Despite being sisters, the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth Tudor was always difficult; once Mary ascended the throne, her antagonism to her younger sister became political dynamite.
Mary was the only surviving child from Henry VIII’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, a strategic union between England and Spain. In 1525, Henry began Mary’s training as Princess of Wales, but on her return to court in 1527, she discovered that her mother was on the verge of being replaced. Caught between her once loving parents, Mary sided with her religion and her mother, incurring the revenge of her tempestuous father.
Katherine was banished from court in 1531; her marriage to Henry VIII dissolved two years later. Mary went from being the loved and pampered “pearl of the world” to being ostracized by the king and everyone around him. Though she was stripped of her titles in April 1533, she refused to stop calling herself a princess.
Elizabeth’s birth in September 1533 made matters worse. The following December, Henry cut Mary’s household to just two servants and moved her to Hatfield, where she was forced to wait on her new baby sister. In March 1534 she was declared illegitimate in favor of Elizabeth and soon feared for her life. Anne Boleyn’s aunt told her that, “the King himself has said that he would make her lose her head for violating the laws of his realm.” Worse still, Mary was forbidden contact with her mother—she would see her just once more before Katherine’s death in January 1536.
With Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace and the birth of the future Edward VI, Henry changed the succession again. Although the 1544 Act of Succession was explicit in its statement that both Mary and Elizabeth were illegitimate, it did restore their place in the line for the throne—after their brother. As such, despite Edward’s attempts to have his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, succeed him, Mary became queen on July 6, 1553.
But the legacy of her childhood and the tricky issue of Elizabeth’s religion meant that Mary was keen to prevent her younger sister from succeeding her. Here are five ways she tried to thwart Elizabeth.
1. Mary I tried to change the line of succession.
Mary, who had no heirs when she ascended the throne, turned her attention to the succession shortly after she became queen.
Under the terms of the Act of Succession, the order of inheritance after Mary was Elizabeth, then Jane, Katherine, and Mary Grey (the granddaughters of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, Queen of France, by her second marriage), and finally Margaret Douglas (the daughter of Henry's sister Margaret, Queen of Scotland, by her second marriage). Henry made it quite clear that his nephew, James V of Scotland, was not included.
Mary’s initial plan was to repeal the Act. Though this would allow her to name her own successor, it could bring her own right into doubt—this was, after all, the very same policy that legitimized her place on the throne. Nevertheless, she was determined to find an alternative heir. Mary set her sights on her cousin, Margaret Douglas.
There were good reasons for Mary’s choice. Despite her Scottish father, Margaret was raised in Mary’s household in England and had become a lifelong friend. Contemporaries noted that “there was a special love [felt for her] by Queen Mary in the beginning of her reign.” She was also a Catholic, and had already been heir presumptive to the English throne for the short time between Elizabeth being declared illegitimate in 1536 and Edward’s birth in 1537.
For the rest of her reign, Mary continued to push her case for Margaret to succeed her. The queen gave Margaret a room in the Palace of Whitehall and ensured her bed was decorated in the purple velvet and gold cloth of the sovereign and embroidered with depictions of St. George. The queen even gifted Margaret and her husband lands belonging to the crown. While Elizabeth was second woman at court at the beginning of Mary's reign—behind only the queen—her rank changed as her elder half-sister began favoring Margaret: The French Ambassador, Antoine de Noailles, reported that “now the Princess [Elizabeth] has sometimes to give place to the Countess of Lennox, who is called my Lady Margaret here, and to my Lady Frances.”
But Elizabeth was popular with the people. Parliament saw the danger in removing her and remained firmly against repealing the Act of Succession. Despite Mary’s wishes, she was never able to name Margaret as her successor.
2. Mary I tried to have a child.
All talk of repealing the Act of Succession would be irrelevant if Mary could have a child of her own. But as England’s first Queen Regnant, she had no precedent to follow when it came to choosing a husband. Unlike later queens whose husbands remained princes, it was accepted in the 16th-century that the queen’s husband would become king, something even Mary acceded to. Her choice, therefore, had to be one that met not only her personal tastes, but also that of her country. Unfortunately, she got it wrong.
Philip of Spain was her cousin (and the son of the man she had been betrothed to for three years as a child). He was also heir to the Spanish throne, meaning his interests were decidedly one-sided. But Mary fell in love with this staunchly Catholic prince and, despite the warnings she received from her advisors and the outbreak of Wyatt’s Rebellion—a conspiracy of Protestant and Catholic gentlemen who raised armies around England to stop the marriage—they were wed on July 25, 1554.
By September 1554, Mary believed she was pregnant. That November, the Spanish Ambassador reported that “there is no doubt that the Queen is with child, for her stomach clearly shows it and her dresses no longer fit her.” In April 1555 she went into confinement as expected and waited for her due date, which came and went. After four months, even Mary could no longer deny the truth and she reappeared at court—not only devastated, but also humiliated. A similar event occurred again after Philip (who was often away) last visited her in 1557.
No one quite knows why Mary went through a series of phantom pregnancies. Whatever the cause, the result was that Mary was unable to provide an heir, and Elizabeth remained next in line for the throne.
3. Mary I tried to convert Elizabeth I to Catholicism.
This wasn’t a direct attempt to prevent Elizabeth from taking the throne; rather, it was Mary’s way of getting what she wanted, should her younger half-sister one day wear the crown. She wanted to see England return to the Church of Rome.
Mary set about persuading Elizabeth to convert shortly after she ascended the throne. In August 1553, she was pressuring her to attend Mass. Elizabeth prevaricated, but by September the situation was becoming dangerous. In a personal audience with the queen, she claimed her ignorance of the Catholic faith was because “she had never been taught the doctrines of the ancient religion.” She begged her sister for instruction and books and promised that she would go to Mass.
Mary initially took her at her word, but Elizabeth was not above lying when she needed to. Her attendance was often accompanied by shows of ill-health and complaints, and eventually it tailed off. By December 1553, Mary recognized Elizabeth’s attendance as “only out of hypocrisy.” As the tension and distrust between them grew, Mary allowed Elizabeth to leave court and return to Ashridge Priory, her private residence.
Elizabeth was both genuinely dedicated to her Protestant faith—and mindful that she could not afford to alienate the popularity she enjoyed. For five years, she balanced shows of Catholic devotion to placate her sister with obvious displays of reluctance that appeased her fellow Protestants. Mary knew the game she was playing, but there was little she could do. Elizabeth remained both Protestant and heir presumptive.
4. Mary I had Elizabeth I imprisoned.
Elizabeth skirted around danger for most of her life, but never more so than in the aftermath of Wyatt’s Rebellion. Whether she wanted it or not, Elizabeth was inextricably tied to the conspiracy. Part of the plan had included marrying her to the Catholic Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon (and last descendant of the House of York) and place the two of them on the throne.
It’s possible that Elizabeth had advanced knowledge of their intentions, but she certainly took no active part in the risings despite Thomas Wyatt’s confession under torture that both Courtenay and Elizabeth had been involved. On March 16, 1554, Elizabeth was taken to the Tower of London and housed in the same apartment her mother had been before her execution in 1536.
Mary’s advisors now seized the advantage, particularly the Spanish contingent, who urged that, “it is considered that she will have to be executed, as while she lives it will be very difficult to make the Prince’s entry here safe.” The threat was clear and it must have been difficult for Mary—she was desperate for her new husband’s arrival, but Elizabeth was her sister, a Tudor, and popular.
If Elizabeth did know about the upcoming rebellion, she had been very careful to leave no trace of her forewarning and, despite their best efforts, the Privy Council was unable to find anything that could warrant her execution. Their case was further damaged when Wyatt used his speech at his execution on April 11, 1554 to clear her:
“And whereas it is said and whistled abroad that I should accuse my lady Elizabeth's grace and my lord Courtenay; it is not so, good people. For I assure you neither they nor any other now in yonder hold or durance was privy of my rising or commotion before I began. As I have declared no less to the queen's council. And this is most true.“
A month later, Elizabeth was released from the Tower. She spent the next 18 months under house arrest, first at Woodstock Palace—the old royal house in Oxfordshire—and then with Mary at Hampton Court Palace. Mary was certain of her guilt, declaring, “she is what I have always thought her,” but on October 18, 1555 Elizabeth left court for her childhood residence, Hatfield House, to await Mary’s death, still heir presumptive.
5. Mary I tried to marry Elizabeth off to a Catholic.
Almost as soon as Mary’s reign had begun, the idea of Elizabeth’s marriage became a priority. In December 1553, Elizabeth allowed her name to be linked with the Catholic Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, a cousin of Mary’s soon-to-be husband, Philip of Spain—likely as a diversion to keep her sister happy.
By 1556, it was now obvious that Parliament would never repeal the Act of Succession, and that Mary was unlikely to ever have a child. For Spain, the idea of Protestant Elizabeth as queen was far more palatable than the Catholic, but pro-French, Mary Queen of Scots.
The key was to control Elizabeth, and the most effective way to do that was to see her married to a Catholic under Spain’s control. The Duke of Savoy fit the role perfectly—he was a minor duke who owed allegiance to Spain in return for their help in retrieving his land from the French. While Mary lived, Philip saw him as a perfect lieutenant in England; once the queen was dead, he’d be the perfect puppet king in a Spanish colony.
But Mary was resistant, though Philip remained adamant. The affair caused a rift in their marriage. Philip returned to England in March 1557 to personally persuade the princess to marry, but Elizabeth refused to be pressured. Philip left in July, and Mary would never see him again.
The Duke of Savoy was not the last suitor Elizabeth had to ward off, but he was by far the most dangerous to her chances of becoming an independent and autonomous queen. By resisting her brother-in-law’s demands, she was able to avoid being tied to a Catholic and to Spain. When she finally ascended to the throne of an independent England in November 1558, she did so without a king.