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  • E.G. Maladroit

Carolly Erickson's 'Bloody Mary' - sensationalist or worthwhile?

Carolly Erickson’s 1978 biography of Mary Tudor, ‘Bloody Mary’, is an incredibly well measured account of one of the most controversial figures in English history. Neither swaying too far towards the traditional sensationalisation of Mary as a violent menace, nor too far in the direction of contrarianism and defending her at all costs, it gives a strong sense of unbiased scholarship (as is only to be expected from such a well versed author).

I was initially somewhat turned off by Erickson’s self-proclaimed focus on Mary’s childhood – choosing to allot equal and measured detail to all areas of Mary’s life, rather than just her reign. As someone more invested in the complexes and intricacies of power, this appealed less to me. However, my mind was quickly changed – the skill of Erickson’s writing brought to life the intricacies of Henry VIII’s power plays with Mary, giving a wonderful understanding overall to his marriages and rule in general whilst never straying too far from how these factors impacted Mary. Whilst one could criticise the extent to which she sometimes focusses on Henry’s rule over actually talking about Mary, I felt she overall was providing important and interesting context, which later illuminated reasons behind the choices Mary made. However, I think it was easier for me not to be bothered by this as I was listening, rather than reading – so could easily tune out of the events I was less interested in. I felt overall that the book really benefitted from this style – due to the level of detail it contains, it allows it to flow easily, never feeling crammed or unlively. When listening and reading it over a series of weeks you almost feel as if you are watching Mary age and change before your eyes. For a ruler so deeply impacted by her psyche and childhood, it would have felt lacking without this aspect.

The book does a lot to avoid the tropes of the ‘Bloody Mary’ obsession, and really sheds light on the reasons behind Mary’s actions, rather than simply framing her as mystically violent and demented. The explanation of how treason and heresy became intertwined is not one I had really encountered before and is a very enlightening perspective on the atmosphere which the burnings took place within. Similarly, I found it slightly perplexing some reviewers came away with the impression Mary was a weak and pitiable ruler, as, despite her later decent into depression and mental illness, the book heavily highlights her skills at giving powerful speeches, raising public support and handling the many uprisings and threats against her. On the other hand, as is aforementioned, Erickson does not embrace contrarianism for the sake of it and also shows the less acceptable side of the heresy killings, highlighting that there was also religious fervour and fanaticism fuelling many. I did feel, somewhat, that this aspect of Mary’s reign (despite being referenced in the book’s title) was somewhat glossed over – not entirely, of course, as Erickson provided everything with detail – but it certainly felt lacking in the context of how much time was allotted to Mary’s childhood, and her downfall.

Overall, one comes away with an impression of Mary as a deeply tragic figure, and with a much deeper understanding of the world that formed her and that she had to conform to – as a woman monarch, and the first female monarch of England, she walked a tightrope between obeying her religion, her morals, her parliament, her people and her husband. It is a moving book, and whether you like Mary or not, it is enlightening as to the culture of the time and the experiences that formed her and her actions.

I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in Mary or Tudor history – it provides a deep level of understanding for both. I found it much more palatable as an audio book, though it was still quite time consuming (at around 24 hours), as for such a comprehensive text I think it would be a tall order to focus your entire attention on it for the entire duration, unless you have a lot of time.


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