The execution of Thomas Seymour in March 1549 by his own brother, the lord protector, has always posed a problem for the admirers of the Duke of Somerset. From the mid-1550s the sin of fratricide became an ugly spot on the emerging image of the Protestant “good duke”, and in the world view of the radical political theorist and Marian exile, John Ponet, “those that conspired the death of the two brethren” had to step in as villains. By the mid-20th century this group had narrowed down to one person, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. A Iago-like devil in Hester Chapman’s 1958 “non-fiction” biography of Edward VI, he acts alongside an angelic Somerset, who
had been very fond of the brother … he had spared – for far too long – the consequences of his mad ambitions; when at last he let the axe fall, Somerset was probably sure that he was right, immensely relieved, deeply unhappy and quite unaware how far Warwick was responsible for the split between himself and Seymour. As so often, it was a newcomer, a foreigner, who perceived the whole pattern. De Noailles, joining de Selve’s embassy, reported to Henry II that as soon as Seymour had irrevocably compromised himself, Warwick first urged Somerset to arrest him (it seems as if the Protector had thought of letting him leave the country) and then demanded his death as the price of England’s deliverance from civil war. ‘Il poussa l’affaire’, was the Frenchmen’s summing up; and it is the only one that is historically acceptable.1
Alas, to accept this scenario would imply to engage in a historical fake, for, as we shall see, Noailles’ dispatch never existed. This did not deter Edward VI’s most recent biographer, Chris Skidmore, to repeat that “the French ambassador had perceived that it was the earl who had first urged Somerset to arrest his brother, before demanding his death.”2 Indeed, if true, this French statement would not just constitute the only strictly contemporary claim about John Dudley’s alleged intrigues against Thomas Seymour but also the only one contained in diplomatic correspondence (as opposed to narratives and poems composed in hindsight). However, Antoine de Noailles never set foot in England before May 1553, four years later, and even then he did not write anything about earlier intrigues as he had enough to report on the events unfolding in that spring, summer, and autumn, not to speak of the following years.
Around 150 years later the House of Noailles left papers to the Abbé Vertot (1655 – 1735), a prolific French historian who prepared a collection of material, L’Histoire des négociations d’Antoine de Noailles, François de Noailles et de Gilles de Noailles, sous les règnes des derniers Valois. Parts of this were published as Ambassades de Messieurs de Noailles en Angleterre at Leyden in 1763, 28 years after his death. This five-volume edition of Noailles papers was introduced by Vertot’s own account of events in England, Scotland, and France during the 16th century, making up the entire first volume. The diplomatic correspondence only appears in the second, starting with Antoine de Noailles’ arrival in London in May 1553. As Vertot’s editors put it in 1763: “Il composa, sur ces dépêches, une introduction historique, qui forme le premier volume”.3
The source cited by Chapman and Skidmore is this first volume, based on Vertot’s manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale; the difference to the actual 16th century letters of the second volume is striking, and fine examples of Baroque historical wisdom abound: Those proud and haughty women, Henry VIII’s dowager queen and the protector’s wife, achieve not just to estrange their husbands but to divide the entire court: “Cette concurrence entre deux femmes fières & superbes, acheva de diviser les deux frères, & partagea toute la cour.”4 Enter
Jean Dudley, comte de Warvick d’une ancienne maison, étoit né avec un génie élevé, des vues étendues grand capitaine, habile courtisan peu scrupuleux sur la religion, & savant sur-tout dans l’art de former des cabales.5
High-spirited by nature, the great captain, able courtier, and consummate intriguer, under the pretext of serving the elder brother sees to the destruction of the younger, joyfully envisaging Somerset’s end follow on Thomas Seymour’s death and his own greatness arise from the brethren’s ruin. As if so much foreknowledge would not border on the miraculous in a young diplomat writing in early 1549, the authors who used the below portion of Vertot’s text as a primary source should at least have noticed that – other than stated – Warwick did not then receive back his office of Lord High Admiral, nor could he have acted as one of Seymour’s judges for the lack of a trial:
mais Warvick qui étoit un de ses juges & ennemi secret des deux frères, poussa l’affaire si vivement, sous prétexte de zèle pour l’aîné, qu’il perdit le cadet. On précipita le jugement sans regard à l’irrégularité des procédures: l’amiral fut déclaré criminel; il eut la tête tranchée. Warvick profitant de sa dépouille, fut revêtu de la charge de grand amiral, & il entrevit avec beaucoup de joye, dans la mort de Seymour la perte prochaine de Sommerset, & les fondemens de sa propre grandeur s’élever sur les ruines de la fortune des deux frères.6
1 Chapman 1958 pp. 136 – 137
2 Skidmore 2007 p. 108
3 Vertot I p. 6
4 Vertot I p. 132
5 Vertot I pp. 134 – 135
6 Vertot I p. 141
Ambassades de Messieurs de Noailles en Angleterre. Volume I. (ed. by Abbé Vertot, 1763) http://archive.org/details/ambassadesdemess01vert
Ambassades de Messieurs de Noailles en Angleterre. Volume II. (ed. by Abbé Vertot, 1763) http://archive.org/details/ambassadesdemess02vert
Chapman, Hester (1958): The Last Tudor King: A Study of Edward VI. Jonathan Cape.
Skidmore, Chris (2007): Edward VI: The Lost King of England. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.