Bloody Mary's would-be Essex escape

Mary Tudor

Mary Tudor - Credit: Getty Images

By Mica Bale

If you had to name a Tudor monarch, most people would think of King Henry VIII or perhaps his daughter Elizabeth I. However, did you know that one Tudor monarch no doubt had special memories of Essex? We look back at how Essex played an interesting role in the monarchy's past. 

On a balmy summer's evening in 1550, the future Queen of England looked out over the Essex estuary. The princess had a decision to make, one that would ultimately change not only her own life but also that of countless others. But what was Mary Tudor doing in 1550 on the Blackwater Estuary? 

As the oldest surviving legitimate child of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Queen Mary I’s accession to the throne was complicated. With six wives and countless young would-be princes and princesses born and sadly dying during his reign, Mary had just one problem: she wasn’t the prince and heir that King Henry so desperately hoped for.  

In the years that followed King Henry’s death, his throne was passed to his sickly son King Edward VI. Even from a young age, Edward knew that his reign would not be a long one and began to make plans for his heir. 

Interestingly, it was Essex that set the scene for an event that would ultimately see Mary Tudor crowned. The county had no doubt been a large part of her childhood. With royal residences of both her father’s and her mother’s based in the county, it is not difficult to imagine the young princess enjoying Essex’s finest landscapes. 

Mary Tudor was a staunch Catholic, but her younger brother and the King had followed his fathers footsteps to become a Protestant – a fact that caused young Edward and his advisors great concern. Reportedly, Mary wrote, ‘I would be far better out of the kingdom, because as soon as he were dead, before the people knew it, they would despatch me too’. Perhaps she was right. 

Across the Blackwater Estuary

Across the Blackwater Estuary - Credit: Frank Shepherd / Wikimedia

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With a precarious position, it was decided that Mary would flee England via the Blackwater to sympathetic relations and friends on the continent. Mary Tudor took shelter at Woodham Walter Hall (now sadly in ruins) not far from Maldon.  

From there, she consulted with imperial ambassador François van der Delft. The plan was to be a form of escape cum exile, which saw imperial warships begin to encrust the Essex coastline. Who knows how many stories were passed down through the generations of the night the warships were seen off the coast of Maldon? 

It cannot be known what prevented Mary Tudor from leaving her country on the 30 June 1550, with a last look at Essex to remember her kingdom, but one thing is certain, the future queen never left. The plan was scrapped, and the rest, as they say, is history. Just a few years later Mary Tudor became Queen Mary I but her connection to Essex would take a sinister turn. 

From the county that had once sheltered her before she attempted to flee its shores, Bloody Mary remembered many of its people with no such favour. Rather, her reign saw a series of persecutions against Protestants. 

The Colchester Martyrs, among many others, suffered at the hands of both Henry VIII and his daughter Mary. Countless individuals from all over Essex would be executed horribly. Weavers, apothecaries, sawyers, men, women – all members of Essex’s communities – were torn from their families, friends and livelihoods and slaughtered for their faith. 

Yes, Essex set the scene for what would have been Queen Mary’s last few moments on English soil, as she nearly decided to discard her crown and kingdom. However, in just a short space of time, our county would also pay a heavy price. Many people breathed their last breath far too early at Bloody Mary’s command. 

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