20th century historians have not always been kind to Edward VI, the nine-year-old boy who followed his oversized father, Henry VIII, on the throne in 1547. The famous G. R. Elton, in his best-selling England under the Tudors, was positively abusive on the hapless teenager: ‟Edward played no part in his reign; … his character and views … were neither attractive nor promising. Edward was naturally haughty and arrogant, like all Tudors; also like his family, he had a marked intellectual ability which an appalling schooling had turned into a precocious passion for protestant theology. The king was a cold-hearted prig, a fact which even the pathos of his miserable death cannot make forget. Self-righteous, inclined to cruelty and … easily swayed by cunning men, he exercised such little influence as he possessed in favour of disastrous policies and disastrous politicians.“1 Against such fulmination, to be an ‟articulate puppet“2 is a friendly description – but is it a fair one?
The same 20th century also saw the King on the ‟threshold of power“ well before his death three months short of his 16th birthday;3 indeed by the standards of the time, at 15 he was old enough to be expected to assume full responsibility: Henry VI of England, Charles V, Charles’ father Philip the Fair and son Philip II, to name but a few, all achieved their majority aged between 14 and 16. In view of the fact that countless adult monarchs left day-to-day business and even pivotal decisions to their more or less gifted ministers, the question how much influence Edward really had is almost an academic one. One important – and often overlooked – aspect to understand is that he grew gradually into his office of king,4 and in contrast to some decades ago, today no serious historian would claim that ‟Edward played no part in his reign“.
During the royal minority the monarchical state did not cease to exist; according to Henry’s will a council of the late king’s executors was to rule in Edward’s name until his 18th birthday. Within days of Henry’s death, though, this provision was changed so that Edward’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour Duke of Somerset, should rule as Lord Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King’s Person (the latter function being performed in practice by Somerset’s brother-in-law, Sir Michael Stanhope, and by his wife’s stepfather, Sir Richard Page5). This hitherto unprecedented concentration of offices in one man was immediately opposed by the Protector’s younger brother, Thomas Seymour, and in early 1549 he tried to obtain the King’s help (and signatures) in a wild scheme to gain more power, an adventure which led to his execution. Already in the autumn of 1547 the letters patent which had established Somerset’s protectorate had been reissued with the clause that his authority would no longer cease on Edward’s 18th birthday, but at any point at the King’s pleasure. Also repealed was a 1536 statute that had allowed kings to ‟suppress by letters patent any statutes passed before they reached the age of twenty-four.“6 Obviously, this measure was intended to protect any reforms – for example of religion – passed during the minority years.
Protector Somerset loved to appear bedecked with the royal jewels7 and used the royal ‟we“, while Edward’s relationship with his Seymour uncles was at best distanced; the Protector did not take much note of him8 – and he was stingy: ‟my Unkell off Sumerset dealeth very hardly with me and keepeth me so strait that I cannot have money at my will.“9 Though Thomas Seymour was different (‟my Lord Admiral both sends me money and gives me money“10), he shot dead Edward’s little dog, and the young King quickly sensed that he was being exploited; in the words of Edward’s biographer Jennifer Loach:
Seymour’s relations with the king are significant, for they show that Edward, even when he was only ten or eleven, was one of the principal keys to power. Somerset was wise to keep his younger brother away from the king as far as he could. They also show that Edward was beginning to acquire a mind of his own, capable of recognizing the abundant dangers of the royal court.11
In the course of the investigations against Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour his royal nephew was likewise questioned, giving the following evidence:
In the month of September, Anno Dom. 1547, the lord admiral told me that my lord protector went to Scotland … and … that he spent a great sum of money in vain. At the return of my lord my uncle, the lord admiral said, I was too bashful in mine own matters, and asked me why I did not speak to bear rule, as other kings do. I needed not, for I was well enough. … The lord admiral came to me in the time of the last parliament at Westminster, and desired me to write a thing for him. I asked him what: He said it was none ill thing; … I said, if it were good, the lords would allow it; if it were ill, I would not write in it. Then he said they would take it in better part if I would write. I desired him to let me alone in that matter. … At another time … he said, ye must take upon you yourself to rule, for ye shall be able enough as well as other kings … for your uncle is old, and I trust will not live long. I answered, it were better that he should die.12
Edward still had to wait a few years for that to happen, but he became released from his uncle’s dominance quite soon. By October 1549 Somerset’s high-handed ways had alienated his colleagues so much that a revolt by the Privy Council was imminent; the Duke fled to Windsor Castle, taking Edward almost as a hostage. On the ride through the chilly autumn night the young King caught a cold and complained: ‟Methinks I am in prison, here be no galleries nor no gardens to walk in.“13 At Windsor Edward had to write a number of letters, to the rebellious lords,14 and to enlist support, one of them to his third Seymour uncle, Sir Harry15 (who was wise enough not to meddle in politics, however, and lived to an old age). Somerset claimed that the lords were seeking the King’s life, and Edward seems really to have been afraid; however, once his uncle had been outwitted and confined to another chamber, he adroitly welcomed the delegation sent by the Privy Council ‟with a merry countenance and a loud voice; asking how your Lordships did, when he should see you, and that you should be welcome whensoever you come“; he then allowed the gentlemen to kiss his ‟hands every one, much to their comfort.“16 Edward’s next task was to personally command the Duke of Somerset’s conveyance to the Tower of London.17
In a move to secure the English Reformation against a conservative reaction, in late 1549 Edward increased the number of Protestant-minded councillors – on the prompting of Archbishop Cranmer and the Earl of Warwick, but also ‟by my consent“, as he stressed.18 John Dudley Earl of Warwick was England’s new strong man – an old comrade-in-arms of Somerset’s, he had long been a principal ally of the Protector. He reinstituted the Privy Council as the actual governing body and made Edward to appoint him Great Master of the Household, which position gave him the control of the King’s surroundings. The Privy Chamber was duly reorganized and some of Edward’s courtiers came to the forefront, for example Sir Thomas Wroth, Sir Thomas Darcy, and Sir Andrew Dudley (the Earl of Warwick’s brother), later to be joined by Sir Henry Sidney and Sir John Gates. The Dudley brothers, John and Andrew, had always been among Edward’s favourite courtiers, or generals, rather, and he enthusiastically described their exploits in Scotland in his diary.19
When Warwick found out that the Duke of Somerset’s deadliest enemies were also his own, he brought about the Duke’s release and rehabilitation, and in June 1550 Edward greatly amused himself at the grand wedding between his cousin, Anne Seymour, and Warwick’s heir, also John Dudley. Despite the Seymour-Dudley marriage alliance, Somerset could not stomach the life of an ex-protector – although he was still one of the greatest in the land and a member of the Council and Privy Chamber. Disgruntled about Dudley’s policies, he surrounded himself with malcontents and engaged in continuous, if somewhat aimless, plotting to remove his rival. A united aristocratic front was essential to the regime’s stability, though, and so Dudley decided to strike first.20 On 11 October 1551 Edward created two new dukes, the Duke of Suffolk (father to his cousin Lady Jane Grey) and the Duke of Northumberland (John Dudley), and a few days later the Duke of Somerset – who had taken part in the festivities – was imprisoned in the Tower once again. Edward described his uncle’s trial on 1 December to his friend Barnaby Fitzpatrick, who was being educated in France:
The duke the first of this month was brought to Westminster Hall, where sat as judge, or high steward, my lord treasurer; 26 lords of the parliament went on his trial. Indictment was read, wich were several: some for treason, some for traitorous felony. The lawyers read how Palmer had confessed that the duke once minded to call the duke of Northumberland, the marquis of Northampton, and the earl of Pembroke to a feast, and so to have slain them. And to do this thing (as it was to be thought) he levied men 100 at his house at London … After debating of the matter from 9 o’clock to three, the lords went together, and there weighing that the matter seemed only to touch three lives, although afterward more inconvenience might have followed, and that men might think they did it of malice, acquitted him of high treason, and condemned him of felony, wich he seemed to have confessed. He hearing the judgment fell down on his knees and thanked them for his open trial. After he asked pardon of the duke of Northumberland, the marquis, &c. whom he confessed he meant to destroy, although before he sware vehemently to the contrary.21
Six weeks later, the King wrote an execution order for the Duke in his own hand and signed the death warrant.22 On 22 January 1552 he noted in his diary: ‟The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.“23 Countless writers have criticized this sentence as unfeeling and unbecoming to a nephew. We do not know what the 14-year-old Edward really believed or felt, though it is unlikely that he was much troubled by his uncle’s fate – which would be hardly surprising, there lacking any evidence of personal closeness. Of course with the Duke of Somerset becoming ‟the good Duke“ and a Protestant hero after Edward’s death,24 it was felt that his nephew should have behaved differently:
albeit the king gave no token of any ill discomposed passions, as taking it not agreeable to Majesty openly to declare himself … yet upon speech of him he would often sigh and let fall tears. Sometimes holding opinion that his uncle had done nothing; or if he had it was very small and proceeded from his wife rather than himself, and where then, said he, was the good nature of a Nephew, where was the clemency of a Prince? Ah, how unfortunate have I been to those of my blood. My mother I slew at my birth and since have made away two of her brothers.25
The two years between Somerset’s loss of power and his final downfall saw Edward growing into an ‟operational king“.26 In October 1551 the King informed a disobedient Lord Chancellor who had maintained that the signature of eight privy councillors on a document was insufficient, that ‟the number of councillors does not make our authority“. – ‟It should be a great impediment for me to send to all my council, and I should seem to be in bondage“, he angrily recorded in his diary – although he was prepared to forgive, striking the sentence through: ‟But by oversight it chanced, and not thinking the more the better.“27
While John Dudley ruled in the King’s name, in the words of Edward’s biographer Dale Hoak, ‟the secret of Warwick’s power was that he took Edward seriously. He knew that he must accommodate the boy’s keen intelligence and also his sovereign will … He quickly won Edward VI’s admiration, trust, and affection, and this helped defend him from the suspicion of others.“28 Edward had finally acquired a surrogate father,29 and according to a member of the French embassy the secret of Edward’s precocious speeches in council meetings lay in the fact that the Earl of Warwick ‟visited the King secretly at night in the King’s Chamber, unseen by anyone, after all were asleep. The next day the young Prince came to his council and proposed matters as if they were his own; consequently, everyone was amazed, thinking that they proceeded from his mind and by his invention.“ Of course, much more important to the frequently absent Warwick was to have Lord Darcy and Sir John Gates (‟my speciall frendes“) in the Privy Chamber, together with his son-in-law Henry Sidney, both Edward’s and his own intimate.30
Warwick behind the scenes also managed Edward’s political education: He employed the Clerk of the Privy Council, William Thomas, to secretly send Edward essays on political topics, ‟presented in a mild conspirational manner, designed to appeal to a 14-year-old.“ The purpose of these exercises was ‟to get Edward thinking about real issues, and persuading himself that he was making a full contribution to decisions.“31 One of Thomas’ papers on kingcraft cited Machiavelli’s maxim that a prince must always maintain a free hand.32
‟Appointed that I should come to, and sit at, Council, when great matters were in debating, or when I would“, the King wrote in his diary on 14 August 1551. The Council also supplied him with agendas of planned business, which Edward then annotated or copied out – for he loved to make lists.33 From around his 14th birthday on 12 October 1551 he regularly met his own Counsel for the Estate, ‟to hear debating of things of most importance“. The members of this new committee he had chosen himself: councillors, other administrators, judges, and the Earl of Warwick.34 It is important to realize, though, that Edward listened to more than one voice, and that John Dudley did not have his way in all things: for more than half a year he pressed in vain for the appointment of a new bishop to the vacant see of Durham; just a few days after he had decided that he was finally done with John Knox, the outspoken court preacher was awarded with a substantial annuity, continuing in high favour until the end of the reign. Occurrences of this kind can only be explained by the King’s real power.35 Indeed, even the extremely suspicious Imperial ambassador observed twice during 1552: ‟He is allowed a good deal of freedom“.36
Edward VI: The Renaissance Prince
1 Elton 1991 p. 202
2 Hoak 1980 p. 43
3 Alford 2002 p. 24; Jordan 1970 p. 531
4 Alford 2002 pp. 159 – 160
5 Hoak 2004
6 Loach 2002 pp. 54 – 55
7 Loach 2002 p. 40
8 Loades 2004a
9 Loach 2002 p. 55
10 Loach 2002 p. 55
11 Loach 2002 p. 56
12 Literary Remains I pp. 57 – 59
13 Tytler 1839 p. 242
14 Skidmore 2007 p. 144
15 Loach 2002 p. 89
16 Hoak 2004; Skidmore 2007 pp. 137, 147; Tytler 1839 p. 242
17 Loades 2004b p. 50
18 Skidmore 2007 p. 149
19 Loach 2002 p. 54
20 Hoak 1976 pp. 74 – 76; Loades 2004a
21 Literary Remains I p. 71
22 Jordan 1970 p. 100; Literary Remains II p. 390
23 Literary Remains II p. 390
24 MacCulloch 2001 p. 42; Hoak 2004
25 Loades 1996 p. 189
26 Alford 2002 p. 159
27 Hoak 2004; Alford 2002 p. 160; Literary Remains II p. 348
28 Hoak 2004
29 Loades 2004b pp. 88 – 89; Ives 2009 p. 133; Original Letters II p. 439
30 Hoak 2004
31 Loades 1996 p. 201
32 Hoak 2004
33 Loades 1996 p. 200 – 202; Hoak 1976 p. 124
34 Alford 2002 pp. 162 – 168
35 Loades 1996 p. 234
36 CSP Span 20 November 1552; CSP Span 14 January 1552
Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 10 – 1550–1552. (ed. Royall Tyler, 1914) http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=972
Literary Remains of King Edward the Sixth. (ed. G. J. Nichols, 1857). Roxburghe Club.
Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation. (ed. Hastings Robinson, 1847). Cambridge Universtiy Press.
Alford, Stephen (2002): Kingship and Politics in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.
Elton, G. R. (1991): England under the Tudors. Routledge.
Hoak, Dale (1976): The King’s Council in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.
Hoak, Dale (1980): ‟Rehabilitating the Duke of Northumberland: Politics and Political Control, 1549–53“ in: Jennifer Loach and Robert Tittler (eds.): The Mid-Tudor Polity c. 1540–1560. Macmillan.
Hoak, Dale (2004): “Edward VI (1537–1553)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Ives, Eric (2009): Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.
Jordan, W. K. (1970): Edward VI: The Threshold of Power. The Dominance of the Duke of Northumberland. George Allen & Unwin.
Loach, Jennifer (2002): Edward VI. Yale University Press.
Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.
Loades, David (2004a): ‟Dudley, John, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Loades, David (2004b): Intrigue and Treason: The Tudor Court, 1547–1558. Pearson/Longman.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2001): The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation. Palgrave.
Schulin, Ernst (1999): Kaiser Karl V.: Geschichte eines übergroßen Wirkungsbereiches. Kohlhammer.
Skidmore, Chris (2007): Edward VI: The Lost King of England. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Tytler, P. F. (1839): England under the Reigns of Edward VI. and Mary. Volume I. Richard Bentley.
Wolffe, Bertram (2001): Henry VI. Yale University Press.
First published on 28 June 2011 at thehistoryfiles.com