The Passionate Tudor: A Novel of Queen Mary I

Image of The Passionate Tudor: A Novel of Queen Mary I
Release Date: 
May 27, 2024
Ballantine Books
Reviewed by: 

Alison Weir’s fans can only hope that there is more to come with stories about Edward and Elizabeth.

In her author’s note, Alison Weir talks about her goal for writing The Passionate Tudor: A Novel of Queen Mary I with this: “Mary I has become a controversial figure among historians. Gradually in recent years, I have become aware of new opinions emerging, and that there has been a concerted attempt to rehabilitate her reputation. When I came to write this novel, however, and revisited my own research, I found that I could not entirely support this new view.”

Indeed, she has designed a story of creative nonfiction where she takes the detailed research she has done and applies the historical facts toward creating a character as true to someone who lived over 400 years ago as possible.

For readers who are even remotely aware of King Henry VIII’s first-born child, Mary, at least the first-born who survived to adulthood, the picture that emerges is that of “Bloody Mary” the first female queen of England.

And so with that awareness, it is interesting to read what might have been, and possibly was, as this character comes to life through the pages of this book.

Written in Parts, the reader is introduced to “Part One: The King’s Daughter” where Mary, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon is much loved by her parents and not until the king’s roving eye lands on Anne Boleyn do things begin to go south quickly.

The scandal known as “The Great Matter” becomes a major conflict between Henry and the Catholic church of Rome when he insists on the church annulling his marriage to Katherine in order for him to marry Anne. He needs a male heir and it is obvious that he will not get one with his wife Katherine.

Weir skillfully weaves the story through Mary’s point of view and it is made clear early on that Mary has no love for Henry’s second wife Anne. Her anger grows when the king removes England from its Catholic roots and creates the Church of England with him as its head. His demands that Mary acknowledge his now official separation from Katherine and his declaration that Mary is a bastard do not sit well with Mary.

It is early in the book that the reader sees the effect that Catholicism has on Mary, and it is this thread that is woven through the entirety of the story. It should be noted that a secondary thread, one of Mary’s ill health, both mental and physical, will also play a strong part in Mary’s life.

Weir designs Mary initially as a patient character, although one with strong emotions that she frequently displays throughout the story. When Anne Boleyn is unable to produce a male heir for Henry, and Elizabeth, another female is born, Henry’s eye begins to roam again. Anne loses favor with the king and another woman enters the scene, Anne loses her head and Jane Seymour enters the story as wife number three.

Mary’s hatred of Anne is countered by her affection for Jane and when Jane produces a male heir to the throne, Edward, Mary’s affection grows. She knows that if a male heir enters the scene, she will move back in the line of succession, but being a royal female in the 16th century, she recognizes that this is the law of the land and she accepts her role in it.

By this time Mary has moved out of and back into the line of succession with her sister, Elizabeth following suit. It is interesting how Weir portrays the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth as one of a loving nature.

Jane Seymour dies not long after giving birth, and throughout the first part of the book Weir dedicates the story to Mary’s relationship with the other women who enter her father’s life after Anne Boleyn, and how her feelings for each new queen move around leaving the reader to wonder what Mary’s true feelings were for each of his wives.

Part One ends with the death of King Henry VIII and the immediate ascension to the throne of Edward, still a young boy. Since Edward was raised Protestant and that is the church that resides in England, life becomes very difficult for Mary, a woman dedicated to the “true faith” of Catholicism. The longer Edward stays on the throne, the further Mary’s relationship moves away from the young king. It is apparent that while he is too young to be considered king in anything but name, he is surrounded by advisors of the heretical faith. The advisors begin to move into Mary’s life, demanding through Edward that she forsake the act of her faith and that she sign papers recognizing Protestantism as now the true faith of England. This is something she refuses to do under any circumstances.

In Part Two, as Mary wrestles with the religious demands put upon her, she attempts to draw herself nearer to Elizabeth. “Mary liked being at Chelsea; she enjoyed the company and helping Elizabeth with her studies. But Elizabeth, quite the young lady at thirteen, and very strong-willed, evaded all her attempts to mother her.” Elizabeth is enjoying time at court with her brother, and Mary fears her sister is being drawn more closely into the heresy of Protestantism.

As Mary considers her relationship with Elizabeth and her fears about court influences on her sister, she still contends with her own problems with Edward and his advisors. She remains steadfast in her refusal to forsake her devotion to the Church and frequently finds herself alone in her homes as many of her staff keep a close eye on her behaviors and report back to the king.

As if she did not have enough to contend with, the question arises regarding marriage. Many of Edwards’s councillors believe the best way to rid themselves of her will be to marry her off. Marriage is an idea she likes and yet she fears it. A virgin at her age, she has never had any discussions with other females about the marriage bed and what it means.

That thought becomes more profound when Edward dies and Mary suddenly is thrust into the role of queen. It is not that she is not prepared, and yet she sees the tumult ahead.

In Part Three Weir takes us down a new path—that of Mary as Queen. It is here that the issue of marriage moves to the front of the story and although there are a number of contenders for her hand, she is focused on Prince Philip, son of the Emperor Charles of Spain. Although Philip is a decade younger than Mary, she accepts the emperor’s offer of his son as her husband.

This of course raises the question of religion in England to its highest point. The country is divided between those who remain believers in Catholic teachings and the Protestants who embrace their beliefs and have for several decades.

And this is where Mary earns her nickname of Bloody Mary. With a Catholic husband by her side and a council full of “true believers,” Mary is determined to eradicate all of the heretics from the land and bring England back to the true faith. Not quite as easy a task as she thinks as the number of burnings at the stake reaches over 300 during her reign.

As if this religious issue weren’t enough, Philip is called back to Spain to assist his father’s fight against France, and Mary fears she will never see him again. When he leaves she discovers that she is pregnant and she is thrilled that there will be an heir to carry on her religious war. However, as her joy unfolds there is still the issue of Elizabeth, who has refused to convert to Catholicism.

Philip is trying to convince her that she should marry Elizabeth off because there are rumors about regarding unrest with the heretics who want to see Elizabeth on the throne and Mary off of it. Elizabeth refuses the attempts at arranging her marriage.

As Mary’s delivery date arrives . . . and passes without a baby (there are questions about a miscarriage or a hysterical pregnancy), she faces humiliation in the court, worrying about an absent husband, and her obstinate sister Elizabeth whom she cannot control.

It is a year before Philip returns and turns around to leave again. For a second time Mary believes she is pregnant, but too many obstacles present themselves and once again she is without a child.

Unfortunately, it is this second episode that spells doom for her. Her final thoughts bring her back around to her religion as she realizes her death is imminent. “The last thing she saw before the light took her, was the image of her Savior and Redeemer on the crucifix that lay on her breast. Soon she would behold Him in His glorious body in Heaven. Her heart leaped with joy and then stilled.”

While Weir’s characterization of Mary is intriguing, it should be noted that Mary cries a lot . . . an inordinate amount of crying throughout the book. While one can only imagine what life during this time must have been like for women, not to mention royalty, it is a little bit of a drawback to find Mary crying on almost every page.

Weir is a recognized expert historian of the Tudor family, having written many books on this family and their lives during the 16th century. As she has gone on to write creative nonfiction regarding Henry VIII’s six wives, she is now taking her fans into the next plateau as she writes about Henry VIII’s children.