Now things get very complicated! Includes a side-by-side comparison.
Elizabeth was older than this image shows, when Mary became Queen, but there was an age difference.
A genealogical table, to get the big picture about dynasty and succession:
The dynastic storyline is not complicated. None of Henry VIII’s children produced an heir or heiress.
- Queen Mary was born on 18 Feb 1516, at Greenwich Castle. She was crowned on 1 Oct 1553.
- Ambassadors believed that Elizabeth favored the “new religion” out of politics, maybe to form an alliance that would be hostile to Mary’s regime. When Mary was particularly concerned about Elizabeth’s soul, the latter asked to be taught in the old faith (Catholicism). She did that to keep herself safe. Clever, political.
- It was thought that Elizabeth might marry Edward Courtnay, earl of Devon, who was twenty-seven, a Catholic, and dissolute. However, he was descended from the Plantagenets, so such an alliance would be out of the question for Mary, for the marriage would strengthen Elizabeth’s cause in the succession, were Mary to fail to produce a male heir.
- Eventually, Mary herself decided to go for marriage. After numerous suitors and complicated negotiations, she settled on Philip of Spain (who became Philip II of Spain in 1556). He was a Habsburg, and the Habsburgs were rivals of the French.
- However, many Englishmen were opposed to a Spanish marriage. The son of Sir Thomas Wyatt launched a revolt in 1554, before the marriage took place. It was a close run thing, but it came to nothing.
- Elizabeth was accused of taking part if only from a distance. She was even placed in the Tower of London. However, as Wyatt was about to be executed (11 Apr 1554), he proclaimed that Elizabeth should not be implicated and was not involved.
- Elizabeth refused to admit she was part of the rebellion. Queen Mary was insulted because her half-sister’s refusal implied that she was unjustly imprisoned.
- While she was in nerve-wracking isolation at Westminster, where she saw no one, Bishop Gardiner decided to bluff her. He descended on the princess with an impressive array of twenty councilors and charged her with complicity. He ordered her to confess, and then the queen would be merciful. But she cleverly realized that if she did, her confession could be used against her as treason against the queen.
- They moved her to the Tower on 18 Mar. She wrote her sister: “I am by your council from you commanded to go unto the Tower, a place wonted for a false traitor than a true subject … And to this present hour I protest afore God (who shall judge my truth whatsoever malice may devise) that I never practiced, counseled nor consented to anything which might be prejudicial to you person any way or dangerous to the state by any means” (qtd in Loades 100-01). While there she asked whether Jane Grey’s scaffold had been taken down. She must have been terrified.
- At first her cooks and servants were refused entrance to the Tower, even to prepare a meal for her. But they pushed their way in and prevailed even to use the Tower’s kitchen to serve their mistress.
- Supposedly she scratched these words into a windowpane with her diamond ring: Much suspected [of] me / Nothing proved can be / Quoth Elizabeth, the prisoner.
- Eventually, the Council and prosecutors could not yet find any evidence, so she left the Tower on 19 May and was placed under house arrest at Woodstock. On the way there people greeted her. She was very popular. This might have hurt her cause, since she did not want to outshine Mary.
- John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, says she wrote an inscription: “Much suspected by [of] me / Nothing proved can be / Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.”
- During her imprisonment, Elizabeth asked for a Bible in English, though she went through the outward trappings of Catholic worship without fuss.
- Mary and Philip married on 25 July 1554.
- After a while, could it be that Mary was pregnant? If so, then she believed she was the future, not Elizabeth, for Elizabeth was a bastard. So Elizabeth was not worth the time or trouble. It was dismissive pity from Mary. God was on the queen’s side.
- Skipping a few steps, the news of the pregnancy meant that Elizabeth was treated kindly and was taken to Hampton court, where Mary and Philip celebrated Easter. Philip was there.
- Mary was much older than he and dumpy, had a deep voice almost like a man’s, while Elizabeth was young and beautiful.
- This led Philip to gradually favor Elizabeth, especially when Mary’s pregnancy was a phantom. He could see the future was with Elizabeth, and he never loved Mary. He married her out of duty to preserve Catholicism in England.
- The summer of 1555 was cold and wet. Crops failed. People were hungry.
- Elizabeth was allowed to return to her own considerable estates on 18 Oct 1555. Freedom.
- Mary had two options: Woo her sister with favors and affection; or marry her off to a loyal Catholic and imperialist (part of the Holy Roman Empire).
- Mary tried to return England and the old church property back to Rome, property that her father had taken. She miscalculated, for many people by now were enriched by this land. Parliament and the landed gentry revolted, in 1555.
- This time the evidence was a little stronger that Elizabeth was slightly involved, for the leaders of the revolt spoke more freely of Elizabeth.
- The revolt was crushed, for Mary was also popular among Catholics of the land. Elizabeth was again arrested.
- Meanwhile Philip had left the country. He said he needed to take care of matters on the continent; plus, he was not really in love with Mary. So what should be done with Elizabeth? Mary decided to ask her husband and wrote him.
- Philip thought about it. He rightly perceived Mary was declining. If Elizabeth was eliminated, the throne would go to Mary, Queen of Scots and future dauphiness of France. France was the Habsburg’s greatest enemy. If Elizabeth were allowed to live, she might hinder England’s return to Rome. Philip chose the Habsburgs. He wrote, telling Mary to let Elizabeth live.
- Mary obeyed, even though the evidence was against her half-sister.
- Elizabeth became the rural “Cinderella of Hatfield” (Starkey 205). Clever label.
- Believe it or not, Mary had a tender side. Elizabeth was invited to court and they conversed on friendly terms. She was invited to court for Christmas and taken to London. But then the invitation was withdrawn and Elizabeth retraced her route back to Hatfield. People cheered her.
- Why was the invitation withdrawn? Mary had put pressure on Elizabeth to marry, and the latter refused. The intended bridegroom was Emmanuel Philibert, Prince of Piedmont and titular Duke of Savoy.
- Why him? He was an ally of the Habsburgs because the French had seized his duchy. Philip was working out a political alliance. And he could keep England Catholic—or move it further in that direction
- Philibert arrived in London on 27 Dec, but left on 28 Jan 1555, without a wife or kingdom. Then Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, made Philibert Lieutenant of the Netherlands (Holland and Belgium) and gave him a rich pension. Philip revived the idea of marriage, but Elizabeth said no.
- Plus, the French ambassador urged her to take the long view. Just wait for the throne to come naturally, not as a gift of Spain. Mary and Elizabeth were at loggerheads.
- But in April 1558 Mary visited Elizabeth at Hatfield on friendly terms, even ordering entertainment of singing and bear-baiting. Later in her reign, she kept bears for that purpose.
- In 1558, during Philip’s visit to England, Mary convinced herself that she was pregnant. God was on her side and would carry on the Catholic dynasty for England. However, she was not. Another phantom, illusion.
- At the same time Elizabeth had to strengthen her position. Support was strong for her. Even Catholics in Mary’s inner circle could see that Mary’s star was declining, while Elizabeth’s was rising. Mary had lost Calais, and burned heretics—over 300, even commoners. People were tired of her.
- Maybe Catholics could bring Elizabeth back to the true faith (as they defined it). She seemed to be a Catholic outwardly, at least. .
- Mary died in the early hours of 17 Nov 1558 at St. James’s Palace, London. She was buried at Westminster Abbey. For more information, see her own post at Mary I: England’s First Catholic Queen.
- Elizabeth was at Hatfield when she heard the news. She fell to her knees and called out: “O domino factum est istud, et est mirabile in oculis nostris.” “It is the work of the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
- Parliament was in session at Mary’s death. The assembled lords and members of parliament cried out, “God save Queen Elizabeth! Long may she reign over us!” That part of the transition was very smooth.
- The bells rang out and the bonfires blazed. The richer citizens laid out tables and distributed ale and wine.
To summarize, let’s do a side-by-side comparison.
- Short and flabby and dumpy (though one historian says she was too thin), with a deep voice and mannish face, Mary was less attractive than her younger sister, who was taller and graceful and pretty.
- Mary was declared illegitimate, but so was Elizabeth.
- At least the older sister’s birth was from the daughter, Catherine, of anointed sovereigns. Elizabeth’s birth was dubious and maternal ancestry inferior.
- Mary was separated from her mother who died under stress; Elizabeth’s mother was executed.
- Mary was not allowed even to attend her funeral; Elizabeth was too young to realize what was happening to her mother. Therefore Mary felt the pain as a young adult, while Elizabeth’s childhood shielded her from direct, sharp pain. (No doubt she later heard what happened and grieved).
- In her youth Mary was well educated and intelligent enough, but Elizabeth was much more so. Elizabeth had a real talent for languages, particularly Greek and Latin
- Mary never fully reconciled with her father and wrote defiantly to him; fortunately Cromwell did not let her father see the letter. Elizabeth through her stepmother Catherine Parr was well favored by her father. But Henry did make Mary Edward’s godmother, so reconciliation must have happened to some degree.
- Mary’s brand of religion was ferocious, resulting in 300 deaths in five years. (She believed God would not let her get pregnant because she did not burn out enough heretics.) Elizabeth’s religion policies led to persecution and imprisonment and about 200 deaths over forty-four years, but only four people for heresy (Anabaptists). The other deaths were challenges to her queenship and the practice of her religion as she pleased. The context was political.
- Elizabeth’s still followed the Middle Way, when stacked up against Mary’s fanatical path. And Elizabeth, as queen, was under attack from assassins.
- One more point about the killings: Mary had the full religious backing of the Spanish Netherlands, France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. Even so, she tried to purge Reformed religion from commoners and churchmen in her realm. Elizabeth was opposed by all of those states. She was in survival mode.
- Mary saw herself as having a legitimate right to the throne, while Elizabeth’s right was tainted by her mother.
- Mary’s marriage match to Philip provoked a revolt; Elizabeth used potential marriage suitors to her own political advantage.
- Mary loved her husband, while he did not love her. He left her and returned to the continent, though he returned only a few times. She was worried that he might have affairs on her, and he did. Elizabeth enjoyed the flirtations of Robert Dudley, but later claimed she was married to her people. People loved her for it.
- Mary had failed pregnancies, while Elizabeth did not have to undergo such disappointments. Elizabeth seemed to accept her single status and did not worry about providing an heir.
- Mary brought heavy Spanish influence into England, including a Spanish-style inquisition. Elizabeth easily resisted the marriage offer from her former brother-in-law Philip and fought against Spain.
- Mary lost Calais, while Elizabeth was victorious over the Spanish Armada, the world’s most powerful navy.
- People grew tired of Mary, while attractive Elizabeth embodied patriotism and enjoyed the admiration of her subjects.
- In short, Mary’s reign was brief and her life unhappy, while Elizabeth’s reign was long and spectacular and happy enough.
(Jane Grey, Queen of Nine Days: she was not a Tudor)
Elizabeth, Part 2: Sibling Rivalry with Queen Mary
Peter Ackroyd, Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I (New York: Thomas Dunne / St. Martin’s, 2012).
Stephen Alford, Edward VI: The Last Boy King, Penguin Monarch Series (Allen Lane / Penguin, 2014).
Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secret’s of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty (New York: Grover P, 2016).
—, Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen (Bantam 2009).
Gerald Bray, ed. Documents of the English Reformation, (Fortress, 1994)
Helen Castor, She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth (Harper Collins, 2011).
Ian Crofton, The Kings and Queens of England (New York: Metro Books, 2006).
J.. D. Douglas, “Elizabethan Settlement (1559,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1974).
John Edwards, Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen (New Haven, Yale UP, 2011).
—, Mary I: The Daughter of Time, Penguin Monarch Series (Allen Lane / Penguin, 2016).
John Guy, Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame, Penguin Monarch Series (Allen Lane / Penguin, 2014).
—, Elizabeth: The Later Years (Penguin, 2016)
Christopher Haigh, Elizabeth I: Profiles in Power, 2nd ed. (Pearson Education, 1998).
Judith John, A Dark History: Tudors: Murder, Adultery, Incest, Witchcraft, Wars, Religious Persecution, Piracy (Metro, 2014).
Jennifer Loach, Edward VI, edited by George Bernard and Penry Williams, Yale English Monarchs (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999).
David Loades, Elizabeth I (New York: Hambledon, 2006).
—, Chronicle of the Tudor Queens (Sutton 2002).
Stephen J. Lee, The Reign of Elizabeth I, 1558-1603 (Routledge 2007).
G.. J. Meyer, The Tudors: The Most Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty (Bantam, 2011).
P.. W. Petty, “Elizabeth I (1533-1603),” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1974).
Charles Philips, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain (New York: Metro Books, 2009).
J.. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII, new edition, Yale English Monarchs (New Haven: Yale UP, 1997).
Ian Sellers, “Uniformity, Acts of,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1974).
David Starkey, Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne (New York: Harper Collins, 2001 [in England in 2000]).
Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court (Bloomsbury 2013).
John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James, Church History from Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: the Rise and the Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual and Political Context, vol. 2, (Zondervan, 2013).