Friday, February 21, 2020

A Thought for Edward VI on a Difficult Day for Him

by Janet Wertman

Despite his enormous promise, Edward VI was a tragic figure, on so many levels.

The first level involves the wrongs his father did to get him. Henry VIII firmly believed he needed a male heir. When his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, proved unable to fulfill this obligation after twenty years of marriage, Henry abandoned her. That the Pope disagreed didn’t matter – Henry abandoned the Catholic Church as well, founding the Church of England to seal his right to remarry. Then when Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, birthed only a daughter and experienced several miscarriages, Henry had her executed on trumped up charges to pave the way for the third wife who would finally give him the son he craved. Jane Seymour, Edward’s mother, is often said to have “walked through Anne’s blood” for her title. In Jane’s defense, we must remember that she paid for the privilege with her life.

The second level involves the circumstances of Edward’s youth. His mother died in childbirth, and his first two stepmothers were little involved in his life. Edward got lucky with his third stepmother, Katherine Parr, who finally gave the five-year old prince a real experience of family life. Life further opened up to him as other children were brought into his household to share his life and his education.

Barnaby Fitzpatrick, the son of an Irish peer, became his whipping boy (since Edward’s teachers could not in good conscience administer corrective beatings to “this whole realm’s most precious jewel”). Still, the fear that surrounded the young prince must have been oppressive: Henry was terrified that something would happen to his only son. Very few people were allowed to visit Edward’s household out of fear of the plague. All of his food was tasted. Every servant was schooled in the rigorous standards of security and cleanliness that Henry imposed. Such constant caution would inevitably be deeply internalized.

Even when Edward acceded to the throne, things did not improve by much. He was so young, only nine years old. This is wonderfully captured in many of the unintentionally poignant entries in his Chronicle (which was, in the words of Wilbur Kitchener Jordan, “in part private diary, in part an educational exercise, and in part considered notes on policy and administration”), like the one he wrote about his coronation, in which he proudly described how he had dined with his crown on his head. Yet the real power belonged to his uncle, Edward Seymour Duke of Somerset, who was named Lord Protector to rule while Edward was still a minor. Importantly, this went against Henry VIII’s wishes – Henry hadn’t wanted anyone to be in a position to divert power from his son: he had envisioned a “Regency Council” that would rule collectively. Nevertheless, Somerset was able to quickly seize control thanks in large part to a last-minute “unfulfilled gifts clause” added to Henry’s will under the dry seal that allowed the executors to distribute lavish gifts to their friends.

Unfortunately, Somerset was not as respectful of his young nephew as he should have been. Somerset was proud and self-interested and kept the young King dependent on him for as much as he could. This encouraged Somerset’s younger brother, Thomas Seymour, to hatch a scheme to replace Somerset as proxy ruler. In the middle of the night on December 16, 1549, Seymour tried to break into the sleeping King’s apartments at Hampton Court Palace. He made it into the privy garden (he had keys), but one of the King’s pet spaniels started barking. Seymour shot and killed it, which brought guards running. There was no defense for being outside the King’s bedroom in the middle of the night with keys and arms – and using them both. It was alleged that Seymour’s plan was to kidnap the King, perhaps force him to marry Lady Jane Grey (Seymour’s ward); this was treason enough. It was suspected that he might himself marry the King’s sister Elizabeth then kill the King and seize the throne. There could be no mercy. Thomas Seymour’s was the first death warrant that Edward VI had to sign, and today is the anniversary of Seymour’s execution (a topic I have covered in a companion post on my own blog, I hope you’ll visit!).

And as if sentencing one uncle to death wasn’t bad enough, less than two years later the not-even-fifteen-year-old King had to do it again. John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, engineered a coup d’etat against Somerset. The charges were less clear than the ones against Thomas Seymour, but no less deadly. Edward himself summarized them in his Chronicle as "ambition, vainglory, entering into rash wars in mine youth, negligent looking on Newhaven, enriching himself of my treasure, following his own opinion, and doing all by his own authority, etc." Although Somerset survived this plot, he tried to fight back against Warwick (who had by then become the Duke of Northumberland) – and lost. That was fatal. To use Edward VI’s own words again, on January 22, 1552 "the duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o'clock in the morning".

The next year was a good one for Edward VI – Northumberland made every effort to incorporate him into the running of the government. But then the young King fell ill from what is now believed to have been tuberculosis. As death approached, the fervent Protestant grew terrified at the idea that his staunchly Catholic sister Mary would inherit his throne. He created his own Devise for the Succession which bypassed both his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and settled the crown on his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. It is not clear whose idea this was, but we do know that Northumberland stood to benefit greatly from this arrangement: Lady Jane Grey was married to his son. Regardless, the Devise failed when England rallied behind Mary as the next rightful heir (in case you were wondering, Northumberland was the first person executed during Mary’s reign).

Tragic all around.



Wilbur Kitchener Jordan, England’s Boy King: The Diary of Edward VI (1966)

Wikipedia, Luminarium

This Editor's Choice was originally published on March 19, 2015.

Janet Wertman is a freelance grant writer by day and a writer of historical fiction by night. Books 1 & 2 of the Seymour Saga will be joined in 2020 by The Boy King, which will cover the reign of Jane’s son, Edward VI.

Janet regularly blogs about the Tudors and what it’s like to write about them. Connect with Janet:  Website:


  1. Hi: I enjoy reading this post !! Thank you !!! <3

  2. Yes. Edward VI is all too often over-looked in books about the Tudors that focus on his more flamboyant and terrifying father, his vengeful and competent sisters, and of course his many step-mothers.

  3. I often wonder what it would have been like had he lived and grew into the kingship.
    I think many of the men who influenced him, or tried to, would have been goners!

  4. I always felt sorry for him, but then who knows what sort of adult king he would have made.

  5. There was actually a YA fantasy novel in which a modern girl is whisked into Edward's time, figures that his problem is allergies and helps him with this. Unfortunately, he grows up a lot like his father, Elizabeth never becomes Queen and our heroine returns to her own time to find everyone speaking Spanish! ;-) She has to go back and fix it, which sadly means he has to die, though she dies take Barnaby Fitzpatrick back with her(it was a teen romance, after all...)

  6. But thinking about it, he was a Protestant fanatic - who knows what wars he would have had to fight over his treatment of Catholics if he'd lived longer? Maybe it would have been "Bloody Edward" instead of "Bloody Mary"?


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