This article was originally published on October 28, 2016.
The legend of Bloody Mary is centuries-old and appears in many folkloric variations. In the West, she borrows her name from Queen Mary I, the infamous monarch known as a burner of heretics. To summer campers and slumber parties, though, Bloody Mary appears in bathroom mirrors — not as a murderous queen, but a howling woman drenched in blood. Sometimes, she’s said to be clutching a dead, blue baby. Other times, her arms are empty and outstretched as the conjurer taunts her: “I stole your baby,” or “I killed your baby.” In any variation, the ritual is as macabre as it is childish. But while most children outgrow the game even before outgrowing camp, there is a strange, sad, and very true story wound up in this myth.
Queen Mary I was born unwanted. She was the only living child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. While loved by her parents, and by all accounts remarkably intelligent, the fact that she was born female meant she was openly and constantly regarded as a disappointment — not merely to her royal family, but all of England. It was his lack of a male heir that (primarily) incited Henry’s historic series of marriages, leaving Mary caught in his dreadful wake.
At 14, she was permanently separated from her mother, forbidden even to visit Catherine’s deathbed. Depending on which wife was on the throne, Mary was alternatively banned from court as a bastard or ordered to come make appearances, suddenly a princess again. She’d been born to Catholic parents in a Catholic country. When Henry broke with Rome to marry Anne Boleyn, her fervent faith became heresy. From puberty, she suffered crippling menstrual pain and irregular cycles, as well as periods of “very deep melancholy” — perhaps due to the stress of simply being her father’s daughter. Though the firstborn, Mary was pushed down in rank, first by her younger half-sister, Elizabeth, and then their half-brother, Edward. While these much younger siblings suffered trauma of their own, it was Mary who witnessed the whole of her father’s tyranny. She would survive, but by no means unscathed.
Despite all odds, in 1553, Mary took the throne, becoming England’s first queen regnant (as in, a queen who rules on her own, rather than being the wife of the king or the mother of a child king too young to rule). It had been six tumultuous years since Henry’s death and she ascended on a new wave of popularity and hope from the English people. She knew better than anyone what they were hoping for, and, at 37, she knew that there was no time to waste. Like her father, she needed an heir.
Mary married Philip of Spain two days after meeting him. Like all royal marriages, it had been preceded by a long negotiation process, during which Mary had fallen in love with Philip — though he (10 years her junior) almost certainly did not return her feelings.
“Starved of affection from her childhood, deprived of the fulfillment of sexual love and children during her adult years, she was ready to lavish all her frustrated emotions on the husband she had acquired so late in life,” writes historian Alison Weir writes in The Children of Henry VIII. “For the first time since she was 10, when her father's eye had first lighted on Anne Boleyn, she was truly happy.” Two months after the marriage, her greatest wish came true. She was pregnant.
Thus began one of the strangest and most controversial chapters in royal history. At the time, of course, there were no true forms of pregnancy testing and propriety forbade doctors (such as they were) from thoroughly examining a monarch. But while her status as queen prevented physical inquiry, it also made her reproductive system a subject of public discourse. Hence, history records a fairly detailed litany of Mary’s pregnancy symptoms: Menstruation had stopped, her breasts were swollen, she was nauseated in the morning. While she’d always been a notably thin woman, she’d suddenly gained weight. Her pregnancy began with all the standard signs and it continued just as typically. Her abdomen grew round and larger by the month. Soon, she felt the baby move.
Even then, it seemed some were suspicious. Mary appeared in public three months along and her newly thickened midsection drew cheers from her subjects, though rumors began to spread that she wasn’t pregnant at all — perhaps, she was plotting to take some other woman’s baby for her own.
Mary had never been beloved — not the way her dazzling younger sister, Elizabeth, was. Elizabeth was subject to another kind of animus, as both the daughter of Anne Boleyn and a protestant. But she was sharp and charismatic where Mary was rigid and out-of-touch (and perhaps “hysterical”). Both sisters were exceptionally intelligent, yet it was Elizabeth whose brilliance shone in the spotlight, who was flirtatious yet resolutely virginal, whose poise and regality were unmatched. At least, that’s how history tells it in broad, fairy-tale strokes: Elizabeth, the fiery princess who would usher in The Golden Age; and Mary, the desperate, haggish zealot she would have to unseat.
By the time of her pregnancy, Mary’s reputation was almost entirely unearned. Her age, devout catholicism, notorious menstrual problems, and intermittent depression all painted a nasty caricature. Amplified by constant comparison to the youthful Elizabeth, this may be how she came to be seen as the kind of woman who might fake a pregnancy and steal a child. But as she entered her second trimester, Mary took action that would cement her legacy as bloody.
At the time, England was divided between Catholics and Protestants, but Mary was determined to reunite the country under “the true religion” by any means necessary. Shortly before Christmas in 1554, she signed an act which would incite a legendary series of executions known as the Marian Persecutions. Beginning in February 1555, an estimated 240 men and 60 women were condemned as Protestant heretics and burned at the stake.
“Most were popular preachers, artisans, farm laborers, or poor, ignorant folk who could not recite the Lord's Prayer or did not know what the Sacraments were,” writes Weir. (The wealthy protestants had long since fled.) “Some were blind or disabled; one woman, Perotine Massey of Guernsey, was pregnant. Her baby was born as she was burning, and cast back into the flames by the executioner.”
True, Mary did not act alone, surrounded as she was by advisors. Yet, as Weir points out, most of them were wary of this massive persecution and “urged her to proceed with caution.” This blood is undoubtedly on her own hands. Already a deeply devotional woman, the ardency of her faith seemed only to increase as her pregnancy advanced. She believed it was her charge from God to bring a Catholic prince into a Catholic realm, and that, “If she failed in that duty, she would surely incur the wrath and displeasure of the Almighty.”
Furthermore, she was convinced that these executions would scare any remaining Protestants to turn back to the old faith — a fatal miscalculation. Explains Weir, “The burnings had the effect of hardening their resolve and inflaming their anger against the queen.”
As custom dictated, Mary went into “confinement” six weeks before her estimated due date, around May 9 (though some in her household believed she had miscalculated the date of conception and the baby was due a month later). Surrounded by female companions and servants, she entered a private chamber, stocked with birth equipment and clothes for the infant, to wait for her labor pains. Now, tension both in her court and country reached a fever pitch. As her advisor Simon Renard wrote to Emperor Charles V: “Everything in this kingdom depends on the Queen's safe deliverance. If God is pleased to grant her a safe delivery, things will take a turn for the better. If not, I foresee disturbance and a change for the worse on so great a scale that the pen can hardly set it down.”
May 9 came and went. No child appeared. Mary now agreed with her ladies: Yes, she must have mixed up her dates and the child would arrive in June. Meanwhile, the rumor mill churned out false reports that spread across Europe. Some claimed she had delivered, that it was a boy, that Mary had died in childbirth — and as the days passed with no sign of labor, the stories turned strange. An envoy reported to the French court that Mary had “been delivered of a mole, or lump of flesh.” Molar pregnancy is indeed a real (exceedingly rare) condition, though this report, like all the others, was based entirely on gossip.
Unavoidably true, though, was the fact that by the end of May, Mary’s abdomen appeared to recede. Mary’s doctors — likely terrified of delivering bad news — asserted that this was a sign of approaching labor. Still, the weeks passed and the truth became more and more obvious to everyone but the queen.
“She began to think that God was punishing her for not rooting out heresy with sufficient rigor,” writes Weir, and ordered that the burnings be stepped up. Masses and vigils were ordered for her safe delivery as the signs of pregnancy seemed to evaporate from Mary’s body.
“For weeks, she would lie in her bed without speaking, like one dead. Then she would sit for whole days on the floor, huddled up, with her knees against her face,” (a position nearly impossible for someone about to give birth). This dismal anecdote was reported by an ambassador, who got it from a paid spy, who got it from a midwife in the queen’s chamber. Perhaps the only thing that could make such devastation worse was having it so widely publicized. Just as everyone had first thrilled to the news of Mary’s pregnancy, they now jeered over each detail of her failure to produce an heir.
June and July passed. The doctors continued to extend their calculated due date, while supplies for the birth were slowly and discreetly packed away. In August, nearly a year after she’d first announced her pregnancy, Mary finally dismissed her nursery staff and left her chamber, childless.
This incident remains history’s most notorious and well-documented cases of pseudocyesis, or “false pregnancy.” It’s a complex and mysterious condition, but the short version is that a person can be so convicted in their desire for a child that the mind tricks the body into “thinking” it’s pregnant and acting accordingly. Hormones shift, menstruation stops, and the belly grows. Today, false pregnancies are usually diagnosed early on thanks to ultrasounds, but the condition still exists, occurring between 1 and 6 out of every 22,000 births.
Mary never acknowledged the pregnancy, or lack thereof, again during her lifetime. Indeed, two years later, she believed herself pregnant again. This time, there was no fanfare. Not even her husband made much effort at appearing convinced. Philip had left England the very month that Mary left her first confinement and only rarely visited. Mary insisted to all that she had “very sure signs” of pregnancy, and she may have been correct. But this time, the cause was less mysterious: Her periods had stopped because she had entered menopause. The following year, Mary died at 42, from what was probably uterine or ovarian cancer.
The rest is well-known history. Elizabeth took the throne, launching perhaps England’s most venerated reign. Mary descended into a legacy of bloodshed and humiliation — and not without good reason. Like her sister, Elizabeth would send hundreds to be executed, and she, too, would have no children. Yet, only Mary bore the shame for these offenses. While her sister became the gilded legend, she became the myth, the witch in the mirror, her arms forever outstretched and empty.