Edward VI – The Wills of a King

On 1 March 1553 King Edward VI opened Parliament. Not in the usual way (he was too ill for that), but in a low-key ceremony in Whitehall Palace. On the last day of the month the King performed the closing in the accustomed form again, for his health was better, and on 11 April he travelled to Greenwich to take the air. On 24 April he granted wedding apparel to his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, and her bridegroom Lord Guildford Dudley, a younger son of his chief minister, the Duke of Northumberland. Their wedding was celebrated on 25 May, together with that of their younger sisters, both called Katherine. Although Edward heartily approved of the marriages and sent Lady Jane jewels to wear on the occasion,1 he was too ill to attend in case he would have wanted to. Within the next two weeks his condition worsened dramatically, and not only that, he made clear his will regarding the succession, by producing a draft he had written, most probably, early in the year:2

My Devise for the Succession

1. For lack of issue male of my body to … the Lady Frances’ heirs male, for lack of such issue to the Lady Jane’s heirs male, to the Lady Katherine’s heirs male, to the Lady Mary’s heirs male, to the heirs male of the daughters which she [the Lady Frances] shall have hereafter. Then to the Lady Margaret’s heirs male. For lack of such issue, to the heirs male of the Lady Jane’s daughters. To the heirs male of the Lady Katherine’s daughters, and so forth till you come to the Lady Margaret’s daughters’ heirs male.3

The Lady Frances of course was Lady Jane Grey’s mother, a niece of Henry VIII by his younger sister Mary; the ladies Katherine, Mary, and Margaret were the younger sisters and a first cousin of Jane, respectively. The whole point of Edward’s draft is male succession, and the rest of his ‟devise“ deals with possible scenarios concerning his hypothetic male heir: ‟2. If after my death the heir male be … 18 year old, then he to have the whole rule and governance“. – Edward clearly envisaged the possibility of himself having adult children, as well as that Lady Jane’s and her sisters’ daughters have male heirs. Obviously, at the time Edward wrote the draft, he did not expect to die any time soon; it was pure speculation, one of his countless agendas and school exercises.4 The next points consist of detailed stipulations should his male heir be still a minor: there were to be several forms of regency councils, depending on whether the heir was below or above 14 years of age – and the councils were to be both advisory and controlling boards to several classes of female regents.5 Point 5 is nothing short of breathtaking:

If I died without issue, and there were none heir male, then the Lady Frances to be governess regent. For lack of her, her eldest daughters and for lack of them the Lady Margaret to be governess … till some heir male be born, and then the mother of that child to be governess.6

That is to say in the case there should be no male heir available, the country should have no monarch at all until a royal male baby be born, a notion as impractical as absurd. Edward’s document seems not altogether untypical for a teenager, but it is unthinkable that any grown-up politician should have had any share in its conception.7 It would be quite like such a politician though to suggest the small but significant changes, which only made the document practically feasible: ‟To the Lady Frances’ heirs male, if she have any such issue before my death, to the Lady Jane and her heirs male.“ The words in italics Edward simply inserted above his original text, thus writing Jane herself into the royal succession (this exception from male inheritance was later extended to her sisters, but not her cousin Margaret).8

“My Devise for the Succession” with Edward’s amendment, “to the L. Janes heires masles” into “to the L. Jane and her heires masles”

Of course all this ignored Henry VIII’s 1544 Third Succession Act (which had put Henry’s two daughters Mary and Elizabeth back into the succession while still declaring them as illegitimate). However, Edward’s scheme implicitly retained Henry’s exclusion of the Scottish branch of his dynasty, as well as the barring of the Lady Frances herself from the throne, two points stipulated in his father’s arrangement.9 Edward, in mid-June 1553, demanded personally from reluctant crown lawyers to draw up his will:

I have been pondering the fleeting nature of human life and my own illness, which is becoming more and more serious. To prevent death from striking me unexpectedly while I am unprovided and unprepared, I have had care to have you summoned, not only that you may help me with … drawing up this my new will, but also that I may more clearly outline and explain the secrets of my plan to stablish, and as far as in me lies, to strengthen this kingdom after my death … I desire this all the more ardently because to prevent my death from providing our beloved country with an occasion … for civil war. Therefore, to cut a long story short, since I am convinced that my sister Mary would provoke great disturbances after I left this life, and would leave no stone unturned … to gain control of this isle … my resolve is to disown and disinherit her together with her sister Elizabeth, as though she were a bastard and sprung from an illegitimate bed. … For indeed my sister Mary was the daughter of … Katherine the Spaniard, who … had been espoused to Arthur, my father’s elder brother, and was … for this reason alone divorced by my father. But it was the fate of Elizabeth … to have Anne Boleyn for a mother; … Therefore, to avoid the kingdom being weakened by such a shame, it is our resolve, with the agreement of our noblemen, to appoint as our heir our most dear cousin Jane. … For if our sister Mary were to possess the kingdom (which Almighty God prevent), it would be all over for the religion whose fair foundation we have laid, not without your support and agreement. Therefore … make all speed to lend your support, so that while I am still drawing breath, this my last will may be perfectly drawn up … which I most eagerly desire; then with our proclamation to give it especial strength, it may be published openly to the people.10

The King’s speech, as rendered in 1554 by the Suffolk gentleman and Marian eulogist Robert Wingfield, is thought to be reasonably accurate, for Wingfield almost certainly had it from one of the judges present.11 Still, some elements of the unabridged text may be the writer’s embellishments, like some extreme abuse of Anne Boleyn and the clearly tongue-in-cheek praise of Guildford Dudley – ‟a man, unless I am mistaken, born to achieve celebrity; from him you may expect great things, if it please the gods“. Whatever the case, the official letters patent – which resulted from this meeting with the lawyers and still contained many of the more bizarre elements of Edward’s original ‟Devise“ – referred back to Henry VIII’s annulled marriages in sober legalese, even discussing his 1544 Succession Act. They also advised a further danger connected with Edward’s sisters, namely that they should marry a foreign prince, ‟which would then tend to the utter subversion of the common-wealth of this our realm, which God defend.“12 In view of Mary’s absolute reliance on the Emperor and the Habsburgs’ notoriously successful politics of marriage this was an obvious point (one originally brought up by the King in his speech to the lawyers13 – and unsurprisingly omitted by Wingfield).

The letters patent of 21 June 1553 were signed by 102 noblemen, London aldermen, bishops, archbishops, and councillors – basically by the whole political nation, but they were never issued as a royal proclamation – ‟published openly to the people“ – as the King had apparently wished.14 Suspecting that support for his plans could become rather lukewarm after his death, Edward also demanded of the most important officials and noblemen that they enter a sworn bond to upheld ‟his majesty’s own devise“ – this document was signed by 24 people.15 The judges had made clear to Edward that only Parliament could legally invalidate Henry’s 1544 act, so he ordered to prepare writs for a new parliament, to meet on 18 September.16 Robert Wingfield was nervous enough about this possible outcome and has God intervene directly who, taking ‟pity of his most devoted servant Mary“, cuts through Edward’s thread of life just in time – for ‟the most godly king indeed died without waiting for parliament“.17

The earliest claim that Edward was dying came on 17 March 1553 from Charles V’s envoy Jehan de Scheyfye, yet if this would have been the general impression the succession would surely have been addressed – and quite possibly resolved – in the Parliament which was then in session. The fact that the assembly was dissolved after only a month of successful (and bold) business18 indicates that on 31 March no one in the government believed the King near death, or at the very least had any plans to tamper with the succession. In fact, the Imperial ambassador may have been more pessimistic than some others, after all Edward’s death was in the Habsburg interest.19

Edward VI, on the right side at the window on the left, listens to a sermon by Hugh Latimer in 1549. Woodcut from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 1563.

What was the nature of Edward’s illness? Certainly not poison, as inevitably claimed after his death.20 His symptoms were those of a lung disease, either tuberculosis, or a form of pulmonary infection caused by a ‟feverish cold“ in February 1553. According to his doctors, Edward suffered from ‟a suppurating tumor on the lung“ and ejected foul matter with a strong stench. Suffering from an array of painful symptoms (some of which were treated with opiates21), he may have died from general septicaemia and kidney failure. Against the traditional diagnosis of tuberculosis has been cited the apparent lack of copious amounts of coughed-up blood.22 Still, most authorities believe the King was a victim of tuberculosis, a disease with many ups and downs then impossible to diagnose until a very late stage, which easily explains the wishful thinking prevalent among Edward’s councillors; for example, on 7 May Secretary Petre and the Duke of Northumberland both wrote independently to Secretary Cecil, hopeful of the King’s recovery, citing the royal physicians.23

There is no evidence that Edward believed himself to be dying until June, and indeed it is unlikely that anyone else knew of his ideas for the succession long before that time.24 Northumberland was actively pursuing the chimera of a European peace under King Edward’s auspices between France and the Emperor from December 1552 until late May 1553, and it is significant that it was the Continental powers who ended these diplomatic initiatives in early June by declaring that they were no longer interested. It is inconceivable that the Duke would have entertained this policy while planning to exclude Mary – he could not have risked to offend the Emperor so seriously while giving him a free hand against England via a peace with France.25 In mid-May 1553 Mary was granted the stronghold Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, the most generous gift she ever received from Edward.26 Such a move would have been strategic suicide (as indeed it turned out to be) if Northumberland would have anticipated a fight against her in the near future.27 Until very late in the day, the Duke was simply not planning for the practical implementation of the great coup, and his ‟actions after 6 July [Edward’s death] bear every sign of hasty improvisation.“28 Edward himself was central to establishing a ‟reliable evangelical dynasty“ on the English throne;29 Jane he regarded as his spiritual sister who could be relied on to carry forward the work of God.30 As David Loades has explained it:

The king was almost sixteen, and very conscious of his responsibilities. Much as he may have respected Northumberland this was not a decision for a subject. Nor is it likely that anyone other than the king would have ventured to treat a statute so cavalierly. The ‘Device’ is in his own hand, and no one would have altered it without his full knowledge and consent. Moreover, when his law officers demurred at the breach of his father’s statute it was (and could only have been) Edward who commanded them upon their allegiance to obey him, asserting that he would obtain parliament’s assent retrospectively. Northumberland … certainly had little to hope for from Mary, … but he would have had no reason to obstruct Elizabeth’s succession, except that the king would have it so. 31

Edward’s Last Will

It has sometimes been claimed that Edward could not have written a legal will (even a ‟private“ one) because he was under age. However, in law the English king had two bodies, a body natural and a body politic; while the body politic was not subject to the imperfections of the body natural (such as minority), even when ‟in his Body natural, and not in his Body politic, … the King is not void of Prerogative in regard to Things which he had in his Body natural. … [Because] the Body natural and the Body politic are not distinct, but united and as one Body.“32 It could thus be argued that Edward – because he was a king – was able to formulate a last will. And that is just what he did. It survives only in minutes taken by Secretary Petre, to be co-ordinated with the arrangements of the letters patent and made ready for the lawyers.33 Edward’s stipulations are interesting as well as touching:

First, that during the young years of any my heir or successor, my executors shall not agree to enter into any wars, except upon occasion of invasion to be made by enemies: nor, to the best of their powers, shall suffer any quarell to be unjustly piked by our subjects whereof any war may ensue.
Second, our said executors shall not suffer any peace of religion to be altered, and they shall diligently travail to cause godly ecclesiastical laws to be made and set forth: such as may be agreeable with the reformation of religion now received within our realm, and that done shall also cause the canon laws to be abolished. …
Fiftly, my will is, that my sisters Mary and Elizabeth shall follow the advice of my executors … in their marriages, and if they so do, and will be bound to live in quiet order, according to our appointment, and as by our said executors shall be appointed, we will, that they, and either of them, shall have of our gift one thousand pounds yearly, by way of annuity out of our coffers. And if they do marry … then we will that either of them shall have towards their marriages, of our gift, ten thousand pounds, over and above the money for their marriages given by our father’s bequest.

From this it clearly appears that Edward expected his sisters to abide by his provisions, in the interests of the country’s peace. Indeed it has been suggested by J. L. McIntosh that the grant of Framlingham Castle to Mary and another transaction to the benefit of Elizabeth were the material basis of a tacit agreement between the sisters and the government to accept and honour their brother’s ideas for the succession.34 The notion of such a deal is certainly strengthened by the King’s expectations that his sisters would ‟live in quiet order“.

Among Edward’s further last wishes are donations and foundations, notably to the benefit of Cambridge University, the alma mater of his beloved tutor, Sir John Cheke:

All our debts to be paid with as much speed as may be.
The college of St. John’s in Cambridge to have of our gift in land £100 by year. …
A new college to be erected, to be endowed in lands to the double yearly rents of the said college of St. John’s, to be builded up and made by discretion of our executors, within the space of seven years. …
All such as have had grant of us of any lands, offices, or fees, to enjoy our grant. …
To be bestowed in highways, and to the poor, by discretion of our executors, the sum of [blank].
The king my father’s tomb to be made up.35

‟The great irony of 1553 is that without Edward, the boy-king, the regime crumbled. Without the person of the king – the practical focus of authority and legitimacy – the body politic was headless“; thus Stephen Alford has explained why the dying King’s efforts ‟to preserve his godly legacy, and implicitly, his political establishment“, went wrong. ‟Yet, in a strange way, the death of Edward was final proof of the potency of his kingship and the commitment of the men around him to operational personal monarchy.“36 – When all was over the London businessman Henry Machyn summed up:

The 6th day of July, as they say, deceased the noble King Edward VI in the 7th year of his reign, son and heir to the noble King Henry VIII; and he was poisoned, as everybody says, where now, thank be unto God, there be many of the false traitors brought to their end, and I trust in God that more shall follow as they may be spied out.37

Edward VI had two funeral services, one Protestant (on the urging of the Emperor38), one Catholic (attended by Queen Mary). He was buried in an unmarked grave in Westminster Abbey, near the tomb of his grandfather Henry VII. Around 1573 his onetime confidant and Secretary of State, William Cecil, entertained plans to erect him a monument; nothing came of it, though, and only drafts survive.39

Sir Henry Sidney had been Edward’s closest friend and was with him until the end; doing justice to the young King in the very different climate of the 1580s, he described the experience in his memoirs:

This young Prince, who died within my arms, had almost caused death to penetrate his dart even into my own soul, for to behold him, and how like lamb he departed this life, and when his voice had left him, still he erected his eyes to heaven, it would have converted the fiercest of papists if they had any grace in them of true faith in Christ. He would call upon none saving his Saviour. He prayed that God would be pleased to bestow the gospel on his subjects, for his glory and their salvation; he also in his sickness made a prayer to God to deliver this nation from that uncharitable religion of Popery, which was the chiefest cause for his election of the Lady Jane Grey to succeed before his sister Mary … – not out of spleen unto his sister for her religion, but out of pure love to his subjects, that he desired they might live and die in the Lord, as he did.40

continued from:
Edward VI: The Renaissance Prince

1 Ives 2009 p. 185
2 Loades 2004b pp. 120 – 121
3 Chronicle of Queen Jane p. 89
4 Loades 2004b pp. 68 – 69
5 Alford 2002 pp. 172 – 173
6 Chronicle of Queen Jane p. 89
7 Loades 1996 p. 233; MacCulloch 2001 p. 41; Ives 2009 p. 141
8 Alford 2002 p. 172; Chronicle of Queen Jane p. 95
9 Ives 2009 p. 35
10 MacCulloch 1984 pp. 247 – 248
11 MacCulloch 1984 p. 294
12 Chronicle of Queen Jane p. 93
13 Hoak 2004
14 Ives 2009 pp. 165 – 166, 168; MacCulloch 1984 p. 248
15 Ives 2009 pp. 160; Alford 2002 p. 172
16 Hoak 2004
17 MacCulloch 1984 p. 249
18 Loades 1996 pp. 231 – 232, 236 – 237
19 Loades 2004b pp. 120 – 121, 69
20 Loach 2002 p. 160
21 Skidmore 2007 p. 250
22 Loach 2002 pp. 161 – 162
23 Loades 1996 pp. 237 – 238
24 Loades 2004b p. 121
25 Jordan 1970 pp. 176 – 179; Loades 1996 pp. 243 – 244
26 McIntosh 2008
27 McIntosh 2008
28 Loades 2004; Loades 1996 p. 253
29 MacCulloch 2001 pp. 39 – 41; Alford 2002 pp. 171 – 172
30 Hoak 2004
31 Loades 2004a
32 Kantorowicz 1981 pp. 11, 12
33 Chronicle of Queen Jane p. 101
34 McIntosh 2008
35 Chronicle of Queen Jane pp. 101 – 102
36 Alford 2002 pp. 172 – 174
37 Machyn p. 35
38 CSP Span 24 July 1553; CSP Span 29 July 1553
39 Hoak 2004
40 Literary Remains I p. ccliv

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

The Chronicle of Queen Jane. (ed. J. G. Nichols, 1850). Camden Society.

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

The Diary of Henry Machyn. (ed. G. J. Nichols, 1848). Camden Society.

Alford, Stephen (2002): Kingship and Politics in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.

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.

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 (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 (ed.) (1984): ‟The Vita Mariae Angliae Reginae of Robert Wingfield of Brantham“. Camden Miscellany. Volume XXVIII. Royal Historical Society.

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

McIntosh, J. L. (2008): From Heads of Household to Heads of State: The Preaccession Households of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. Chapter 4. Columbia University Press. http://www.gutenberg-e.org/mcintosh/chapter4.html

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

First published on 13 July 2011 at thehistoryfiles.com


About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law" and I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.worldpress.com
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