The Ultimate Sibling Rivals

By Mary O’London

Families can be complex at times, but surely few can compare with the Tudors!

Mary was 17 years her half-sister’s senior. Born in 1516, the early part of her life was described as “the pearl” of her father, Henry VIII’s kingdom.

Her world imploded when he divorced her beloved mother, Catherine of Aragon, and separated from the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne Boleyn. On the birth of Elizabeth, Mary’s status was radically altered and her rank downgraded from princess to merely the Lady Mary, and her household disbanded.

Aged three months, Elizabeth was sent to life in Hatfield House, under the charge of Anne’s uncle and aunt, Sir John and Lady Shelton. Mary’s humiliation was complete when she was sent to be the infant’s lady-in-waiting.

When she arrived, she was asked if she wished to pay her respects to Princess Elizabeth. She replied that she “knew of no other princess of England but herself; that the daughter of Madame de Pembroke was no princess at all.”

Despite this, reports suggest that she acted in a maternal way towards her sister, saving her ire for Anne Boleyn, whom she loathed and refused to recognise as queen.

At Hatfield, Mary was subjected to petty restrictions and bullying. Her jewels were confiscated and she was not permitted to walk in the gardens, attend the parish church or the public gallery of the house, lest she attract public support.

This oppressive atmosphere took its toll on her health and she remained of a delicate constitution, prone to stress related illnesses for the rest of her life.

Following the execution of Anne in 1537 and the birth of their half-brother Edward the following year, Mary and Elizabeth were restored to the succession. They occasionally met at court and Mary is said to have acted cordially towards her half-sister.

However, following the death of Edward VI in 1553, and the plot to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, Elizabeth’s position became precarious. Mary was proclaimed queen on July 19th.

On July 31st, Elizabeth rode out of London to escort her to the city. In the euphoria of becoming queen, Mary greeted her young sister with great affection, and on August 1st, Mary rode in state with Elizabeth immediately behind her.

However, this warm state of affairs cooled rapidly and Mary spread rumours that Elizabeth did not resemble Henry VIII, but the musician Mark Smeat, “a very handsome man”, but also the lowest status of the five executed as Anne Boleyn’s lovers.

The sisters’ relationship reached its nadir in 1554 when Mary crushed a Protestant rebellion led by Sir Thomas Watt, in the name of Elizabeth. The young princess was take to the Tower of London, suspected of treason. Her life was on a knife-edge, but she survived the interrogation.

Following a phantom pregnancy on November 6th, 1558, the weak and ill Mary officially recognised Elizabeth as her heir, and on November 17th, Mary died, aged 42, and the 25-year-old Elizabeth succeeded to the throne.

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