For some time, Mary, eldest daughter of King Henry VIII, had been separated from her mother Katherine of Aragon and was forbidden to have any contact with her on the orders of her father. Henry married Anne Boleyn in the spring of 1533 and she gave birth to her daughter Elizabeth on September 7, 1533 at Greenwich Palace. The birth of Elizabeth was a seminal moment in Mary Tudor’s life. At one point, she had been the adored daughter of both her parents and Henry had named her as his successor and heir to the throne of England.
Henry moved mountains to marry Anne Boleyn and with the birth of Elizabeth, Mary’s status was completely invalidated. Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon had been pronounced null and void, Mary had been declared illegitimate and was no longer Henry’s successor. Katherine was not allowed to be called Queen and Mary was not allowed to be called Princess. She was henceforth to be known as the Lady Mary.
Mary was not about to simply drop her title and status as heir to her father and she would definitely not disavow her mother’s marriage. In December of 1533, Mary’s household was dissolved and she was to be transferred to the Princess Elizabeth’s newly formed nursery at Hatfield. Mary was reluctant but she had no choice. She was placed under the guardianship of Lady Anne Shelton, sister of Sir Thomas Boleyn and aunt of Mary and her mother’s nemesis, Anne Boleyn. It was about this time Mary received a secret letter from her mother. Here is what Katherine of Aragon wrote to her daughter:
I heard such tidings today that I do perceive (if it be true) the time is very near when Almighty God will prove you; and I am very glad of it for I trust he doth handle you with a good love. I beseech you, agree of His pleasure with a merry heart; and be sure that, without fail, He will not suffer you to perish if you beware to offend Him. I pray you, good daughter, to offer yourself to Him…….And if this lady [Shelton] do come to you as is spoken, if she do bring you a letter from the King, I am sure in the self same letter you shall be commanded what you shall do. Answer with few words, obeying the King, your father, in everything, save only that you will not offend God and lose your own soul; and go no further with learning and disputation in the matter. And wheresoever, and in whatsoever, company you shall come, observe the King’s commandments.
But one thing I especially desire you, for the love that you do owe unto God and unto me, to keep your heart with a chaste mind, and your body from all ill and wanton company, [not] thinking or desiring any husband for Christ’s passion; neither determine yourself to any manner of living till this troublesome time be past. For I dare make sure that you shall see a very good end, and better than you can desire…..And now you shall begin, and by likelihood I shall follow. I set not a rush by it; for when they have done the uttermost they can, then I am sure of the amendment…..we never come to the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles. Daughter wheresoever you come, take no pain to send unto me, for if I may, I will send to you,
Your loving mother,
Katherine the Queen”
This is an extraordinary letter, giving Mary comfort in her time of trouble and maternal precepts to live by. Katherine has heard that the King will no longer allow anyone to call Mary Princess and force Mary to never refer to herself as Princess. Katherine says God will be testing her in this and that God will help her get through her troubles. She is not to offend God and put herself in his hands. She is warning Mary in advance that Lady Shelton may bring her a letter from the King with these instructions. She asks Mary to be judicious in her words of reply and not dispute the orders. She says Mary is to obey her father in all things except that which would go against her conscience or give her cause to lose her soul.
Katherine instructs Mary to be chaste in her thoughts and in her body. She is to stay away from licentious company and not be desirous of seeking any husband that would take her away from Christ’s passion. If she lives well during this time of trouble, she will receive great rewards in the end and gain everything she desires. Now the great troubles will begin for Mary and for Katherine herself. She is not eager for this to begin. But the only way they both can get to the kingdom of Heaven is through troubles and ills. There is a hint of martyrdom in Katherine’s words here.
Katherine asks Mary to contact her if she can and promises, if possible, to reply. We know Mary never was able to see her mother again although she begged the king many times to do so. We may never know if there were any more secret letters between them. Katherine died in January of 1536. Mary would survive through the next thirteen years under difficult circumstances to become the first crowned Queen Regnant of England.
Further reading: “Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen” by John Edwards, “Mary Tudor: Princess Bastard Queen” by Anna Whitelock