The Protestant King
For all the trouble it took to create a male heir to Henry VIII’s throne, you would think his would be a more interesting story. But all the fireworks happened before he was born. Edward VI was a child king who never ruled in his own name, and was king for only six years. But just because Edward was a bit...unexciting... doesn’t mean nothing happened during his reign. It’s just that the story of Edward VI is really the story of the men who served him.
King Edward VI was the son of Henry VIII of England and his third wife, Jane Seymour. His mother was the only one of Henry VIII’s six wives to bear him a son. She died shortly after giving birth.
Edward was born in 1537 at Hampton Palace. He had two half sisters, Lady Mary, daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and Lady Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Edward VI was Henry VIII’s only legitimate male heir, and was the third monarch of the Tudor Dynasty.
Contrary to popular belief, Edward was a healthy and robust child. However, he did not share his father’s love of the hunt and outdoor sports. He was instead bookish and pious. Like his half-sister Elizabeth, he showed a great aptitude for advanced learning. He was tutored by Richard Cox and John Cheke, and unlike his father or grandfather, he was tutored specifically to rule. He was learned in languages, including Greek, and was a great student of history, Greek and Roman philosophy, and English political and civic structure.
Like his half-sister Elizabeth, Edward showed a great aptitude for advanced learning. They were also both tutored and raised in the Protestant religion.
Edward was a serious and pious student of his religious studies. He was raised in the Reformist religion, something he also shared with Elizabeth. He was often mentored in his faith by Bishop Latimer, and grew up believing it was his duty to establish a godly court as an example to the rest of society, and to lead his subjects in a life of godly pursuits.
For the most part, each of Henry VIII’s children was raised in separate households, although they did spend holidays and special occasions together. They were not brought under the same roof until Henry’s marriage to his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, who became a loving and influential step-mother to all of Henry’s children.
His father died when Edward was nine years old. Edward was proclaimed King of England and coronated at Westminster Abbey in February of 1547.
A portrait of Henry VIII and his children by an unknown artist. Edward is shown here with his father and mother, Jane Seymour (painted postumously). Elizabeth is pictured on the right and Mary on the left. The painting is part of The Royal Collection and currently resides at Hampton Court Palace.
The Rise of Protestantism
For all his bombast against the Catholic Church, Henry VII was no Protestant. All he wanted from the Catholic Church was a divorce, and when he didn’t get it he took matters into his own hands. He founded the Church of England, which during his reign, was the Catholic Church with him in charge. And yes, there were changes and “reforms” along the way, but the church Henry VIII presided over was very similar to the Catholic church itself.
Still, it was an opening. Once Henry VIII brought Thomas Cranmer to England to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Reformists had their foot firmly in the door.
One quick flashback...with all this religious ambiguity running amok, there was plenty of room for game playing among Henry’’s subjects. The behind-the-scenes court politics between conservatives (Catholics) and reformists (Protestants) were epic. Each sponsored their wife-candidate hoping she would gain them favor in the king’s court. It didn’t work for Cromwell (executed after the Anne of Cleves debacle) but did for the Seymour family (sister Jane produced male heir but died in so doing).
In these behind the scenes machinations, the Reformists slowly gained an edge. In the Conservatives corner was Bishop Stephen Gardiner, a powerful voice for the Catholic cause and a formidable opponent for even the most ingratiated reformists at Henry VIII’s court. It was Bishop Gardiner who had the power to almost bring Queen Catherine Parr to an untimely end. Godly as she was, Queen Catherine worshiped the wrong God for Bishop Gardiner’s liking, but in the end, she was able to keep her head.
Knowing all this was playing in the background of his own demise, Henry VIII devised a scheme. He knew he would die while Edward was still a minor and that these opposing forces would continue their powerplays after his death. Wanting to keep the court as much like his own as possible, instead of appointing one regent, as was common, Henry VIII appointed a ruling council to advise his son on matters of state. His hope that a balanced council would provide balanced advice to his son.
Henry VIII deliberately left out Bishop Gardiner, the most ardent Catholic in his own council. Henry VIII feared that without him there to stop him, Gardiner would lead England back to hardline Catholicism. And while Henry VIII never abandoned all of his Catholic religious practices, he did not want England to return to the Church of Rome.
Henry VIII knew that the opposing religious factions in his court would continue their powerplays after his death. Instead of appointing one regent, as was common, Henry VIII appointed a ruling council to advise Edward VI. But before the old king could be properly buried and eulogized, the Reformists had already made moves to undue his carefully laid plans.
Ironically, without Gardiner’s powerful and therefore neutralizing presence, it was the new religion reformers who seized control of the council, the young king, and the country. So much for Henry’s balanced council.
In the six short years of Edward VI’s reign, England became a Protestant country. Even Queen Mary, with all her Spanish connections and her Inquistion tactics, could not turn back the tide.
The triumvirate that succeeded in this astonishing accomplishment were The Lord Protector Duke of Somerset, his replacement, the Lord Protector Duke of Northumberland, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Although the actions of these men had the blessing of King Edward VI, his involvement in the country’s affairs can be reduced to a supporting role.
The Lord Protector
King Edward VI's uncle, Edward Seymour, quickly took control of the governing council so carefully arranged by Henry VIII before his death. Seymour gave himself the title, 1st Duke of Somerset, and helped Edward and Archbishop Cranmer establish the Reformist faith in England. Despite his efforts, the Duke was never liked by his nephew, who eventually had him beheaded for treason. This portrait is believed to be of Edward Seymour by an unknown artist. It is currently part of the Collection of Marquess of Bath.
Before Henry VIII had been properly buried and eulogized, the machinations were in place to undue his carefully laid plans. Whether Henry VIII approved or not, the Reformist religious movement was on the rise and leading protestants on the council, long underground, saw this as their chance to seize control. And they did.
Edward Seymour easily convinced fellow council members that as the king’s uncle (he was brother to Edward’s mother, Jane Seymour), he should lead the council and be declared regent during the boy’s minority. As the Lord Protector, Seymour was soon given the title Duke of Somerset by his nephew.
Somerset oversaw and approved of the rapid overhaul of the English Church. Under his supervision, the church in England shed the last vestiges of Roman Catholicism.
This portrait of Thomas Cranmer was done by Gerlach Flicke in 1545. It currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry VIII, and later helped Edward VI establish the Church of England much as it exists today. Among his accomplishments was authoring the Book of Common Prayer.
Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry VIII. He filled the void left by the resignation and later execution of Sir Thomas More. Henry VIII handpicked Cranmer because of his Reformist leanings. Cranmer was living in Germany at the time and was profoundly influenced by the New Religion revolution occurring there.
Cranmer’s devotion to the new religion was true and complete. Henry VIII’s devotion to the new religion was a matter of convenience. He needed sycophants and allies in his quest to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.
Doing so had proved no easy feat. In Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII found a religious man, an intelligent man, and someone with the proper religious leanings to give him the divorce he wanted with no pangs of conscience.
Beyond the divorce, Thomas Cranmer was able to affect much change for the Reformist cause during Henry VIII’s lifetime, but his real work in establishing the Anglican Church occurred during Edward VI’s reign. The quickness with which he was able to accomplish so much is astonishing.
In 1548, Cramer authored an English word version of the communion mass. Mass was now said in English and each church was issued an English-language Bible. Statues of the Saints and all religious relics were removed from churches.
Cranmer authored the Book of Common Prayer during the winter of 1548-49. Edward’s Act of Uniformity, in January of 1549, implemented the use of this prayer book in the Anglican Mass. By June of that year, on what is known in England as Whit Sunday, or Whitsun, the Book was distributed and made mandatory in all churches in England.
But Cranmer wasn’t done yet. He abolished the celebration of Saint’s days, prohibited devotional masses and chantries for the dead, and allowed priests to marry (Cranmer himself was secretly married). Within the mass he also ceased with rituals such as the passing of the peace and the elevation of the host.
In Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII found a religious man, an intelligent man, and someone with the proper religious leanings to give him the divorce he wanted with no pangs of conscience.
It was this last matter that was the most profound disagreement between Catholics and Reformists. Communion refers to a ritual that remains a sacrament for both Catholic and Protestant Christian faiths. The custom has its roots in the biblical story of Christ’s last supper with his disciples, at which Christ offered them bread and wine and asked them at future dinners to eat and drink this in remembrance of him. Christian churches now observe this rite by sharing bread and wine as part of communion services.
In this ritual, Christians recognize and give thanks for the sacrifice of Christ’s crucifixion so that all Christians might receive life after death. The traditional Roman Catholic faith believes that through the communion mass Christ’s actual body and blood become part of the bread and wine used for the ritual, a process known as transmogrification. The Reformists, and now Protestant churches, believe the bread and wine are merely symbolic of Christ’s body and blood, and the sacrifice he made.
This, more than anything, became the issue on which years of religious civil wars would be based, tearing apart England, as well as most European countries.
The Role of Centralized Government
The Duke of Somerset was Lord Protector for two years, and King Edward’s reign lasted only six years. The marvel of what was accomplished in so short a period of time astonished European peers and can be explained historically not as a matter of public longing for reform as much as a precise, organized campaign by a small centralized government that reached into every villa in England, however insignificant.
What the Reformation Changed
Cranmer and Somerset’s accomplishments are a prime example of the will of the few forced upon the will of the many. 16th century England was still largely illiterate. Even if they had been literate in English, Catholic Mass was held in Latin as were the bibles written in Latin. In an age when even many priests weren’t well educated, this was a problem. As a result, few people read or could interpret the bible for themselves. The church did this for them.The church said do this, or believe that, and the people did it. Religious authority was not questioned.
But spiritually, the Catholic church did offer much more. Traditional religion gave people comfort through ritual. People lived and celebrated their lives based on the weekly mass, the Holy day celebrations, and the rituals surrounding life’s milestones, such as the rites of marriage and baptisms of the newborn. Because they couldn’t read, murals, paintings and pageants helped people learn the stories of the Bible, allowing them to understand their faith. Icons of the saints allowed people to focus their prayers, and gave them the assurance that somebody would pass their message on to God. And music needed no special language to be understood, it can uplift without words.
With no ability to read or intellectually understand the lessons of the Bible, people celebrated their religious lives visually and ritually. That was how they understood their faith. The Reformation took that away from them.
Outside of London, the Reformist faith was never popular. And when it was forced upon them, communities throughout England protested and rioted.
The Fall of Somerset
The focus of people’s anger was Somerset. He bore the brunt of not only their religious discord, but their precarious economic status as well.
Somerset’s rule had caused further poverty and social unrest. His hawkish policies against Scotland created a monetary drain on the country’s economy. Despite good harvests in these years, food prices continued to rise, partly due to the war with Scotland. Because of continued agrarian reform, more and more rural people were homeless and impoverished. And outside of London, most people were unhappy with the religious reforms. People wanted their old religion back. The populous was in an ugly mood.
Things were no better for Somerset within the council. Members were unhappy with Somerset’s decisions and with his unkept promises. To gain control of the council, Somerset had made secret deals with various members. His deals had not been kept and those promised unfulfilled titles or monies were bitter. And Somerset was not a man with the charisma to rule an unruly council. He was not personable or likable. He abused his relationship with the king when setting policy and he imposed his views rather than build a consensus for them.
But the chief complaint against Somerset was that he had tried to change too much during the King’s minority. People did not trust that the changes were truly the wishes of the boy king. It was generally believed that King Edward, at the tender age of 11, was being unduly influenced and controlled by his uncle and other protestant factions at court.
On top of this, Somerset had the unfortunate burden of having to prosecute and execute his own brother, Admiral Thomas Seymour, for treason. The two brothers had been feuding since their nephew became king. Thomas resented his brother’s superior position and felt their roles with the king should be equal. Thomas proceeded to subvert his brother’s authority by bribing other members of the council and by buying his nephew’s goodwill with secret gifts and allowances (something Somerset was very strict about). When Thomas tried to kidnap the king he was tried for treason, convicted, and executed.
For Somerset’s part, he refused to sign his brother’s execution order, (instead passing this duty onto the king who reluctantly, but compliantly, ordered the execution of his favorite uncle) even though his brother’s actions had precipitated such a move. Still, the people viewed the Protector’s role in this as callous and unfeeling. On this matter, he was caught in a public relations perception that he couldn’t win.
Somerset’s real problem, however, was that he was disliked by his nephew, the king. Had Somerset had the love and goodwill of his nephew, he would surely have survived the ill will of the council. But King Edward found his uncle to be strict, severe and controlling. He chaffed under his uncle’s restrictions, controls and budgets. Somerset allowed the king only a small allowance and controlled the court expenses. Edward was also offended that people thought the ideas of his court weren’t his own. Albeit only 11 years old, he was a Tudor, he was excellently educated, and he was willful and proud.
All of this emboldened Somerset’s fellow council members to conspire against him. With Somerset on the wane, it was John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, who seized power within the council and rose to the title of Lord Protector.
Somerset’s Trial and Execution
When the Duke of Somerset's influence began to wane, John Dudley was quick to fill the power void. He became the king's Lord Protector and gave himself the title, 1st Duke of Northumberland. Northumberland advised Edward VI until his death, convincing him to name his cousin, Jane Grey, as his heir. This was in opposition to Henry VIII's Act of Succession which had been ratified by parliament, and would eventually lead to his execution by Queen Mary.
Warwick, a powerful personality, was the perfect Tudor politician, in that he was without conscience capable of duplicity and an expert at double-dealing. When he saw Somerset’s leadership failing, he also saw the downfall of the Reformist religion and its followers, of which he was one.
The conservative members of the council at this time were conspiring to take control and install Lady Mary as Protector, But their most capable leader, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, was in prison. Without him, the conservatives lacked leadership and consensus. Warwick was able to exploit this and conspired to build his own base. With Cranmer’s help, he was able to pack the council with sympathetic Reformers and political supporters. When Somerset stepped down (due to riots and social unrest caused by his policies) Warwick was able to step up.
Per usual, Somerset continued efforts to regain his former title. Unfortunately, his plans included a failed conspiracy to murder Warwick. When caught, Warwick had his grounds for getting rid of his chief rival. Somerset was tried and convicted of a felony, not treason. Nevertheless, he was executed. With Somerset gone and the conservatives silenced, Warwick had paved a clear path to power.
As for himself, Edward VI had the unfortunate task of ordering the execution of a second uncle. He seemed to feel no pang of conscience in facilitating the death of this uncle. Warwick was raised to Lord Protector and given the title of the Duke of Northumberland.
Lord Protector Northumberland
Northumberland ruled as Lord Protector for over three years. With Cranmer’s help, he continued the Reformist agenda. For the most part, Northumberland was well liked and respected by the council. He was charismatic, intelligent and capable of leading by consensus. He was also well liked by the king. His doom was in being too greedy.
When King Edward succumbed to his last illness, and his life began to ebb way, Northumberland realized that he must act in order to retain his power at court.
Edward’s sister Mary was next in line to the throne, but Edward did not approve of her Catholic faith. Northumberland knew that under Catholic Mary he would not be welcome at court and might possibly be prosecuted for his religious beliefs. So with the King’s blessing, Northumberland conspired to keep control of the crown.
A portrait of Edward VI attributed to William Scrotts. This portrait shows a healthy Edward, although he would die of an unknown illness at the age of 16. This portrait is part of The Royal Collection.
The Act of Succession
King Edward died July 6, 1553 of an unknown illness. His body had become weak and ulcerated and everyone, including the king, knew his end was near. During his last days, King Edward, still only 16 years old, wrote his will and in it changed King Henry’s Act of Succession.
In Henry VIII’s Act of Succession, which had been ratified by Parliament and thereby made law, Henry had named his children as his successors, in the order of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. Following them in the succession were the children of his younger sister Mary and her heirs. The Act of Succession never legitimized Mary or Elizabeth. But they were to succeed in spite of their illegitimacy.
Being a devoutly religious young man, King Edward may have had pangs of conscious about his sisters’ illegitimacy. It is possible he truly believed his half sisters unworthy of the crown. In his own handwriting and signed by himself, King Edward declared his sisters illegitimate and unable to succeed to the throne.
Even so, the influence of Northumberland can be felt in this matter. In place of his sisters, Edward named Jane Gray, granddaughter of Mary Tudor, King Henry’s younger sister, the rightful heir to the throne. Conveniently, Jane Grey happened to be Northumberland’s daughter-in-law.
Queen Jane Grey, the Nine-Day Queen
Jane Gray was a most unwilling participant in the events that lead to her doom. She was a devotee of the new religion and was excellently educated, much like her cousins King Edward and Lady Elizabeth. Even more to Northumberland’s advantage, she was married to his eldest son, Guildford Dudley. By naming Jane queen, Northumberland would be able to retain his control of the council and place his son on the throne of England.
Jane’s marriage to Guildford Dudley had been forced upon her at the age of 15. Only a few months later she was told by Northumberland that she had succeeded to the throne. In front of a room of conspirators, dignitaries and foreign ambassadors (and thereby many reliable witnesses), it is said she collapsed in shock at the news and sobbed uncontrollably––and uncomforted. She tried to refuse the crown, herself saying Lady Mary was the rightful heir. But the conspirators would have none of it. Overpowered by her father-in-law and once again bullied by her ambitious parents, Jane Gray was forced to do their bidding.
Jane knew well that she was a mere pawn in this power play. She may be called queen, but she was at the mercy of Northumberland who was determined to succeed in this coup and retain power. Jane did not want to be queen and surely felt a sense of doom regarding the whole enterprise.
Her reign lasted nine days.
The Conspiracy Against Lady Mary
King Edward’s death, at first, was kept secret. Northumberland needed time to get his players into position. As the king’s illness had progressed, Northumberland had invited both of the queen’s sisters to pay their last respects to the king. Both sisters were suspicious of Northumberland’s intentions and refused to return with his messengers. Everything depended on Northumberland having the heirs within his grasp. Had the sisters come to court and within Northumberland’s control, he would have been assured of victory. Failing to do so was his doom.
Almost everything was in Northumberland’s favor. Largely Reformist, the council did not want to return to a Roman Catholic state, as Mary’s reign would surely do. That fact alone allowed Northumberland to gain their allegiance in his conspiracy.
Northumberland also controlled the seat of power, both the throne and London. Through his co-conspirators, he had access to the ducal armies. And, he had a document with the late king’s signature naming Jane Gray as his successor.
It was Mary who would have to raise an army and march on London to take it. Northumberland was banking on the fact that she wouldn’t do it. Even if she tried, the odds were against her. Taking London from those that defended it would not be easy. Even Mary’s Spanish relations, including the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, thought her cause was lost. When Northumberland played his cards, Charles conceded his superior position, and made no move to assist or declare allegiance for Mary.
Mary stood alone against all the men in power. As it turns out, that was enough.
Mary’s March on London
The future of England now rested on the endgame between its Lord Protector and its rightful queen. In spite of the odds, it was over quickly.
Northumberland had almost everything in his favor. But Mary had herself. She had the bravery and bluster of a Tudor, and the self-righteous determination of her mother. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and the granddaughter of Isabelle and Ferdinand. Courage was in her blood.
She also had friends. Mary’s mother had always been loved by the people of England, and Mary also had been loved and cared for by many during her long falling out with her father. Evidence points to the probability that Mary had been warned by a messenger as to Northumberland’s plans prior to the arrival of his men who surely would have arrested her. Instead, Mary had time to escape to the nearby estate of friends. From there it becomes evident that Mary and her supporters had anticipated Northumberland’s move and had made contingency plans. They were able to quickly raise an army. Mary raised her standard, declared for the throne, and began her march toward London.
Mary also had the will of the people. Outside of London, people were still largely Catholic, so they did not fear a Catholic monarch. But even Reformist London quickly declared for Mary. The English merchant community was thriving and a dynastic war would disrupt trade, development and an increasingly wealthy community life. It had been almost a century since the War of the Roses, but the hangover remained. London––all of England–– wanted peace and stability.
This was when the conspiracy fell apart. As soon as Mary declared for the throne, and it was clear the people were behind her, the conspirators lost their nerve. They began jumping ship, declaring for Mary and against Jane Gray. These were men who had served Mary’s father, and Henry VIII’s shadow still darkened the court. They feared him, they did not fear his son. From the grave, Henry VIII’s words still spoke to them, and it was to him they listened, not to the boy king. Henry VIII had named Mary as his legitimate heir, and in their hearts, each conspirator knew this to be true.
Jane Gray was abandoned by nearly everyone, including her parents. Her own father tore down her standard, leaving her to her fate, while he escaped to safety.
Justice and Mercy
There was no escape for Northumberland. As Mary entered London triumphantly, her troops unopposed, and the love and support of her people clearly with her, Northumberland surrendered. He was tried for treason and executed.
Regarding the other conspirators, Mary showed unusual forgiveness and leniency. Most were given amnesty. Others were held in the Tower and later released. Even Lady Jane Gray was forgiven…this time.
The Dynasty Continues
With Mary’s triumph, Edward VI’s reign officially came to an end. He had come in like a lamb and gone out like a lion. His reign had inalterably changed the religious landscape of England. But he could not change the course of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII’s daughters would rule after all.