Mary I of England (1516-1558) has gone down in history as “Bloody Mary”, a merciless tyrant who butchered a countless number of Protestants in an attempt to restore the Catholic Faith to her country. However, many historical events, particularly those which deal with religious unrest, are not always recorded properly. It is very likely that Bloody Mary was not nearly as bad as history has made her out to be.
The main record of the executions during Mary’s reign is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. John Foxe (1517-1587) was a historian who left England during Mary’s reign and who refused to return until he was certain that Elizabeth was promoting Protestantism. His book, which was first published in 1563, claimed that Mary executed two hundred and seventy-three Protestants during her five-year reign (1553-1558). When Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was examined in modern times, however, it was discovered that one hundred and sixty-nine of the “martyrs” were common criminals who would have been executed whether they were Protestant or not. This means that “Bloody Mary” executed only one hundred and four people solely because they were Protestants.
In contrast, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) executed a total of one hundred and eighty-nine Catholics in England alone. It is not known how many Catholics died in Ireland during her reign.
Mary and Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII (1491-1547), was worse than both his daughters combined when it came to executions for religious reasons. In 1537, Henry violently massacred one hundred and fifty men who took part in an uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The men were led by a lawyer named Robert Aske (1500-1537).
The uprising was started for several reasons including Henry VIII’s controversial marriage to Anne Boleyn and, more importantly, the dissolution of monasteries and the mass murder of priests and religious.
After Henry promised to grant amnesty to the men and to listen to their complaints, he went back on his word and executed every member of the Pilgrimage of Grace, including Robert Aske, during July of 1537.
Before his death, Henry executed another four hundred and ninety-nine Catholics including Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher.
Source: Carroll, Anne W. “Christ the King, Lord of History”