The Tudor Society

19 August – A defiant but polite Mary I

On this day in Tudor history, 19th August 1551, Princess Mary, the future Mary I, wrote to her half-brother King Edward VI regarding orders that he had sent, orders that she was not going to obey.

As historian Henry Ellis noted, this letter is evidence of Mary's talent at writing and her intellect, and it also shows just how stubborn she could be. But then Edward was stubborn too! He wasn't going to let his sister defy him but she wasn't going to obey him and compromise her faith - oh dear!

Find out more about the situation, and hear Mary's words to Edward, in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 19th August 1561, Mary, Queen of Scots returned to her homeland, Scotland, from France following the death of her first husband, King Francis II of France. Find out more about her return to Scotland, which was the start of her troubles, in last year’s talk:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1531 – Burning of Thomas Bilney, Protestant martyr, at Lollard's Pit, just outside Bishopsgate. Although he was burned as a heretic, he actually denied his reformist views and affirmed his Catholic faith at his execution.
  • 1578 – Death of John Harpsfield, humanist, scholar and Roman Catholic priest, in London. He was buried in St Sepulchre Church, London. Harpsfield is known for his leading role in the Marian persecutions of Protestants and his nine sermons, which appear in Edmund Bonner's 1555 “Homilies”.
  • 1591 – Death of Welsh clergyman and Bible translator Thomas Huet at Tŷ Mawr, Llysdinam, Brecknockshire. He was buried in the chancel of Llanafan Fawr church. Huet helped Richard Davies and William Salesbury translate the “New Testament” into Welsh in 1567.
  • 1601 – Death of William Lambarde, writer, antiquary and lawyer, at Westcombe in East Greenwich. He was buried in St Alphege Church, East Greenwich, but in 1710 his monument was moved to the Lambarde chapel in St Nicholas's Church, Sevenoaks. Lambarde's works included his 1570 “Perambulation of Kent”, the 1581 “Eirenarcha: or of the Office of the Justices of Peace” and the 1591 “Archeion, or, A Discourse Upon the High Courts of Justice in England”.


On this day in Tudor history, 19th August 1551, Princess Mary, the future Mary I, wrote to her half-brother King Edward VI. Her letter was in response to Robert Rochester, Comptroller of the Royal Household, and two of Mary’s household officers, Edward Waldegrave and Sir Francis Engelfield, being called before the king’s privy council on 14th August 1551 and being told to go to Mary’s household at Copt Hall in Essex and to tell her chaplains that the saying of Mass in her household was forbidden and that no member of her household was to hear it. The men went to Copt Hall, but did not do as they were instructed and instead brought back with them a letter from Mary to the king.

Henry Ellis, editor of Original Letters, Illustrative of English History... writes that this letter “is probably the best specimen which we have in our power to give of her talent at writing: and, with the singular Paper which follows it by way of comment, will show her to have been a woman of more intellect than the world has usually supposed.”

Here's Mary's letter:

“My duty most humbly remembered unto your Majesty. It may please the same to be advertised that I have by my servants received your most honorable Letter, the contents wherof do not a little trouble me, and so much the more for that any of my servants should move or attempt me in matters touching my soul, which I think the meanest subject within your Realm could evil bear at their servants hand; having for my part utterly refused heretofor to talk with them in such matters, and of all other persons least regarded them therein; to whom I have declared what I think as she which trusted that your Majesty would have suffered me your poor humble sister and beadeswoman to have used the accustomed Mass, which the King your father and mine with all his predecessors evermore used; wherein also I have been brought up from my youth, and thereunto my conscience doth not only bind me, which by no means will suffer me to think one thing and do another, but also the promise made to the Emperor by your Majesty’s Counsell was an assurance to me that in so doing I should not offend the Laws, although they seem now to qualify and deny the thing.
And at my last waiting upon your Majesty I was so bold to declare my mind and conscience to the same, and desired your Highness, rather then you should constrain me to leave the Mass, to take my life, whereunto your Majesty made me a very gentle answer.
And now I beseech your Highness to give me leave to write what I think touching your Majesty’s Letters. In deed they be signed with your own hand, and nevertheless in my opinion not your Majesty’s in effect, because it is well known (as heretofore I have declared in the presence of your Highness) that although, Our Lord be praised, your Majesty hath far more knowledge and greater guisles than others of your years, yet it is not possible that your Highness can at these years be a judge in matters of Religion. And therefore I take it that the matter in your Letter proceedeth from such as do wish those things to take place, which be most agreeable to themselves: by whose doings (your Majestynot offended) I intend not to rule my Conscience.
And thus, without molesting your Highness any further, I humbly beseech the same ever, for Gods sake, to bear with me as you have done, and not to think that by my doings or example any inconvenience might grow to your Majesty or your Realm; for I use it not after any such sort; putting no-doubt but in time to come, whether I live or die, your Majesty shall perceive mine intent is grounded upon a true love towards you, whose royal estate I beseech Almighty God long to continue, which is and shall be my daily prayer, according to my duty.
And after pardon craved of your Majesty for these rude and bold Letters, if neither at my humble suite, nor for regard of the promise made to the Emperor, your Highness will suffer and bear with me, as yon have done, till your Majesty may be a Judge herein yourself, and right understand their proceedings, (of which your goodness yet I dispair not,) otherwise, rather than to offend God and my conscience I offer my body at your will, and death shall be more welcome than life with a troubled conscience.
Most humbly beseeching your Majesty to pardon my slowness in answering your Letters, for my old disease would, not suffer me to write any sooner. And thus I pray Almighty God to keep your Majesty in all virtue and honour, with good health and long life to his pleasure. From my poor house at Copped Hall the 19 of August.
Your Majesty's most humble sister

It is a beautifully written letter and Mary points out that promises had been made to Emperor Charles V that Mary could continue to worship in the way she wanted in private. She states that she is willing to die for her faith, rather than suffer a troubled conscience from compromising her faith. She shows courage, fortitude and a great deal of stubbornness!

But then Edward was stubborn too. Ellis explains that on 23rd August, following receipt of Mary's letter, the same men were “directed to execute the charge they had received on the 14th” but that they declined to proceed with their charge, “Rochester and Walgrave voluntarily offering rather to endure imprisonment”. On 28th August 1551, Lord Chancellor Richard Rich, Sir Anthony Wingfield and Sir William Petre visited Mary at Copthall. The purpose of their visit was to deliver the King’s order that Mary and her household should desist from celebrating the Catholic mass, and also to inform Mary that Wingfield should replace Robert Rochester, whom Edward's council had removed, as Mary's comptroller.

Mary was furious with the men. She replied that she was her brother's “most humble and obedient subject”, but that “she would lay her head on a block” before using “any other service than was used at the death of the late king, her father”. Mary rebuked the men for trying to appoint her servants, telling them that she would appoint her own. She continued, saying, “I am sickly, and yet I will not die willingly, but will do the best I can to preserve my life: but if I shall chance to die, I will protest openly, that you of the council be the causes of my death. You give me fair words, but your deeds be always ill towards me.” Mary refused to obey them and they were forced to leave, having failed their mission.

Edward and Mary loved each other as siblings, but Edward would not have his sister defy his laws and Mary would not have her brother tell her how to worship. Oh dear!

There are 3 comments Go To Comment

  1. R

    Hey little Brother I love you, you are the King, but Hey I am hearing Mass and won’t have you interfering. That’s Mary! No pretense, just straightforward defiance. And the Council expected this Lady, who wrote this letter to stand aside peacefully in favour of Lady Jane Grey? Boy that was a miscalculation!

    Hi, Claire, hope you had a good Wedding Anniversary. I won’t be at the talk on Saturday afternoon as its our wedding anniversary and we will be dining out. Enjoy!

    1. C - Post Author

      Hi RTL, thank you, we had a lovely time. Photos at dawn on the beach in our wedding gear (it still fits!) and a small party with friends, who were mostly musicians so we had a jam session with the theme of love.
      Have a wonderful anniversary. The talk is at 4pm UK time, so earlier than usual.

      1. M

        How lovely!!!

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19 August – A defiant but polite Mary I