Today in 1516, Henry VIII’s wife Catherine of Aragon gave birth to a girl who would become Mary I, Queen of England. This was while Henry and Catherine’s marriage was still young and relatively fruitful; Mary was their first child — and would be their last — to survive infancy and grow into adulthood.
Whenever I mention Mary to a group of non-history addicted persons, they always light up a bit, pleased they know something, and say, “That’s Bloody Mary, isn’t it?” They proceed to ask me about the curse and the mirror and the alcoholic drink while I try not to pull a Henry VIII and hit the executioner’s emergency number on my speed dial.
I always felt sympathetic towards Mary, especially the Mary I encounter most often, in my reading of the 1520s-1530s, during which time she was declared a bastard, separated from her mother, ignored by her father, and servant for her infant half-sister.
Most of the portraits I’ve seen of Mary are after this time, during her time as Queen or shortly before, and few captured the image I had of the daughter of the beautiful Catherine of Aragon and the (once) handsome Henry VIII. It never made sense, and I feel that in our vain, shallow society, modern perceptions of Mary remain negative in part because of the sour middle-aged woman they see in the well-known portraits that are plastered across book covers and websites.
Admittedly, I know little enough about Mary to properly defend her in conversation, but she’s suffered from misconceptions and generalizations just as dozens and dozens of other controversial women in history.
In my copy of Francis Hackett’s Henry The Eighth — which, from what I can tell, is a 1929 first edition — an apparently rare portrait of Mary stares coyly out at the reader on page 130. I had never seen Mary portrayed in such a youthful, flattering light. Bedecked in beautiful jewels and in the same French fashion as her loathed stepmother, Anne Boleyn, Mary smiles intelligently and piously, an open book on her lap beneath her folded hands.
The caption beneath the portrait reads “Princess Mary, About 1537, From the Painting in the University Galleries, Oxford, London.” This makes her about 21 at the time, a beautiful young women a year after her mother’s death, Anne Boleyn’s execution, and the bastardization of her half-sister, the toddler Elizabeth. In 1537 Mary was enjoying her relationship with her father’s new wife, Jane Seymour, who shared Mary’s religious beliefs and began the reconciliation process between the king and his eldest daughter, a process completed years later by Henry’s sixth wife Katherine Parr.
Still young, still beautiful, after the trauma of her teen years and before the drama of her adult life, this image provides us with an image of Mary that I, at least, haven’t seen until last year when I first opened Francis Hackett’s book.
Knowing that I had ever seen this before, which I thought was strange as Hackett implied this portrait was contemporary, or near-contemporary, I did some digging. The University Galleries Museum was renamed the Ashmolean Museum (you can read more about the museum and its origins here) and on their website they provide a description for this mysterious portrait of Mary Tudor. After an intensive cleaning in 1976, it was discovered that this portrait that it was, in fact, not a contemporary portrait, but a 19th-century piece perhaps painted over a 17th-century portrait.
At first I was disappointed by my discovery, but looking at the colour image on the website, the image I had been struggling with settled. This is the Mary I imagined, the tragic auburn-haired princess on the cusp of adulthood before her heart was broken and her reputation stained in the centuries to come. While it may or may not be an accurate representation, it’s nice to see that something of the intellectual young woman remains for the public eye, as opposed to the traditional portrayal of an infamous, quickly aging queen.
Ironically, she’s painted in a great deal of red… I suppose we can make of that what we will, but I’m going to enjoy it for what is it: a gorgeous piece of art depicting a beautiful young woman before she was labelled and misunderstood by the world.
Have any of you seen this portrait of Mary before? Does anyone have any more information about where it came from and who painted it? What do you see in Mary when you look at this image?