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Kyra Kramer shares a few fun facts about Edward VI with us.
9 Things You Should Know About Edward VI
Edward VI was actually a healthy child – Many people assume that Edward was physically frail because he died so young, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. As I detail in my book, Edward VI in a Nutshell, eyewitness reports of the boy king indicated a certain level of robustness.
A French ambassador described Edward as being “remarkably tall for his age” when the future king was four years old, which indicates reasonably good health. (Murphy, 2011:246). Furthermore, in the spring of 1551 the imperial ambassador reported that Edward was “beginning to exercise himself in the use of arms” and a Venetian ambassador reported that the young king was “arming and tilting, managing horses and delighting in every sort of exercise, drawing the bow, playing rackets, hunting and so forth, indefatigably, though he never neglected his studies” (Loach, 2014:157).
Modern historians note that the idea of a sickly King Edward was popular among Victorian-era writers, and the image of a feeble little boy wearing a crown has stuck in the public imagination ever since.
Edward Seymour lied about Henry VIII’s will to rule in Edward VI’s place – Edward VI came to the throne when he was only nine years old. This was, all agreed, a tad bit young to run a country. Henry VIII’s will made it clear that Edward would need to rely on the help of his privy council, but that no one person would be appointed regent over the boy king. However, after Henry VIII’s death on 28 January 1547 his former brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, “discovered” a new final draft of Henry’s will that allowed him to dispense titles and positions willy-nilly to himself, his allies, and the men he wished to court politically:
Edward Seymour, already the Earl of Hertford, became the Duke of Somerset and inducted himself into the Order of the Garter. John Dudley moved up from lord admiral and Viscount Lisle to the Earl of Warwick, and was also appointed Great Chamberlain. The now-vacant spot of lord admiral was given to a younger Seymour brother, Thomas, who was promoted to Baron of Sudeley. Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley … became Earl of Southampton. William Parr, the widowed Queen Kateryn Parr’s brother, became the Marquess of Northampton. Sir Anthony Browne, keeper of the “dry stamp” used to sign official documents (like wills), became keeper of Oatlands Palace and his eldest son was made a knight of Bath. William Willoughby, the younger brother of the 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, was made a peer as well, becoming the 1st Baron Willoughby of Parham. William Paget, son of middle-class parents, was made a knight, comptroller of the king’s household, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and would be further promoted to Baron Paget de Beaudesert in 1549. Another jumped-up member of the middle class, Richard Rich, became 1st Baron Rich of Leez. Lands, peerages, and money were also distributed with a generous hand to many others.
In exchange for all these ‘gifts’, the privy council decided that Edward VI needed a regent after all and that Edward Seymour was just the man for the job. Thus, Somerset became lord protectorate of the realm and governor of the king’s person — which is another way of saying he took over the country and restricted everyone’s access to his nephew to maintain his power.
Edward’s uncle Thomas Seymour tried to kidnap him – There were probably several members of the privy council who were unhappy about Somerset’s shadow-kingship and his hold on the real king, but only Edward Seymour’s brother Thomas was willing to complain about it in the open:
Thomas was insistent before the council that he should become governor of the king’s person to balance out his older brother’s role as lord protector. Thomas was bold enough to be ambitious, but not smart enough to be clever about it. His scheming for power was too overt and too clumsy. The final straw was when Thomas actually attempted to ‘rescue’ (or kidnap) Edward from Somerset’s control, shooting the king’s dog when it barked and killing it. Why was Thomas willing to act so rashly? Perhaps he thought that Somerset would hesitate before taking drastic measures against his own brother? If so, he thought wrong. Thomas Seymour was condemned to death by an Act of Attainder and beheaded on 20 March 1548.
Blood may be thicker than water, but nothing was thicker than Edward Seymour’s ambitious humours. He was determined to hold on to his uncrowned power regardless of how many siblings he had to sacrifice or what he would have to do to keep the king under his thumb.
Somerset kidnapped Edward VI in a bid to retain his place as regent – As it so happens, Somerset was not a very good de facto king. After more than two years of his nonsense, the privy council decided that the duke should step down as lord protectorate and allow the country to be governed by committee until the true king came of age. Somerset got wind of the council’s plans in the autumn of 1549 and made the calm, rational choice to kidnap his nephew in an attempt to force his detractors to let him remain regent.
Somerset grabbed the king and ran for it. You have to consider how frightening this all was for Edward, who still trusted his uncle implicitly. The king would later write in his diary how he was rushed away from Hampton Court to Windsor Castle late on the evening of 7 October, and observers reported that Edward had carried a drawn sword as he rode through the night, declaring, “My vassals will you help me against those who want to kill me!” Once at Windsor, the king wrote a letter to the lords of the privy council claiming that he knew, “what opinion you have conceived of our dearest uncle the Lord Protector … we do lament our present estate being in such and imminent dangers … we pray you, good cousins and councilors … in nowise counsel us to proceed to extremities against him, for fear of any respect that might particularly seem hereafter to touch any of you” …
The councillors arranged to have a private letter smuggled in to Edward, assuring him that they only wanted to depose Somerset because he was abusing his position and taking advantage of his nephew, but the king was unmoved by their assurance and remained certain that Somerset was only trying to protect them both. When the duke was arrested via a coup at Windsor on 11 October, the king’s first reaction to his liberators was profound alarm. He had been told so often and so urgently that his councillors meant to kill him that he had no doubt that was what they intended to do. Happily for Edward, he “was soon afterwards disabused; and when he went from there to Hampton Court and dismounted, he thanked all the company for having rid him of such fear and peril” (CPS, Spain, 17 October, 1549).
Assured of his safety, he complained about his time at Windsor, where he had been “much troubled with a great rheum” and where he felt as though he was “in prision” because there were “no galleries nor gardens to walk in”…
King Edward rode triumphantly back into London on 17 October, trusting his privy council once more, but with enough good feeling towards Somerset that he demanded to see his uncle. Under Edward’s protection and due to the king’s intervention, the former protector was able to pay a fine and be released from the Tower with the king’s pardon on 6 February, 1550.
Of course, Somerset didn’t have the good sense to be grateful for the king’s kindness. Two years later the dunderheaded duke was busted plotting to kill members of the privy council so he could once more reign uncrowned. This time, King Edward did not step in to save his uncle, and Edward Seymour was beheaded on 22 January 1552.
Edward VI was never the Duke of Northumberland’s puppet – There is a common historical misconception that Edward VI was under the thumb of John Dudley, the 1st Duke of Northumberland. In actuality, Edward’s own writings and the reports of various ambassadors make it very clear that the boy king was his own man, so to speak:
Edward’s journal, letters, and participation in government paint an undeniable picture of a monarch who was completely aware of the intricacies of ruling and his responsibilities as sovereign. When he felt his councillors weren’t taking his orders seriously, he rebuked them sharply; w. When someone on the Privy Council failed to rubber-stamp one of Edward’s letters, he “marveled” angrily that anyone would “refuse to signe that bill, or deliver that letter, that I had willed any one about me to write … it should be a great impediment for me to send to al my councell, and I shuld seme to be in bondage” (Nichols, 1857:347-348). Moreover, letters written to Edward from Northumberland and other councilmen are couched in the terms of fulfilling the king’s will, making it clear that Edward had the last word on the matter. Edward was blessed with the same implacable commitment to his sovereign rights as any monarch, Tudor or otherwise, who had come before him.
… imperial ambassador, Scheyfve, … went before the privy council and pleaded with them, and reported that “they had listened attentively to my words, the Earl of Warwick spoke, and said that my proposal was so important that they must report it to the King and consult his Majesty; and to this he limited himself. I rejoined that my lords were sufficiently informed of the King’s intentions, and it was not necessary to consult him further. The Earl replied that the King was now so old that he wished to concern himself with all the public affairs of the kingdom; and at this they rose to go to his Majesty” (CPS Spain, 12 September 1551).
Scheyfve tried using flattery to convince the councillors that they, not the king, were the ones in charge of the kingdom and they could let Mary have her mass without having to bother Edward with this little trifle. At this, the “Marquis of Northampton then retorted that I had requested them to allow the Princess to remain in the old religion until the King came of age, and it appeared from my words that I considered he had already done so. The Earl interrupted here and said he held the King to be as much of age as if he were forty” (CPS Spain, 12 September 1551).
Edward may have been tender in years, but his mental acuity and maturity meant that he was far past his chronological age when it came to governing his realm. He valued Northampton’s advice and trusted his friend’s council, but the ultimate decisions belong to the king alone.
Edward VI was very intellectually gifted – The nigh unbelievable intelligence of Elizabeth I is well known, but she was not the only brilliant offspring of Henry VIII. Mary was quite brainy as well, and Edward was a stone-cold genius.
Edward had always been a prodigy, astounding his tutors with his mental acuity. He spoke French, Spanish, and Italian, but was so superlatively skilled in Latin that when he met the French ambassador in 1548, they conversed in that scholarly tongue because Edward was more fluent in it than in French. The king was also adept a reading and writing Greek, studying Aristotle and other ancient philosophers in their original language. Edward also excelled in his studies of geometry, astronomy, music, riding, archery, religion, geography, cartography, warfare, and economics …
The young king was also greatly concerned with the English currency, which had been watered down and debased by his royal father to the point where it was worth only a fraction of what it had been a decade ago before … Edward educated himself regarding the matter and had a better awareness of the economic influence of the coinage than most of his councillors. What was needed was to align pre-existing money with the value of its precious metal content and to mint new, more trustworthy coins. Edward understood both why this was necessary, and how it could be used for to the crown’s advantage. On 10 April 1551, the king wrote in his journal that “it was appointed to make twenty thousand pound weight for necessity somewhat baser, [in order] to get gains [of] £160,000 clear, by which the debt of the realm might be paid, the country defended from any sudden attempt, and the coin amended”. What this meant was that Edward knew the cost of coin production was defrayed by the relative worth of the coinage minted, and his plans “were both logical and correct … historians should see them as yet another proof of his penetrating grasp of the intricate policies with which his government wrestled”. King Edward, as intelligent as Henry VIII and as savvy as Henry VII, was no ordinary thirteen- year- old boy.
The early death and short reign of this remarkable boy have elided his accomplishments. If he had lived even a few years longer, Edward would have been historically renown for his astuteness and scholarship. What a great pity so few know how smart he really was!
Edward was engaged to the French princess Elizabeth of Valois – Some people think that Edward may have been in love with his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, but he seems to have had only affection and respect for her. Certainly, she didn’t figure in his marriage plans. Edward knew he needed a wife who would bring in a whopping dowry and strong ties to a political alliance that could curb the threat of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. To that end, he sent his step-uncle William Parr, the Earl of Northumberland, to negotiate with King Henry II of France.
Edward knew that Emperor Charles V would attempt to prevent a match between England and France if he could. Thus, the attempt was top secret, and Northampton was the man for the job because he was one of the people Edward trusted the most, calling his former step-mother’s brother his “honest uncle”.
Northampton first attempted to get Mary, Queen of Scots, back from the French. Unsurprisingly, the French refused, “saying both they had taken too much pain and spent too many live for her”. That is probably no more than Northampton expected, but it did put the French in the position to be placating rather than placated. Henri II then suggested that his eldest daughter, Elizabeth of Valois, would be a good wife for the king. Elizabeth was pretty, sweet-natured, shy, and since she was only six, the young couple would have time to grow up together before the marriage would really begin. Northampton reported this offer back to his king, and after some struggle to obtain the best possible dowry, Edward agreed.
It is impossible to say for sure how the marriage would have worked out, but the prognosis would have been good. Elizabeth of Valois grew up to be an incredibly sweet-natured woman, and her eventual husband — Philip II (the widower of Edward’s sister Mary I) — fell deeply in love with her. There is every chance that Edward would have felt the same toward the beautiful and gentle French princess.
He was as ardently Protestant as his sister Mary Tudor was devoutly Catholic – Edward resembled his eldest sister Mary a great deal in personality. For one thing, the were both religiously minded and dogmatical hard-liners. Unfortunately, they were on opposite sides of the Catholic/Protestant schism.
Edward was rabidly Protestant and, in an essay written by his own hand, made it clear that he considered the pope an antichrist. This, naturally, resulted in a deeply -held bigotry toward ‘papists’. Edward once told his uncle Somerset that the protector should not be surprised by anything deceptive Thomas Thirlby, Bishop of Norwich, might do, inasmuch as it was to be expected that a clergyman so much in company with Emperor Charles V, “should smell of the Interim”, which devout Protestants believed to be further proof of Catholic chicanery. Edward believed that it was Satan himself who brought “super-stitiousness and idolatry”, and the “bringing in of popery and naughtiness”. In short, Edward gave every sign that he would have become as much of a religious purist and fanatic as his elder sister Mary …
[Upon Edward’s behest] Mary received a formal visit from lord chancellor Richard Rich, vice-chamberlain Sir Anthony Wingfield, and secretary of state William Petre … “When they appeared before her, they began by going fully into the dissatisfaction and resentment felt by their master when he saw how firm and pertinacious she remained in the religion that she had observed up to the present. They assured her that the natural affection felt for her by the King had moved him to long-suffering, hoping that one day divine inspiration would show her the better course. Now, however, the prick of conscience and solicitude for his kingdom’s welfare, which depended upon implicit obedience of all his subjects, none excepted, to the laws and statutes of the realm, forbade him to put up with her behaviour any longer. Though she had given him so many reasons for ceasing to love her, the King still desired to show her all possible kindness; and with this they brought out all the exhortations and persuasions they could think of to induce her to adopt the religion and ceremonies of England … the King king would no longer permit her, or any member of her household, to observe the old religion; but that he wished the decrees and laws of the realm to be obeyed inviolably and without exception of persons” (CPS Spain, 12 September 1551) …
Edward’s aversion to what he considered papist idolatry only increased as time passed. Near the end of 1552, the final version of Archbishop Cranmer’s prayer book was authorised by Parliament. It moved even farther away from traditional Catholic practices than the 1549 edition … The new Book of Common Prayer caused an uproar among the Catholic and less-Protestant subjects of Edward’s realm, who thought it was blasphemously Reformist. Among the hardened Reformists, it wasn’t quite Protestant enough. If the definition of a good compromise is indeed a situation in which no one is really happy, the 1552 prayer book was a very good compromise. Edward, however, was king and he was determined that his godfather Cranmer’s liturgical compositions would become the bedrock of the Anglican service.
Edward, although not yet at the point where he was burning those who openly adhered to Catholicism (he tended to retire reluctant priests and imprison those who actively practiced the “old” faith), he would not condone the teachings of “papistry” in his country.
He was the only one who came up with the idea of naming Lady Jane Grey his heir – There is a persistent myth that Edward VI only choose Lady Jane Grey to succeed him because John Dudley, the 1st Duke of Northumberland, pushed him to do it. Northumberland is believed to have convinced the king to name Jane Grey as the heir to the throne because Northumberland wanted to rule the country via his son, Jane’s husband Guilford Dudley. This is poppycock. Jane and Guilford were probably not even engaged until after Edward picked Jane to be the next monarch. Edward appears to have wanted Jane to marry Guilford because he thought Northumberland was the best person to assist Jane in keeping England on the path to pure Protestantism, and therefore Edward wanted Northumberland to be the future queen’s father-in-law.
The king wrote, in his own hand, the first draft of what he called “My Devise for the Succession”, which named Jane Grey as next in line for the throne. The exact date he started this remarkable document is unknown, but it was possible he was working on it as early as February of 1553 and it had certainly been written by April … Edward’s next step was to make his devise legally watertight, which he endeavoured to do throughout the last few weeks of his life. The young king was badly ailing and in a lot of pain, but his first and foremost concern was making sure Mary did not succeed the throne after him. He summoned more than a dozen of the country’s leading lawyers to draft the best version of his devise possible …
One of the lawyers, Edward Montagu, would later try to keep his head on his shoulders by telling the newly crowned Queen Mary I that the lawyers didn’t want to write the document making Jane the queen, what with them being such big fans of Mary and all, but Edward made them do it. According to Montagu, the king used “sharp words an angry countenance” on the balking lawyers and “seeing the king so earnest and sharp” that they had no choice but to write up the document and sign it (Ives, 2012:129). Apparently the king’s sharpness was so wickedly sharp that Montagu and all but one of the senior lawyers returned ten days later to sign it again for the benefit of king and privy council …
King Edward VI had chosen his successor fair and square and in a legally binding manner. The final draft of the document was signed by the king, signed and witnessed by 102 members of his government (including the members of the privy council), and the Great Seal was applied to it. It was as official as official could ever be.
Upon the death of Edward VI, the rightful queen of England was Jane Grey. However, when Mary and her supporters rebelled and overthrew Queen Jane I, they re-wrote history by asserting that Mary was still the TRUE heir under the terms of Henry VIII’s will. No one likes to think of themselves as the “bad guy”, so by clinging to the idea that Queen Mary I was the real monarch Team Mary was able to assure themselves the execution of Jane Grey was a matter of preserving the state, rather than a murder.
Kyra Cornelius Kramer is an author and researcher with undergraduate degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a masters degree in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. Her work is published in several peer-reviewed journals, including The Historical Journal, Studies in Gothic Fiction, and Journal of Popular Romance Studies and she regularly writes for The Tudor Society. Her books include: Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation for the Tyranny of Henry VIII, The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters, and Henry VIII’s Health in a Nutshell.
You can read her blog at kyrackramer.com
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