by Susan Flantzer
Twenty-six years into his reign, King Henry VIII of England was still without a male heir. His first two wives were displaced because they did not provide a male heir, but each did provide a daughter (Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I). Catherine of Aragon‘s marriage was annulled and Anne Boleyn was beheaded on trumped-up charges. Henry VIII married his third wife Jane Seymour eleven days after Anne Boleyn‘s execution, and Jane was pregnant before her first wedding anniversary, which would prove to be her only wedding anniversary.
The joyous king fulfilled Jane’s every desire and made sure she was attended by the best doctors and midwives. As was tradition, Jane went into confinement a month before the baby’s due date. At 2 AM, on October 12, 1537, the long-awaited male heir was born at Hampton Court Palace. Jane’s labor had been long, two days and three nights. Three days later, the baby was christened Edward after Edward the Confessor whose feast day is October 13. His half sisters 21-year-old Mary and four-year-old Elizabeth attended the ceremony along with his mother who was carried on a litter. Henry’s joy soon turned into grief. On October 17, 1537, Jane’s condition deteriorated and she was given the last rites. She died at Hampton Court Palace on October 24, 1537, most likely from puerperal fever or childbed fever, a bacterial infection. The majority of child-bed fever cases were caused by the birth attendants themselves. With no knowledge of germs, it was believed that hand washing was unnecessary.
The motherless infant was placed under the care Margaret Bryan, Baroness Bryan, the Lady Governess to all three of Henry VIII’s children. In 1539, Lady Bryan wrote to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, “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 ..”
On July 1, 1543, representatives of England and Scotland signed the Treaty of Greenwich which established peace between the two kingdoms and arranged for the betrothal of Edward and the seven-month-old Mary, Queen of Scots, which would unite both kingdoms. However, the Treaty of Greenwich was ultimately rejected by the Scottish Parliament on December 11, 1543, leading to eight years of conflict between England and Scotland known as the Rough Wooing.
When Edward was six years, he had his first taste of family life when his stepmother Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, gathered all three of Henry’s children together for Christmas 1543. Catherine Parr’s efforts in reconciling Henry’s family resulted in the 1544 Third Succession Act restoring Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom had been declared illegitimate and disinherited, in the line of succession after Edward. Catherine Parr also played a role in Edward’s education, helping to select his tutors, who were among the greatest scholars in England: Sir John Cheke, Professor of Greek at Cambridge; Richard Cox, a clergyman and Headmaster of Eton; Sir Anthony Cooke, a politician and humanist scholar; and Roger Ascham, Cambridge classical scholar. In addition, Jean Belmain, French Huguenot scholar, taught Edward French. These tutors not only gave Edward a strong education, but they also imparted to him the tenets of the Protestant Reformation that had swept through Germany and the Netherlands.
King Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547 at the age of 55 and Henry’s nine-year-old son succeeded him as King Edward VI. Edward’s coronation took place on February 20, 1547 at Westminster Abbey. The coronation was shortened because of the new king’s young age. Henry VIII’s will named sixteen executors, who were to act as Edward’s Council until he reached the age of 18. Henry VIII’s will did not provide for the appointment of a Protector, but rather gave the government during his son’s minority to a Regency Council that would rule collectively, by majority decision. However, a few days after Henry’s death, the executors decide to make King Edward VI’s maternal uncle Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, Lord Protector of the Realm, Governor of the King’s Person, and Duke of Somerset. With this new position, Edward Seymour had almost regal power.
Edward Seymour’s younger brother Thomas Seymour, who had married Henry VIII’s widow Catherine Parr (who died after childbirth in 1548), was embittered over the power his older brother had and demanded a share of the power. In March of 1549, Thomas was arrested on various charges and beheaded for treason.
Seven months later, Edward Seymour became aware that his rule as Protector was being threatened. Seymour took possession of his nephew, and then went to the safety of the fortified Windsor Castle, where Edward VI wrote, “Me thinks I am in prison.” The Regency Council made it clear that Seymour’s power as Protector and leader of the Council came from them and not Henry VIII’s will. Seymour was arrested on October 11, 1549. The charges against Seymour were stated in King Edward VI’s chronicle: “ambition, vainglory, entering into rash wars in mine youth, negligent looking on Newhaven, enriching himself of my treasure, following his own opinion, and doing all by his own authority, etc.” Seymour was sent to the Tower of London and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (later 1st Duke of Northumberland and Lady Jane Grey‘s father-in-law (who would lose his head due to his involvement in Lady Jane’s succession to the throne) became the leader of the Regency Council and Lord Protector. In 1550, Seymour was released from the Tower of London and restored to the Regency Council, however, he was executed for felony in January 1552 after scheming to overthrow Dudley.
During the reign of King Edward VI, the English Protestant Reformation advanced with the approval and encouragement of Edward, who began to exert more personal influence in his role as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (who was to be burned for heresy under the reign of Queen Mary I) wrote and compiled the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, a complete liturgy for the English Church which is still used. Cranmer also revised canon law and prepared a doctrinal statement, the Thirty-Nine Articles, to clarify the practice of the reformed religion
In January 1553, King Edward became ill with a fever and cough that gradually worsened. It is probable that he had tuberculosis. By May 1553, the royal doctors had no hope that the king would recover and John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland and Lord Protector, became to scheme for a succession that would benefit him. The powerful Duke of Northumberland thought marrying one of his sons to Lady Jane Grey would be a good idea. On May 25, 1553, three weddings were celebrated at Durham Place, the Duke of Northumberland’s London home. Lord Guildford Dudley, the fifth surviving son of the Duke of Northumberland married Lady Jane Grey, Guildford’s sister Lady Katherine Dudley married Henry Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon’s heir, and Jane’s sister Lady Catherine Grey married Henry Herbert, the heir of the Earl of Pembroke.
As King Edward VI lay dying in the late spring and early summer of 1553, the succession to the throne according to the Third Succession Act looked like this, and note that number four in the succession was the Duke of Northumberland’s daughter-in-law.
1) Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon
2) Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
3) Duchess of Suffolk (Lady Frances Brandon), daughter of Mary Tudor
4) Lady Jane Grey, daughter of Frances Brandon
5) Lady Catherine Grey, daughter of Frances Brandon
6) Lady Mary Grey, daughter of Frances Brandon
7) Lady Margaret Clifford, daughter of Countess of Cumberland (born Lady Eleanor Brandon, daughter of Mary Tudor)
King Edward VI’s death and the succession of his Catholic half-sister Mary would spell trouble for the English Reformation. Many on Edward’s Council feared this, including the Duke of Northumberland. What exact role the Duke of Northumberland had in what followed is still debated, but surely he played a big part in the unfolding of what happened. The king opposed Mary’s succession not only for religious reasons, but also because of her illegitimacy and his belief in male succession. He also opposed the succession of his half-sister for reasons of illegitimacy and belief in male succession. Both Mary and Elizabeth were still considered to be legally illegitimate.
King Edward composed a document “My devise for the succession” in which he passed over his half-sisters and the Duchess of Suffolk (Frances Brandon). Edward meant for the throne to go to the Duchess’ daughters and their male heirs. The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk were outraged at the Duchess’ removal from the succession, but after a meeting with the ailing king, the Duchess renounced her rights in favor of her daughter Jane. Many contemporary legal experts believed the king could not contravene an Act of Parliament without passing a new one that would have established the altered succession. Therefore, many thought that Jane’s claim to the throne was weak. Apparently, Jane did not have any idea of what was occurring.
After great suffering, fifteen-year-old King Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 at Greenwich Palace. On July 9, Lady Jane Grey was told that she was Queen, and reluctantly accepted the fact. However, the Privy Council switched their allegiance from Jane to Edward’s sister Mary and proclaimed her Queen on July 19, 1553. Mary arrived triumphantly into London on August 3, 1553 accompanied by her half-sister Elizabeth and a procession of over 800 nobles and gentlemen. Ultimately, Lady Jane, her husband, her father and her father-in-law would all lose their heads.
King Edward VI had a Protestant funeral conducted by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and was buried in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey on August 8, 1553.