King Edward VI

Born: October 12, 1537

Richmond upon Thames, London, England

Reign: January 28, 1547 - July 6, 1553 (6 years)

Died: July 6, 1553

Greenwich, London, England (Age 15)


Edward Tudor was born the only child of King Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour, on October 12, 1537. The prince’s birth was much rejoiced by the king and the people of England considering the fact that, up to this point, the king had not produced a legitimate son that lived past infancy to succeed him. Less than two weeks after Edward’s birth, Queen Jane died, most likely of what is known as “cradle fever.” The king took every precaution to make sure his son and heir had the safest and healthiest upbringing possible and therefore kept him in close quarters and forced anyone who had been in contact with London during an outbreak of plague to stay far away. This careful treatment Henry gave to his son was undoubtedly reminiscent to his own living situation, during the final years of his father’s reign, when he was the only male heir of the Tudor dynasty. Henry was understandably nervous when Edward contracted a serious sickness in 1541, but the prince recovered and thrived. He was given a solid education and his primary tutors – Richard Cox, John Cheke and Roger Ascham (the latter of whom also taught Edward’s sister Elizabeth) – were all men of the reformed faith, which explains why Edward ultimately acquired such staunch Protestant beliefs.

Edward, however, would not get the chance to be a normal child and, when Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547, the prince ascended the throne as King Edward VI at the age of nine, becoming the youngest English king since Henry VI (aged nine months) in 1422. Since a nine-year-old boy could obviously not run a kingdom, the late king had set up a regency council to rule in his son’s name until he came of age.  In the final years of the reign of Henry VIII, the court had been a wasp’s nest of religious and political factionalism, which saw the Reformist and Conservative parties attempt to destroy one another. While Henry VIII still maintained certain traditional Catholic beliefs, he hated the papacy and everything that it stood for, making the religious landscape extremely confusing for those around the king. Ultimately, the Reformists gained the upper hand and the influence of leading Conservatives gradually declined. Bishop Stephen Gardiner was dismissed from court and the Duke of Norfolk was arrested and imprisoned on charges of treason.  Neither man was included on Edward’s regency council. Instead, the council was made up mostly of avid Reformists, the most important of whom were Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, John Dudley (soon to be Earl of Warwick) and the new king’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, making one believe that Henry VIII had every intention of furthering the Reformation in England. Just days after the old king’s death, Seymour was declared protector of the realm by the council and was upgraded in the nobility to Duke of Somerset.

Somerset was forced to deal with a number of problems, both foreign and domestic, during the two years of his protectorate. The War of the Rough Wooing with Scotland raged on as the English continued their efforts to gain possession of  young Mary, Queen of Scots, so that she could be married to Edward and the two kingdoms could finally be united. Somerset led an army into Scotland and handed the Scots a crushing defeat at the Battle of Pinkie, which would turn out to be the last pitched battle between the two countries before the crowns united in 1603. After his military success at Pinkie, Somerset moved further into Scotland and set up a number of garrison throughout the realm (which would turn out to be a highly costly procedure), but ultimately failed to capitalize on his victory. In June 1548, the Scots were relieved by a French army which proceeded to lay siege to the English held castle of Haddington. The French then opened up negotiations for a marriage proposal between Queen Mary and the dauphin (the future King Francis II), which was agreed to the following month. Mary was subsequently taken away to France and the English had no choice but to cease their “rough wooing.” The problem of France was another issue that needed tending. King Henry II was anxious to regain the coastal town of Boulogne, conquered by the English in 1544, and even went so far as to declare war on England in the summer of 1549. However, a treaty was signed the following year which stipulated that Boulogne was to be returned to the French.

At home, the Protestant Reformation continued to make head, led by Archbishop Cranmer, and much of the traditional Catholic mass was changed. Further reforms were ultimately passed by parliament that allowed the clergy to marry, that reduced the number of holy days and that put Cranmer’s new Book of Common Prayer into effect. The biggest threat to Somerset’s power during this time came from his own brother, Thomas Seymour, a highly greedy and ambitious man to say the least. Thomas had already angered his brother and many others at court by marrying Catherine Parr, the widow of Henry VIII, and made fewer friends when he also attempted to woo Princess Elizabeth (both before and after Catherine’s death in September 1548). In addition, Thomas also secretly tried to win favor with his nephew the king by providing him with much needed spending money (since Somerset kept the king in near poverty) and telling how it was unfair for his elder brother to retain all the power while he had none. Somerset was rapidly beginning to grow weary of his brother’s envious and malicious actions and became even more agitated when Thomas continued to pester him about a marriage to Princess Elizabeth (a union that would have given him a great deal of power). By the late months of 1548, rumors were swirling about that Thomas was plotting to gain possession of the king and perform a coup against his brother. Thomas was arrested in early 1549, attainted and executed for treason two months later.

If Protector Somerset believed that his brother’s execution had ended civil unrest in the realm, he would certainly have been wrong in his assumptions. In June 1549 a rebellion broke out in Sampford Courtenay in Devon after a group of churchgoers forced their local priest to conduct mass in the style of the old religion, as opposed to in the way sanctioned in the Book of Common Prayer. The rising spread to other areas and the city of Exeter in Cornwall was besieged by rebels. It is believed that the Western Rising was caused by primarily religious matters, though certain social and economic factors most certainly contributed to unrest in the area and helped the rebels recruit more men. Demands of the rebels included the return of the traditional Catholic mass, of holy relics, of transubstantiation and of the Act of Six Articles (a defense of several orthodox beliefs passed in 1539 and repealed in 1547), among others, all of which were strictly forbidden by Cranmer’s Prayer Book. Somerset, who was no novice when it came to military matters, was alarmed, but acted swiftly by sending an army to the region. At Exeter, the siege was lifted and through a series of small skirmishes, the rising was soon subdued. The final blow for the rebels came after their loss at the Battle of Sampford Courtenay, ironically where the rebellion had begun.

Another rising soon broke out in Norfolk and other areas of East Anglia. This rising, under the nominal leadership of one Robert Kett, a local tanner, was based mainly on disputes over the usage of common land and the practice of enclosure, which eliminated the usage of common land for mowing and grazing purposes. The rebels were particularly adamant when it came to men of upper classes using common land because these men had their own land to make use of and common land was reserved for those of humbler means. Although the rebellion was put down easily enough (with Kett and his brother ultimately being executed), it showed that Somerset’s government was indeed tenuous.

The risings of 1549, though put down with relative ease, gave Somerset’s opponents on the council just the ammunition they needed to remove him from his position and, by the fall of that year, it became clear that he had already passed the apex of his power and could only go down from that point on. In an attempt to consolidate his power, the duke took possession of the king and kept him as a virtual prisoner in Windsor, gaining him even more enemies. Both Reformists and Conservatives alike wanted Somerset removed from power and the duke therefore had no choice but to surrender. He was arrested on several trumped up charges involving the usurpation of royal authority and imprisoned in the tower. Though Somerset would soon be released, and was even restored to his place in the Privy Council, he would never again possess the power that he once held.

The man who was most responsible for bringing about Somerset’s fall (and the man who benefited from it the most) was John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Dudley became the head of the royal council, was upgraded in the nobility to Duke of Northumberland and, for the remainder of the reign, would be the de facto protector of the realm. England under Northumberland was hardly any different from that under Somerset. The kingdom continued to struggle financially and Protestantism became even more deeply rooted. Zealous Protestants such as Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and, of course, Archbishop Cranmer were given free rein to do as they pleased and many Protestant exiles from the continent were welcomed into the kingdom. Cranmer’s Second Prayer Book and Forty-Two Articles furthered the Protestant cause even more and all of the bishoprics within England were filled with Protestants. Even the young king was beginning to show that he was loyal to the new faith. This became evident when he became angry with his eldest sister, Mary, when she requested to be able to hear the traditional Catholic mass. Northumberland, himself a Reformist, did nothing to stop the spread of Protestantism (though he was widely hated amongst Conservatives), but received fairly little in the way of opposition to what was, for all intensive purposes, his regime. Somerset made a small attempt to return to power but was arrested, yet again, on trumped up charges of treason and executed in January 1552.

In early 1553, the king developed a cold of sorts, which developed into a more serious illness. Over the following months, Edward steadily declined and, by the late spring of that year, it became clear that he was going to die. To this day it is not known as to what Edward was suffering from, but many historians (in conjunction with doctors) have concluded that he developed an infection in his lungs which, lacking any effective form of treatment at the time, progressed into septicemia and renal failure. Whatever the cause of Edward’s death may have been, the more imminent problem at the time was that of the succession. Edward, who was still only fifteen at the time of his death, had no heirs and, according to the Succession Act of 1544, he was to be succeeded by his sister Mary. Northumberland and the other leading Protestants at court (including the king himself) had no intention of allowing Mary, a devout Catholic, to take the throne and destroy all the progress they had made for the Protestant cause. Therefore, Edward drew up a will in which he disinherited both Mary and his other sister, Elizabeth (though the latter was a Protestant), in favor of the descendants of his aunt Mary, the younger sister of Henry VIII. Since there were no males to name as his heir amongst Mary’s grandchildren, Edward settled the succession on Lady Jane Grey, the eldest of the three daughters of his cousin Frances and her husband, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 after a reign of just six years. Four days later, Northumberland had Lady Jane proclaimed Queen of England (the duke’s son had actually married Jane). Her reign, however, would be a very short one.

Assessment and Analysis

Being that he lived for such a short period of time, the life and reign of Edward VI is destined to be told through the men who ruled in his name: Somerset, Northumberland and Archbishop Cranmer. These three men, who were by far the most influential figures within Edward’s reign, are the ones most responsible for the furthering of the Protestant cause in years 1547 – 1553. With Henry VIII and his sometimes conservatives beliefs gone, these men were able to complete the separation of the church of England from anything influenced by the papacy and paved the road for the permanent settlement into Protestantism that would take effect in the reign of Elizabeth. Of course, the fact that Edward himself was taught by men of Protestant leanings and was a staunch believer of the reformed faith only furthered the cause of the English Reformation.

Overall though, Edward’s reign is a story of what could have been and several questions come to mind: What would Edward have been like had he grown to full maturity? Would he have been like his father? How would this have affected the Protestant cause? By the time of his death, Edward was already beginning to show traits similar to that of his father, Henry VIII. He very much enjoyed hunts, jousts, tennis matches, had a thirst for war and adventure and seemed anxious to take the reins of government into his own hands. The subject of religion is, of course, another matter considering that Edward was of a younger generation and prone to be influenced by the more liberal of the two faiths. He also seems to have a developed a slight taste for blood, as his father was well-known for, and seemed to be very little affected when his two uncles were executed.

It is hard to decipher how the Reformation would have been affected had Edward lived longer. Though it is tempting to think that it would have carried on undisturbed had not Edward been succeeded by the Catholic Mary, one must remember that, in many areas of the country, the Reformation was still dangerously unpopular. Had Mary not burned several hundred Protestants during her reign, making the Protestant religion seem like the lesser of the two evils in the process, it is likely that the reformed faith would have gained the reputation of being a religion that repressed its people, as, in many ways, it did to those who would not conform. But, instead, Mary’s tyranny paved the way for her sister Elizabeth to bring about a more moderate form of Protestantism, a brand of religion that was not quite as extreme as that during the time of Edward and Mary and in which the main goal was to bring about a compromise between the two faiths. Many of the reforms passed in Edward’s reign though, were used in that of Elizabeth, prompting one to believe that Edward and his ministers did achieve a certain amount of success during their time in power. 

Primary Sources

Jennifer Loach, Edward VI


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