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To kidnap a king: the foiled plot to abduct Edward VI

On the night of 16 January 1549, the quiet of Westminster Palace was broken by frantic barking outside the king’s chamber. On being awoken, Sir Michael Stanhope, who had charge of the king, rushed to the door. There, he found the king’s dog stone dead and immediately cried out “Help! Murder!”. Everyone in the vicinity came running, and it was with relief that the boy king – 11-year-old Edward VI – was found safe in his bed. Whoever had killed the dog had fled in the commotion. All the evidence pointed to the king’s uncle, Thomas Seymour. Here, historian Elizabeth Norton investigates…

King Edward VI by an unknown artist after Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil on panel, c1542, National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Henry VIII died in January 1547, power was quickly grasped by Edward Seymour, who became both lord protector and Duke of Somerset. He was unwilling to share power with his younger brother, who had been little esteemed by the old king. The relationship between the pair was further soured when Thomas married Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s widow. The younger Seymour hoped to be appointed guardian of the king, but there was little prospect of his brother relinquishing the role.

Thomas Seymour had been pleased to be appointed Lord High Admiral early in 1547, telling his friend Sir William Sharington that it gave him “the rule of a good sort of ships and men. And I tell you it is a good thing to have the rule of men”. He suffered disappointment, however, when Lord Clinton was instead appointed to head the English navy that summer in the Protector’s invasion of Scotland. Thomas Seymour remained in London, kicking his heels about the court as Somerset surged northwards, winning a victory against the Scots at the battle of Pinkie, east of Edinburgh, on 10 September 1547. With the protector gone, Thomas Seymour was able to gain access easily to the king in his apartments at Hampton Court.

Sitting with his royal nephew one day, Thomas told Edward that Somerset would never be able to dominate in Scotland “without loss of a great number of men or of himself; and therefore that he spent a great sum of money in vain”. This hit a nerve with the king, since Somerset was widely believed to be embezzling Henry VIII’s treasury and alienating his lands. Thomas chided his nephew that he was “too bashful” in his own affairs, and that he should speak up in order to “bear rule, as other kings do”. Edward shook his head, declaring that “I needed not, for I was well enough”, yet he registered his uncle’s words.


Thomas Seymour, c1545. Original publication from the original by Hans Holbein. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Thomas came to him again that September, he told the child that “ye must take upon you yourself to rule, for ye shall be able enough as well as other kings; and then ye may give your men somewhat; for your uncle is old, and I trust will not live long”. Edward’s reply was chilling: “it were better that he should die”. Indeed, there was little love lost between the monarch and the lord protector. Thomas also informed Edward that “ye are but even a beggarly king now,” drawing attention to the fact that he had no money with which to play at cards or reward his servants. Thomas would, he assured Edward, supply him with the sums required. In return, Edward assured his uncle that he was happy to take “secret measures” to ensure that he replaced Somerset as royal governor.

Somerset’s absence in Scotland had handed the king to his brother, and Thomas meant to capitalise on it. He trawled through royal records, seeking out precedents to support his bid to become the king’s governor, and he began to build support at court. He was, however, incapable of concealing his actions: word soon reached Somerset that a plot was afoot and, abandoning a promising situation in Scotland, he hurried southwards. He re-established control, banning his brother from meeting with the king. This had little effect, however, since Thomas was friends with several members of the privy chamber. It was a simple matter to communicate with the boy over the coming months.

The relationship between the brothers remained frosty into the following year. The death in childbirth of Thomas’s wife, Katherine Parr, on 5 September 1548 also failed to heal relations. Although Katherine had once been so furious with the protector that she had threatened to bite him, she had been a restraining hand on her husband. With her death, he moved headlong towards his ruin.

Henry VIII’s younger daughter, Princess Elizabeth, had originally lived with Katherine and Thomas, but had been sent away after the queen had caught her husband embracing the girl that June. Thomas Seymour had toyed with marrying the teenager before he wed the queen, and had carried out a flirtation with her for more than a year at the queen’s residences at Chelsea and Hanworth and in his own London residence, Seymour Place. With Katherine’s death, Thomas became, as Elizabeth’s governess, Katherine Ashley, informed her, “the noblest man unmarried in this land”. Soon, her cofferer, Thomas Parry, was meeting privately with Seymour in London. It seemed that Elizabeth was prepared to consider marriage with the king’s younger uncle.

Who was the real Edward VI?

At the same time as his negotiations with Elizabeth’s servant, Thomas Seymour was also plotting to bring down his brother. For some months he had been attempting to win friends in the counties by visiting important local men. In October 1548 he informed his ally, Sir William Sharington that from his own tenants and servants he could muster 10,000 men. Sharington was himself a useful ally, since he was the under-treasurer of the Bristol mint and had been counterfeiting testoons [silver coins] since the spring of 1548, stamped with his own initials and a bust of Henry VIII.

In the autumn of 1548, Seymour asked Sharington how much money would be required to pay and ration 10,000 men for a month, before declaring “God’s faith, Sharington, if we had £10,000 in ready money; that were well, could not you be able to make so much money?”. The coiner agreed that it could be done and set to work. Thomas began to provision Holt Castle, a fortification that stood at an important crossing point on the River Dee, giving access to south Wales.

Thomas Seymour was a regular visitor to the king’s chambers during the winter of 1548–9. He was there on the evening of 6 January 1549, where he spoke jovially to the king’s attendants, unaware that the Bristol mint had been searched by the protector’s servants that day. While Thomas Seymour appeared nonchalant at Sharington’s arrest a few days later, he understood the implications that it had for his own plot. On the night of the arrest, John Fowler, who was Seymour’s chief contact in the king’s privy chamber, came to him in a state of alarm, lamenting that “I am utterly undone”. Privately, Seymour resolved to bring his plot forwards.

From around 10 January, he began to invite the Marquess of Dorset and the Earl of Huntington – both men he believed he could trust – to Seymour Place in the evenings. The talk was mundane, but on each evening the meetings would break up suddenly, with Seymour setting out alone for the court at Westminster. There, his behaviour was suspicious. He would go quietly into the buttery, where alcohol for the court was kept. Pouring himself a drink, he would wait alone among the bottles and barrels until John Fowler appeared. Each time, he asked “whether the king would say anything of him?” “Nay in good faith” replied Fowler. At once melancholy, Thomas wished aloud that Edward was five or six years older. At the end of each visit, the king’s younger uncle would insist that Fowler “bring him word when the king was rising”. Every morning he did so.


Anonymous portrait of Katherine Parr, c1545. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

By day, Seymour was still attending parliament, but his strange behaviour was beginning to be noticed. While talking to John Fowler on one occasion, Seymour was informed about orders that had been given to ensure that the king remained safely locked away at night. Thomas asked what was meant by this, but Fowler said he could not tell. Thomas concurred: “No I neither. What is he afraid that any man will take the king away from him? If he think that I will go about it, he shall watch a good while”. It was hardly a baseless concern, as Fowler himself could attest, since Seymour had once commented to him that “there is a slender company about the king”, before stating that “a man might steal away the king now, for there come more with me than is in all the house besides”. Such a course, if successful, would, de facto, give Seymour the coveted governorship of the king’s person.

On 16 January, a servant informed Thomas Seymour that the Earl of Rutland, whom he considered a friend, had made a deposition against him to the council. Hearing this, he began to suspect “by diverse conjectures” (as he later admitted) that the council intended his arrest. That evening, Seymour’s brother-in-law, the Marquess of Northampton, found him in a state of high agitation, rehearsing the day’s events out loud.

After sending Northampton away, Seymour went to court, arriving in the evening. Once there he spoke to the king’s guards, scattering their watch as he sent them on various errands. With a key that had been given to him by one of the king’s chamberlains he was able to open the door to the room adjoining the king’s bedchamber, “which he entered in the dead of night”. There, he disturbed the little dog, which usually slept in the king’s bedroom, and was his “most faithful guardian”. In the ensuing panic he stabbed the dog to death with his dagger, before fleeing home once more to Seymour Place.

The next day Thomas Seymour was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Later, he would be accused of trying “to instil into His Grace’s head” the idea that he should “take upon himself the government and managing of his own affairs”. In his evening visits to court the week before, did he meet with the king and plan an “abduction” with him? It would seem plausible that the bedchamber key had been given to him on Edward’s command, since none of his attendants was ever accused of this.

In the Tower, Seymour, while at his lowest ebb, wrote the lines of verse: “forgetting God to love a king / Hath been my rod, or else nothing”. His protests of innocence, too, insofar as he made any defence, were based on the claim that he had had the king’s confidence and approval in everything. How could it be treason to do as the king asked? He probably hoped to collect Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield on the way out of London. At Holt Castle, the three could then wait for the protector to fall before Thomas Seymour – the king’s new brother-in-law – emerged to take his place.

Unfortunately for Seymour, by leaving his dog in the chamber outside his bedroom the boy-king had botched his own escape attempt. On 20 March 1549, Thomas Seymour lost his head for it.

Elizabeth Norton is a historian of the queens of England and the Tudor period. She is the author of England's Queens: The Biography and The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor, which looks at the relationship between the future Elizabeth I and Thomas Seymour, the uncle of King Edward VI.

Her forthcoming book, The Lives Of Tudor Women, will be published by Head of Zeus on 3 November 2016.

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