Bloody Mary was not especially bloody

Queen Elizabeth I was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 to 1603. She’s remembered today mostly for two competing sobriquets: her own, “the Virgin Queen”, and her sister’s, “Bloody Mary”. Both of these sobriquets are misleading.

The first is a simple change of definition. Queen Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen because she never married, not because she never had sex. Nobody in 16th century England was going around publicly speculating about whether Queen Elizabeth had sex with anyone, at least not anyone who wanted to keep their head1. Her being unmarried was much more important, not least of which because it left her simultaneously the head of the English empire and a prize to be won. The idea of separating out sex and marriage (i.e. being a virgin and being unmarried being two separate things) is more of a modern concern.

The second sobriquet is more subtly misleading. Bloody Mary was named that because she killed 280 Protestants in an attempt to reverse the Reformation, and turn England Catholic again. This is probably what you’d expect from someone called “Bloody”, so you might be wondering why this is misleading at all.

Well, it’s less because of who this was applied to, and more because of who it wasn’t applied to: anyone else. Take Elizabeth, for example. Elizabeth had a lot of blood on her hands. Elizabeth starved an estimated 30,000 people to death in her scorched earth war against the rebellious Irish peasants. Or, take her predecessor, Edward VI, who killed 3000 peasants and hanged the rest for the crime of not wanting their common land to be fenced off. Both of them killed a fair number of people.

The Irish that Elizabeth killed were Catholic. The peasants that Edward VI killed were Protestant. Neither of them were ever called bloody, either in their own time or in ours. They weren’t called bloody because being bloody only applies to rulers when they kill important people. The people that Elizabeth and Edward killed were, by and large, poor, nameless peasants2, and killing a poor, nameless peasant isn’t considered a heinous crime in the same way that killing someone with a Wikipedia page is, especially if you yourself have a Wikipedia page.

I’m being somewhat facetious here, but I think there’s something to this, even in the present day. Take, for example, the “conspiracy theory” that Bill and Hillary Clinton have had people killed for political reasons. Now, if you look this up on Wikipedia, it’ll tell you that this is false, because there’s no proof that Bill or Hillary ever killed any of their political aides. 

But that’s a red herring. I doubt Bill and Hillary have ever killed any of their political aides, but I have zero doubt they’ve killed people for political reasons. It’s a matter of public record. For example, Bill Clinton sent out American soldiers to bomb Iraq for 4 days, without a declaration of war or even a valid pretext for war, as a distraction from his impeachment hearings. 

These bombings killed or wounded somewhere between 242 (according to the Iraqis) and 1400 (according to the Americans) Iraqi “military personnel”, which, by definition, includes the janitors who swept the floors of Iraqi bases. These bombings accomplished nothing but interrupting television proceedings of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. In other words, they were entirely for political reasons.

But, somehow, we forget about those people. That’s because killing anonymous “military personnel” is ok. It’s ok in the same way that “collateral damage” in George Bush’s war in Iraq was ok, or Obama and Trump’s “mowing of the grass” by drone striking suspicious trucks in Pakistan and Yemen was ok. Rulers, throughout history, have been considered tyrants if they oppress or kill important people, but killing the nameless has never a tyrant made.

There’s some part of me that wants to blame this on the West specifically or the type of people who tend to end up as rulers, or even formal systems of government. But I think there’s also something more innate to human nature at work.

I’ve been replaying Fallout: New Vegas recently. For those of you who aren’t gamers, it’s a videogame in which you’re thrust into a post-apocalyptic future, one in which the Soviets and Americans successfully nuclear bombed each other into oblivion and the remnants of humanity are left to rebuild civilization after the fallout (hence the name).

The post-apocalyptic world you’re thrust into is alternately grim and grimly funny, sometimes grounded in bloody reality and sometimes featuring negotiations with rusty sex robots. Most importantly, however, it puts the idea of player choice at the front and center of every event. You can save the wasteland, take over the wasteland, impose peaceful order on the wasteland, cut a bloody swathe across the wasteland, or any combination of the above.

This emphasis on player choice is pretty standard for a roleplaying game. Fallout: New Vegas is just an exemplar and the game that happens to be top of my mind at the moment. You can play whatever role you’d like, including a mustache-twirling villain who launches nukes on innocent cities just for the fun of it.

Or, at least, I assume you can, as the game gives you the option for doing so. I actually never manage to be that evil. Whenever the game presents me with an ethical dilemma, I almost always pick the one that seems the most good. Even when the game’s villain offers me thousands of bottle caps (the post-apocalyptic currency) to betray my friends, I still can’t quite bring myself to pick that option.

However, I have zero qualms about being “evil” in the game outside of ethical dilemmas. If an unnamed character with one voice line has a cool gun I want, I’ll kill them when nobody is looking and take the gun. Or, if someone has some very precious item in their house, I’ll steal it from right under their nose and not think twice about it, even as the game pops up dialogues telling me I’m losing karma and becoming known as a thug.

It’s just hard for me to take that sort of evil seriously. These unnamed NPCs and people with items in their house that they have not been programmed to use just don’t seem like real people to me. Whatever empathy meter in my head that makes it impossible for me to participate in a digital Milgram experiment doesn’t register for videogame characters that I can’t have an emotional connection with before or after their death.

And that’s maybe what it was like for Queen Elizabeth ordering the deaths of peasants, or Bill Clinton ordering the death of the dishwasher for the Iraqi army mess hall, or Barack Obama ordering the drone strike of a 14 year old son of a terrorist. They didn’t hear from them before they killed them, and they didn’t hear from them after, so it didn’t seem real either way.

So Bloody Mary is bloody for killing the archbishop of Canterbury even after he publicly converted to Catholicism. Mohammed Bin Salman is “Mohammed Bone Saw” for ordering the assassination of a journalist in an embassy. The people they killed had voices before they died, and those voices echoed after they died, and so killing them was a crime. But killing the voiceless is just hard to empathize with.


This was a popular topic for private speculation among her courtiers, though.


Nameless to history, not to each other, presumably. Similarly, I assume the survivors of these massacres cursed these rulers but never wrote it down in history books.