The forgotten Tudor king: why Edward VI had the makings of a monster

The son Henry VIII always wanted is often maligned as a sickly child – but does he deserve this reputation? The real Edward VI, writes historian Tracy Borman, was a hearty lad who could have been as terrible as his father had he not met his untimely death in 1553 (aged 15)

Holbein's portrait of Edward VI

At around 2am on 12 October 1537, Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII, was delivered of a healthy son – “the most beautiful boy that ever was seen”. This was the defining moment of Henry’s reign: he had waited more than 20 long years for a healthy son and heir. Beset with joy, the King rode to Hampton Court to meet his “precious jewel”, the saviour of his dynasty. Meanwhile, the news was conveyed to all corners of the kingdom, sparking widespread celebrations. A lavish christening was held three days later in the chapel at Hampton Court Palace, and the child was christened Edward.

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Edward VI: quick facts

When was he born?

12 October 1537

Who were his parents?

Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

When did he die?

6 July 1553 (aged 15)

Who succeeded him?

Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine days queen’, ruled briefly following the death of Edward VI until she was usurped by the former king’s sister, Mary I

Hans Holbein the Younger's c1538 portrait shows the future Edward VI dressed lavishly in the kind of finery also favoured by his father. (Photo by Bridgeman)

It is one of the great ironies in history that the boy upon whom Henry lavished so much care and attention, and in whom all his hopes were vested, would reign for just six and a half years. It would be the younger of Edward’s half-sisters, Elizabeth, largely disregarded by their father, who would rescue the fortunes of the Tudor dynasty and become its greatest monarch.

But if Edward’s reign was short, it was far from insignificant, heralding some of the most significant religious reforms that England has ever seen. Edward and his advisers, notably Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, would lay the foundations for the modern Church of England. Neither was Edward the fragile boy that he has so often been portrayed as. He enjoyed robust health for most of his young life, and had a will of steel to match. Far from being dominated by ambitious councillors such as the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland, he had strong opinions, ideas of his own and all the makings of a tyrant. In short, he was a chip off the old block.

The precocious prince

Edward spent most of his early years at Hampton Court and a series of other palaces outside London, where the air was cleaner and the risk of plague much lower. He was widely reported to be a happy, healthy child. His lady governess, Margaret Bryan, who had also cared for Mary and Elizabeth, wrote an enthusiastic report of the Prince’s progress to Thomas Cromwell in March 1539: “My lord Prince is in good health and merry. Would to God the King and your Lordship had seen him last night. The minstrels played, and his Grace danced and played so wantonly that he could not stand still.”

Far from being dominated by ambitious councillors, Edward had all the makings of a tyrant

As was common practice for royal children, Edward was raised among women for the first few years of his life. But upon reaching his sixth birthday, his life underwent a dramatic transformation. The Tudors considered this the age at which a child became an adult. As a result, Henry VIII ordered that his son’s apartments be remodelled so that they exactly mirrored his own, including Flemish tapestries showing the same classical and Biblical scenes that the King favoured. The Prince was also given a new wardrobe of clothes so that he could dress like his father.

Family ties

The young prince had lost his mother and suffered a typically absent father, but his youth was marked with care and affection

Henry VIII

As might be expected for the long-awaited son that he had gone to so much trouble (and so many marriages) to beget, Henry lavished excessive care upon Edward from the moment of his birth. He ordered that “this whole realm’s most precious jewel” should be raised primarily in newly built apartments at Hampton Court, well away from the perpetual sickness that plagued the capital. A strict regime of care, hygiene and security was put in place to protect the infant prince’s health and welfare. No detail was overlooked. A rare glimpse of the Prince’s bedchamber at Hampton Court is provided by a reference to the making of “a frame of scaffold polls over the Prince’s bed to keep away the heat of the Sun”.

All of the King’s assiduous care was administered at a distance: Henry adhered to royal tradition by being as absent a father to Edward as he was to Mary and Elizabeth. A rare glimpse of him paying a visit to his infant son was recorded in May 1538, when he spent the day with Edward “dallying with him in his arms a long space and so holding him in a window to the sight and great comfort of all the people”.

Katherine Parr

Edward never knew his mother: Jane Seymour died just 12 days after his birth. Of the three stepmothers who followed, he was closest to Katherine Parr. Henry’s sixth and final wife was a loving and caring figure to all her stepchildren. Keen to present a united Tudor family to the court, she employed a number of personal touches. For example, for the New Year celebrations of 1544/5, she had matching clothes made for herself, the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, and Prince Edward, all in cloth of silver.

Recognising Edward’s intellectual abilities, Katherine took a keen interest in his schooling – and that of his half-sister Elizabeth – and may have influenced the appointment of their tutors. The young prince, who shared Elizabeth’s love of learning, gratefully enthused to his “most dear mother”: “I received so many benefits from you that my mind can hardly grasp them.”

Mary and Elizabeth

Edward’s elder half-sister Mary was a regular visitor to his nursery. Aged 21 at the time of his birth, she had a strong maternal instinct and lavished affection on her motherless baby brother. She also gave him various gifts – all of which were more personal than those he received from his father. On New Year in 1539, for example, she presented him with a made-to-measure coat of crimson satin embroidered with gold and pearls and with sleeves of tinsel. Throughout his childhood, and before their relationship was soured by diverging religious views, Edward was very fond of his elder sister. He “took special content” in her company and once assured her that, despite his infrequent letters, “I love you most.”

Edward was also fond of his other half-sister Elizabeth, to whom he was much closer in age – she was just four years his senior – and with whom he was educated. Their lessons were heavily influenced by the curriculum known as bonae litterae (good letters), espoused by northern European humanists. It emphasised the importance of Latin and Greek grammar and rhetoric, classical authors and scripture above more traditional elements of a prince’s education, such as hunting, hawking and dancing. Edward also shared his sister Elizabeth’s fascination with magic and astrology; among his toys was a red box filled with “small tools of sorcery”. Above all, though, the siblings grew to share a passionate commitment to the reformist faith.

The other significant change in Edward’s upbringing was that his female attendants were dismissed, replaced by the care of a predominantly male household. The respected scholars Richard Cox and John Cheke were appointed as his tutors. The latter was greatly impressed with his new charge and claimed that he “has accomplished at this early period of his life more numerous and important objects, than others have been able to do when their age was more settled and matured”. This was no flattery. Edward was a precocious student who applied himself with a discipline beyond his years.

Holbein portrait of the infant Edward VI
Edward’s birth was marked by 2,000 shots of cannon at the Tower of London. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Henry took a close interest in his son’s education, and although he accepted that it should follow humanist lines, with an emphasis on Latin, Greek, grammar and rhetoric, he insisted that Edward should also be taught fencing, horseback riding, music and other courtly pursuits. The King also ensured that Edward received a religious education that was at least broadly evangelical: after all, it was crucial that his heir should respect and promote the royal supremacy over the Church. Religious conservatives had no place in his schoolroom.

Edward soon grew close to Cranmer who, with an eye to the future, was determined to inspire in the young prince a passion for the reformed faith. In 1544, Edward wrote to thank Cranmer for his “very kind letter”, and assured him: “I am not unmindful either of your attention to me or your kindness which you study every day to show me.”

Hale or frail?

Far from being the sickly child that history has often portrayed him as, Edward was a robust little boy and, as Thomas Cromwell put it, “sucketh like a child of his puissance”. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley paid a visit to his nursery and noted that Edward “waxeth firm and stiff”. Having enjoyed a rich diet since he was weaned, the boy was well on the way to mirroring his father’s generous proportions.

In October 1541, one visitor to Edward’s household described the Prince as “well fed”, hastily adding that he was also handsome and remarkably tall for his age. A rather less tactful report claimed that the four-year-old was “so gross and unhealthy that he could not believe, judging from what he could see now, that he would live long”. Edward also contracted malaria, much to his father’s alarm, but recovered and was put on a strict diet. It did the trick: the Prince remained in good health for the next ten years.

The archbishop was so successful in cultivating the Tudor heir that Edward soon came to look upon him as a fatherly figure. His letters to Cranmer reveal how close they had become. “I affectionately receive and honour that truly paternal affection which you have expressed,” he told Cranmer on one occasion, “and I hope that you may live many years, and continue to be my honoured father by your godly and wholesome advice.” The archbishop called the Prince, “My dearest son in Christ,” and assured him, “My life is not to be called living unless you are in health and strength.”

Men of faith

Edward became king in January 1547, at the age of nine. By that time, he was fired with an evangelising zeal. “In the court there is no bishop, and no man of learning so ready to argue in support of the new doctrine as the King,” reported the Imperial ambassador. Edward spent several hours a day in private devotion and, determined that his subjects should conform to his faith, he spent much of his short reign implementing a series of radical reforms that would establish a strong Protestant doctrine in England.

Did you know?

Young though he was, Edward attracted several potential brides, including Mary, Queen of Scots, and Lady Jane Grey. None of the proposed marriages came to anything.

In January 1549, the first Book of Common Prayer was published. Its aim was to establish uniformity of worship for all, and it was followed by an even more extreme version three years later. This, the second Book of Common Prayer provided a model for worship within the Church of England for the next four centuries. At the same time, Edward’s council banned a number of old Catholic rituals, such as the use of rosaries, the casting of holy water and the undertaking of pilgrimage.

This had a profound impact upon the lives of Edward’s subjects – including those closest to the King. An entry in Edward’s journal for January 1552 records: “The Emperor’s ambassador moved me severally that my sister Mary might have mass, which, with no little reasoning with him, was denied him.” If he had lived to maturity, there is little doubt that Edward would have persecuted any nonconformists with increasing severity – even more so, perhaps, than his elder half-sister later did.

Seymour was quick to seize the advantage when Henry VIII breathed his last

Though young, Edward had a maturity beyond his years. The Italian physician and astrologer Hieronymus Cardano described how Edward “carried himself like an old man; and yet he was always affable and gentle, as became his age”. He also wrote that Edward was “of stature somewhat below the middle height, pale-faced with grey eyes, a grave aspect, decorous and handsome”. But for all his accomplishments, the inescapable fact was that Edward remained a minor.

While he was able to put his stamp on religious policies, thanks to his close relationship with Cranmer, his political authority was limited by the men his father had appointed to form a regency council. Foremost among them was the young monarch’s uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset. Since his nephew’s birth, Seymour had lusted for power and he was quick to seize the advantage when Henry VIII breathed his last. His close kinship to Edward made him the natural choice to take charge of the regency council as Lord Protector and Governor of the King’s Person.

Although Seymour’s position seemed assured until his nephew reached maturity, it would soon become obvious that vesting so much power in one man was ill advised. The fatal flaw in the arrangement was that, although the council had decreed that the Lord Protector “shall not do any act but with the advice and consent of the rest of the co-executors” of Henry VIII’s will, Seymour was determined to exercise the full power of a regent. As one contemporary observed, he sought to make himself “the King of the King”.

Portrait of Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer came to a bad end after Edward’s death – Mary had him burned alive. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Seymour was ruthless in his quest for absolute authority, not flinching even to have his own brother, Thomas, put to death in March 1549 on charges of plotting to kidnap Edward, marry Elizabeth and make himself Lord Protector. His arrogance soon made an enemy of his erstwhile ally John Dudley, another member of Edward’s council. In October 1549, Dudley led a coup to oust his rival from office, and Edward was persuaded to order his uncle’s arrest.

Edward’s private diary

Edward was raised in an environment that was as cossetted as it was sumptuous. His household was a palace in miniature, with every conceivable luxury. He was regularly spoilt with gifts and allowed to indulge in a diet of rich foods. A troupe of minstrels was appointed to entertain the Prince by his indulgent father, who was determined that he should have everything that his young heart might desire. Lessons were made more palatable by school books with covers of enamelled gold set with rubies, sapphires and diamonds. His cutlery was studded with precious stones and his napkins sparkled with gold and silver thread.

The result of all this was that the Prince grew up to be rather spoilt and, if crossed, his temper could be vicious. A contemporary claimed that in a fit of rage, Edward once tore a living falcon into four pieces in front of his tutors.

When he became king, Edward started to keep a diary. A rather staid account of the key events of his reign, it also portrays him as cold, unfeeling and uncompromising – a dangerous blend of traits that might have hardened into tyranny if he had lived. Although he had been close to his uncle and Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, Edward afforded his demise no more than the following cursory mention in his journal: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.”

Although Seymour was subsequently released and readmitted to the Privy Council, he was deprived of any real power from that day forward. Dudley was now the dominant force behind Edward’s reign – but he soon became as blinded by ambition as his predecessor.

Having secured himself the dukedom of Northumberland in October 1551, Dudley had Seymour arrested a few days later on trumped up charges of treason. The former Lord Protector was executed in January 1552. This served to increase the ranks of Dudley’s enemies, but he ruled undeterred, with ever greater tyranny.

One last scheme

As his reign descended into chaos and disorder, Edward’s health began to fail. In April 1552, he contracted measles. Although he recovered, his immune system was fatally weakened, and he soon fell prey to what was almost certainly tuberculosis. Royal doctors reported his symptoms with a mixture of alarm and confusion: “The matter he ejects from his mouth is sometimes coloured a greenish-yellow and black, sometimes pink, like the colour of blood.” Exhausted by a hacking cough and a high fever, Edward also developed ulcers across his swollen body.

He was determined to prevent Mary’s accession, aware that she would undo his religious reforms

Despite his rapidly deteriorating condition, the King’s mind remained sharp. He was determined to prevent the accession of his elder half-sister Mary, aware that she would undo all of the religious reforms for which he and Cranmer had worked so hard. But he also proposed to disinherit his other half-sister, Elizabeth, on account of her bastardy.

This ran contrary to the laws of inheritance, not to mention his late father’s wishes. But Edward was under pressure from Dudley, who had his own family’s interests at heart. In late May 1553, the dying King signed a ‘Devise’ for the succession, leaving his crown to Jane Grey, granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary – and also Dudley’s daughter-in-law.

Did you know?

Early in his reign, Edward achieved a major victory against the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh – but the ‘Rough Wooing’ of Scotland proved cripplingly expensive and resulted in ignominious failure.

By July, Edward was unable to keep any food down and was wracked by constant pain. Little wonder that he whispered to one of his attendants: “I am glad to die.” On the 6th of that month, between 8pm and 9pm, the 15-year-old prepared for the end. To his last breath, he tried to safeguard the Protestant religion: “O Lord God, save thy chosen people of England! O my Lord God, defend this realm from papistry and maintain thy true religion.” He then whispered, “I am faint,” to one of his servants, who cradled his body in his arms, “Lord have mercy on me, and take my spirit.” They were the last words that Edward spoke.

Edward’s wishes for the succession were carried out, but only briefly: Jane Grey was queen for just nine days. The dispossessed Mary rallied thousands of subjects to her cause, and soon her late brother’s council turned its coat and declared for her. On 19 July, Mary was proclaimed queen amidst great rejoicing. She wasted no time in overturning all of Edward’s reforms, but her victory too would be short-lived. She died after just five years on the throne, leaving their younger half-sister, Elizabeth, to continue the work that he had begun.

Tracy Borman is the author of a number of books on the Tudor period, including The Private Lives of the Tudors, and her latest book, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him (Hodder & Stoughton)

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This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed