Who Was Bloody Mary? The Face Behind the Legend

Do you dare to say her name? | \”Bloody Mary\” – Short Film by Alexander Rönnberg
Do you dare to say her name? | \”Bloody Mary\” – Short Film by Alexander Rönnberg

Standing alone in a darkened room muttering Bloody Mary into the mirror isn’t just something we do the morning after too many vodka and tomato juices the night before. Since at least the second century CE, scare-seekers and the superstitious have been dabbling in catoptromancy (the act of divination using a mirror) for any number of divinatory reasons.

In Ancient Greece, sick people visiting temples would be instructed to look into a mirror. If a healthy-looking apparition stared back at them, they could expect a swift recovery; if the apparition appeared ghoulish it meant their days were numbered. In Edwardian Britain, young women would look for visions of their future husbands in candlelit mirrors. If he appeared, all was well and good. If a grim spectre appeared, it was divined she would die before she married. In Japan, the legend of Hanako-san (or “Hanako of the Toilet) shares many similarities with Bloody Mary. It involves a young girl, killed either during WWII air raids or by a parent or stranger, who appears in the mirrors of school bathrooms when you shout her name.

But the invocation of Bloody Mary—a blood-soaked spectre just as likely to be benign and scare you as to end up strangling you—is relatively recent. So who exactly do scare-seekers expect to come face-to-face with when they summon the spirit of Bloody Mary? Here are three historical contenders.


Bloody Queen Mary I of England (1516 – 1558)

Portrait of Bloody Mary I of England.

Queen Mary I of England was a woman of many firsts. She was the only offspring of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon to survive childhood. She was also England’s first queen regnant, meaning the first queen to rule in her own right rather than as the wife of a king. But what Mary I is most infamous is for being an ardent Catholic whose burning devotion to her faith earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary”.

Styled the blood queen of the English Reformation, Mary had at least 280 people burned at the stake for resisting her re-Catholicisation of England. These purges, known as the “Marian Persecutions”, targeted those who refused to renounce their Protestantism—a religious sect embraced by Mary’s father, Henry VIII, and his son and brief successor, Edward VI.

Unlike her father and brother, Mary had been raised a Catholic. And such was the fervour of her faith that not only did Mary execute those who refused to renounce their Protestantism, but she had people burned who did.

  Mary I facts and myths

Mary’s most famous victim was Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer actually renounced his protestant faith and re-embraced Catholicism after being made to stand trial. However, Mary had a personal score to settle. As Henry VIII’s advisor, Cranmer had been responsible for annulling her father’s marriage to her mother, Catherine of Aragon, paving the way for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. Cranmer had also been a passionate promoter of Protestantism under Mary’s predecessor, Edward VI.

So, in 1556, Mary condemned Cranmer to the flames, circumventing the Doctrine of Repentance which should, by rights, have saved him.

This illustration, taken from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, depicts the execution of John Rogers, the first Protestant martyr of Mary I's reign. History Answers

Even by the standards of the time, the burnings Mary oversaw were gratuitously nasty. They evoked hostility among the English population, further fanning the flames of anti-Catholic (and by extension anti-Spanish) sentiment.

Worse still, for Mary and her Catholic supporters they were all in vain. For upon Mary’s death, and the accession of her successor, Elizabeth I, England was steered back towards Protestantism. And so rather than a turning point in England’s sectarian history, Mary’s persecutions constituted a minor—though no less bloody—blip.

Mary was betrothed at the age of just two and married a series of powerful royals across Europe. But she was never able to produce an heir. When she was 37 she apparently became pregnant, displaying all of the symptoms. But she never gave birth. Medical experts now suggest she may have suffered from pseudocyesis: a condition that essentially ghosts a pregnancy by producing all the symptoms. Mary fell pregnant again but died, aged 42, during an influenza epidemic in 1558. It wasn’t influenza that got “Bloody” Mary I, though, but ovarian cysts or uterine cancer.

Bloody Mary Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587)

As the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his French queen, Mary of Guise, Mary Queen of Scots boasted a legitimate claim to both the Scottish and English thrones. She also enjoyed the support of Scotland’s long-time allies against the English: the French. The only problem was that the queen to the south happened to be the formidable Elizabeth I. Many refused to recognize Elizabeth’s legitimacy as queen because they did not Henry VIII’s marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn, as valid.

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots in all-white morning garb. Portrait by François Clouet, 1560. Wikimedia Commons

Mary suffered a dreadful second marriage to her cousin, Henry Stewart, the Earl of Darnley. In 1566, Stewart and a posse of renegade Protestant nobles set upon Mary’s Catholic secretary, David Rizzo, stabbing him 56 times as the startled, heavily-pregnant Mary looked helplessly on. Stewart met his own sticky end the following February, murdered in mysterious circumstances. Mary was believed to have been involved, in no small part because she went on to marry one of the main suspects, James Hepburn, the Earl of Boswell.

  The Sad, True Story Behind The Bloody Mary Mirror Legend

Believe it or not, Mary’s marriage to Hepburn was worse than her marriage to Stewart.

Hepburn essentially abducted her, holding her prisoner in Dumbar Castle as he waited to gather the support needed to lay his claim to kingship. The support never came, however. Instead, Hepburn was arrested and Mary was forced to abdicate the throne to her infant son, James. She raised an army and tried to take back power, but it was in vain. In 1568, Mary fled south to England, seeking sanctuary with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Rather than offer her hospitality, Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for 18 years. Her failure to kill her, however, provided Catholics with a figurehead to rally around and an alternative queen should the Protestant Elizabeth prematurely meet her maker. In 1586, letters were discovered implicating Mary in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth resulting in Mary being tried for treason and sentenced to death.

Woodcut drawing of Mary's execution. Luminarium

On February 8, 1586, the 44-year-old Mary was beheaded in Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire. Mary went to her death in a dignified, cheery manner, even making a joke about never having had such grooms to disrobe her in public. However, her executioner completely botched the job.

He failed to kill her with his first axe swing, digging it deep into the back of her head as she lay stretched out before the block. The second struck her neck but failed to sever her head. In the end, he was forced to slice away at the sinew attaching what was left of her head to her body.

He then held her head aloft and cried “God save the Queen”. But at that moment Mary’s short, grey-haired head dropped to the floor, and the shocked executioner was left holding on only her ginger wig.

Nor was this even the end of Mary’s farcical execution.

Mary’s small Skye terrier, which had been hiding behind its owner’s dress the whole time, refused to part with its recently deceased master. Soaked in blood, it remained beside her headless corpse until it was pulled away and washed.

Mary Queen of Scots Death Mask

Was Elizabeth Bathory Bloody Mary?

She might not be called Mary, but the violent deeds of Countess Erzébet Báthory (Elizabeth Bathory when anglicized) make her a strong contender for the figure of Bloody Mary. From her base in the now very-ruined castle of Čachtice in Slovakia, she sadistically tortured and brutally murdered anywhere between 100 and 650 young girls. Owing to the nature of our evidence, we’ll never know the exact number. If the figures are even conservatively accurate, however, this would make her the most prolific female serial killer in history.

Portrait of Elizabeth Báthory from Zay artist.

Did Bloody Mary bathe in blood?

Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) was better known as the “Blood Countess” because she used to bathe in the blood of her victims. She did this, we’re told, because of the belief that their blood would preserve her youthful appearance. It’s likely that she had already embarked upon such cruelty while her husband was still around. She was married to Ferenc Nádasdy, a Hungarian war hero who fought with distinction against the Ottomans and gifted her his family estate of Čachtice Castle for their wedding.

  Is Bloody Mary the same person as Mary Queen of Scots?

However, Nádasdy’s death in 1604 gave way to six years of unabated killings. After exhausting the local village’s supply of adolescent peasant girls, she started searching further afield. Bathory began inviting the wealthy daughters of minor aristocrats to Čachtice to be instructed in the arts of court etiquette. Rather than receive a courtly education, however, they were instead ritually slaughtered.

An investigation launched by the King of Hungary (but requested by concerned, recently daughterless aristocrats) found that, for years, Bathory had been committing the kind of atrocities that make “Game of Thrones” torture scenes look like child’s play. Some victims would be scalded with white-hot tongs before being dunked in freezing water. Others would be covered in honey and slowly devoured by ants. Some would be burned, mutilated, and even cannibalized. The luckier ones would merely be beaten to death.

On December 30, 1610, Bathory was finally arrested along with four female accomplices. They were put on trial, during which dozens of witnesses came forward to testify. Elizabeth’s accomplices were tortured and burned at the stake. But it was decided that the countess shouldn’t be put to death; doing so would only be detrimental to the reputation of the nobility.

Instead, it was decided Elizabeth would be walled up in Čachtice Castle, consigned to solitary confinement in a windowless cell where she would live out her four remaining years.

The macabre story of ‘Bloody Mary’ Bathory has been cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula”. And it still brings a fair bit of tourism to the area of Čachtice. Amongst the souvenirs available are bottles of “Bathory Blood” from the local winery.

Ruby red, naturally.

So who is Bloody Mary based on?

The answer depends on what kind of apparition you expect to see staring back at you. Mary I of England, a pallid figure bathed in the blood of burned protestants? Mary Queen of Scots, a headless, sinewy queen? Or Bloody Mary Bathory, a serial killer countess bathed in the blood of young women?

Whichever it is, you wouldn’t like to meet any of them in a dark alley, never mind see them staring back at you in your candle-lit bathroom mirror.

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