Mary Tudor was the only surviving child of Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon. In childhood, she was beloved by both her parents. Her father boasted that she was his “pearl of the world.” She was sent to live at Ludlow Castle in Wales at age nine. Her parents’ marriage began to crumble, and though Catherine fought for Mary’s rights, the young princess was ultimately declared illegitimate. She was no longer permitted to see her mother, who had also been sent away from court.
Meanwhile, Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn gave birth to a baby girl—rather than the longed-for son—in 1533. The infant was named Elizabeth after her grandmother and was promptly sent to live in the country house of Hatfield. The king ordered his older daughter Mary to serve in Elizabeth’s new household, which she resented, though she seems to have grown to love her baby sister. When the new princess was only two, Anne was accused of treason and executed. Her young daughter was left as the “Lady Elizabeth”—like Mary, she had become a motherless bastard.
Both Mary and Elizabeth were precocious, attractive young women. While Elizabeth was a young girl, they may even have remained friends. Elizabeth rode into London alongside Mary before the latter’s coronation. Their stark religious differences, however—perhaps exacerbated by Mary’s intense resentment of Elizabeth’s mother—ultimately undermined their relationship. Following rumors that dissatisfied Protestant nobles planned to replace Mary with her younger sister, Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower; she was later released and placed under house arrest. However, Mary named Elizabeth as her heir shortly before her death 1558, and on 17 November, Elizabeth became the Queen of England.
Mary’s brief, unsuccessful reign—including an unpopular foreign marriage, military defeats, and the persecution of Protestants—left her with the posthumous epithet “Bloody Mary.” Her sister, who reigned for nearly forty-five years, is still remembered as “Good Queen Bess,” “Gloriana,” and the “Virgin Queen.” Both women, however, led tragic and lonely early lives. Both were intelligent and devout, and both cherished the memories of the ill-fated mothers who had fought to protect them for the rest of their lives. They were buried together in Westminster Abbey, where the inscription reads: “Consorts in realm and tomb, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of resurrection.”