11 August 2017

Special Guest Post by Melita Thomas, Author of The King's Pearl: Henry VIII and His Daughter Mary

Available for pre-order from 

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

Hunting for pearls

I have wanted to write about Mary Tudor since watching the BBC series Elizabeth R as a child. Why Mary caught my imagination, rather than the more popular Elizabeth, I don’t know, but she did. Reading more, I concluded that Mary has been unfairly maligned by historians. Nevertheless, I did not want to write a defence of her that would be just as unbalanced as the religious polemics that created the myth of Bloody Mary. What I needed was a new angle, where I could focus my research, and hopefully challenge both my own beliefs and the stereotype. 

I found my hook in an unexpected place – one of C J Sansom’s fabulous Shardlake novels. In a throwaway line, the hero mentions works being undertaken at Whitehall, for the Lady Mary's apartments. Intrigued, I checked it out. Unsurprisingly, the meticulous Sansom proved correct – Henry commissioned a sumptuous apartment block for Mary at his most important palace, completed in early 1543. 

This was a revelation. I had always accepted the narrative that Mary had had a happy childhood, but that there was a complete breakdown in relations between Mary and Henry after the advent of Anne Boleyn, only ameliorated by Kathrine Parr. But if Henry was ordering beautiful apartments for her, whilst Katherine Parr was still married to her second husband, that suggested a different dynamic between father and daughter. Maybe Mary and Henry’s relationship was more nuanced than is generally thought. 

That question gave me the theme for the book. I could start researching, with a cut-off date of Henry’s death. I began with the National Archive on-line catalogue. There were several hundred entries, giving a brief description of items and their locations: examples being a call to arms from Mary to combat Wyatt’s rebellion in 1554, located at Loseley House, and an inventory of Jane Seymour’s jewels in the National Archive itself. I could discard the former, as out of the date frame, whilst tabling the latter for review. 

Next, I turned to the superb www.british-history.ac.uk which has digitised vast numbers of reference works, so instead of going to the British Library and paging through 39 volumes of the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII (L & P), and Calendars of State Papers, I could read them at my desk, and bookmark relevant entries.

I drafted the narrative based on the contemporaneous chroniclers, Edward Hall and Charles Wriothesley. Then I worked through the calendared information in L & P.  Whenever Mary was mentioned, I would identify the source to review – or, more usually, because my palaeography skills are slim, and original documents often have access restrictions – a transcript in one of the vast collections of documents that the painstaking Victorian antiquarians faithfully copied from almost unreadable originals. 

Some early accounts of Mary’s birth and childhood are from the letters of Sebastian Giustiniani, the Venetian ambassador and much information from the 1540s is from the letters of the French ambassador, Marillac. Sadly, a trip to European archives was impossible, but both letter books have been published. Able to read Italian and French, I could refer to these original transcripts, rather than relying on translations in L & P. 

I was occasionally frustrated by references to Mary’s activities in an article or academic paper for which I could find no proof. An example is the excellent article by W R B Robinson: Princess Mary’s Itinerary in the Marches of Wales 1525 – 1527: Robinson mentions Mary visiting Coventry in 1526, but cites no source, and I could find nothing supporting the statement. I wrote to the Coventry city archives who pointed me in the direction of the Council minute book, but there was no mention of such a visit. I only wanted to include information that I could verify, so I had to leave it out.

Guided by the National Archive list, I visited archives at Taunton, Worcester and Gloucester. At Gloucester, I consulted the Council record of the ceremonial entry of Mary to the city in 1525 – which I compared with the similar visit of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn ten years later. 

Where possible, I went to places Mary lived. One lesser-known residence is Hartlebury castle, where an extremely helpful curator shared her research on Mary's sojourn there. 

Top tip for my next book is to note the details of the source immediately for references. I spent hours going back over my draft, to confirm the origin of quotes and facts from the bewildering array of sources I had reviewed.  

But it has all been worth it – the highlight was holding a British Library manuscript containing Mary’s translation of a prayer, and an affectionate hand-written note to a friend - a moment of connection through the centuries to a living, breathing woman. 

 Melita Thomas
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About the Author

Melita Thomas is the co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a repository of information about Britain in the period 1485-1625 www.tudortimes.co.uk. Melita has loved history since being mesmerised by the BBC productions of ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and ‘Elizabeth R’, when she was a little girl. After that, she read everything she could get her hands on about this most fascinating of dynasties. Captivated by the story of the Lady Mary galloping to Framingham to set up her standard and fight for her rights, Melita began her first book about the queen when she was 9. The manuscript is probably still in the attic! Whilst still pursuing a career in business, Melita took a course on writing biography, which led her and her business partner to the idea for Tudor Times, and gave her the inspiration to begin writing about Mary again. ‘The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his daughter Mary’ is her first book. She has several ideas for a second project, and hopes to settle on one and begin writing by the end of the year. In her spare time, Melita enjoys long distance walking. She is attempting to walk around the whole coast of Britain. You can follow her progress here. https://mgctblog.com/ and find her on Facebook and Twitter @thetudortimes. 

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