Edward VI – The Renaissance Prince

“If Henry VIII looked down from heaven upon his young son he would surely have found nothing in his surroundings or in his pastimes to surprise him.”1 A Henry VIII en miniature, Edward VI in his lifetime embodied normality: Growing up rapidly and presiding a vivacious court, he could have been expected to lead armies in person, to marry, and to father heirs of his body. Edward received a thorough and ingenious humanist training, alternating between a “Latin week” and a “Greek week” throughout 1550 and 1551. French visitors testified to his command of their language and claimed that he spoke Italian and Spanish (he is known to have possessed one popular Spanish book). Also included in Edward’s curriculum were geometry, mathematics, and astronomy, and an astrolabe was made for him, bearing the royal arms as well as those of his tutor (Sir John Cheke) and his chief minister (John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland). Scores of charts and globes were acquired for Edward – in 1549 a new world map made by the explorer Sebastian Cabot; it was displayed at a wall in Whitehall Palace.2 In May 1553, in a last high point of his life, Edward witnessed the departure of ‟England’s first officially sponsored voyage of discovery“, as he watched from a window Hugh Willoughby’s ships on their way to the Northeast Passage.3

Like his father, Edward VI was a great music-lover. The number of royal musicians grew substantially during his reign, not least the choristers of the Chapel Royal whose ‟children“ occasionally performed in his chamber. Edward also learnt ‟to play the virginalles“.4 He personally appeared in masques and plays, and in the early years of his reign needed extra small costumes tailored for him. The 1551 Christmas festivities had to be frequently adapted according to Edward’s wishes, to ‟his Majesty’s pleasure and determination“. More rustic entertainments were equally appreciated, the King being fond of tightrope walkers and ‟tumblers going upon their hands with their feet upward“.5

French and Italian visitors were amused by English court etiquette, finding it stifling and ridiculous: Dukes and earls knelt while serving their sovereign at the table (‟very strange“), and the King’s sister, the Lady Elizabeth, ‟knelt down before her brother five times before she sat down“.6 Of his performances as king, Edward enjoyed most the state visits of foreign dignitaries, like those of the Maréchal St. André and of Mary of Guise, the Scottish regent and mother of his onetime bride Mary Queen of Scots. The Maréchal came in July 1551 to invest the English sovereign with the Order of St. Michel (the French counterpart of the Order of the Garter).

He came to present the order of mons. Michael; where, after with ceremonies accustomed he had put on the garments, he and mons. Gié, likewise of the order, came, one at my right hand, the other at my left, to the chapel, where, after the communion celebrated, each of them kissed my cheek. After, they dined with me, and talked after dinner, and saw some pastime, and so went home again. … The same night mons. le marechal St. Andrew supped with me; after supper saw a dozen courses [a form of jousting] … The next morning he came to see mine arraying, and saw my bedchamber, and went a hunting with hounds, and saw me shoot, and saw all my guard shoot together. He dined with me, heard me play on the lute, ride, came to me in my study, supped with me, and so departed to Richmond.7

The celebrations continued absolutely magnificent, partly held at ‟banqueting houses“ and pavilions in Hyde Park; Edward, tongue-in-cheek, expressed his sympathy with the truly fat resident French ambassador who, ‟not finding the delicacies of France in this country“, would lose weight, an eternal reproach to the King of England.8 A few months later Edward sent his new bride, the French princess Elisabeth de Valois, ‟a fair diamond“.9

Court life was extravagant, the staff increasing throughout the reign despite general cuts in government expenses in the early 1550s. Edward enjoyed playing cards, tennis, chess, and other games, and to lose money that way.10 The King was also an inveterate huntsman; an Italian guest wrote that this way he had ‟an excuse to ride, because his men, out of fear for his life, often seem to keep rather a tight rein on him in this area“.11 He practised fencing and archery, and of course was fascinated by tournaments and jousting; in 1551, aged 14, he participated ‟with sixteen of my chamber“ at running at the ring and similar contests.12 His diary is full of result listings:13

17 [ January 1552]. There was a match run between six gentlemen of a side at tilt.

      Of one side.
      The earl of Warwick.
      The lord Robert.
      Mr. Sidney.
      Mr. Nevill.
      Mr. Gates.
      Antony Digby.
    These won by 4 taints.
      Of the other side.
      The lord Ambrose.
      The lord Fizwater.
      Sir Francis Knollys.
      Sir Antony Browne.
      Sir John Perrot.
      Mr. Courtney.

In 1550 and 1552 Edward went on progresses, and there survives a travelling coffer of his at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.14 On 22 August 1552 he wrote “to our trusty and welbeloved servant Barnaby Fitzpatrick” in France:

being now almost in the middle of our journey which we have undertaken this summer, we have thought good to advertise how since our last letters dated at Greenwich, we departed from and toward a thing far contrary to that wherein, as we perceive by your diligent advertisement, you and all the country you are in, are occupied. For whereas you all have been occupied in killing of your enemies, in long marchings, in pained journeys, in extreme heat, in sore skirmishings, and divers assaults, we have been occupied in killing of wild beasts, in pleasant journeys, in good fare, in viewing of fair countries, and rather have sought how to fortify our own than to spoil another man’s. And, being this determined, came to Giuldford, from thence to Petworth, and so to Coudray, a goodly house of Sir Anthony Browne’s, where we were marvellously, yea rather excessively, banqueted.

A connoisseur also of fortification works, Edward had great plans:

From thence we went to Portsmouth town, and there viewed not only the town itself, and the haven, but also divers bulwarks … In viewing of which we find the bulwarks chargeable, massy, well-rampaired; but ill-fashioned, ill-flanked, and set in unmeet places, the town weak in comparison of that it ought to be, too huge great (for within the walls are fair and large closes, and much vacant room), the haven notable great, and standing by nature easy to be fortified. And for the more strength thereof we have devised two strong castles on either side of the haven, at the mouth thereof. … From thence we went to … Southampton town. The citizens had bestowed for our coming great cost in painting, repairing, and rampairing of their walls. The town is handsome, and for the bigness of it as fair houses as be at London. The citizens made great cheer, and many of them kept costly tables.15

Royal Supremacy

At his coronation the nine-year-old Edward was hailed as “a second Josias” by Archbishop Cranmer; when the King was 12 the Imperial ambassador claimed that ‟in the court there is no bishop, and no man of learning so ready to argue in support of the new doctrine as the King … and this seems to be a source of pride to his courtiers that the King should … choose for himself who shall preach.“16 As he listened to those sermons he wrote down “every notable sentence, and specially if it touched a king”. When he was 11 he composed a treatise in French against the Pope, “the true son of the devil, a bad man, an Antichrist and abominable tyrant”. Edward believed firmly in the doctrines of salvation by faith alone and predestination.17 Still, the sense of his royal supremacy was highly developed and at least as important to him as purely dogmatic aspects.18 An early taste of this was given in June 1550 when, at the consecration of Bishop Hooper, he spontaneously struck through with his pen all references to saints from the form of the oath, thus altering the “theology of the English Church” without recourse to any parliament.19

A major challenge to Edward and his government turned out to be his half-sister Mary, heir apparent to the throne and 21 years his senior. She was unwilling to give up the mass, which she used to have celebrated in great style before her household even in her absence, let alone allow the use of the Common Prayer Book in her residences (as prescribed by Parliament in early 1549). Mary declined to respect this “late law of your own making … which in my conscience is not worthy to have the name of law”, thus choosing for herself which law to obey, and which not.20 Mary of course could only behave like this knowing that her cousin, the Emperor Charles V, championed her cause, and because the English could not risk to alienate the Habsburgs due to vital trade interests. No government however could grant ‟a formal dispensation to ignore an Act of Parliament”;21 in the end the Council was prepared to concede that she hear mass with three or four ladies in her chamber, but without her household.22 This was unacceptable to Mary and she continued to plead her conscience and maintained that Edward was too young to understand matters of religion, and that he should not “be robbed of freedom by laws and statutes on spiritual matters passed during his minority”.23 She was effectively arguing that during a minority the government and parliament had no authority to decide on important issues – Mary had no point, though, for constitutionally the king never was under age; he “is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness … no Act which the King does as King, shall be defeated by his Nonage”, said the Tudor Crown jurists.24

Increasingly annoyed at this encroachment on his authority, the 13-year-old monarch berated Mary at Christmas (while assuring her he would not harm her),25 and on 28 January 1551 wrote a long letter to her:

After giving all due consideration to the matter, it appears to us to stand as follows: that you, our nearest sister, in whom by nature we should place reliance and our highest esteem, wish to break our laws and set them aside deliberately and of your own free will; and moreover sustain and encourage others to commit a like offence. … My sister, you must learn that your courses were tolerated when our laws were first promulgated, not indeed as a permission to break the same, but so that you might be inclined to obey them, seeing the love and indulgence we displayed towards you. We made a difference between you and our subjects, not that all should follow our ordinances, and you alone disregard them, but in order that you should do out of love for us what the rest do out of duty. The error in which you persist is … so great that for the love we bear to God we cannot suffer it, but must strive to remedy it; nor can we do otherwise than desire you to amend your ways, for the affection we bear you. In the first place, you are using and perpetuating the use of a form of worship to the honour of God, which in truth is more like dishonour; and you err in this … through lack of knowledge. Knowledge was offered to you, and you refused it; not as such, we hope, for then we should indeed despair of you, but because you did not hold it to be true knowledge. … We now offer to hear all you have to say, you and your partisans, if you are conscienciously opposed to our laws. You shall be permitted to speak frankly, and what you or they have to say shall be listened to, provided you undertake to listen to the answers and debates that shall ensue. … It is our duty to watch over the welfare of each one of our subjects as each ought to watch over himself. You would be angry to see one of the servants of your household, of those nearest to you, openly disregarding your orders; and so it is with us, and you must reflect that in our estate it is most grievous to suffer that so high a subject should disregard our laws. Your near relationship to us, your exalted rank, the conditions of the times, all magnify your offence. It is a scandalous thing that so high a personage should deny our sovereignty; that our sister should be less to us than any of our other subjects is an unnatural example; and finally, in a troubled republic, it lends colour to faction among the people. … If you did not do as the others are ordered, would it not be evident that you were no good subject? Would it not be made notorious to all that you would not be acknowledging us as your sovereign lord? And if we were to grant you license to break our laws and set them aside, would it not be an encouragement to others to do likewise?

[In Edward’s own hand] … I think of doing what is meet in the matter, and in accordance with the will of God, as my duty binds me to do, and see to it that my laws be loyally carried out and observed. I could not suffer it to … support some with favour whilst others are justly punished. Truly, sister, I will not say more and worse things, because my duty would compel me to use harsher and angrier words. But this I will say with certain intention, that I will see my laws strictly obeyed, and those who break them shall be watched and denounced.26

Edward also suggested a meeting, and on 17 March 1551 the princess met King and Council: Mary brought up the usual arguments of her conscience and that Edward as a minor could not decide on matters of religion, that “riper age and experience would teach him much more yet”; Edward retorted that “she also might still have something to learn, for no one was too old for that”.27 The unpleasant encounter ended with Mary urging the King “to take away her life rather than the old religion“, to which he responded ‟quickly that he wished for no such sacrifice.”28

The next round came only two days later when the Imperial ambassador visited the Council and read out a formal threat of war from the Emperor, in case the Lady Mary was not allowed her mass in the accustomed way. The Emperor was not in a position to go to war29 (although he would gladly have seen England liberated from both Edward and “his pernicious governors”30). Still, the ministers were apprehensive and, kneeling, tried to make clear to Edward that policy must sometimes go before principle; but Edward would not yield, “neither would agree to it at any king’s or kaiser’s entreat”. Archbishop Cranmer and Bishop Ridley explained that ‟licence to sin was sin, to suffer and wink at it for a time might be borne“. Almost reduced to tears by his councillors, the King remained unconvinced; the struggle with Mary and the Emperor’s ambassadors went on for months, until August 1551, when John Dudley told the Imperial ambassador that Edward now “wished to concern himself with all the affairs of the kingdom” and that “he held the King to be as much of age as if he were forty”.31

Meanwhile even Charles V had tired of the issue, suggesting that Mary be satisfied with hearing “mass privately in her house, without admitting of any strangers”,32 and indeed some compromise on that line was found. Relations improved and Mary visited the court in June 1552.33 In February 1553 she was treated by the Council “as if she had been Queen of England”. The King, who was sick, “received her very kindly and graciously, and entertained her with small talk, making no mention of matters of religion.”34 But then Edward had already made up his mind.

continued at
Edward VI: The Wills of a King

continued from
Edward VI: Growing Into His Own

1 Loach 2002 p. 158
2 Hoak 2004
3 Loades 2004; Loades 1996 p. 238
4 Loach 2002 pp. 148 – 149; Hoak 2004
5 Loach 2002 pp. 152 – 153
6 Loach 2002 p. 144
7 Literary Remains II pp. 331 – 333
8 Loach 2002 p. 143; Scépeaux p. 340
9 Loach 2002 p. 108
10 Loach 2002 pp. 141, 158
11 Loach 2002 pp. 154 – 155
12 Loach 2002 pp. 156 – 157
13 Literary Remains II p. 389
14 Hoak 1976 pp. 106, 277
15 Literary Remains I pp. 81 – 82
16 Loach 2002 p. 130; Hoak 2004
17 Hoak 2004
18 Loach 2002 pp. 133 – 134
19 MacCulloch 2001 p. 36
20 Loades 2006 p. 75
21 Loades 2006 p. 78
22 Loach 2002 p. 130
23 Jordan 1970 p. 259
24 Kantorowicz 1981 pp. 4, 7
25 Jordan 1970 pp. 259 – 260
26 CSP Span 28 January 1551
27 Loach 2002 p. 132
28 CSP Span 6 April 1551
29 Loach 2002 p. 132
30 Loades 1996 p. 168
31 Loach 2002 pp. 132 – 133; MacCulloch 2001 pp. 38 – 39; Literary Remains I p. ccxxviii
32 Skidmore 2007 p. 188
33 Jordan 1970 pp. 263 – 264
34 CSP Span 17 February 1553

Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 10 – 1550–1552. (ed. Royall Tyler, 1914): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=972

Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11 – 1553. (ed. by Royall Tyler, 1916): http://www.british-history.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=973

Literary Remains of King Edward the Sixth. (ed. G. J. Nichols, 1857). Roxburghe Club.

Mémoires de la vie de François de Scépeaux, Sieur de Vieilleville. Volume I. (ed. C. B. Petitot, 1822)

Hoak, Dale (1976): The King’s Council in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.

Hoak, Dale (2004): “Edward VI (1537–1553)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Jordan, W. K. (1970): Edward VI: The Threshold of Power. The Dominance of the Duke of Northumberland. George Allen & Unwin.

Kantorowicz, E. H. (1981): The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Thought. Princeston University Press.

Loach, Jennifer (2002): Edward VI. Yale University Press.

Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.

Loades, David (2004): ‟Dudley, John, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553)“. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Loades, David (2006): Mary Tudor: The Tragical History of the First Queen of England. The National Archives.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid (2001): The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation. Palgrave.

Skidmore, Chris (2007): Edward VI: The Lost King of England. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

First published on 6 July 2011 at thehistoryfiles.com

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Edward VI, John Dudley, religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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