As Westminster Abbey and the Royal Family prepare for the coronation of King Charles III, popular imagination might be drawn to memories of the most recent King Charles, Charles II. The current King Charles’ namesake has multiples dates of accession to the throne: he was crowned in Scotland in 1651; after the Restoration, he backdated his reign to Charles I’s execution in 1649; and he was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1661. Why the multiple accession and coronation dates, though? Simply put, it is because England had, for these eleven years, a republic, led by the likes of Oliver Cromwell and his son, Richard. While this remembering of previous kings named Charles may be expected, what many may not know is the role which the legacy of Mary I’s reign played in the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660.
Mary I was England’s first crowned queen regnant. Born in 1516 and acceding the throne in 1553 upon the death of her brother Edward VI and the brief reign of Queen Jane, Mary I ruled until her death on 17 November 1558. Her reign is traditionally predominantly marked by her triumph over the Duke of Northumberland’s attempt to place Lady Jane Dudley on the English throne after Edward VI’s death (a consequence of Edward’s ‘Devise for the Succession’ which laid out whom he had chosen as his heir), her marriage to Philip II of Spain – whom she married at Winchester Cathedral on 25 July 1554 – and her religious policies, including the restoration of official Catholicism to England and the persecution of English Protestants. While Mary certainly set a precedent during her own lifetime and historians have increasingly re-examined her reign over recent decades, so far little research has been done on why Mary’s posthumous reputation developed as it did and why her reign needed revision. In the course of my doctoral research, though, what surprised me most was the way in which the legacy of Mary’s life and reign served as a challenge to the English Republic and ultimately helped to lead England back to a monarchy.
There are a few authors who are instrumental in using Mary’s legacy in order to challenge the English Republic, but perhaps the most interesting is Thomas Fuller and his The Church History of Britain; From the Birth of Jesus Christ, until the Year M.DC.XLVIII. . In this work, Fuller laid out an argument praising the triumph of dynastic succession in the summer of 1553. Fuller devotes five pages in his Church History to Edward’s ‘Devise’, noting that ‘though the streame of Loyalty for a while was violently diverted,[…] yet with the speediest opportunitie it recovered the right course again’ once Mary was proclaimed Queen. Fuller, however, overwhelmingly deplored Mary’s reign, leading to questions of why he would support dynastic legitimacy which was in favour of a monarch whom he hated.
The answer to that question is historical context. Fuller wrote this work in 1655, when England was a republic under the rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The longer Cromwell remained in power, the more he appeared as a monarch in all but title, living in royal palaces, using ‘Highness’ as a title, and wearing the trappings of monarchy. As Cromwell increasingly appeared to be a king in all but name, some looked to the Continent, to Charles II and his court in exile. In the context of this discussion of dynastic legitimacy, Fuller questioned why Jane Dudley should have become queen when a royal heir more directly related to the throne was available. In the context of the Republic, Jane can be perceived as a metaphor for Cromwell and Mary a metaphor for Charles II. Why should England accept Cromwell, a commoner-turned-quasi-monarch, when the nation could instead turn to Charles II, a royal with significant lineage? If England were to have a royal presence once again in all but name, then surely, some may have thought, that role of leader should be performed by England’s pre-existing exiled king, Charles II. In this reading of the sources, Fuller’s perception that Queen Jane had usurped Mary’s rightful spot in the line of succession is directly comparable to Fuller’s historical context in which he potentially saw Cromwell’s leadership of England as a usurpation of the monarchical powers rightfully held by Charles II. This question of dynastic legitimacy only grew when Parliament offered Cromwell the throne in 1657. Though this was an offer the Lord Protector ultimately rejected, likely because it would have presented a hypocritical situation, it nevertheless caused concern, as Fuller’s writing demonstrates.
In this offer of the crown to Cromwell, it becomes more apparent why Mary served as such an effective comparison for authors during the English Republic. While many worried in 1553 about her Catholicism and the influence she would have on England’s religious environment, supporting Mary’s claim rather than Jane’s spoke to the extent to which hereditary monarchy was remembered, in the 1650s, as having underpinned stability. While Mary may not have been English Protestants’ first choice, they nonetheless supported her claim to the throne because she was the natural heir, being the closest living relative to Edward. With the downfall of monarchy in 1649, this stability was somewhat lacking and Parliament may have felt inclined to adopt regal forms in relation to Cromwell as a way of ‘advertis[ing] a continuity which it held as necessary for legitimacy.’
If Parliament felt it was perhaps not the most legitimate authority, where did this authority sit? Why would authors of the English Republic be so concerned about a succession crisis which had been solved just over a century prior? I would argue that, as Cromwell increasingly became more monarchical, it was because many saw legitimate monarchical authority as existing already in Charles II and that authors of the English Republic looked to the historical events of 1553 as a way of consoling themselves of a rose-tinted time when succession and political leadership had perhaps seemed, in a sense, easier.
Fuller used memories of Mary’s reign and his own interpretations of her accession to the throne as a way of critiquing Cromwell’s quasi-monarchical status, setting a foundation for the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Fuller used Mary’s royal blood as a criticism of growing attempts to push the crown onto Cromwell’s head; surely if England were looking for a new monarch they would turn not to the seventeenth-century equivalent of Lady Jane Dudley but would look to their seventeenth-century Mary, embodied in Charles II.
In short, when Charles III is anointed in Westminster Abbey, perhaps he will be thinking of his predecessor, Charles II, and perhaps he – and the rest of us – should consider the role which Queen Mary I’s legacy played in challenging the English Republic and restoring the monarchy to England.
 Thomas Fuller, ‘The Eighth Book. Containing the Persecutions Under the Reign of Queen Mary’, in The Church History of Britain; From the Birth of Jesus Christ, until the Year M.DC.XLVIII (London: 1655), 1. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2240865144?pq-origsite=primo.
 Kevin Sharpe, Image Wars: Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603-1660 (London: Yale University Press, 2010), 538.
Author: Dr Johanna C.E. Strong
Bio: Johanna Strong recently completed her PhD at the University of Winchester under the supervision of Dr Ellie Woodacre and Dr Simon Sandall. Titled ‘The Making of a Queen: The Effect of Religion, National Identity, and Gender on Mary I’s Legacy in the English Historical Narrative’, Johanna’s PhD thesis examined the ways in which Mary I’s legacy was posthumously created and how this legacy was perpetuated through to the period of the English Republic.
Her research has been featured in two Winchester Heritage Open Days “Hampshire HistBites” episodes, on the Team Queens blog, with Tudors Dynasty, on the Tudor Society site, on the Talking Tudors podcast, and most recently in a series for Winchester Cathedral. Her first chapter was published in early 2022 in Valerie Schutte and Jessica S. Hower’s Writing Mary I: History, Historiography, and Fiction. She is currently co-editing a Royal Studies Journal cluster with Amy Saunders. If you’d like to follow Johanna’s research, she can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and her website.