Edward Seymour, the eldest son of ten children of Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth, was probably born at Wolf Hall, Wiltshire, in 1500. Through the Wentworths, the Seymours claimed royal blood through descent from Edward III. Edward's father had been knighted in 1497 by Henry VII after the Battle of Blackheath. In 1513 he accompanied Henry VIII in the French campaign. (1)
Seymour is said to have been educated at both Oxford University and Cambridge University. (2) "Contemporaries found him slightly aloof - he lacked the easy charm of his younger brother Thomas - but they did not doubt his intelligence. Edward Seymour was cultivated as well as clever; he was a humanist and also, as it turned out, genuinely interested in the tenets of the reformed religion. (3) At the age of eighteen he married Katherine Fillol. They had two sons John and Edward.
Seymour saw military service in France and was knighted by Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk in November 1523. On 12th January 1525 he was made a JP for Wiltshire, and in the same year became master of the horse to Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, Henry VIII's illegitimate son. In July 1527 he accompanied Cardinal Thomas Wolsey on his embassy to France, and in 1528 was granted lands of monasteries dissolved for the benefit of Wolsey's colleges. On 5th March 1529 he was made steward of the manors of Henstridge, Somerset, and Charlton, Wiltshire. (4)
On 12th September 1531, Seymour was appointed an esquire of the body to Henry VIII with an annuity of 50 marks. The following year Seymour and his father accompanied Henry and Anne Boleyn to Boulogne to meet François I. Seymour repudiated his first wife, Katherine Fillol, for adultery and does not seem to have acknowledged the paternity of her offspring. He married Anne Stanhope, who was a descendant through her mother of Edward III. Over the next few years Anne gave birth to ten children. In October 1535 Henry and Queen Anne visited Seymour at his Hampshire manor of Elvetham.
King Henry continued to try to produce a male heir, but Queen Anne had two miscarriages. On 13th October 1534 Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported to King Charles V that Henry was becoming romantically involved with an unnamed young lady. It is almost certain that this woman was Edward's sister, Jane Seymour. Chapuys adds that the lady in question had recently sent a message to Princess Mary telling her to take good heart because her tribulations would end very soon.
Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) has pointed out: "Jane Seymour was exactly the kind of female praised by the contemporary handbooks to correct conduct; just as Anne Boleyn had been the sort they warned against. There was certainly no threatening sexuality about her. Nor is it necessary to believe that her virtue was in some way hypocritically assumed, in order to intrigue the King. On the contrary, Jane Seymour was simply fulfilling the expectations for a female of her time and class; it was Anne Boleyn who was - or rather who had been - the fascinating outsider." (5) In March 1536 Edward Seymour was made a gentleman of the privy chamber and a few days later, he, his wife, and his sister Jane were installed in the palace at Greenwich in an apartment which the king could reach through a private passage. (6)
Anne Boleyn was pregnant again when she discovered Jane Seymour sitting on her husband's lap. Anne "burst into furious denunciation; the rage brought on a premature labour and was delivered of a dead boy." (7) It has been claimed that the baby was born deformed and that the child was not Henry's. (8) In April 1536, a Flemish musician in Anne's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested. He initially denied being the Queen's lover but later confessed, perhaps tortured or promised freedom. Another courtier, Henry Norris, was arrested on 1st May. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King's Privy Chamber. Anne's brother, George Boleyn was also arrested and charged with incest. (9)
Anne was arrested and was taken to the Tower of London on 2nd May, 1536. Four of the accused men were tried in Westminster ten days later. Smeaton pleaded guilty but Weston, Brereton, and Norris maintained their innocence Three days later, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately in the Tower of London. She was accused of enticing five men to have illicit relations with her. (10) Adultery committed by a queen was considered to be an act of high treason because it had implications for the succession to the throne. All were found guilty and condemned to death. The men were executed on 17th May, 1536. Anne went to the scaffold at Tower Green on 19th May.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer issued a dispensation from prohibitions of affinity for Jane Seymour to marry Henry the day of Anne's execution, because they were fifth cousins. The couple were betrothed the following day, and a private marriage took place on 30th May 1536. Coming as it did after the death of Catherine of Aragon and the execution of Anne Boleyn, there could be no doubt of the lawfulness of Henry's marriage to Jane. The new queen was introduced at court in June. "No coronation followed the wedding, and plans for an autumn coronation were laid aside because of an outbreak of plague at Westminster; Jane's pregnancy undoubtedly eliminated any possibility of a later coronation." (11)
Jane Seymour gave birth to a boy on 12th October 1537 after 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." (12)
Edward was christened when he was three days old, and both his sisters 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 Edward Seymour. 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. (13)
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." (14)
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." (15)
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. (16)
In 1548, Thomas Seymour (Lord Sudely) 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. (17)
During the early part of the 16th century large numbers of farmers changed from growing crops to raising sheep. This involved enclosing arable land and turning it into pasture for sheep. Sheep farming became so profitable that large landowners began to enclose common land. For hundreds of years this land had been used by all the people who lived in the village. Many people became very angry about this and villagers began tearing down the hedges that had been used to enclose the common land.
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." (18)
Edward Seymour urged compassion and on 14th June 1549, he persuaded Edward VI 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." (19)
The most serious disturbances took place in Norfolk. In one case, Robert Kett, a large landowner in Wymondham, admitted that he had been wrong to enclose the common land. Kett also agreed to help the protesters persuade other landowners from enclosing public land. As Kett was a well-educated man, the crowd asked him to become their leader. Kett suggested that they should march on Norwich. On the way, other villagers in the area joined the march. By the time Kett reached Norwich, he had about 16,000 followers.
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". (20)
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. Seymour wrote to a friend in Italy: "Kett fled, and the rest of the rebels, casting away their weapons and armour and asking pardon on their knees... were sent home without injury and pardoned... Ket, with three other chief captains, all vile persons... are still held to receive that which they have deserved... We trust, truly, that these rebellions are now at an end." (21)
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 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 VI wrote in his journal: "The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine in the morning." (31)
The dominant male figure in Jane's life seems to have been her eldest surviving brother Edward, described by one observer about this time as both "young and wise". Being young, he was ambitious, and being wise, able to keep his own counsel in pursuit of his plans. Contemporaries found him slightly aloof - he lacked the easy charm of his younger brother Thomas - but they did not doubt his intelligence. Edward Seymour was cultivated as well as clever; he was a humanist and also, as it turned out, genuinely interested in the tenets of the reformed religion (unlike his sister Jane).
As a boy, Edward Seymour had served as a page to the elder Mary Tudor as the French Queen; he had been knighted in 1523 during Suffolk's campaign in France, and later served the King's son, Henry Fitzroy Duke of Richmond; in 1530 Sir Edward Seymour was made an Esquire of the Body to the King and as such went to Calais in 1532; at the coronation of Anne Boleyn, Seymour acted as official "Carver" to Archbishop Cranmer. Now in his thirties, he had already had a chequered marital career like so many of the courtiers surrounding the King (not only the monarch himself). Edward Seymour had repudiated his first wife, the heiress Katherine Fillol, for adultery and does not seem to have acknowledged the paternity of her offspring. His second wife was the formidable Anne Stanhope, whom Seymour had married in about 1534 - before Katherine Fitlot's death. Anne Stanhope's imperious disposition would become a byword when she had an opportunity to display it - "more presumptuous than Lucifer" wrote Antonio de Guaras - and she was widely believed to rule her husband (although this was the kind of misogynistic comment apt to be made about any vigorous woman). In 1536 it was more relevant that this combination of a calculating husband and a strong-minded wife made the Seymours a team to be reckoned with.
As lord protector Somerset pursued a cautious but consistent programme of religious reform, one that transformed the Henrician church into one that can be described as protestant or evangelical. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer provided the religious leadership, but Somerset and his political allies determined the pace at which the reform programme proceeded. During Somerset's protectorate English became the language of religious services, first in the order of communion (1548) and later in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549)....
Because of the overriding demands of war in Scotland, Somerset's government rejected an early end to the debasement of the coinage as a remedy for price inflation, and turned its attention to illegal enclosure. In a policy intended to reduce depopulation and rural poverty, and at the same time to increase grain production by discouraging sheep grazing, on 1 June 1548 a royal proclamation announced the appointment of commissions to collect evidence and enforce existing legislation restricting enclosures. But the commission achieved little, leading to the issuing of another, on Somerset's authority, on 11 April 1549. It had greater powers than its predecessor, but was likewise ineffective thanks to the widespread opposition of gentry landowners. Other attempts to deal with agrarian problems through parliament faced similarly strong opposition, though the government successfully passed a novel tax on sheep and woollen cloth in 1549...
The greatest test of Somerset's capacity for leadership came from a series of popular rebellions and riots that began in Cornwall in 1548 and spread through more than half the counties of England the next year. Somerset was faced by nothing less than the most extensive English risings of the sixteenth century. The western rising affected Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset, where conservative Henrician clergy with support from the gentry and commons resisted 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. When the mayor and leaders of Exeter refused to ally with the rebels of Devon in June 1549 that city was besieged. Pacification required a substantial military force, but Somerset responded only after delays that frustrated other councillors, especially John, Baron Russell, who assumed command of the army sent to relieve Exeter in July. But not until the middle of August was the western rising crushed.
The Norfolk insurgents had assembled first at Wymondham, where they called on Robert Kett, a local landowner, to be their head. They then advanced on Norwich, throwing down fences as they went, and set up their camp to the north of the city, on Mousehold Heath. By the end of July they had made themselves masters of Norwich, but the bulk of the rebel forces remained in the camp, where Kett, with the help of an elected council, kept good order and discipline. It was a remarkable demonstration of self-government, and it showed the quality of the rebels. They were not a motiveless rabble but a company of small farmers, peasant cultivators, gathered together in defence of what they regarded as their traditional rights.
The main grievance of the rebels, as shown in the articles they drew up, was the excessive number of sheep being pastured by the landowners. Much of the country was well suited to sheep-farming, and the peasants, who had little land of their own, were dependent upon their right of common pasture. A few sheep could make a big difference to a man's income, and when a lord increased the number of animals he turned out to graze he threatened the peasants' livelihood - hence the demand `that no lord of no manor shall common [i.e. put his sheep to pasture] upon the commons'. Inflated rents were another grievance, as was shown in the request `that copyhold land that is unreasonably rented may go as it did in the first year of King Henry VII, and that at the death of a tenant or sale the same lands... be charged with an easy fine, [such] as a capon or a reasonable sum of money'.
Significantly absent from the list of grievances was any demand for a return to the old ways in religion. The rebels used the new Prayer Book for public services, and among those who were summoned to preach to the thousands assembled on Mousehold Heath was Matthew Parker, the future Archbishop. Moreover, one of the articles in the Norfolk list pointed in a very radical direction by suggesting that any priest who was `not able to preach and set forth the word of God to his parishioners may be thereby put from his benefice, and the parishioners there to choose another, or else the patron or lord of the town'.
Kett and his followers were convinced - much as Robert Aske and the "Pilgrims" had been twelve years earlier - that their action was not only morally justified but also lawful, and that they would therefore win the approval of the government. But Somerset was alarmed at the evidence of a widespread breakdown of public order throughout the kingdom and called on the Norfolk men to abandon their violent protest and return peacefully to their homes. He offered them a free pardon if they did so, but warned them that if they did not accept his offer he would use force. Somerset had already sent a detachment of mercenaries to William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, with instructions that he should use them as he thought fit, but Northampton's half-hearted attempt to capture Norwich was easily beaten off. By this time, however, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, had returned from the west country, and he raised an army of some twelve thousand men - a mixture of mercenaries and local levies. In late August he seized Norwich, after several days of fierce street fighting. He then turned on the encampment at Mousehold Heath and encircled it. Kett gave the order to move out rather than face starvation, but this merely provided Warwick with the opportunity he was looking for. He sent his cavalry in among the rebels and turned their retreat into a rout in which many hundreds of them were slaughtered.
The rebellion was now all but over. A special commission was set up to deal with the prisoners, of whom forty-nine were executed. Kett and his brother William were sent up to London to be tried on a charge of treason. They were then returned to Norfolk to be executed. Kett was hanged at Norwich castle. His brother was strung up from the steeple of Wymondham church. Whatever sympathy Somerset might have felt for the Norfolk peasants, he behaved like any other Tudor
Kett fled, and the rest of the rebels, casting away their weapons and armour and asking pardon on their knees... were sent home without injury and pardoned... Ket, with three other chief captains, all vile persons... are still held to receive that which they have deserved... We trust, truly, that these rebellions are now at an end.