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May 13, 1557 – A Study of Mary I

Detail from a portrait of Mary I, painted by Hans Eworth 1555-1558
Detail from a portrait of Mary I, painted by Hans Eworth (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Giovanni Michiel was the Venetian Ambassador to England during almost all of Mary’s reign, and on his departure in 1557, he prepared for his successor a comprehensive analysis of England – her climate, geography, economy, people, defenses, politics – and Queen. This was written during Philip’s second and last visit to England (he came to get support for his war with France; he stayed for three months); it was pretty late in Mary’s reign.

The letter is quite long. After rhapsodizing for a while over her heritage and God’s bringing her to the throne , he got to the personal, which is the (for me) fascinating (and heartwrenching) part. I am including the two pieces that I found the most insightful and relevant, but I have also included links in the citations if you want to read further (both links are the same).

With that, let’s begin with the portrait of Mary (language in parentheses is original, language in brackets I added):

She is of low rather than of middling stature, but, although short, she has no personal defect in her limbs, nor is any part of her body deformed. She is of spare and delicate frame, quite unlike her father, who was tall and stout; nor does she resemble her mother, who, if not tall, was nevertheless bulky. Her face is well formed, as shown by her features and lineaments, and as seen by her portraits. When younger she was considered, not merely tolerably handsome, but of beauty exceeding mediocrity. At present, with the exception of some wrinkles, caused more by anxieties than by age, which make her appear some years older, her aspect, for the rest, is very grave. Her eyes are so piercing that they inspire, not only respect, but fear, in those on whom she fixes them, although she is very shortsighted, being unable to read or do anything else unless she has her sight quite close to what she wishes to peruse or to see distinctly. Her voice is rough and loud, almost like a man’s, so that when she speaks she is always heard a long way off. In short, she is a seemly woman, and never to be loathed for ugliness, even at her present age, without considering her degree of queen. But whatever may be the amount deducted from her physical endowments, as much more may with truth, and without flattery, be added to those of her mind, as, besides the facility and quickness of her understanding, which comprehends whatever is intelligible to others, even to those who are not of her own sex (a marvellous gift for a woman), she is skilled in five languages, not merely understanding, but speaking four of them fluently, viz., English, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian, in which last, however, she does not venture to converse, although it is well known to her; but the replies she gives in Latin, and her very intelligent remarks made in that tongue surprise everybody. Besides woman’s work, such as embroidery of every sort with the needle, she also practises music, playing especially on the claricorde and on the lute so excellently that, when intent on it (though now she plays rarely), she surprised the best performers, both by the rapidity of her hand and by her style of playing. Such are her virtues and external accomplishments. Internally, with the exception of certain trifles, in which, to say the truth, she is like other women, being sudden and passionate, and close and miserly, rather more so than would become a bountiful and generous queen, she in other respects has no notable imperfections; whilst in certain things she is singular and without an equal, for not only is she brave and valiant, unlike other timid and spiritless women, but so courageous and resolute that neither in adversity nor peril did she ever even display or commit any act of cowardice or pusillanimity, maintaining always, on the contrary, a wonderful grandeur and dignity, knowing what became the dignity of a sovereign as well as any of the most consummate statesmen in her service; so that from her way of proceeding, and from the method observed by her (and in which she still perseveres), it cannot be denied that she shows herself to have been born of truly royal lineage. Of her humility, piety, and religion it is unnecessary to speak, or bear witness to them, as they are not only universally acknowledged, but recently blazoned by proofs and facts which fell little short of martyrdom, by reason of the persecutions she endured; so that it may be said of her, as Cardinal Pole says with truth, that in the darkness and obscurity of that kingdom she remained precisely like a feeble light buffetted by raging winds for its utter extinction, but always kept burning and defended by her innocence and lively faith, that it might shine in the world as it now does shine. It is certain that few women in the world (I do not speak of princesses or of queens, but of private women) are known to be more assiduous at their prayers than she is, never choosing to suspend them for any impediment whatever, going at the canonical hours with her chaplains either to church in public or to her private chapel, doing the like with regard to the communions and fast days, and, finally, to all other Christian works, precisely like a nun and a religious.

Michiel’s analysis moves through rebellions as a source of public distress, and then to the deeper, private pain that plagued Mary:

[The Queen’s distress arises] from two causes, or rather from two contrary effects, viz., from love and from hatred. From love proceeds her being enamoured, as she justly is (so far as could be known whilst they lived together), of her husband, and of his character and manners, which are such as to captivate any one, and above all a person who had such good companionship and good treatment as she enjoyed with him, for in truth no one could have been a better husband to her, nor so good a one; and now to think of losing him, as they can only meet by accident [ie occasionally], he unfortunately being from necessity always in motion and always travelling, leaving her bereaved, not only of that company, for the sake of which (besides the hope of lineage) marriages are formed; this separation, which to any person who loves another heartily, would be irksome and grievous, is assuredly so to a woman naturally tender. From this fear and violent love for him she may be said never to pass a day without anxiety; and if besides the violent love there were to be added jealousy, which as yet she is not known to feel, for if she does not hold the King chaste, I at least know that she says she believes him free from love for any other woman; were she, I say, jealous, she would be truly miserable; and this separation is one of the anxieties that especially distresses her.

The other [cause of distress], which proceeds from hatred, is owing to her evil disposition towards her sister my Lady Elizabeth, which although dissembled, it cannot be denied that she displays in many ways the scorn and ill will she bears her; the Queen, whenever she sees her, fancying herself in the presence of the affronts and ignominious treatment to which she was subjected on account of her mother, from whom in great part the divorce from Queen Katherine originated. But what disquiets her most of all is to see the eyes and hearts of the nation already fixed on this lady as successor to the Crown, from despair of descent from the Queen, to whom the demonstration and the thought are by so much the more bitter and odious as it would be most grievous, not only to her but to any one to see the illegitimate child of a criminal who was punished as a public strumpet, on the point of inheriting the throne with better fortune than herself, whose descent is rightful, legitimate, and regal. Besides this the Queen’s hatred is increased by knowing her to be averse to the present religion, she having not only been born in the other, but being versed and educated in it; for although externally she showed, and by living catholically shows, that she has recanted, she is nevertheless supposed to dissemble, and to hold to it more than ever internally.

Poor Mary…


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May 13, 1557 – A Study of Mary I
Published inInteresting Letters and Speeches


  1. Barbara Cross-Nicolosi Barbara Cross-Nicolosi

    Thank you, Janet, for the wonderful post about Mary I! This study seems to have captured her true nature. I have read a bit on her and continue to be fascinated by her and her tempestuous and ill-fated life.

  2. Pat Palleschi Pat Palleschi

    Mary is “of beauty exceeding mediocrity” — An insult of the most extraordinary sort.

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