On 22 January 1552 Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was beheaded on Tower Hill. As his body and head were bundled into a coffin and carried into the Tower of London, spectators at the execution rushed forward to dip their hands and their handkerchiefs into his blood. Many of them believed he was a victim of court politics and innocent of all the charges against him.
It was a dramatic end for a man who, for a short time, had been one of the central characters on the stage of Tudor England. Yet what had brought about his downfall and who had made the decision that he should die? Chillingly, it appears that the final arbiter in the matter of the execution may have been a 14-year-old boy: Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.
When Edward succeeded his father in 1547 he was just nine years old and too young to rule, so the government of England was placed in the hands of his uncle, Edward, Duke of Somerset. For three years, Somerset acted as king in all but name. However, it had not been a foregone conclusion that he should hold such an eminent position.
Two documents concerning the execution have survived. One is a note instructing the Privy Council to consider whether Somerset should be executed. The other is a copy of the execution warrant. However, alterations to the former document raise the question of whether the king was manipulated into agreeing to the execution.
When Edward VI succeeded his father in 1547 he was just nine years old and too young to rule. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
In his will Henry VIII had nominated a council of 16 executors, including Somerset, to govern jointly during Edward's minority. However, without the prevailing influence of a strong king, the concept of a leaderless Privy Council assuming full responsibility for government was alien to these men and it was an easy matter for Somerset to win their support for him to be appointed Lord Protector of England. They did, however, impose the condition that he should act only upon their advice.
It was a proposal which could have provided stable government for the country, but the councillors' hope that they would be able to bind Somerset to their will was a forlorn one. He had no intention of being just first among equals, and instead intended to reign supreme. It was an ambition that was to bring about his downfall.
For two years, matters went relatively well. Although there was opposition to some of the Protector's policies, as long as they appeared to be working the councillors demurred. Religious reform was accepted by the majority of the people and in early 1549 the Book of Common Prayer was introduced, setting England firmly on the road to becoming a Protestant country. A relaxation of the treason laws was welcomed by the populace, although it was viewed with concern by those in authority. Somerset's efforts to improve the social condition of the ordinary people, especially by lessening the impact of enclosures, was welcomed by all but the landlords. In Scotland, his policy of establishing garrisons to subdue the Scots and bring about the union of the two countries initially appeared to be having some success.
By early 1549, however, matters were not looking good. The councillors were frustrated by Somerset’s overbearing attitude and his policies were failing. In Scotland, the combined weight of Scottish and supporting French forces against the English troops was having a detrimental effect upon the function of the garrisons, and the military costs had left the government desperately short of money. In England, his efforts to improve the well-being of the poor folk had raised their expectations unrealistically. They had become impatient for change and, with the relaxation in the treason laws, they felt able to voice their opinions openly.
The increasing frustration of the people was a recipe for disaster and, in April, the first riots began. For more than four months, the government worked to regain control as England experienced the most widespread rebellions of the 16th century. Some areas of the country were out of control. Exeter was under siege, while Norwich in the hands of rebels.
Order was restored at the end of August only after major assaults by government forces in the western counties and in East Anglia – but, by that time, the privy councillors had lost confidence in Somerset's ability to govern. His increasingly autocratic attitude and inability to accept their advice during the previous months had alienated the very men whose support he needed. In October 1549, they closed ranks against him and, in a coup d'état led by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Somerset was removed from his position as Lord Protector.
In his will, Henry VIII had nominated a council of 16 executors, including the Duke of Somerset, to govern jointly during Edward's minority. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A return to court
After a brief spell in the Tower, Somerset returned to the court and council but it was to be only a short reprieve. His place as head of the council, although without the title of Lord Protector, had been taken by Dudley, later to become Duke of Northumberland. But the two men were unable to work together. Somerset was ambitious to reclaim his former position and on 16 October 1551, aware that Somerset's return to power would threaten his own position as premier, Northumberland ordered the arrest of his opponent.
In Northumberland, Somerset faced a man who was equally ambitious but who was not afraid to use underhand methods to achieve his own agenda. On 1 December 1551, Somerset was found guilty, in part due to evidence fabricated by his adversary, of planning to raise an unlawful assembly to imprison and kill Northumberland and two other councillors. Although the penalty was death, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would be executed. The king could grant mercy, either a full pardon or imprisonment in the Tower.
Until this time, the 14-year-old king had taken little part in government other than signing important documents. It had been usual for any document which needed Edward’s signature and the authority of the Great Seal to also be counter-signed by six privy councillors. However, on 10 November 1551 the council had agreed that in future the king's signature alone would be sufficient since the counter-signatures were a derogation of his authority. Undoubtedly the work of Northumberland, this decision would free both him and the other councillors from the need to sign a death warrant. Somerset could be sent to his execution on the authority of just a 14-year-old boy and the Lord Chancellor.
Aware that, in four years’ time, Edward should take the reins of power, Northumberland had been keen to extend his influence over the boy and had encouraged him to take an interest in government affairs, under his guidance. Edward was enthusiastic and wrote papers on his ideas for government and prepared notes for council meetings, possibly in consultation with Northumberland.
On 18 January 1552 Edward drew up an agenda of council business. Notably, this document was considered to be of such importance that a record was kept of what happened to it. The following day, in the king's inner Privy Chamber at Greenwich, and in the presence of 15 other councillors, the king handed the agenda to William Paulet, Marquis of Winchester, for consideration by the privy council.
For more than seven weeks, Somerset languished in the Tower after being found guilty – but no decision had been made about his execution. The third item of the agenda referred to the men who had supposedly been involved in Somerset's conspiracy to murder Northumberland. As originally written by the king, the item read: “The matter for the duke of Somersetse confederates to be considered as aparteineth to our surety and quietnes of realm, that by there punishement example may be shewed to others.”
However, during the hours between the king writing the agenda and handing it to Winchester the document had been altered. Several words had been inserted, changing the meaning. The final document read: “The matter for the duke of Somersete and his confederates to be considered as aparteineth to our surety and quietnes of our realm, that by there punishement and execution acording to the lawes, example may be shewed to others”. Now the privy council was instructed to consider whether Somerset should be executed.
The original draft had made no mention of punishing Somerset. It is impossible to be sure by whom the interlineations were made but, allowing for the difficulty in writing between lines, it does appear that some (if not all) of the inserted words are in Edward's hand.
It is unclear whether the king chose to make the changes himself or whether they were made under instruction by Northumberland. But it can be suggested that if Edward intended the council to discuss such an important matter as his uncle's execution, he would have written so in the first draft of the agenda.
Undoubtedly Northumberland wanted to be rid of Somerset, and there is good reason to believe that he persuaded Edward to alter the agenda. He had gone to enormous effort to bring his adversary this close to the block, yet so far there had been a reluctance to make a decision about the execution. How much better for Northumberland if the proposal to execute Somerset appeared to come from the king rather than from himself.
On 19 January 1552, the council decided that Somerset should be executed. This sketch depicts Edward Seymour on the scaffold awaiting his execution, from ‘The Book Of Martyrs’ by John Foxe, published c1865. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
A warrant for execution
On 19 January 1552, the council decided that Somerset should be executed three days later, but even then Northumberland had one more action to take to ensure the execution would take place. Only the Lord Chancellor was authorised to use the Great Seal on an execution warrant. But at that time, there was no appointed Lord Chancellor and the seal was in the custody of Thomas Goodrich, Keeper of the Great Seal. Goodrich was appointed Lord Chancellor that same day.
When the execution warrant was issued to Goodrich it bore the signature of the young king. Northumberland had triumphed over Somerset but only with Edward's consent. Edward did have the power and authority to over-rule his advisers and save his uncle. If he had chosen to do so, no one would have dared oppose him knowing that he might seek retribution when he came into full power as king. It may not have been his idea but Edward was content to approve the execution.
Disturbingly, Somerset was the second uncle that Edward VI had allowed to go to the block. Three years earlier, Somerset's brother Thomas Seymour had been beheaded on Tower Hill. The charges against him were many and various, but mainly concerned his amorous advances towards Princess Elizabeth and his attempts to gain influence over the king.
It is difficult for us to understand the 16th-century attitude to execution, and we can only imagine what impact the realisation of the enormous power he wielded had upon this 14-year old boy. But perhaps it does raise the spectre of a king who, had he lived, might have been even more ruthless than his father.
Margaret Scard is author of Edward Seymour: Lord Protector (The History Press, 2017)
You can read more about Edward Seymour and his downfall in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine, out now!