state and taking the temperature. And in February 1558, he took the opportunity of Elizabeth’s visit to go and see her. He had an excuse – he was the Royal Surveyor of her estates, and so could plead a business meeting, which would also mean he could charge expenses, and expect biscuits. And it may that this is all that the meeting was, but certainly Cecil made sure that Elizabeth knew something of him, and something of his talents. It does not hurt to sing your own praises just a little now and then. After all, if you don’t, who else will?
The war meanwhile ground on, with no decisive outcomes, but plenty of decisive costs, and with little satisfaction from Philip for the English role. In fact, the indications are that Philip was simply losing interest; he’d not been able to become the king he felt his position and honour warranted, and no longer seemed concerned to try; the pensions he was supposed to be paying his supporters on the Royal Council were months late being paid. Feria was recalled to the Low countries, and a lower status diplomat replaced him; Philip clearly did not think there was much likely to happen any time soon; though before he left Feria went to visit Elizabeth. In August, Mary caught a fever and everyone worried that she was badly ill, but she recovered, only for her to fall ill again in October. By 29th October 1558 the Venetian Ambassador reported that
‘the Queen was grieviously ill and her life in danger
And suddenly Philip began to realise that in fact England was about to get dangerously interesting, and back came Feria once more. Philip’s diplomatic situation had worsened because the marriage between Mary QoS and Francis the Dauphin of France had been formally celebrated in April 1558. Everyone had known it was going to happen but still, having it actually happen rather than a betrothal gave the reality more force. Feria visited Elizabeth again and sought assurances that their friendship would continue; and suggested the old idea of marriage again. Elizabeth was already beginning to be in her element, thanking Philip, full of re-assurance – and ruthlessly dismissing the idea of marriage. Something she would get very used to.
So Philip did not come home to be at his wife’s side. Obviously, there are extenuating circumstances; mainly that he probably did not know that Mary was on the point of death. But to be more brutal, Philip made a calculation. If he was in England when Mary died, he would be honour bound to make a pitch for the throne, and he was probably not going to win that, which would be a reputational nightmare, and Philip was a proud man very conscious of his honour, he was not the kind of aristocrat that wears jumpers with holes in the elbows, the reverse posh thing didn’t work back then. Also, he was now involved in another round of peace negotiations with France, so it was a busy time, no time for dying wives.
And, on 21st September 1558 Philip, and indeed we, get to say goodbye to a constant companion here on the History of England. I speak of Charles V, once lord of a fair proportion of Christendom, now living alone in a secluded monastery – I say living alone, except for the teams of courtiers and servants of course. The walls of his room were reputed to be hung with clocks, a reminder of the lack of free time available for the ruler of a fair proportion of Christendom, and his funeral had been meticulously planned by him – after all it would not be any old ordinary affair, this is the ex ruler of a fair proportion of Christendom we are talking about here. They’d all been through the full ceremony, including Charles hopping into the box and lying there before rising from the theatre of death as it were. Anyway, he had then contacted malaria probably, and on 21st September he died. He seems to have been with us for about a million years, but in fact he’s only 58.
I would have thought this news would have affected Mary deeply; Charles had been a father to her, and putting aside whether or not the relationship had become a little weird when Mary became queen, he had been a genuine support for someone who had felt very exposed and alone through her life. His death cannot have helped therefore, and Mary was now clearly badly ill. By November, the council were laying eggs about the succession and as Mary faded the line became ‘look we know you are going to be fine…but just theoretically speaking, could you tell us who would be the monarch in the extraordinarily unlikely event that you croak?’
On 6th November, Mary bowed to the inevitable and made another will; and finally, she consented to make Elizabeth her heir, though she could not bring herself to use Elizabeth’s name. Mary’s closest councillors were sent to Elizabeth to give her the news, and give Mary’s last wishes, that Elizabeth pay her debts and of course keep the realm Catholic. Elizabeth would take not a blind bit of notice of Mary’s wishes. And meanwhile, in the brutal but entirely understandable way these things happen, more and more of the courtiers that would normally have walked the corridors of Mary’s palace, shuffled off and started walking the galleries of Hatfield instead. Where the future was living.
By 14th Feria was convinced that Mary was about to die, and wrote to Philip that ‘each hour I think they will come to inform me of her death, so rapidly does her condition deteriorate from one day to the next’. Mary was no longer speaking of Philip, her mind had moved on, to visions of angels ‘like little children’; it’s of this time that Foxe reported her famous words that Calais would be found written on her heart. On 16th November she received the last rites, and the following morning 17th between 5 and 6 in the morning, she died, and hours later the Lord Chancellor Nicholas Heath announced her death to Parliament. Historian Tracy Borman relates that among the personal effects that Mary left was a book of prayers, which had a page devoted to intercessions for expectant mothers. It was stained with tears.
When the news reached Philip, he wrote ‘The queen my wife is dead. I felt a reasonable regret’. I imagine it loses a little in translation, and was not quite that callous, but the truth is of course he was but 31 and was now free to marry again and hopefully produce more heirs. He asked Feria to make sure he snaffled the jewels Mary promised him in her will, and then moved on. He had decided that there was nothing left for him in England, and he was probably correct in that – Elizabeth’s position was pretty unassailable.
On the very same day Mary died, Reginald Pole also lay dying. His position had become pretty much impossible. In Italy, the Inquisition had been digging into the lives of his colleagues in Rome, and Pope Paul’s malice grew daily; his refusal to conduct any English business would have a material effect in the next reign, since it meant that several bishoprics were unfilled, leaving the ranks of the Marian bishops denuded for the fight ahead. Pole was strongly opposed to Philip’s plans for Elizabeth’s accession and tried hard to persuade him against it; he knew what Elizabeth meant for his beloved reformation, which was, he believed, working, slowly, but working. But he could not persuade Philip, and in the end was himself persuaded that there was nothing he could do. He died literally hours after Mary, hours after the partner in their great enterprise, the partner he had done so much to support. He would not have known that Mary and his death brought the persecutions to an absolute and immediate stop. Tragically, neither’s death was early enough to save the 10 people burned to death that very month in Ipswich, Canterbury and Bury St Edmunds.
The contemporary response to Mary’s death was mixed. There were plenty close to her who were deeply upset at her loss; to those close to her Mary often engendered deep loyalty, and in return she herself gave loyalty freely. At her funeral, the Bishop of Winchester took a stand on comparing Mary to Elizabeth which resulted in Elizabeth separating him for a while from his liberty. Her mourners did not include one of those who should have been most appreciative – Pope Paul IV was glad to see her go, and looked forward to much improvement under Elizabeth.
For others, it was a collective sigh of relief. The city of York released a protestant tirade, but even that mourned the death of
‘a lady that of her own inclination wished all for the best’
And reached back into a long tradition of blaming those around the monarch, rather than the monarch themselves – in this case, they blamed the catholic clergy. The author picked up on a constant grumble – that she loved another nation more than her own, that she put out Englishmen from the Government. Nor was this just a protestant refrain – it was just as common among catholics as well. And of course there was John Foxe. Foxe reserved his bile for the likes of Gardiner, presenting Mary again as a dupe of his machinations. Although Foxe’s great works were constructed under Elizabeth, it is worth dealing with them briefly here, because they are to an extent the product of her reign, though the martyrs described therein are not restricted to the Marian persecutions. Boston’s favourite son created the first edition in 1563, and then continually added and edited it, until the last version in 1583. His aim was to show Christian history as a manifestation of God’s providence, and he held a complete belief in documentary evidence – as far as he was concerned, it could not be gainsaid. And so he built an enormous body of evidence, which has helped with generations of scholars concerned to tear down his work; from the start a contemporary described it as “that huge dunghill of your stinking martyrs” which suggests a tough crowd. Having said that, he was as capable of any of ignoring evidence that didn’t quite fit his case, and he is therefore far from immune from criticism. But the criticism made Actes and Monuments stronger, because he tended to react and improve as a result. By the time he was finished, the Book of Martyrs was absolutely gargantuan, 2,300 big pages, bigger than the bible. And it was enormously popular, both with the public and with the Elizabethan church, who ordered it placed in every church. It is impossible to really understand the history of England after the death of Mary without understanding that, when added to the Tyndale’s Bible and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, Foxes book of martyrs created a rubric of protestant belief and an articulation of persecution that kept the memory fresh.
Which brings us to Mary’s legacy, because Fox was in a way simply the articulation of one of her legacies, or at least a legacy to which she contributed, the demonization of Catholicism. This is a division which has been most significant in English history, and will have all sorts of consequences. One of the great debates about Mary is whether her attempt bring England back to Rome was working or not, and most recently the argument has been that of course it was, it was simply Mary’s unfortunately early death and the lack of an heir that scotched it. And I must admit that when I set out reading up about Mary’s reign, I started out with this premise; that in the end Catholicism would have been re-established in England, and that it was only a matter of time before it happened. After all, I crudely reasoned, we’ve gone from Catholicism to some sort of protestant halfway house under Henry, to full blooded Protestantism under Edward, back to Catholicism under Mary and back to Protestantism under Elizabeth. We know well the massive impact the monarch can have both from Henry VIII’s example at home and from examples abroad. Take Austria for example, heavily Protestant by the 1580s, but with a programme of repression and persecution and the departure of 100,000 people, back to being staunchly Catholic by the 17th century.
However I am inclined to favour Peter Marshal’s conclusions, helped along by the not very historical factor that he manages to avoid the tiresome confessionalism that bedevils the debate, and let me tell you I am not looking at any one particular side – some of the stuff written by protestant historians in the 19th century is genuinely horrifying. He rather ducks it I have to say, by going for the how can we know? approach. He makes the point that the impact of Mary’s reign is to change both Protestantism and Catholicism, that there emerged, in Marshal’s words, ‘a more articulate, combative and committed Roman Catholicism’ which faced a ‘more determined and doctrinaire Protestant movement’, and one which had now divorced itself somewhat for its justification from the royal supremacy, which it now saw as secondary to the laws of God.
This is a cop out I suppose; it still seems to me the balance of probabilities are that in the end it was who controlled the levers of the state that would count, and in time England would once more have been fully Catholic. But what we also know for sure was that if Mary had done her sister in or had an heir, there would have been much pain ahead, in all probabilities to rival the almost unimaginable brutalities of the religious wars in France in the 16th and 17th centuries.
And indeed there would be trouble even for Elizabeth, though on a scale vanishingly small compared to the French experience. And I now feel the need to polish the whole thing off with a summing up, since it means that I can scratch another itch. In evaluating the scale of the Marian persecutions, a number of mitigations are frequently advanced for Mary, Pole and her royal Council. The total verifiable sum under Mary comes to 284 burnings, of whom 56 were women, and a further 28 who died in prison before they could be burned. The people who died came from all walks of society. The historian Robert Tittler wrote of this that
‘Some 290 in 4 years seems a small number compared with the thousands slaughtered in the name of some version of the ‘true faith’ in nearly all other parts of Europe including Scotland in the same period’
It’s also often pointed out that executions were a common part of life as I have already covered, and that society believed in the importance of conformity and unity in religion, which is utterly true of course. There’s also a line that Mary was relative gentle – Professor Eamon Duffy refers to the Spanish complaints that Mary was too gentle to Wyatt’s rebels. And finally, there’s the constantly rolled out statement about Henry and the 200 plus executions of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and Elizabeth’s brutality towards the Northern Rebels, which lies in the future for us, where 900 were killed. And of course, the killer – Duffy’s outraged cry that although Elizabeth burned nobody, she
‘went on to strangle, disembowel and dismember more than two hundred Catholic priests and laypeople during the rest of the reign: yet no-one calls Elizabeth ‘Bloody Elizabeth’.
The point about all of this is that it is all simply a polemic as far as I can see, a partisan attempt to wash Mary’s reputation clean. The thousands that Tittler refers to are events like St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572, when between 5 and 10 thousand were slaughtered in France – but these were not judicial executions, they were murders by a mob. Mary in fact executed 150 of Wyatt’s rebels, a far higher proportion of the participants than Elizabeth’s northern rebels, and way more as a proportion than Henry executed in the Pilgrimage of Grace. And anyway, to compare rebels against the state with religious executions is to compare apples with oranges, and contemporaries would have made a clear distinction themselves. The comparison with Elizabeth is particularly galling and unfair if I may express some irritation. The context is entirely different – all but 90 of the executions in her reign were after the excommunication of Elizabeth by the Pope, and the legitimisation therefore of her assassination, where waves of Catholic priests were consciously sent into England in an diplomatic climate of existential threat for England, where such priests could be legitimately viewed as treasonous and political enemies of the state. No one should doubt the courage, integrity and intelligence of these priests who gave their lives for something they believed in deeply. But they went or were sent in full knowledge of the consequences.
The point about all of this is that I have been, and will continue to be, at pains to avoid the excesses of the painting of Mary as a weird, mad, caricature of a person that ignores her many positive characteristics; her loyalty, patriotism, sense of duty, her generosity, her effectiveness in many areas of government, and all in the context of a hideous upbringing and the personal tragedy of her lack of children. She is a perfectly decent and competent monarch and administrator, and she should be credited with establishing the right of women to rule in England. But that more balanced evaluation of and sympathy for Mary cannot obscure the fact that the religious persecution she unleashed, largely due to the extremity of her personal convictions, was unprecedented in English history. And by one calculation, by Prof John Coffey, amounted to 10% of the total heresy executions in Latin Christendom between 1520 and 1565. G R Elton’s judgement that her reign was ‘exceptionally bloody’ is not unfair.
The greatest wound that Mary inflicted on Catholicism in England was to associate it with foreign domination, with Philip, the Spanish and the Empire. As I think I have said before I waver back and forth on the marriage to Philip, and you can absolutely argue that marrying into foreign royal families was perfectly normal; but this context of a Queen marrying a monarch of a foreign, much more powerful regime with all the complications of Early Modern views of gender relationships was particularly disastrous; and it is not as though Mary was not warned. Her reliance on Renard and Charles V was simply extraordinary.
We can stack up a whole load of positives. In terms of administrative competence, her council worked fine. The Navy remained an effective tool under her governorship. Although she held a traditional view of Mary the relationship between husband and wife, Mary was perfectly capable of separating that from the needs of state, and Philip was forced to endure a status that scratched at his soul. But her record here is certainly not spotless – in the end she did allow England to be dragged into a pointless war, purely to keep her husband happy, and because she told parliament a wife ought to be obedient to her husband. It’s a mixed record – but in the end too often she sublimated the needs of the state to her own desires – like daughter like father you might say – and particularly sublimated the state to her own conscience.
To end on a positive note, one of her great achievements was to embed the idea of Queenship; although it is worth noting that if Elizabeth had not then gone on to be relatively popular, Queen might have had a pretty poor reputation. But Elizabeth was popular enough, and was able to profit from the battles that Mary had won, that Queens were the equal of kings in power and dignity in every way. Mary also proved herself very aware of the value of political consensus and agreement, and by and large she carried parliament with her. There were a couple of areas of contention, but by and large it was a positive relationship; and the power of parliament was once again, therefore, greatly enhanced, its right to legislate on matters about religion but also royal marriage was fully confirmed.
The super summary then. And here I am trying really, really hard to avoid the balance sheet approach which people now object to. Though actually that’s not quite right; there’s nothing wrong with most of the balance sheet, with a list of impacts, it’s the P&L approach I suppose which tries to come up with a summary figure at the end, profit or loss, overall good overall bad. And I take the point – how does one consider the relative value of the lives of 294 people and associated terror, with say, the establishment of queenship on an equal footing as kingship? They are simply not comparable. This will prepare the way for conversations about Oliver Cromwell, and the British Empire. So I hereby give notice that I will try to avoid the Net operating income bit at the end. I expect often to fail; the temptation to have a ‘whose the best English leader ever?’ is pretty much overwhelming at any point, night or day. But we can only strive for perfection and beg for forgiveness if we fail. Here endeth the lesson, please turn to your hymn books…
So, the super summary for me is that the old view of Mary as a sort of unbalanced, needy loser who bequeathed a poorly governed mess to Elizabeth, who with her good protestants cleaned it all up is almost entirely wrong. But equally, to go for double or quits and establish her as some squeaky clean paragon is daft. She made critical mistakes which left a legacy of division, and her reign failed by her own yardstick. Mary had a hard life and is worthy of much sympathy, she was a more effective monarch than she has been credited with. But she also left the memory of Catholic persecution and its association with foreign powers that would warp English politics. We need to hold both these things in our mind.
 Loades Mary Tudor p 253
 Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689 By John Coffey, P81
 Bloody Mary? By Eamon Duffy in The History Magazine http://resources.hwb.wales.gov.uk/VTC/2015/02/25/bloody_mary.pdf