Scary Mary: Mary I In Pop Culture

When I think of Mary I, I think of the Queen I’ve been introduced to through pop culture. She’s old and bitter, clearly seriously ill, and often not very attractive; her skin is sallow and her face is pitted. Mary is ugly and disgusting, a foil to the beautiful young Elizabeth, who waits (in a decorous way, of course) for her sister to die so she can take the throne. Mary is a harridan who shrieks and screams and splittles with little piggy eyes, desperately, greedily, attempting to hold on to the crown. She is hard and angry; I think of Bloody Mary, because that is very much how she’s been presented to me.

I’ve been watching The Tudors, a wildly inaccurate series, and I’ve been struck by the handling of Mary, whom we see growing through childhood and into adolescence. She is a strikingly beautiful woman; she is fiery and determined (like Elizabeth, like her father) and she is a very different version of Mary than the one I’m used to. I understood on an intellectual level that Mary I wasn’t actually born 40 years old and seriously ill, but it was still jarring to see a young, beautiful Mary on screen.

So I went hunting for portraits, many of which I remembered when I actually looked at them, and found that actually, Mary I was quite lovely. Naturally portrait artists would have had an incentive to make her attractive when she was in favor, and in power, but, even so. It was only at the end of her life that her features began to radically change because of whatever it was that killed her (still a subject of debate), and because of the stress she endured throughout her relatively short life. Mary did not have an easy time of it, and this is often elided in pop culture depictions.

The handling of a woman who lived almost 500 years ago might not seem like a pressing pop culture issue, but it is still important. Because what we say about Mary I, and other women in history, also reflects on how people think and talk about women today. Elizabeth has been lionized in history and pop culture; the golden age, an immensely powerful and talented and skilled monarch. Mary I tends to be maligned, because of who she was and when she lived. She was a Catholic when that was not popular, she did some unspeakably cruel things to her subjects, and she dealt with economic problems during her reign that really weren’t all of her own making; she certainly had no control over crop blights, for instance.

She also clearly had some medical conditions that were beyond the skills of the practitioners of her day, and struggled with pregnancies and miscarriages and possible false pregnancies. These things made her an easy target for hatred at the time, when women were not really supposed to be rulers, and were supposed to stay at home and bear children. They also make her an easy target for hatred today, where it’s easy to show a fading, bitter, twisted, angry Mary at the opening of a story about Elizabeth to set the stage, without actually giving any depth or context, any information about who Mary was.

Among other things, she was highly accomplished. She was extremely highly educated and while she is primarily remembered for her brutal religious policies and her mysterious health condition, she should also be remembered as a human being. Like Elizabeth, she was shunted aside as useless when she was a young girl, treated as extra baggage and an unimportant member of the royal retinue. When the Princess Eliazabeth rose to favor she was pushed away even more, going through a series of stepmothers just as Elizabeth did. Both women had difficult childhoods and both, in their own way, attempted to triumph over them, which was a tall order.

Depictions of Mary often show her as greedy, power hungry, and desperate, but this was also the way of her era. She knew that, as a woman, she would have difficulty holding the throne, was faced with challenges almost from the very start, and was aware that she had to be aggressive and assertive if she wanted to stay in power. She also knew that having an heir was the only way to cement her hold on the throne. Is it any wonder that she was desperate for a pregnancy, and might have had false pregnancies because of the stress and pressure? As a public figure, she was very much under scrutiny at all times, and couldn’t even make the choice of a husband on her own; Mary was isolated and lonely and must have experienced considerable pain at the end of her life, from all reports.

The pop culture Mary is one version of Mary, but it’s become an overarching version, created through a nearly 500 year smear campaign. Elizabeth comes up so much brighter and shinier if we think of her as emerging victorious over a cruel and nasty sister, doesn’t she? Thinking about the complexities of who Mary was and how she lived introduces uncomfortable elements of context to the situation. Just as people at the time attempted to destroy Anne Boleyn’s reputation when Henry got bored with her, only to lionize her after Elizabeth’s rise, people continue to try to shape depictions of Mary to make Elizabeth appear more noble, and more heroic.

How many film adaptations of Mary’s life have we seen? How many fictionalised versions of her life in historical fiction? She’s doomed to be a peripheral angry figure, a nuisance, an obstacle on the way to the throne who needs to be painted as a cartoon villain so we feel all the better when Elizabeth finally gets her vindication.