Saturday, 12 October 2013

Edward VI, king of England

Above: Edward VI, portrait by William Scrots, c. 1550.

On this day in history, 12 October 1537, Henry VIII's third wife Jane Seymour gave birth to her only child, Edward, at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. After twenty-eight years, the beginnings of the Reformation, a brutal and excruciating break from the Roman Church and the rejection of two queens, Henry finally had what he believed was essential to preserving peace and stability in England: a male heir. Tragically, however, Jane's efforts were ultimately fatal, for 12 days later, she died aged twenty-nine, a common fate of Tudor women. Henry apparently wept with joy when he held the baby Edward following his birth.

From the onset Edward was accorded a lavish lifestyle and excellent education afforded by his rank and status. He was initially placed in the care of Lady Margaret Bryan, who had also served his elder sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, during their childhoods. Until the age of six Edward was brought up 'among the women', although he was later taught by Richard Cox, Roger Ascham and John Cheke, as well as others, who instructed him in languages, philosophy, scripture, mathematics, music and liberal sciences. During these years he was close to his sisters, particularly Mary - despite the age difference of twenty-one years - and he is known to have informed her in a letter written aged nine: 'I love you most'.

Henry's marriage to Katherine Parr in 1543 changed Edward's life somewhat, for she became the only mother Edward had ever really known. As Dale Hoak writes: 'Queen Katherine brought Edward and his sisters into the royal household as members of an intimate family, providing Edward especially with an affection and attention that found endearing reflection in his frequent letters to her'. Her Protestant faith probably also had an important influence on Edward's religious beliefs and experiences. Under the influence of his Cambridge-educated humanist tutors, at an early age Edward was brought up in the Protestant religion.

On 28 January 1547, Henry VIII died aged fifty-five, and Edward, only nine years of age, became England's king. On Sunday 20 February, Edward was crowned at Westminster Abbey in a lavish coronation, wearing a crimson satin robe trimmed with gold silk lace, before showing himself to his people dressed in white velvet and cloth of silver and gold, set with patterned knots of diamonds and pearls. Because of the king's youth, it was arranged that the 16 executors named in Henry's will should act in a Regency Council on behalf of Edward until he reached the age of 18, when he would rule independently. However, the will was ignored and Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, uncle of the king, became Protector of the Realm. The Council was Protestant-dominated following the removal of Catholic figures such as Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester. Somerset was reported to 'govern everything absolutely' following his promotion.

A history of Edward VI's reign from the perspective of the king himself is difficult, for he died only fifteen before he could fully assume the mantles of government and kingship. As such, a history of his reign can be regarded as a history of Somerset's, and later Northumberland's, rule. During the early years of Edward's rule the Protestant Reformation was fully inaugurated in England. Archbishop Cranmer encouraged the king to destroy idolatry, particularly in the form of images. In July 1547 candles and shrines were banned, and by February 1548 stained-glass images and in wood and stone had gone the same way. Windows were reglazed, while chantries, processions, mystery plays, maypoles, church ales, and medieval rituals disappeared. It was an austere and forbidding environment.

In 1549, the first real challenge to Edward's rule appeared in what has come to be known as 'the year of rebellions'. These were motivated not solely by religious conservatism, but also by social unrest. By the early summer, a series of armed revolts broke out, the worst of them taking place in the southwest (Devon and Cornwall) and in Norfolk. The Prayer Book Rebellion, occurring in Devon/Cornwall, was motivated by hostility to the Protestant Reformation, while the Norfolk uprising occurred due to the encroachment of landlords on common grazing ground. Although Somerset appeared sympathetic to the rebels, the uprisings were eventually quashed, but the rebellions were perceived to be indicative of an unstable and corrupt government, thus setting the seeds for Somerset's eventual downfall.

By the autumn of 1549 Somerset was in real trouble and he was arrested in October. Edward showed little regret and did not lift a finger to save his uncle or restore his authority. In February 1550 John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, became the leader of the Council in Somerset's place. Eventually, Somerset was executed in 1552 following his initial release from the Tower of London. The only thing which Edward had to say about the affair was made in his diary: 'the duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o'clock in the morning'. This passage perhaps supports the view of the king as a cold, unfeeling figure, who did nothing to support his uncle.

Northumberland was far more appropriate as Protector than Somerset. His administrative and economic achievements, in particular, have oft been recognised by modern historians. During these years, as he aged, Edward became more closely involved in government. The degree of his actual involvement has been controversially debated, but it seems possible that his greatest influence came in the field of religion, as the Protestant Reformation continued to flourish. Hoak believes that 'at fifteen [he was] an exceptionally capable student who was following, not directing royal affairs'. The king was depicted as a young Josiah, a godly king appointed by God to rid England of idolatry and superstition and restore truth to the realm. In context, Edward's relationship with his sister Mary became increasingly contentious, for her Catholic religion was abhorrent to him.

By February 1553, the fifteen-year old Edward, after barely six years on the throne, became seriously ill. The previous year he had fallen ill with measles and smallpox. Historians still debate what it was that killed him, with conflicting ideas of tuberculosis (consumption) or a pulmonary infection which led to septicaemia and renal failure. But it is also known that measles suppresses immunity to tuberculosis. By March, a Venetian envoy confirmed that the king was slowly dying.

Around this time, Edward drafted a 'Devise' for the English succession. Since he had never married nor fathered children, the crown by law on his death would pass to his eldest sister, the thirty-seven year old Mary. But her Catholic religion rendered her an unacceptable queen in the eyes of both Edward and his Council. In this line of thinking, if the crown should not pass to Mary, then it should go to twenty-year old Elizabeth, who, suitably, was a Protestant. But Edward subscribed to his father's will, which did not legitimate either sister - both were, despite their places in the succession, still officially bastards. Passing over the claims of his half-sisters, Edward instead willed that the crown should go to his cousin Lady Jane Grey, who was both legitimate and a Protestant.

Many historians formerly believed that Northumberland directed the whole 'Devise', because one of his sons Guildford was married to Lady Jane in May 1553, meaning that, by having a son on the throne of England, he would conceivably be the real power behind the throne. But this is an unlikely view in view of Edward's personal zeal and involvement in the affair, suggesting it was motivated by his own wishes, and in view of that Jane only married Guildford in May when the events behind the 'Devise' probably started a few months earlier.

On 1 July, Edward made his final appearance in public when he showed himself at his window in Greenwich Palace, horrifying onlookers with his 'thin and wasted' appearance. On 6 July, he died, three months before his sixteenth birthday. On 8 August he was buried in Henry VII Lady Chapel within Westminster Abbey.

Edward's reign was too short and his death at an early age means that is very difficult to tell what sort of king he would have become had he lived longer. But his greatest legacy was undoubtedly that of the Protestant Reformation, which was continued by his sister Elizabeth following Queen Mary's unsuccessful attempt at restoring Catholicism to England. Dale Hoak concludes his article with the passage:

'Edward's youth and unfulfilled promise have given rise to a number of misconceptions. But in one respect, at least, image and achievement have been found to coincide, in the perception of his image as having seen the foundations laid, with his encouragement, of one of the greatest transformations of English society and English-speaking culture, namely the Protestant Reformation'.


  1. Thank you very much for your articles. I am so glad you are making a point to address so many of these Tudor misconceptions. I am also a history major, and take your approach to not seeing what you want to see--but what is reality as refreshing. I thank you for being judicial, without compromising fact. Please don't ever change that. I also appreciate your in-text citations. I particularly enjoyed your article on Katherine Howard. I tried to relate this to a Tudor fan page I admin for, but met only skepticism.
    University of North Georgia

    1. Thank you very much for your comment Carly, it's very kind of you to say. I am sorry you met scepticism - unfortunately these misconceptions have become so entrenched that people often regard them as truths, when frequently they are, in fact, nothing of the kind. Thank you again for your kind words.