Elevate Difference

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen

Pay cable offers us a whole new realm of addictions and one of the most recent was Showtime's production of The Tudors. The program, now ended with the inevitable death of King Henry (no spoilers in history), portrayed the complicated realm of the Tudor Dynasty, which included two notable queens—sisters Mary and Elizabeth. This historic era, because of Queen Elizabeth, offers us a space to enter and critique how women were used for political gain, often not their own.

Anna Whitelock offers a similar proposition when she explores the life of Mary Tudor—a life often derided in British history. Daughter of Katherine of Aragon and King Henry, Mary later becomes known as Bloody Mary and as an overzealous threat to her own country.

Though historians have depicted the facts of the dynasty and the royal successions, Whitelock's argument is that historical texts have typically overlooked the fact that the value and vision of Mary and her contributions to history are greater than simply a slaughter of the non-Catholic community.

What makes Whitelock's book powerful is both its impeccable timing (the Tudors are the new pink) and its nuanced look at how women were political tools and machines simultaneously. The complicated graces involved in diplomacy, governed by the social mores of the time, lent to women having more space to enact persuasive maneuvers and machinations. This look at power in an era where even royal women seemed quite powerless (and were publicly thought of as weaker and merely vessels) is refreshing.

The truth of the matter, is, however, that Mary's story is also a sad one. Tossed about from prince to prince even as young as two and a half as a political token, a seal of trust and betrothal between men's nations, Mary's life is much more than the violent persecution of non-Catholics under her reign. 
Whitelock frames the well-known history with a lens that offers just what she promises—a new look at Mary with perhaps the sympathy or value she's often been denied. Further, the story becomes timeless as Whitelock profiles just how close Mary and her indomitable mother, Catherine of Aragon, were. The strength of relationships between women is perhaps even more valuable in an era where there was little power to be held elsewhere.

The book is a generous read, even for those not familiar with Tudor history. As you read, you will recognize the political trumps and trollops that are not unfamiliar to us today. Described with the flourish they deserve, yet written clearly and in such a manner that all characters and dates can be digested, Whitelock's biography is an excellent lesson in the lives of powerful women, fortune and politics.

Written by: Dr. Julie E. Ferris, December 9th 2010