Thursday 22 July 2010

Controversy over banned "Bloody Mary" poster

A lurid and frightening poster advertising the London Dungeons' forthcoming exhibition on the religious persecutions during the reign of Queen Mary I (r. 1553 - 1558) has been banned in London, after parents complained it was frightening their children. Understandably. Mary, who was the only child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, earned the nickname "Bloody Mary" in the years after her reign, thanks to her government's systematic persecution of Protestant-Christians and religious dissenters.

The poster (above), which shows the 16th-century monarch transformed into a hideous zombie, plays to the old and inaccurate idea of Mary as being a psychotic and evil woman and it has understandably raised the heckles of not only the angry mothers of London, but also the biographers and historians who have recently been working on re-assessing Queen Mary's life and legacy.

I have an uneasy relationship with Catholic revisionism about this period in English history and this poster highlights the reasons why. On the one hand, it is both tasteless and absurd to have Queen Mary displayed as demonic zombie and it is a very good thing that historians are objecting to it. Recent work by people like Linda Porter, David Loades and Anna Whitelock have finally helped put Mary in her proper historical context: she ruled in an age when religious persecutions were the norm. Through their work, these excellent writers are finally beginning to make headway in persuading the reading public that Queen Mary was not so much evil as essentially misguided, as well as being highly capable in other areas of her life and reign.

However, the post on historian Stephanie A. Mann's excellent blog Supremacy and Survival about the poster controversy, raises why I am also uneasy about it. The noted historian, Leanda de Lisle, defends Queen Mary: -

“It really is an example of England’s knee-jerk anti-Catholicism and how our history of the Tudor period has been distorted by post-Reformation propaganda. What about Elizabeth? People may be aware of the executions of Catholics, but there were many more people. After the 1569 northern rebellion, Elizabeth ordered that a man was to be hung in every village associated with the rebellions. It was on a similar scale to her father."

Elizabeth ruled for forty-five years, compared to Mary's five, but de Lisle's point is a thoughtful one and a sensitively made one. However, in other arenas, the policy of trying to tear down Lady Jane Grey or Elizabeth I's historical reputation in order to rehabilitate Mary's is indicative of a worrying trend in English revisionist histories. Catholicism's past mistakes are now judged as products of a turbulent century; Protestantism's as the systematic cultural rape of Albion.

The portrait which inspired the poster: the real Queen Mary Tudor, painted by Antonio Mor, towards the end of her life (c. 1557)

For example - and this is a semi-frivolous point - there is a group on Facebook called "The English Reformation was a crime against humanity." The historian in me feels slightly ill when I see something like this. Worse, it comes from exactly the same school of thought which insists the Inquisition should be judged solely based on the context of its time. Namely, the Inquisition was a product of the 16th century's mentality towards dissent, but the Reformation was a "crime against humanity"? One cannot have it both ways, but alas, many try and try too hard and in doing so undermine their other, worthier points.

Professor J.J. Scarisbrick, one of Henry VIII's finest biographer, said it best when he said that the pendulum has swung too far in the Catholic direction of things when it comes to 16th century English historiography and that one day it will swing back to the pro-Protestant version of events, in which everything that happened to England's church in the 16th century was seen as more or less a good thing. That is the nature of historiography.

It's unfortunate, however, that a balance cannot be found somewhere over the thorny issues of England's Reformation and Counter-Reformation. As we do with the six wives of Henry VIII, we're still tempted to play favourites with the Tudor royals, constantly comparing them to one another and competing them with each other in our mind's eyes, like preferential parents trying to pick favourites out of a bunch of particularly precocious children. Leanda de Lisle, who has written excellent books on the Grey sisters (one of my favourite reads), amongst other things, makes the point that Mary and Elizabeth both saw a link between religious dissent and political disobedience. But there are, I think, differences. Elizabeth had just faced a rebellion and she targeted - with appalling savagery - the key geographical area which had created the rebellion. It was only later, when the Pope made the disastrous and unforgivably stupid decision of excommunicating Elizabeth, that English Catholics found themselves in hot water with their government - a situation which many endured with dignity, grace and loyalty to the Throne. Whilst Queen Mary had faced a rebellion, her persecution of Protestants was nothing to do with Wyatt's failed uprising of 1554. It was a sustained theological policy, something which Elizabeth's government did not have until the crisis of the excommunication later in the reign.

Both sisters' actions, however deplorable to us today, were very much a product of their time and they should be judged as such. I tend to think Mary's religious policy was more misguided than the recent work of writers like the great Eamon Duffy suggest and it's only by balancing Mary's failures in the balance with Elizabeth's successes can we explain why Protestantism eventually "won" in England.

The London Dungeon poster should be banned. It's garish and horrifying for young children, but it's also an unfair demonisation of a queen who presided over five years of successes and failures, and who proved that a woman could rule in her own right, despite her late father's hysterical protestations to the contrary. Whatever one might think of Mary's reign, she always strove to do what she believed was the right thing. She deserves a fairer treatment by historians and that includes looking at Mary as a whole - highs, lows and everything in between - and realising that, at long last, we have to start looking at her as an independent figure and not continuing to play the game of comparisons with her younger sister.


  1. Great questions!

    In the end, there may well have been one huge and insurmountable problem with Mary. Well into middle age, Mary needed to marry and produce an heir or two. Her cousin Charles V offered up his only son, later King Philip II of Spain, a move that must have horrified the parliament and half of the population. Worse still, Philip and Mary were to be joined and equal rulers.

    Nothing Elizabeth did ever approached that level of insensitivity.

  2. I think with all of the interest that has been springing up about the Tudor dynasty, it is a shame that producers, authors, directors, etc feel the need to take things to the nth degree and 'bastardize' the general public's view of history. Not many of them will take the time to sift through the facts to find the truth behind such figures as Mary, Elizabeth or even Henry VIII. I guess in the grand scheme of things, it's no big deal if people know that Elizabeth and her father both committed their own string of atrocities as 'Bloody Mary', but it is extremely frustrating to have people think and perpetuate what are essentially outrageous myths. I am glad historians and mothers are speaking out against this poster and that they have been banned in London.

  3. The diplomatic relationships among England, France and Spain were very complex throughout the 16th century. England had been allied with Spain against France during the reign of Henry VII by marriage, which Mary renewed by marrying into the Hapsburg empire. On the other hand, Elizabeth I briefly contemplated marriage with the Duke of Anjou of the House of Valois in France to form an alliance against Hapsburgs (so she did "approach that level of insensitivity" by considering marriage with a Catholic prince of England's constant enemy, France).
    As the Marriage Act was approved in Parliament, Philip was not truly joint ruler of England with Mary. He was not crowned or anointed King and he left England within a year of their marriage. He was completely excluded from the succession; he had to submit to the laws and customs of England; he had no rights to any title or estate: Mary alone reigned as the Monarch, the Queen (she as "our only queen, shall and may solely and as a sole queen, use, have and enjoy the crown and sovereignty of and over your realms, dominions and subjects"). We should also remember that the French ambassador, Noailles, instigated some of the opposition to the marriage and even funded Wyatt's rebellion.
    After Mary's death, Philip defended Elizabeth I against plans to excommunicate her and actually proposed marriage. He maintained peace with England until English foreign policy allied with the Protestants in the Low Countries and Elizabeth's pirates began to capture Spanish ships.
    As to the advert and the exhibit--the advert was scary and the exhibit at the London Dungeon (a venue for exploitation and experience, not reasoned historical presentation) ignores the work of those good historians Gareth mentions. It takes a long time for good history to replace bad judgement.

  4. This advert and exhibition just boils down to bad history in my opinion. Only 1 aspect of Mary's reign is being looked at, the persecutions, and that just isn't good enough. It's time to stop seeing her as Bloody Mary and see her as Mary I, a woman who achieved a substantial amount in her short time as Queen. We can't judge her with our 21st century ideals, we need to take into account the context, the times she was living in. Let's stamp out bad history and encourage people to look past this silly and misleading label.
    Great post, Gareth.

  5. Not only is the poster frightening to children, it is also scary to those with any knowledge about Tudor costume!

    The so-called ‘Mary’ here wears a French hood that is completely misshapened, and is that a modern blouse she has on?! And yikes! What’s that black thing hanging about her arms?!

  6. Despite my distaste for the London Dungeon’s Mary Tudor poster, the place itself is great fun! When I went a few years ago, I got to go on the ‘Traitors’ Gate’ ride (visitors get sentenced as traitors and must make a water journey through a funhouse to the ‘Tower London’)! And where else can one find a (tacky) tableau of Anne Boleyn’s execution, as seen in this picture of my visit there:

    As you approach the tableau, an image of a live actress’ face (playing Anne) is projected onto the waxwork’s as she recounts her woes!


  7. Hector-Osborne Ramsey31 July 2010 at 22:42

    I think the last paragraph is a touch self-setisfied when you consider that you yourself were very happily flying the 'Bloody Mary' flag when I spoke to you about it (at the end of Michaelmas in the Lamb and Flag).

  8. Ozzy, old chap, I'm afraid it's not. Or at the very least, it may be self-satisfied, but it's not unjustified. I said "successes and failures," an analysis which doesn't seem to have filtered into the sources you were sighting in Mary's defence. Since apparently, all that Mary ever did was golden and a delightful, populist success, until Elizabeth came along and somehow managed to survive on a wing and an heretical prayer. I also believe I stated very clearly that I didn't think "Bloody Mary" was helpful, although I imagine if you've had friends or relatives who've been used as human torches, you're entitled to get trigger happy with the nicknames.

    One of the failures of Mary's reign was her religious policy and it's got nothing to do with Elizabeth having 45 years compared to Mary's 5. It's got to do with the fact that Elizabeth was quite simply much better at the job than Mary was and that whilst the Marian regime may have created many brave men and women who were willing to die for their Catholicism in years to come, it also created a great deal many more who were not prepared to be killed for it. The successes of Mary's reign do deserve to be analysed and appreciated for what they were, but the ludicrous revisionist attempt to suggest that the burnings were not unpopular or that the triumph of Protestantism was some weird Elizabethan fluke deserves to be treated with more than a little self-satisfied contempt.

    And you can tell Charing I said that.

  9. What an interesting article on the pictures about Mary1.Ido not like the scary pictures and do think it is an exageration on QM reign as queen.I do not blame them for displaying such a picture cos QM was cruel to protestants.However,am amazed at how people like you Gareth,make it sound like Elizabeth1 was a saint simply because it took her a long time to kill all those catholics,are you saying that those people were unworthy.I find it strange that some writers claim QE was a very tolerant queen.Yes she did show linience towards the catholics and tried to settle the religious differences btw catholics and protestants but as years went by things changed.A point needs to be taken,Elizabeth1 was not tolerant to the baptists in fact baptists were severly persecuted and burnt at the stake during QE reign,never did she give them religious freedom.It seems that people over look what the baptists went through.You can not say one queen was good simply because it took her years to kill people and one as bad simply because she killed people within a short period,in Gods eyes sin is sin.Both sister did horrible things and i think it is wrong to make one better than the other.Every human life is worth it the people that died during QM reign were worthy people just like those that died during QE reign were also worthy.The two queens did their best,neither one was better or worser than the other.

  10. History views Mary1 as bloody,because she was cruel to protestants.I do'nt like the pictures that show her to be a scarey evil woman.This is an exageration of who QM was.However,i am amazed at how people like you Gareth make it sound like Elizabeth was better than Mary.The people that died during Mary reign's were of worthy just like those who died during Elizabeth's reign.Mary had people killed during her short reign which was wrong.It was also wrong for Elizabeth to kill all those people,even if the pope excommunicated her are you saying all those people deserved to die.You need to realise that human life is valuable.I have always felt that QM is portrayed as the wicked queen because she was ruling a growing population of protestants,she was the first queen to rule england and she died without achieving much,while QE is portrayed as the good queen is that she ruled a population with the majority of protestants,she learnt from her sisters mistakes and she ruled for 45years.Neither of these sisters was better than the other or worser than other.By the Elizabeth was not tolerant to the baptists.

  11. "The successes of Mary's reign do deserve to be analysed and appreciated for what they were, but the ludicrous revisionist attempt to suggest that the burnings were not unpopular or that the triumph of Protestantism was some weird Elizabethan fluke deserves to be treated with more than a little self-satisfied contempt."

    Oh please, you honestly think that with Protestants still an extreme minority in England (with no majority in any city to the extent that existed on the continent), and with the majority of the country pretty comfortable with Catholicism, that England would still have become protestant if there had been a Catholic heir after Mary? Especially one ruling for 40 years, and when they were implementing the same Counter-Reformation techniques that were so successful later in other places in Europe? (Except that they were doing it before the Council of Trent had even finished). How do you think that would have happened, exactly?

    While Elizabeth was pretty talented, the fact that she was Protestant and ruled for 40 years is a MAJOR factor in the triumph of Protestantism, and to not recognize that is ludicrous in of itself.

    And honestly, what evidence do you have that the burnings really made people convert to Protestantism, etc? Foxe could only come up with one name, a guy who was already considering it before the burnings began. I know it seems like common sense to our modern sensibilities, but the fact is we just don't know how people felt about them. John Foxe's maltreatment of a lot of sources leading to his book often being the only one about many aspects of the burning certainly doesn't help.


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