Queen Mary I of England was associated with pearls from the very earliest moments of her life as a royal princess. In July 1526, John Clerk, Bishop of Bath and Wells, called Mary “the pearl of the world” and “the jewel that his highness esteemed more than anything in earth,” while negotiations were taking place for her to marry the son of the French king. In his 1524 textbook, De institutione foeminae Christianae, Juan Luis Vives altered the Old Testament allegory of wisdom being more precious than jewels, or pearls, to teach his young pupil to appreciate and crave knowledge above material goods and earthly pleasures. This same pearl allegory was later applied to Mary by humanist Henry Parker, Lord Morley, in several of his book dedications to her. Later, Nicholas Udall called Mary a pearl among women in his dedication to Katherine Parr in The first tome or volume of the paraphrases of Erasmus vpon the newe testament (1548) and John Angel dubbed Mary a pearl of all Christian princesses in his Agrement of the Holy Fathers (1555). Even at her death, a ballad used a pearl analogy to represent Mary as an ideal humanist during her lifetime.
But Mary was not just allegorically compared to a pearl, she also frequently wore pearls and has come to be associated with one very specific pearl, La Peregrina (The Wanderer). At her wedding, Mary wore a brooch containing La Peregrina, which was a gift from her husband, Philip II of Spain. In 1554, Antonis Mor painted Mary sitting regally in a chair of red brocade, holding a red carnation in her right hand. Prominent in the center of the painting is her exquisite hanging pearl brooch. That same year, Jacopo da Trezzo, an Italian artists, designed and struck a portrait medal of the queen based on Mor’s painting, including the pearl. This same image was then used on coins produced during Mary’s reign. Thus, her image and association with pearls circulated in England, Europe, and even to Philip II’s expanding empire.
My newest book project will undertake to explore Mary’s connection with pearls. I plan to examine key moments in Mary’s life and reign through the lens of pearls, including how she was represented as a pearl in her youth, her love of pearls and jewelry to represent her royal status, the ways in which pearl allegories were applied to her queenship, pearls used in paintings and images of Mary, and finally her continued association with La Peregrina. I will suggest that through the lens of pearls we can better understand Mary’s life, image, reign, humanist education, her place in the Anglo-Habsburg empire, and eventually her posthumous reputation.
Images – photographs taken by author at The Tudors: Might and Majesty exhibition, Cleveland Museum of Art