Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Review of Judith Richards, Mary Tudor (2008)

I wanted to find a detailed, excellently written review of Judith M. Richards’s biography on Mary. Unfortunately such reviews have been published in journals which, though I can access, I am not allowed to post elsewhere owing to tedious copyright issues! So I have decided not to be lazy and have written my own review. Needless to say it is not of the calibre of the others!


Judith M. Richards, Mary Tudor (Routledge, London and New York, 2008)

In 1557 the Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Michiel, wrote a lengthy report on the appearance and personality of Queen Mary I, that has become a valuable source in the examination of this figure. Mary was, he claimed, a woman of ‘wonderful grandeur and dignity, knowing what became the dignity of a sovereign as well as any of the most consummate statesmen in her service’. Yet despite such praise Michiel still argued that because Mary was ‘of a sex which cannot becomingly take more than a moderate part’ in administrative affairs, she must have therefore taken a more passive role in government. The ambassador’s claims show us the prejudice that Mary as a female ruler encountered throughout her reign, problems which Richards explores exceptionally well in this work.

Richard’s biography is superb in analysing the subject of female rule in the sixteenth-century and in the context of the reign of Mary Tudor. Previous work on English female rule has focused almost predominately on Elizabeth I. Yet as Richards identifies, Mary preceded Elizabeth and successful met challenges including attempting to curb the power of her consort, Philip of Spain. Richards effectively pushes aside the traditional notion of a weak-willed Mary who was under her husband’s thumb. Instead Mary appears as a ruler who was very wary of others encroaching upon her authority.

Aside from the useful discussions on queenship, there is also a revised and in-depth analysis of Mary’s faith and religious policies. Richards rejects the notion that Mary was the blindly devoted Catholic of Protestant myth. Instead Mary actually encountered problems with the papacy and ultimately defied the pope by refusing to send Cardinal Reginald Pole back to Rome so he may be tried on charges of heresy. As Richards notes, ‘her obedience to the Holy Father was always tempted by a strong sense of the proper limitations of papal authority within her kingdom’ (p.218). Overall subtle comparisons between Mary and her father Henry VIII, are made. It has never been popular to consider that the pair had much in common, particularly in regards to religion. But as Richards shows, Mary was also favourable to the English Bible having encouraged the preparation of another during her reign. She also agreed with the Henrician settlement on certain points; for example she and Henry were in agreement on the subject of clerical celibacy and the absolute necessity of recognising the real presence at the mass. And of course both conflicted with the papacy, albeit in varying degrees.

Mary’s relationship with France is covered well, and Richards presents the image of a queen who faced a rather hostile and often unreasonable French monarch. Richards implies that part of Henri II’s disdain was over Mary’s sex, reinforcing further the tribulations Mary faced as a queen regnant. Richards also argues that when England did go to war with the French, something historians have attacked as absolutely disastrous, there was a significant degree of support in England for the move. The biography also illustrates the alleged and genuine frustrations the English government had with the French prior to the declaration of war that indicates that decision to enter conflict was not solely or even mainly to do with support for the Hapsburgs.

However the biography is not without faults. I would have liked a larger section on the Marian persecutions as owing to its controversy and the fact that for many it has defined Mary and her reign, it is therefore a subject that needs much analysis. But perhaps Richards was making a point with the fact that only ten pages in her book are specifically dedicated to this. Her use of comparisons, between Mary’s reign and the rest of Catholic Europe (and Protestant Europe), and with the reign of Elizabeth I, was very useful. Arguably she could have gone further in such comparisons in her general argument that the Marian burnings were not incredibly unique. Overall Richards clearly indicates Mary’s role in the burnings and reveals an image of a queen who was actively involved in the policies of her reign. I think this is important to assert as Mary is a figure that can be liable to (and has actually been) represented in an extremely malicious or even very saintly fashion, both such views being gross exaggerations. Instead, as Richards shows us, she was an active sixteenth-century monarch like her father and her sister and just as we must recognise her participation in the successes of her reign, so we must identify her role in the actions which we are repulsed by.

In her own review of this book, Dr Lucy Wooding argued that more detail could have been included on the last three years of Mary’s reign. This is a valid point as some things are skipped over. If I am not mistaken Richards failed to mention the formation of the Muscovy Company in 1555, which marked significant trade links between England and Russia. Overall Ireland and Wales are rarely (if ever in regards to the latter) mentioned in this work.

Despite these criticisms, Judith Richards work on Mary is an engrossing, innovative study which has enriched scholarship on this period and will be extremely useful for historians and students of this era. It is a shame that this book has not received much publicity, whilst another and less superior recent biography on Mary has. This book, though useful for academics, is also accessible for those who know little about Mary and her reign and want a well written and fascinating biography. It lacks the syrupy sentimental language of popular history books, yet still provides us with excellent detail about Mary’s private life and character as well as the politics of her reign.


  1. Thank you very much for this review. I think there are three new biographies of Mary I all making some of the same points about her reign. When writing about Mary in my book on the English Reformation, I tried to avoid both hagiography and special pleading. I hope these new biographies, and your studies, will have some effect on Mary's historical reputation.

  2. Thank you! Richards’s work has unfortunately been overshadowed and I have noticed more people talking about Linda Porter’s biography on Mary (which is widely available in stores). Whitelock’s work is well researched, particularly in its analysis of primary material.

    I’m looking forward to Susan Doran and Thomas S Freeman (eds), Mary Tudor: Old New and Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, Dec 2009)


    Alice Hunt and Anna Whitelock (eds), Tudor Queenship: The Reigns of Mary and Elizabeth (Palgrave, date unknown).

    I’m particularly interested in Hunt and Richards work, as hopefully the subject of Mary and sixteenth-century discourse on female rule will be discussed in more depth.

    I have just finished my undergraduate degree and am starting my graduate studies in September. Hopefully by then I would have decided what area within Mary's reign I am going to focus upon for my dissertation. There are so many topics I would love to cover and I wish to discuss something original. But I am having a hard time deciding what this should be!

    Your work on the English reformation sounds really interesting and I will definitely look out for it. Have you read Eamon Duffy's latest work on Catholicism under Mary Tudor? It is an intriguing read.

  3. Thank you for that additional information. My book's title is "Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation". No, Duffy's book is not available yet in the U.S. When I am in Oxford later this month I plan to buy a copy.