Mary and Elizabeth Tudor: A Precarious Sisterhood

by Holly Harding

It could be argued that the closest relationship that one could ever experience is the relationship that exists between sisters. More often than not, sisters attain a unique perspective that can only come from a shared environment, a shared set of experiences, and a shared youth. It is my opinion that sisters cling to one another, albeit sometimes unintentionally, in order to better understand how to navigate the world around them. Particularly when the world holds so many expectations of women.  In a perfect world, in perfect circumstances, this bond allows the women involved to evolve into the best versions of themselves, to do great things for themselves and the people around them. But, what happens when that bond is irreparably broken? When what should engender a close and loving relationship only engenders fear, jealousy, and outright competition? Enter: Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. 

Born in 1516, Mary Tudor was the first surviving child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. It has always fascinated me, the dichotomy between how Mary was treated while Henry VIII was still married to Queen Catherine, and how she was treated after the divorce that sent ripples through the then largely Catholic world. Mary was seemingly loved by her father, given titles and palaces and (often changing) betrothals. She was, for all intents and purposes, the heir-apparent to the British throne during her childhood; her half-brother the Duke of Richmond being unable to legally inherit due to his birth status. Her world at that time was secure. She was the beloved daughter of a handsome King. Everything that a princess could have desired. 

Mary Tudor
   (image: WikiCommons)

And yet, something changed. Not just a small inconsequential something, but a something that impacted the course of history itself. Henry Tudor made the decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon (sanctioned or not), and in so doing, he changed Mary’s fate. She went from being a princess born into an inheritance that was believed to be God-given, to the illegitimate daughter of a discarded marriage. Her betrothals were rescinded, her titles taken away, her very status within Henry’s court put into question. How very devastating this must have seemed to her! Not only were the materialistic facets sharply diminished, she was also used by her father as a pawn. Henry would not allow Mary to see her mother as a form of manipulation to keep Catherine in line. 

Fast-forward to 1533, and history records the birth of another Tudor princess, Elizabeth. The daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth is perhaps the most famous Tudor monarch. At her birth, she received all of the same royal trappings that Mary had once held: titles, palaces, betrothals, and wealth. Mary was by this time seventeen years old, a child no longer. And yet, she was forced to serve in Elizabeth’s household as a lady-in-waiting. This was not the way to begin any sort of good relationship between sisters. Not much is known about the early bonds between Mary and Elizabeth, although it seems that during Elizabeth’s childhood, they at least held a sort of affection for one another. This affection would be put to the test as they became older. 

Elizabeth I  
(image: WikiCommons)

As anyone who was not Henry could have foretold, the marriage to Anne Boleyn did not end well. With Anne’s death, Elizabeth was demoted to the same sort of social standing that Mary had held for years. Everything except the bare minimum for royal existence was taken from her. The sisters were separated at some point, and Mary no longer held a place in Elizabeth’s household. 

With such upheaval and tragedy in their daily lives, it makes me wonder how Elizabeth and Mary might have viewed relationships. We know enough about the way their lives played out to be able to see how differently they reacted to the ideas of family.  They were sisters, yes, but sisters who had been forced to adapt to the whims of a potentially dangerous father. Sisters who were in one way or another pitted against each other from the time of Elizabeth’s birth. They were separated not only in age, but in political and religious ideology as well. Practically everything about their environment, their experiences, and their childhoods leads me to believe that they were two sides of a very precarious coin. Mary would go on to marry and put everything she had into the relationship with her husband, Prince Philip of Spain. Elizabeth steadfastly refused to marry. Seemingly they were so different, but I would argue that they were really the same.  

Take, for example, Mary’s handling of Elizabeth during her reign as “Bloody Mary”. Mary was constantly suspicious of Elizabeth. She saw that Elizabeth was loved by the people. Perhaps, she even saw the same glint of ambition that had propelled Elizabeth’s own mother to the throne. Whatever the reason, Mary never fully trusted Elizabeth during her reign and more than once accused her of plotting to take the crown.

Conversely, Elizabeth imprisoned her own cousin, Mary Stuart, for nearly two decades. I often wonder if Elizabeth’s relationship with her sister Mary caused this imprisonment. Could she not quite bring herself to trust the women who were related to her? Had she been irreparably damaged by the lack of relationship in her life? 

It seems sad, almost, to consider what these two women could have been to one another had they embraced their shared experiences and treated each other as sisters, instead of as rivals. 

About the Author:

Holly Harding is a recent graduate with a Master of Arts in Professional Writing. Her focus of personal study has long been Elizabethan England, with occasional forays into the Georgian and Victorian periods as time permits. She is an avid reader, an aspiring writer, and loves spending time with her family and pets. Her current goal is to begin a research project relating to Henry VIII and his obvious personality changes over the years of his reign. 

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