HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The King’s Pearl’ by Melita Thomas

Mary Tudor has always been known as ‘Bloody Mary’, the name given to her by later Protestant chroniclers who vilified her for attempting to re-impose Roman Catholicism in England. Although a more nuanced picture of the first queen regnant has since emerged, she is still stereotyped, depicted as a tragic and lonely figure, personally and politically isolated after the annulment of her parents’ marriage and rescued from obscurity only through the good offices of Katherine Parr.

Although Henry doted on Mary as a child and called her his ‘pearl of the world’, her determination to side with her mother over the annulment both hurt him as a father and damaged perceptions of him as a monarch commanding unhesitating obedience. However, once Mary had finally been pressured into compliance, Henry reverted to being a loving father and Mary played an important role in court life.

As Melita Thomas points out, Mary was a gambler – and not just with cards. Later, she would risk all, including her life, to gain the throne. As a young girl of just seventeen she made the first throw of the dice, defiantly maintaining her claim to be Henry’s legitimate daughter against the determined attempts of Anne Boleyn and the king to break her spirit.

Following the 500th anniversary of Mary’s birth, The King’s Pearl re-examines Mary’s life during the reign of Henry VIII and her complex, dramatic relationship with her father.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Called Bloody Mary through the centuries, Queen Mary has never attracted the same level of interest as her little sister Elizabeth I. This book has set out to change the stereotype of Mary, heir to the throne of Henry VIII and her powerful mother, the Queen Katherine. Mary has been seen as a Catholic fanatic, unable to navigate politics with poise or experience, a cruel woman happy to kill Protestants without thought. Mary is seen as married to a Spaniard, which somehow made her an instant tyrant.

In recent times, some authors have tried to make Mary into a more gentle figure; an innocent woman, forced away from her religious mother, determined to turn back time in England, unable to satisfy a husband or make an heir. The King’s Pearl is different again, which makes the book such a nice surprise. Instead, this book looks at Mary from an earlier angle, how her father’s reign impacted on Mary.

Mary’s early life is chronicled in serious detail, before the reality of Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ starts affecting Mary and her life. Mary was a stylish and educated young woman, witty, musical and a skilled horse rider. Mary was not weak or timid, as often portrayed; not constantly alone or at prayer, Mary could hunt or dance, host parties or play games as well as any young woman. She was beautiful and always immaculately dressed. Gone are the dull descriptions that often plagued her mother also, more likely propaganda to portray Elizabeth as superior later in life.

The list of betrothals Mary suffered though makes for bleak reading. Henry never seemed serious in finding a groom for his daughter. Mary was an unchallenged heir for much of her young life, and Henry seemed wary to ever marry her off and make her position as heir more powerful. Mary could defy her father at any time, on any level, and while others were forsaken, Mary was forgiven by Henry, dispelling the notion Henry hated his eldest daughter.

Mary may have had more in common with Elizabeth than either of them would have liked to admit; bright, intelligent girls, separated by their birth and their religion. I feel as if Mary’s reputation suffers due to her sex more than ever – Mary killed less than 300 heretics, her father killed 72,000, yet she is the bloody one? No man would have had a harmed reputation for the killing of 300. Mary rode out and took the throne from Jane Grey, the throne that was rightfully hers, and did her best, in a role she was prepared for, and Mary had her own terms. Only history hasn’t remembered her as well as it should.

This book is a worthy read indeed. Loved it. The author has created an excellent perspective on Queen Mary through facts instead of myth.

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