Edward, the son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour was born at Hampton Court Palace on 12th October 1537. It was a difficult labour that lasted two days and three nights. The child was named Edward, after his great-grandfather and because it was the eve of the Feast of St Edward.
It was said that the King wept as he took the baby son in his arms. At the age of forty-six, he had achieved his dream. "God had spoken and blessed this marriage with an heir male, nearly thirty years after he had first embarked on matrimony." (1)
Edward was christened when he was three days old, and both his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, played a part in this important occasion. In the great procession which took the baby from the mother's bed-chamber to the chapel, Elizabeth carried the chrisom, the cloth in which the child was received after his immersion in the font. As she was only four years old, she herself was carried by the Queen's brother, Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford. Jane was well enough to receive guests after the christening. Edward was proclaimed prince of Wales, duke of Cornwall, and earl of Carnarvon.
On 17th October 1537 Jane became very ill. Most historians have assumed that she developed puerperal fever, something for which there was no effective treatment, though at the time the queen's attendants were blamed for allowing her to eat unsuitable food and to take cold. An alternative medical opinion suggests that Jane died because of retention of parts of the placenta in her uterus. That condition could have led to a haemorrhage several days after delivery of the child. What is certain is that septicaemia developed, and she became delirious. Jane died just before midnight on 24th October, aged twenty-eight. (2)
Lady Margaret Bryan was Lady Mistress, the governess with day-to-day control of the nursery. Lady Margaret had also cared for his sisters, Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth. The royal nursery was peripatetic, moving to Greenwich with the court for Christmas 1537; to the king's hunting-lodge at Royston in the spring of 1538, then on to Havering, where the air was thought healthier. In March 1539 Henry personally issued obsessively detailed instructions for the care of his "most precious joy". Dr Richard Cox, headmaster of Eton was the prince's tutor from 1540. (3)
After the death of Edward's mother, Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves. This brief relationship was followed by marriage to Catherine Howard in 1540, When Catherine was arrested and her household dissolved late in 1541, Henry sent Mary to Prince Edward's household. (4) Edward's lessons with Cox were interrupted in October and November 1541 when he caught malaria at Hampton Court. According to the French ambassador, Henry hurriedly summoned "all the doctors in the country" (5)
In July 1543, Henry married Catherine Parr. She was an excellent step-mother. Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) points out: "It is greatly to her credit that she managed to establish excellent loving relations with all three of her step-children, despite their very different needs and ages (the Lady Mary was twenty-one years older than Prince Edward). Of course she did not literally install them under one roof: that is to misunderstand the nature of sixteenth-century life when separate households were more to do with status than inclination. At the same time, the royal children were now all together on certain occasions, under the auspices of their stepmother... But the real point was that Catherine was considered by the King - and the court - to be in charge of them, an emotional responsibility rather than a physical one." (6)
In July 1544 Catherine Parr arranged for John Cheke to become tutor to Edward. (7) John Guy has argued the "reformed cause" was revived at Court after Henry VIII married his sixth wife: "Catherine used her influence to mitigate the Act of Six Articles in several cases. Her immediate circle was centred on the royal nursery, where John Cheke, Richard Cox, Anthony Cooke, and other 'reforming' humanists were appointed tutors to Prince Edward and Princess Elizabeth." (8) It has been suggested that Cheke was an humanist scholar in the tradition of Desiderius Erasmus but it was possible that he was a supporter of Martin Luther and this could explain Edward's support for religious reform. (9) Cheke also arranged for Princess Elizabeth to be taught by William Grindal and Roger Ascham. (10)
Lady Margaret Bryan claims that Edward got on better with Mary, twenty years his senior, to Elizabeth, who was four years older. According to Jerome Cardan Edward was a little under-sized for his age and slightly short-sighted, and with one shoulder higher than the other, he was lively, gracious and good-looking, with fair hair and grey eyes. He was very interested in sport and on one occasion showed off his riding and archery to the French ambassador. He kept a journal and wrote about "the bear hunted in the river" and how he "lost the challenge at shooting". (11)
Elizabeth Jenkins has suggested that Edward looked like his sister Elizabeth "they had the same reddish-blonde hair, pale face and searching eyes, the same slight and upright figure; they were alike in their intense concentration upon books and the consummate elegance of their manners". However, his mind was like Mary: "Edward's cast of mind was radically different from Elizabeth's. It was not so much she whom he resembled, as Mary. In his mind were the seeds of that fanatical belief that salvation could be found only in a particular system of worship, and he embraced the system presented to him in his impressionable years with the same fervour and exclusiveness as his elder sister embraced Catholicism." (12)
Henry VIII was very keen to arrange a political marriage of the future king. In July 1543 Henry signed the Treaty of Greenwich, an attempt to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The terms of the treaty involved the the future marriage of Edward and Mary Stuart, then seven months old, "but this diplomatic endeavour failed, and the consequences - war with Scotland and France - burnt themselves into his memory, as his later letters testify." (13)
Henry VIII's third Act of Succession, was passed early in 1544. Mary and Elizabeth were both restored to the line of succession, respectively second and third after Edward. They were also each to be endowed with lands worth about £3,000 a year, as well as substantial cash dowries in the event of marriage. As Richard Rex has pointed out: "Their rehabilitation was virtually complete. Only the taint of illegitimacy remained to cast a shadow over their matrimonial prospects." (14)
Henry VIII died on 28th January, 1547. The following day Edward and his thirteen year-old sister, Elizabeth, were informed that their father had died. According to one source, "Edward and his sister clung to each other, sobbing". Edward VI's coronation took place on Sunday 20th February. "Walking beneath a canopy of crimson silk and cloth of gold topped by silver bells, the boy-king wore a crimson satin robe trimmed with gold silk lace costing £118 16s. 8d. and a pair of ‘Sabatons’ of cloth of gold." (15)
Edward was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist Edward VI in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. Thomas Seymour (Lord Sudeley) was furious that his brother had risen so far so fast. To increase his power he secretly married Edward's stepmother, Catherine Parr. Edward wrote in his journal: The Lord Seymour of Sudeley married the Queen, whose name was Catherine, with which marriage the Lord Protector was much offended." (16)
The Duke of Somerset was a Protestant and he soon began to make changes to the Church of England. This included the introduction of an English Prayer Book and the decision to allow members of the clergy to get married. Attempts were made to destroy those aspects of religion that were associated with the Catholic Church, for example, the removal of stained-glass windows in churches and the destruction of religious wall-paintings. Somerset made sure that Edward VI was educated as a Protestant, as he hoped that when he was old enough to rule he would continue the policy of supporting the Protestant religion.
Somerset's programme of religious reformation was accompanied by bold measures of political, social, and agrarian reform. Legislation in 1547 abolished all the treasons and felonies created under Henry VIII and did away with existing legislation against heresy. Two witnesses were required for proof of treason instead of only one. Although the measure received support in the House of Commons, its passage contributed to Somerset's reputation for what later historians perceived as his liberalism. (17)
In 1548, Sudeley sought to win Edward's affection and gain acceptance as his intimate adviser. He regularly visited Edward's bedchamber. When the Duke of Somerset discovered what was happening he "put a special watch on all doors leading into the king's privy chamber in order to prevent Sudeley's clandestine entry". One night Sudeley found the door to Edward's bedchamber bolted; enraged, he shot dead the king's barking dog. Somerset was given copies of letters that Sudeley had been passing to Edward. "Somerset found such correspondence intolerable" and "arranged for Sudeley's attainder in parliament and execution" on 20th March 1549. (18)
Popular rebellions and riots began in Cornwall in 1548 and spread through more than half the counties of England over the next few months. Some of those involved demonstrated against Somerset's religious programme. "The new vernacular liturgy contained in the Book of Common Prayer was the most evident grievance of the Cornish rebels, but the other religious changes of recent years and opposition to enclosures were also important. Revolt began in Cornwall in April 1548 when the clergy and commoners resisted the removal of religious images from parish churches and killed a government official, while in Somerset weavers and other commoners pulled down hedges and fences." (19)
Edward Seymour urged compassion and on 14th June 1549, he persuaded Edward to pardoned all those people who had torn down hedges enclosing common land. Many landless people thought that this meant that their king disapproved of enclosures. All over the country people began to destroy hedges that landowners had used to enclose common land. As Roger Lockyer, the author of Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985), pointed out: "Somerset's championship of the common people won him their acclaim. It also promoted them to demonstrations which were designed to show their support for him, but which quickly developed into massive protest movements that no government could have tolerated or ignored." (20)
The most significant rebellion took place in Norfolk. Robert Kett, a local landowner, became the leader of what became known as the Kett Rebellion. The mayor of Norwich refused to let Kett's army enter the city. However, Kett and his men, armed with spears, swords and pitchforks, successfully stormed the city walls. The English government were shocked when they heard that Kett and his rebels controlled the second largest city in England.
Kett formed a governing council made up of representatives from the villages that had joined the revolt. It was a remarkable demonstration of self-government. Kett and his followers were convinced that their action was not only morally justified but also lawful, and that they would therefore win the approval of the government. The elected council then sent details of their demands to Edward VI. Somerset responded by calling for the rebels to abandon their protests and to return peacefully to their homes. He offered them a free pardon if they did so but warned them he would use force if they refused. Dale Hoak has described it as the "sixteenth-century England's greatest crisis". (21)
In August 1549 Somerset sent John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and a large army to the area. He seized Norwich after several days of fierce street fighting. He then attacked Kett's camp at Mousehold Heath and several hundred of the rebels were killed. A special commission was set up to deal with the prisoners, of whom forty-nine were executed. Robert Kett was sent to London and was found guilty of treason and was hanged at Norwich Castle. (22) "Whatever sympathy Somerset might have felt for the Norfolk peasants, he behaved like any other Tudor ruler when it came to dealing with rebels." (23)
Edward Seymour was blamed by the nobility and gentry for the social unrest. They believed his statements about political reform had encouraged rebellion. His reluctance to employ force and refusal to assume military leadership merely made matters worse. Seymour's critics also disliked his popularity with the common people and considered him to be a potential revolutionary. His main opponents, including John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton and Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, met in London to demand his removal as lord protector. (24)
Seymour no longer had the support of the aristocracy and had no choice but to give up his post. On 14th January 1550 his deposition as lord protector was confirmed by act of parliament, and he was also deprived of all his other positions, of his annuities, and of lands to the value of £2000 a year. He was arrested by William Paget and sent to the Tower of London where he remained until the following February, when he was released by the Earl of Warwick who was now the most powerful figure in the government. Roger Lockyer suggests that this "gesture of conciliation on Warwick's part served its turn by giving him time to gain the young King's confidence and to establish himself more firmly in power". (25) This upset the nobility and in October 1551, Warwick was forced to arrest the Duke of Somerset.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. He skillfully conducted his own defence and was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony under the terms of a recent statute against bringing together men for a riot and sentenced to death. (26) "Historians sympathetic to Somerset argue that the indictment was largely fictitious, that the trial was packed with his enemies, and that Northumberland's subtle intrigue was responsible for his conviction. Other historians, however, have noted that Northumberland agreed that the charge of treason should be dropped and that the evidence suggests that Somerset was engaged in a conspiracy against his enemies." (27) Although the king had supported Somerset's religious policies with enthusiasm he did nothing to save him from his fate. (28)
As he was such a popular figure the authorities feared that Somerset's execution would cause disorder. On the morning of 22nd January, 1552, people living in London were ordered to remain in their houses. For added protection, over a 1,000 soldiers were on the streets of the city. Despite these measures large crowds gathered at Tower Hill. (29) He showed no sign of fear and he told those assembled that he died in the knowledge that he was "glad of the furtherance and helping forward of the commonwealth of this realm". (30) He also urged those present to follow the reformed religion that he had promoted. Edward wrote in his journal: "The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine in the morning." (31)
John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, now became Edward's main adviser. It has been claimed that the secret of Warwick's power was that he took Edward seriously. To be successful he "knew that he must accommodate the boy's keen intelligence and also his sovereign will". By this time the king clearly "possessed a powerful sense that he and not his council embodied royal authority". However, foreign observers did not believe that Edward was making his own decisions. The French ambassador reported that "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." Dale Hoak agrees and suggests that "Warwick was skillfully guiding the king for his own purposes by exploiting the boy's precocious capacity for understanding the business of government." (32)
Christopher Morris, the author of The Tudors (1955) believes that by the age of fifteen he was exerting control over his kingdom: "There were sporadic rebellions, but they were less dangerous than the risings against Henry, and they were all put down. The machinery of government was monstrously misused but it did not come to a standstill. England was to have a corrupt and an unjust government but not an ineffective government. There was a seemingly untroubled point of rest in the very centre of the storm. It was the mind of a small orphan boy who was the last Tudor king of England. And yet we know his mind better than that of any other Tudor, for we have his own full journal of his reign. It might be called the first of all English diaries. On certain matters, notably the trial of Somerset, the boy's journal is much the best surviving evidence. It is arguable that potentially Edward was the ablest of all the Tudors." (33)
In April 1552 Edward fell ill with a disease that was diagnosed first as smallpox and later as measles. He made a surprising recovery and wrote to his sister, Elizabeth, that he had never felt better. However, in December he developed a cough. Elizabeth asked to see her brother but John Dudley, the lord protector, said it was too dangerous. In February 1553, his doctors believed he was suffering from tuberculosis. In March the Venetian envoy saw him and said that although still quite handsome, Edward was clearly dying. (34)
According to Philippa Jones, the author Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010): "Early in 1553, Dudley... began working to persuade the King to change the succession. Edward VI was reminded that Mary and Elizabeth were both illegitimate, and more importantly, that Mary would bring Catholicism back to England. Dudley reasoned that if Mary were to be struck out of the succession, how could Elizabeth, her equal, be left in? Furthermore, he argued that both the princesses would seek foreign husbands, jeopardizing English sovereignty." (35)
Under the influence of the Lord Protector, Edward made plans for the succession. Sir Edward Montague, chief justice of the common pleas, testified that "the king by his own mouth said" that he was prepared to alter the succession because the marriage of either Princess Mary or Princess Elizabeth to a foreigner might undermine both "the laws of this realm" and "his proceedings in religion". According to Montague, Edward also thought his sisters bore the "shame" of illegitimacy. (36) Coming under the influence of the Lord Protector, Edward selected Lady Jane Grey to succeed him. A few days later she married Guildford Dudley, the fourth son of the Lord Protector.
King Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. The surgeon who later opened the boy's chest found that "the disease whereof his majesty died was the disease of lungs, which had in them two great ulcers, and were purified". (37)
At Edward's accession an intelligent observer might well have asked certain questions. Could Henry rule from the tomb? How much of Henry's system had depended on his own personality? Could a Council, trained for so long to carry out one man's private will, now develop a mind and policy of its own? Could the Council have its own policy and yet remain public-spirited? Would it become a selfseeking "gang" or break up into factions? Could the Wars of the Roses return? Would the country accept things done by others in the king's name? Above all, could the social and religious revolution stand still? Was it inevitable that there should be either conservative reaction or else further moves in a revolutionary direction? This last point Henry himself had decided. He had preferred to let the revolution proceed rather than have his work undone. He had ensured that the Councillors should be drawn from the new men; but it was soon clear that he had failed in his other object, that of putting the Crown into commission. The Council had become so accustomed to one man's rule that it rapidly acquiesced in the virtual coup d'etat which made Somerset, the king's eldest uncle, Lord Protector. It remained to be seen whether a regent could deal successfully with his rivals or resist the temptation to usurp the throne. Somerset was to fail against his rivals, and his successor, Dudley, was to succumb to the temptation.
Nevertheless, distressing though the history of the reign was to be, there was no return to feudal anarchy. There was gross rapacity and shameless caballing but there was no serious civil war until Mary was actually proclaimed queen.
There were sporadic rebellions, but they were less dangerous than the risings against Henry, and they were all put down. The machinery of government was monstrously misused but it did not come to a standstill. England was to have a corrupt and an unjust government but not an ineffective government.
There was a seemingly untroubled point of rest in the very centre of the storm. It was the mind of a small orphan boy who was the last Tudor king of England. He came to the throne when he was just over nine and died. just before he was sixteen. And yet we know his mind better than that of any other Tudor, for we have his own full journal of his reign. It might be called the first of all English diaries. On certain matters, notably the trial of Somerset, the boy's journal is much the best surviving evidence.
It is arguable that potentially Edward was the ablest of all the Tudors. It is also possible that, had he lived, he would have been the least attractive. As to his precocity we bave independent testimony, not only from courtiers and tutors, but from foreign visitors like Cardan, whose charlatanry on the causation of comets the boy nearly exposed during a conversation conducted in highly technical Latin.
Edward wrote essays in French on the royal supremacy in the church and on the reform of ecclesiastical abuses. He knew Greek well and read some Aristotle early in his fourteenth year. Besides his journal, which shows an obviously intelligent grasp of diplomatic affairs, he wrote memoranda on harbours and fortifications and on the very complicated question of currency reform. In another memorandum, proposing reforms for the Order of the Garter, he recommends that the order be free from all associations with Saint George because of the popish and superstitious aura surrounding any saint. Edward was an assiduous attender of sermons and took copious notes, sometimes - for practice or amusement - writing or amusement - writing English words in Greek letters.
While Catherine had approached her stepson and asked for his approval for the union, which he gladly gave, neither Thomas nor Catherine had approached the Council, perhaps suspecting that the Lord Protector might prevent the marriage, not just on the grounds of timing, but also because it would give too much influence to Thomas. When Edward VI took the throne, Thomas had tried to persuade the young King to sign a Bill to allow him to share the role of Protector, which Edward had refused.
By June, the marriage was common knowledge at Court and Thomas was living openly at Chelsea with Catherine and her household, which now included Elizabeth, but soon grew to encompass 11-year-old Lady Jane Grey. As part of Thomas's plans to increase his power, he plotted to arrange a marriage between Edward VI and Jane, the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's sister, and Edward's own cousin. Evidence for what happened next at Chelsea, and at Catherine and Thomas's houses at Hanworth and Seymour Place in London, came from statements given by witnesses in the 1548-49 enquiry into the treasonable actions of Thomas Seymour. The most prominent and damaging statements came from Kat Ashley and Sir Thomas Parry, Elizabeth's Cofferer (treasurer).
In 1543 the King contracted his last marriage. This was to have very serious consequences for Elizabeth, but it seemed at first as if the whole Royal family must benefit by the King's choice. Catherine Parr was thirty years old; she had been twice widowed and was very rich. Her disposition was one of radiant kindness, she was intelligent and cheerful, and she possessed mature but still youthful good looks.
The King was now fifty-two, but appeared much older. It was noticed that after the death of Catherine Howard, his deterioration had been rapid. He had an ulcer in his leg which gave him savage pain, and his once handsome body was a pitiable and disgusting ruin. His will, decreeing that in the succession his children by Catherine Parr (or by any future queens, the will added) were to take precedence over Mary and Elizabeth, showed that the marriage was to be no mere companionship. The sufferings entailed by her situation may well have been the harder to bear, since before the King made his proposal she was being courted by the only man for whom she had felt a passion. This was Sir Thomas Seymour, the younger brother of the late Queen Jane; but Seymour was the last man to urge his suit in such circumstances. When the King's wishes were known, Catherine Parr's other suitor disappeared from the court.
The new Queen fulfilled her duties with inspired goodwill. She made the King so comfortable that he liked to sit with his sore leg on her lap. She was allowed to have Edward and Elizabeth in her household, and for the first time in their lives the King's younger children had a home. Their stepmother encouraged them in their lessons and continued her own reading under the guidance of their tutors. Unknown to the King, she also encouraged their interest in the teaching of the Reformed Church.
The seven-year-old Edward appeared to resemble his favourite sister very closely: they had the same reddish-blonde hair, pale face and searching eyes, the same slight and upright figure; they were alike in their intense concentration upon books and the consummate elegance of their manners. But Edward's cast of mind was radically different from Elizabeth's. It was not so much she whom he resembled, as Mary. In his mind were the seeds of that fanatical belief
that salvation could be found only in a particular system of worship, and he embraced the system presented to him in his impressionable years with the same fervour and exclusiveness as his elder sister embraced Catholicism.
Elizabeth held the unquestioning belief in the Christian faith which was universal in Europe, but her mind was incapable of religious fanaticism. The famous saying of her later years, "There is only one Christ Jesus and one faith: the rest is a dispute about trifles," is an expression, not of experience, but of temperament. She accepted the Roman observances of her father's court and the private teachings of her step-mother, and her name was not associated with either.
Cautious beyond her years and of exemplary behaviour as a rule, at the age of twelve her discretion was not entirely perfect: in this year she offended the King. Nothing is known of the offence, only of its consequence. She was banished from his household, and it was a year before her humble entreaties and the Queen's good offices brought her back to the family circle. One lesson was enough; the attitude of respectful worship was henceforward maintained unblemished, and anything unfavourable to it was thrust out of sight, like corpses buried under a church pavement. Her gratitude to the Queen was ardent. As a New Year's gift for 1545, she wrote out in a small vellum book her own translation of a French poem, called "The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul", and bound it in a cover she had embroidered in blue silk and silver twist, with clusters of heart'sease in purple and yellow. The dedication said: "To our most noble and vertuous Queen Katerine, Elizabeth her humble daughterwisheth perpetual felicity and everlasting joy."