By Hilary Doda
Master’s Thesis, Dalhousie University, 2011
Introduction: Mary Tudor, the first reigning queen of England, has been described by historians both contemporary and modern as a less than astute political actor. That popular belief, combined with religious and political works by authors such as John Foxe, has established Mary’s reputation for political blindness, inexperience, and, among the worst of them, obstinate intolerance bordering on barbaric cruelty. Two generations ago, Geoffrey Elton blamed Mary’s “absence of political guile” and “the obstinate wrongheadedness of her rule” for many of the problems faced by the English in the midsixteenth century: “[t]he accession of the wrong kind of queen nearly completed the ruin of dynasty and country.” She has fared poorly in comparison with her much-acclaimed younger half-sister Elizabeth, who had the benefit of forty extra years on the throne in order to entrench her supporters, and of being on the winning side when it came to the battles surrounding the Reformation. The layers of propaganda and polemic that have tainted biographies and analyses of Mary over the past four hundred years have turned the mid-Tudor queen into “Bloody Mary,” a nigh-mythological creature of scorn.
When those layers are stripped away, however, and the evidence remaining from Mary’s life is re-examined, a new picture emerges. Recent scholarship has begun to discuss Mary as an educated and careful politician in her own right, willing to use all the tools available to her in order to negotiate the murky pools of politics and international diplomacy during her six years on the throne. Clothing – and associated aspects of material culture – was one tool which carried particular resonance throughout the early modern era. The prevailing cultural understanding of fashion maintained that garments could exert special force over the body that they contained, and that clothing choices, especially by those in positions of authority, carried particular messages to viewers. Analyses by scholars such as Kevin Sharpe have addressed the question of Mary’s political acumen through examination of her writings and visual representations. Examining Mary’s wardrobe and choices of dress and accessory for particular public occasions and commissioned images opens another lens through which we can understand more about the queen’s multifaceted political strategies.