Happy Wednesday and welcome to the third day of our Halloween countdown! Today’s post will cover both this week’s Woman in History Crush and the 13 Days of Halloween; the first bit will be the actual history, and the latter will follow with how it ties to the holiday. This week’s WCW is Queen Mary I of England, and our spooky subject is the legend of Bloody Mary.
Mary Tudor was the daughter of Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon, born on February 18th, 1516 in Greenwich, England. While Mary was recognized as the first child of Henry, she was declared illegitimate when Henry divorced Catherine on the grounds of incest. A quick refresher on King Henry VIII: he was the monarch who separated England from the Roman Catholic Church and into the Anglican Church mostly in order to divorce Catherine because she hadn’t borne him a male heir, and ended up marrying five other women but had only one male heir, Edward VI, to show for it. After being illegitimatized, Mary was made Princess of Whales as a formality, but Henry never intended for her to gain the thrown.
Mary resided at Ludlow Castle in Whales for most of her youth and young adult life. There, she was educated and excelled at singing and linguistics. As Henry’s wives came and passed and more daughters were added to the lineage, Mary grew angry at both her father and her half-sisters, most notably her first sister and eventual successor, Elizabeth I. With Henry spending most of his time in search of a male-rearing wife for himself, he didn’t devote much of his time to arranging a marriage for Mary. One or two were discussed, like the dropped proposal from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but Mary did not marry until 1554, when she wed Philip II of Spain.
Like her mother before her, Mary had problems with childbirth. She didn’t marry Philip until her late thirties when the period of safe birth had already passed, but this didn’t stop her from trying to have children, to no avail. Twice, Mary subconsciously willed herself into a false pregnancy, a pseudocyesis, and when it was announced to the people of England that no child existed, her humiliation and stress nearly killed her. Mary eventually gave up on trying to conceive, saying that her inability to reproduce was caused by her toleration of heretics.
Following Henry’s death in 1547, the only male heir was the son of Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour, Edward VI. He took the throne at the age of nine and ruled until he was fifteen, when he died from terminal illness. After his death, his mother seized control of the throne for nine days, until Mary, the rightful heir, gained control. Mary led a five year reign over Catholic England, gaining her nickname “Bloody Mary” when she persecuted Protestants. During the largest persecution that she ordered, some three hundred Protestants were captured and burned at the stake for their religious dissent of Catholicism. Other than the religious aspects of her reign and her overturning of the edict that declared her a bastard child, Mary did little to change or influence the English government or nation.
On November 17th, 1558, Mary died from either ovarian or uterine cancer, along with that year’s strain of influenza. Her half sister Elizabeth, who she had imprisoned due to suspicion of treason, succeeded her rule. Today, we only really remember Mary’s rule when discussing those of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Now to the legend. Due to television and movies, Bloody Mary has taken a more definite story line within the past century – a person looks into a mirror in a poorly lit room at night and repeats “bloody Mary” thrice, and a ghostly and extremely malicious woman, presumably a Mary, appears in the mirror or as an apparition and physically maims or kills the speaker. However, this isn’t how the legend has always been, and is definitely not how it began.
As far as I could find, the earliest records of mirror-based (not including a broken mirror) superstitions date back to the late eighteenth century. A commonly held belief was that if a young woman walked up to a mirror backwards, candle in hand, then turned and gazed into the mirror, the face of her future spouse would appear. But if she looked for too long, the devil or a demon would appear. The story altered as it was passed from generation to generation, until the common story of today began circulating at teenage parties in the late 1970’s. Youths attempted to summon the ghost of any woman killed in a malicious manor, generally who held some resemblance to the woman in the Spanish legend of La Llorona, by chanting either “bloody Mary,” “I believe in Mary Worth,” or “I stole/killed your baby, Mary.” This last one may sound unfamiliar; it relates back to Mary I’s pseudocyesis, as it aims to provoke the spirit by bringing up her failure to have a child. Regardless of what incantation is used, the basic outline of the story remains the same, making it one of the most popular urban legends.
To learn more about the scandalous life of Mary I of England, check out the English History, bio., and Tudor History sites, and for more about Bloody Mary, go to this About or Wikipedia page. I’ll also informally cite my European History class (thanks again, Coach Patterson!) for my understanding of the Tudor family, as we recently discussed their lineage.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays and the 13 Days of Halloween countdown!