Edward VI: boy king and religious zealot

He may have ruled for just six years but, as Ralph Houlbrooke explains, Edward VI found ample time to steer England towards Protestantism...

A portrait of Edward VI. The young monarch’s support for a trade venture through the North-East Passage laid the foundations for the Elizabethan age of exploration. (Photo by GeorgiosArt/Getty Images)

At Edward VI’s Westminster Abbey coronation in February 1547, archbishop Thomas Cranmer supposedly urged the nine-year-old supreme head of the church to follow the example of Josiah, the young king of ancient Judah, in seeing God truly worshipped and idolatry destroyed.

Advertisement

Cranmer’s exhortation was a sign of things to come: far from reversing Henry VIII’s break with Rome, Edward would go on to quicken the pace of his father’s religious reforms. The result was that England would, for the first time, become an officially Protestant country during the six-year reign of the boy king.

Henry VIII had ended the pope’s ecclesiastical supremacy, but he kept the mass. Edward didn’t share his father’s devotion to a rite that, for Protestants, was the prime example of idolatry, and in 1547, the Chantries Act condemned intercessory masses for the dead. Then, the 1548 Order of Communion and the two prayer books of 1549 and 1552 cut the heart out of the mass and finally abolished it altogether. English replaced Latin in parish church services, while the removal of a host of ‘idolatrous’ religious images, abolition of many ‘superstitious’ ceremonies, and replacement of stone altars by communion tables transformed the outward face of religion.

Fervent reform

Edward remained a minor throughout his reign. His maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was protector of the king’s realms from 1547–49. He combined strong support for religious reform with a resolve to address social and economic ills such as the supposedly widespread enclosure of land for conversion to pasture. His 1547 invasion of Scotland resumed the ‘rough wooing’ begun by Henry VIII in order to achieve Mary Stewart’s marriage to Edward. Seymour also tried to enlist Scottish support for an ambitious vision of a united and Protestant Britain. However, French help for the Scots ensured its failure.

Unsettling religious changes and economic grievances triggered a formidable wave of rebellions in 1549. Somerset’s sympathetic response to some economic demands, coupled with his arrogance towards his fellow councillors, led in October to his arrest at Windsor and removal from the protectorship. John Dudley, created Duke of Northumberland in 1551, led the government as lord president of the privy council from February 1550.

Edward’s now fervent Protestantism encouraged Northumberland to support reformers more militant than Cranmer, especially John Hooper, who wanted to get rid of surviving elements of Catholic priestly dress, and John Knox, who bitterly criticised the retention of kneeling to receive holy communion in the 1552 prayer book.

In March 1551 the 13-year-old king told his Catholic elder sister Mary that he could no longer bear her disobedience in having mass celebrated in her household. His strong feelings on the issue embarrassed his advisers when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Mary’s cousin, allegedly threatened war if she were not allowed her mass. Needing insurance against Charles’s hostility, the government agreed in July 1551 a treaty with France providing for Edward’s eventual marriage to one of King Henri II’s daughters. It now seemed safe to try once more to end Mary’s mass, and then arrest Somerset, who was tried for treasonable plotting and executed in January 1552. But Henri II was not a close or trusted ally. There were soon renewed fears of French schemes against England.

A sharp fall in English cloth exports during the early 1550s – when England’s relations with Charles V, overlord of Antwerp, London’s main trading partner, were already frosty – prompted the formation of a partnership between London merchants and the court under Northumberland’s patronage to finance a quest for new markets by way of the North-East Passage (along the Russian Arctic coast). The expedition that set off in May 1553, watched by Edward from Greenwich Palace, never reached China as intended, but resulted in the opening of a profitable trade with Russia. This venture, and the stimulus it gave to English advances in navigation and cartography, played a key part in launching the Elizabethan age of exploration.

After the marriage treaty with France, Edward was encouraged to attend the privy council. In 1551–53 he wrote various papers demonstrating his close interest in the making of policy. In January 1553, however, he began to suffer from the illness that caused his death on 6 July. At some stage he wrote a “devise for the succession” that omitted his sisters Mary and Elizabeth and, in its final form, made Lady Jane Grey his successor. Mary Tudor’s fervent Catholicism was widely thought to be Edward’s chief reason for altering the succession. However, the illegitimacy of both Mary and Elizabeth was the chief pretext mentioned in letters patent that gave effect to the devise.

We shall never know for certain whether Edward, Northumberland or some other adviser first planned the succession scheme. But the king clearly made it his own, and insisted upon it in face of strong objections.

Had Mary Tudor lived longer as queen, Edward’s reign might have come to seem a disruptive but ultimately rather unimportant interlude in English history. In the event, Mary died in 1558 and Elizabeth succeeded her.

Elizabeth did not share the hopes of further reform that the Puritans inherited from the Edwardian radicals. However, the Elizabethan religious settlement was a modified version of Edward’s legacy. Urged by Sir William Cecil – her principal secretary who had served under Northumberland – Elizabeth helped the Scottish lords of the congregation who threw off French tutelage and introduced a Calvinist Reformation. John Knox, exile in Edward’s England, was its leading architect.

Ralph Houlbrooke taught history at the University of Reading. His books include Death, Religion and the Family in England, 1480-1750 (OUP, 1998).

Advertisement

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine