Mary I: The First Queen of England and the Legacy of Female Leadership

Whilst the first Queen of England’s reign is largely overshadowed in favour of the other Tudors, namely her father Henry VIII and half-sister Elizabeth I, the historiographical interpretations of Mary I illuminate interesting notions associated with female leadership. Mary I was the first woman to ascend to the throne of England, as the succession of Empress Matilda in the twelfth century never materialised due to the eruption of civil war. Only four centuries later do we witness the succession of a female monarch in England, and this was not without issues, as there had been earlier attempts to bar her from inheritance. Her gender, as well as her supposed illegitimacy, provided the grounds for such attempts as her younger half-brother was placed above her, when she was eventually restored to the line of succession.

Mary I’s reign is largely interpreted as one of hysteria and irrationality. Such a notion of hysteria is particularly of note as the term has long been associated with the assumption that women are unable to control their emotions and are thus unfit to rule. Shakespeare’s common depictions of a madwoman within his works have fostered this link of femininity with that concept of hysteria, particularly illustrated in Hamlet through Ophelia. Literary representations have certainly exacerbated the historical issues of female rule.


Portrait of Mary I, Antonis Mor, 1554. (Credit: Public Domain)

Historians are critical of both Mary’s personal life, due to her failure to conceive, as well as her broader policies that saw the intense persecution of Protestant sympathisers, which led to her title of ‘Bloody Mary’. The issue of motherhood in politics is still prevalent in our times, as seen by the scrutiny Theresa May faced within the media and from other members of the Conservative Party due to her choice not to have children. With regard to Marian politics, the stabilisation of economic policy her reign is often underplayed and when acknowledged, is widely credited to her male councillors or the reforms laid by the Duke of Northumberland before her advent to the throne. Mary is thus painted as weak, feeble and ineffective. The first Queen of England is largely portrayed as conforming to the gendered anxieties that the elite ruling class had regarding the notion of female monarchy. Women were deemed as far more emotionally charged compared to their male counterparts and would be unable to conduct rational governance as a result.

In the 21st century, women still face significant opposition to reaching the highest positions of political power. Britain’s only popularly elected female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is often represented as contradicting feminist values. The US has never elected a woman to that highest position of President, and notably Hilary Clinton’s gender played a significant role in right-wing opposition to her election. Such ideas regarding female hysteria and heightened emotion have arguably laid a basis for the preference of male leadership and have correlated with deeming women unfit for positions of political power. The qualities associated with leadership are still often presented through characteristics which men are more likely to be socialised to have, therefore perpetuating the idea that women are not suited to power.

What we can draw from the accounts of Mary I’s governance and her later treatment in historical research is that female leadership is not often deemed a suitable option, nor do women find easy pathways into politics. These ideals surrounding female inferiority have

historical precedence in sixteenth-century England as illustrated by the analysis of early modern Queenship. These notions have not been undermined or significantly challenged by the twenty-first century. Mary I’s legacy illustrates how she has been utilised to highlight the perceived barriers to effective female governance. Arguably, this has set a precedent for the limited role that women play in politics within our modern era.

Ellie Brosnan

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