Custom Search


Edward VI

Hampton Court

Seemingly history is a record of the important stuff. Until quite recently history consisted of a record of what monarchs and other leaders did. In the twentieth century there was a move away from the history of kings and queens to the study of other aspects of life. Monarchs in fact became rather unfashionable. With Edward VI the young, and largely forgotten son of Henry VIII, a sense of history recording important events comes together with history as day to day life. At his coronation nine year old Edward was invested with god like powers. In contrast to this sort of nonsense there are glimpses of a normal boy resisting the expectations of the adult world, as young people continue to do. It is in these glimpses of seemingly insignificant daily life that we find Edward's achievement. His achievement was not that he lived up to an impossible illusion of importance, but that to a large extent he resisted it.


Edward's father Henry VIII was desperate for a son. Henry's own father, Henry VII, taking over after a long period of dynastic unrest, known as the Wars of the Roses, had been equally desperate for a son. There was a vital perceived need to continue the dynasty and guard against instability. Henry VII's eldest boy, Arthur, of which so much was expected, died in 1502, leaving his younger brother Henry as a closely guarded heir. From an early age then, Henry VIII had been trained to believe that a male heir was the most important thing in the world. Henry VIII's first wife, Katherine of Aragon could not provide him with the vital prize. Two boys died within weeks of being born, and only a daughter, Mary, survived to adulthood. Eventually Henry felt himself compelled to divorce Katherine, even if it meant taking the huge step of changing the religion of England in the process. If the pope would not grant a divorce from Katherine, Henry would take England away from the pope's authority. Once this was done, Henry was able to marry Anne Boleyn. When Anne could only produce another girl, Elizabeth, Henry had Anne executed, and married Jane Seymour. Finally early in the morning of 12th October 1537 at Hampton Court Jane gave birth to a healthy boy, who was given the English royal name of Edward. Henry VIII finally had the thing he valued more than anything else in the world. Two thousand canon shots were fired off at the Tower of London. The initial festivities were still in full swing when Jane fell ill. According to Edward's biographer Chris Skidmore, Jane was probably a victim of being considered too important for normal midwifery care. She had England's leading academic medical experts attending her, men who knew little about the practicalities of childbirth. Jane was well at first and then rapidly declined, which indicates that basic checks for placenta left in the womb were not made, which led to puerperal fever. Jane would have been better off with a run of the mill, experienced midwife. But she was too important, and probably died as a result. From the beginning of his life it was clear that importance for Edward was going to be a contradictory quality. Edward, as the ultimate prize was carefully guarded at Richmond and other royal palaces, every hour supervised by doctors fussing over his temperature and what he ate. Ironically his expensive, luxurious diet did him no good. Somehow Edward managed to put up with all this pampering and fretting. But perhaps his experience was not all that different to an average child - I was told by my mother that I was "the best boy in the world," and I kind of believed her! When he wasn't being told how special he was, Edward seems to have got on with doing what young children do. Edward played with Jane, granddaughter of his chamberlain Sir William Sidney. They played cards together. When Jane lost, Edward would try and make her feel better by saying: "Now Jane, your king is gone, I shall be good enough for you" (quoted by Chris Skidmore Edward VI, The Lost King Of England P28).


Hampton Court - main entrance

Edward was six years old when he was given an official court at Hampton Court. The women of his childhood were discharged to be replaced by all male company. An education was started with the most renowned teachers in England, Roger Ascham and John Cheke. The sons of nobility joined Edward in his lessons at Hampton Court, where the atmosphere was probably one of an extremely expensive public school. And yet inspite of the weight of expectation and lessons in kingship, Edward remained a normal boy. John Cheke beat him when he misbehaved, though he only had to do this once. Edward was brought down a notch and didn't defy his teachers again. He got on with his work in the school room at Hampton Court, dominated in the centre by a huge globe of the world. In the margins of his schoolwork his friends Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and his brother Henry practiced their signatures and doodled. These pages still survive. No doubt John Cheke disapproved.

By 1547 Henry VIII's health was deteriorating, and factions around him were jockeying for position. Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, brother of the King's late wife, found himself in a dominant position. He became Protector when the King died on 28th January 1547. The power of this man can still be appreciated today in the huge Somerset House off the Strand in London. The original building was constructed by, and named after, the Duke of Somerset. Although the Tudor palace was replaced in the eighteenth century, the extent of Somerset's influence can still be seen in the present building which continues to carry his name.

With Somerset in control, young King Edward's coronation took place on 20th February 1547. The Coronation Address, and Coronation Oath were changed to give Edward unprecedented powers. References to laws and liberties traditionally respected by the king were removed. The usual promise to respect privileges of the clergy was also removed. "Your majesty is God's vice-regent and Christ's vision within your own dominions" said Archbishop Cranmer (quoted Skidmore P 61). In practice these grand statements meant nothing. Edward kept going to his lessons at Hampton Court, while Somerset got on with running the government. Meanwhile Somerset's ambitious brother, Thomas Seymour, was manoeuvering for position. Thomas Seymour's scheme involved marrying Henry VIII's widow Katherine Parr, and flirting with Henry's daughter, Princess Elizabeth. After Katherine Parr died in childbirth in 1548, Thomas Seymour, always an unstable man, seemed to become unhinged. He devised a plan to kidnap Edward at Hampton Court, though quite what he was going to do with him after that is not clear. Nevertheless on 16th January 1549 Thomas Seymour broke into the Privy Garden at Hampton Court along with two servants. Armed with a pistol he reached Edward's bedroom. Opening the outer door he was unexpectedly attacked by Edward's dog. Panicking, he shot the dog, woke the guards and was arrested. Edward's judgment on Seymour was written for him, though of course the judgment was arranged to give the illusion that Edward was in control. Thomas Seymour was executed in March 1549 on Tower Hill.




Exeter City Walls

A summer of rebellion and unrest followed. The suppression of the Catholic Church and the move to Protestantism, started by Henry VIII and continuing under Somerset, caused much bitterness. The new service of the Book of Common Prayer was first performed at the parish church of Samford Courtenay, near Exeter on Whit Sunday 1549. Rebellion quickly followed, with the walled city of Exeter besieged by rebels. Ruthless suppression resulted in thousands of deaths as government troops fought rebels in south west England and in Norfolk. Somerset was temporarily forced from power, but managed to regain his position by 1550. Meanwhile Edward kept on going to school. John Cheke encouraged his pupil to keep a diary. Cheke advised that "a dark and imperfect reflection upon affairs floating in the memory, was like words dispersed and insignificant; whereas a view of them in a book was like the same words digested and dispersed in good order, and so made significant" (quoted in Ascham The Whole Works I. II). The events in the life of a young boy, who just happened to be king, floated on by. Edward wrote about them, and tried to make them significant. Martin Bauer, a leading scholar at Cambridge, said of Edward:" Our king is a youth of such godliness as to be a wonder to the whole world. He orders all things for the advancement of God's glory" (quoted Skidmore P163). Edward thankfully took all this with a pinch of salt. He took no notice when the preacher Thomas Lever pleaded with him to avoid young noblemen such as Barnaby Fitzpatrick and Henry Suffolk. Thankfully he remained, in the words of Chris Skidmore "a normal adolescent who enjoyed riding, hunting and watching sports" (P164). Edward was made out as some pious wonder of the world, but it is much more remarkable that to an extent he managed to ignore this.

In the summer of 1549, after a peace treaty was concluded with France, six hostages had to be exchanged as guarantors for peace. The young lords Edward had been to school with were sent to France, and in their place came six aristocratic boys from France. The imperial ambassador noted that Francois de Vendome took Edward away from his books, saying to him: "What need has your majesty for so many books?" before leading him off to play. It would not, however, be correct to see Edward as taking no notice of the dilemmas that swirled around him. He took careful notes of sermons he heard, trying to come to his own views. He certainly positioned himself at the hard line end of protestant opinion, and repeated harsh views of his teachers regarding Catholicism. This is hardly surprising. He was young, and likely to be influenced by his teachers. Nevertheless when religious divisions impinged into his world of school and lessons, Edward did his best to remain a voice of moderation. In 1549 John Cheke and Archbishop Cranmer demanded that the king sign a warrant for burning of an butcher's wife named Joan Bocher. Joan was an anabaptist, a radical sect which rejected conventional Christian practices. Edward resolutely refused to sign the warrant, until after relentless pressure the twelve year old boy eventually gave in, on the understanding that Cranmer took full responsibility for what happened.

All of these efforts to promote Protestantism were not enough for many hard liners. In September 1551 Somerset's reluctance to be too ruthless in pursuing religious reform finally ended his rule as protector. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland orchestrated Somerset's downfall, which ended with the former protector's confinement to the Tower of London, and execution on 22nd January 1552. Northumberland now took over, using flattery to control King Edward. Edward liked to believe he was important as we all do. And yet as always it is the glimpses of ordinary life colliding with delusions of grandeur that are truly affecting. Nicholas Throckmorton wrote an account of his time as a friend of Edward's at court. Throckmorton wrote that Edward would often grow tired of lords and proper behaviour, and prefered playing with him. One day Edward decided to knight his friend. Knowing that Northumberland was suspicious of anyone getting too friendly with the young king, Throckmorton thought that being knighted could get him into trouble. So he ran away. Edward found the fugitive hiding behind a chest and knighted him on the spot.

View of Greenwich Park, looking towards the former location of Greenwich Palace


Into 1552 Edward prepared to emerge as king in his own right. In July he took his first progress through southern England, and apart from a bout of measles the year went well for him. But early in 1553 Edward fell ill, and was confined to bed in Greenwich Palace. As the weeks and months went by his illness grew worse. He began to face the prospect of not recovering. Edward used what strength he had left supporting a document which would disinherit his sisters Mary and Elizabeth. Instead the succession would descend through three safely protestant daughters of Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, niece of Henry VIII. These girls, Jane, Catherine and Mary, were all placed in hastily arranged marriages, Jane the eldest to Northumberland's son Guildford. Edward died probably from tuberculosis, after a long and terrible struggle, on 6th July 1553 at Greenwich. His plan to disinherit his sisters did not work. Jane would be brushed aside and Mary would take the throne. Elizabeth would succeed Mary as one of the most famous of English monarchs. Edward's short reign as a child king seemed to become irrelevant, and he was largely forgotten. When I was at school he was dismissed as a sickly boy who could be covered in a sentence or two between Henry VIII before him, Mary and Elizabeth after him. In his lifetime, however, Edward was a superstar, who like many children had the sense to ignore what teachers said. This was Edward's achievement. He turned being an ordinary boy into a triumph. He showed that ordinary life is the most special of things, and should be valued beyond all the hot air that each age claims as being of higher meaning. People enjoying a stroll or a picnic today in Greenwich Park, near the site of the former palace, could do worse than recall the boy who died there in 1553. His story is for me one of the most moving to be found in the history of English monarchs.