Mary I: The Mother of England

Peter Stiffell

It was not only in portraiture that Mary used her image to portray a godly, motherly ruler

When we think of England’s first crowned queen regnant we usually focus on Mary I’s religious policies. However, it must be remembered that Mary I (r.1553-58) was the first woman in English history to become what John White would latter call ‘a Queen, and by the same title a King also’. Mary I needed an influx of imagery to promote not only her legitimacy, but her worth as England’s first female ruler. Yet it was not only in portraiture that Mary used her image to portray a godly, motherly ruler. Coins allowed the queen to reach all portions of society and allowed the mother of England to enter into the homes of her English subjects. A portrait by the Netherlandish artist Hans Eworth (c. 1520–1574) depicted one of the first images of Mary as queen in 1554. Mary stands in a regal position; her golden gown fills the room against a red cloth of estate and there is a pillar which symbolises her strength and stability as a ruler. This portrait is Eworth’s equivalence to Hans Holbein’s famous Whitehall Mural which depicted Mary’s father Henry VIII. Whereas Henry stands with his hands on his hips, his codpiece showing his fertility and his wide stance dominating the room, Mary’s gown parts at her waist creating a triangular shape while her top half also shows this triangular notion while her hands are placed by her womb which symbolised her fertility and her motherhood; she was mother to her people. This sense of motherhood was crucial for Mary. Not only was she to become the mother of England, but she had to project herself as a fertile queen to ensure a Catholic succession. This motherly Mary arrives in the same year Mary crushed the rebellion led by Thomas Wyatt in the Winter of 1554. The rebellion was raised in protest over Mary’s decision to marry Philip II of Spain. In a crucial move the queen arrived at London’s Guildhall and gave the speech of her life. ‘…if a Prince and governor maye as naturally and as earnestly love subjects as the mother doth the childe, then assure your selves, that I being your sovereigne Lady and Quene do as earnestly and as tenderly love and favour you…’ This emphasis on motherhood makes Mary the first queen regnant to mould herself as England’s mother. The portrait of Eworth continued this theme by signifying Mary’s fertility via the hand placement and the gown position. If we examine the jewellery Mary wears, she does not wear her wedding ring which proves that the portrait was commissioned before the marriage in July, but her spousal ring given to her at her coronation is depicted. The cross the queen wears once belonged to her mother Catherine of Aragon which not only represents Mary’s legitimacy, but also her Catholicism and her Spanish heritage.
<strong>Mary I: The Mother of England</strong>
Mary I

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<strong>Mary I: The Mother of England</strong>
Mary I Shilling

The most common image of Mary I was in her coinage

The most common image of Mary I was in her coinage. This is where Mary could show her queenship to the majority of the populace. A silver groat minted in the first year of the reign depicts Mary wearing a closed Imperial crown signifying her independent and autocratic power while her loose hair symbolises her virginity. She wears a plain French gown with a necklace of pearls with what looks to be a pendant with four pearls attached in the form of a cross. On the reverse is her motto Veritas Temporis Filia ‘Truth is the Daughter of Time’ and the English coat of arms. These two depictions of Mary I show a queen who was not only a queen, but a mother to her people. Portraits such as Eworth’s were available to the aristocracy while coinage was available to everyone. The depictions discussed show Mary as a motherly queen with as much power as a king. The iconography of Mary I is not one of nostalgia, but of a woman who despite the challenges became England’s first queen.
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<strong>Mary I: The Mother of England</strong>

Peter Stiffell

Peter Stiffell is a PhD researcher who specialises in the iconography of Mary I. He completed his BA in Medieval and early Modern History at the University of Chichester in 2019. He then completed his MA in Medieval and early Modern Studies at the University of Kent in 2020. He can be found on twitter @PStiffell where he regularly presents his work and shows various images of Queen Mary.
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