On this day...9-year-old Edward VI's coronation

February 20, 2018

 

 

 

Edward must have felt the full weight of duty resting heavily on his small shoulders as he walked up the center aisle of Westminster Abbey. He was dressed in white velvet embroidered with silver thread and decorated with lovers’ knots made from pearls, along with diamonds and rubies. His gown was of gold mesh and his sable cape trailed heavily behind him. Even his horse upon which he rode to the ceremony had been dressed in crimson satin decorated with pearls. He would have been very aware that the next day, at 9am, he would travel to Whitehall by barge and be met by the guard who would escort him to the chamber of the Court of Augmentations, where he would put on his Parliament robes of ermine trimmed crimson velvet. Only three weeks before, on 28th January, his father had died on the anniversay of his own father's birthday.

 

From Edward's birth in 1537, his father Henry VIII threw his all into preparing the throne for the prince he called his and England’s “precious jewel”. Like any infant prince, Edward lived apart from his father and family. He had his own household, which moved between palaces and royal houses such as Hunsdon, Hatfield and Tittenhanger. Sometimes he spent time with his sisters, sometimes with Henry and his then queen, Katherine Parr. By the age of seven he was practising Latin, grammar and composition by writing to all of his family, as well as to his godfather, Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who was a hugely important influence throughout his life.

 

Edward’s reign was short. He was nine years old when he became king and he died in 1553, a few months short of his 16th birthday. His death left England with a tangled and contested royal succession and a controversial Protestant church.

 

In history, Edward has been saddled with all kinds of reputations. Probably the most familiar (for which there is little evidence) is that he was weak and sickly, never likely to survive to manhood. Another is that he was a puppet, manipulated by powerful men. A third is that he was precocious and yet another is that he was just another cold-hearted Tudor. 

 

His words at the exection of his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, are spare and factual: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.” Blunt, uncompromising, these were not the words of Henry VIII but were written by Henry’s 14-year-old son and heir, Edward VI, in 1552. The boy had known Somerset all his life and for a time the duke was the boy king’s protector, governor and mentor. There was a strong connection of blood between them – yet there is not one speck of emotion in Edward’s words. He might have been recording the execution of a perfect stranger.

 

All but one of the Tudors were accidental monarchs. Henry VII, Edward’s grandfather, was regarded as a usurper, while three inherited the throne only because a sibling died. Edward was the single exception. He was born to rule. That his status was unimpeachable explains a lot about the young king and those who served him. Perhaps Henry VIII remembered how, as a boy, he’d been carefully protected after the death of his elder brother, Arthur, in 1502. He knew what it was like to have a heavy weight of expectation resting upon young shoulders.

 

Sixteen seems to have been a dangerous age for the Tudors. Edward’s uncle Arthur had died at almost sixteen and his illegitimate half-brother Henry Fitzroy had died at nearly seventeen. Sixteenth century illness was a terrifying thing and it could often strike down a young man or woman who was otherwise in peak physical condition. The cold that Edward caught in February 1552 soon gave way to an agonising series of physical complaints described as measles and smallpox.

 

In a panic, his advisers moved him from palace to palace, trying the cleaner air of Greenwich, away from the dust and dirt of the city as well as inflicting a series of increasingly desperate medical "remedies" on the young man, all of which prolonged his suffering, and plunged him into ever-worsening pain.

 

Those who hadn’t seen him for months were shocked by his appearance. He was terribly thin and oddly, his left shoulder seemed higher than his right. It was obvious Edward was suffering.

 

Thanks to his doctors, Edward’s last few months in this life were positively hellish and lacking comfort or relief. As well as subjecting Edward to progressively crueller and riskier medical treatments, Edward’s government were also resorting to dishonest and desperate attempts to hide the truth of the king's deterioration from the public and, in particular, from his sisters.

 

By Christmas, Edward was clearly dying and he began drafting a letter for his succession. His fetid sputum was sometimes green sometimes black but he was still capable of a Tudor tantrum. Edward knew that with his eldest sister Mary on the throne, she would have full control over the restoration of Catholicism with the same militant efficiency he had devoted to Protestantism. That, he would not allow.

 

Time would show us that he had under-estimated Mary enormously on that point but his general assessment was correct. It was this fear that tortured Edward as he lay dying. Weak of body, but sound in mind, Edward conspired fully with John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland (and Lady Jane Grey’s father-in-law by the way) and other members of the Council in disinheriting both of his sisters. Since Edward was the last of the pureblood Tudor males, he knew the Crown would have to pass to a woman.  He also knew that he could not remove Mary from the succession solely on the basis of her religion (that would not be tried in England until the next century). He also realised that he could not bar Mary from her inheritance without also doing the same to their younger sister, Elizabeth. 

 

Despite all the affection that had once allegedly been between them all, Edward displayed not one iota of hesitation in eliminating them both from his will. During his father’s reign, Acts of Parliament had declared the marriages of both Mary and Elizabeth’s mothers to their father illegal and it was this technicality that Edward declared made them both unentitled to inherit the throne when he died. Illegitimacy, after all, had been used as the excuse to sweep poor Edward V off the throne by Richard III in 1483, why not try the same tactic now? His inheritance, he declared, would skip over his two half-sisters and pass instead to their second cousin, Lady Jane Grey, now rather conveniently married to Northumberland's son, Guildford Dudley.

 

At fifteen years of age, Jane Grey was prim, devout, intellectually brilliant and ferociously Protestant.  She was, in many ways, a female version of Edward. With Northumberland's assistance, she would be the ideal candidate to oust Mary from her position as heiress to the throne. Next after her, he named Jane’s sisters Katherine and Mary Grey and finally Margaret Clifford, the daughter of Lady Jane Grey’s aunt. Until Jane came of age, Edward nominated Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, his first cousin, and the daughter of Henry VIII’s favourite younger sister, Mary.  

 

This rather bizarre, complicated scheme shocked everyone into silence. Not so Northumberland. He had the cat in the bag with an ingenuous daughter-in-law as queen and his son by her side to help her rule England. He could hardly control his excitement. On everyone’s lips was the question “What will Princess Mary do when she finds out?”

 

As death approached, Edward altered his will even further in such a way as to favour Jane exclusively because the marriage of either Mary or Elizabeth to a foreigner might undermine both ‘the laws of this realm’ and ‘his proceedings in religion’. Edward regarded Jane as his only acceptable successor. Like himself, she had absorbed the ‘godly learning’ of the Cambridge-trained evangelical reformers, and only she could be trusted to carry forward his Reformation towards Protestantism.

 

Whether Edward's disinheritance of his two sisters was legal or not, hardly seems to matter. Sixteenth century law was a minefield of interpretation, loopholes and confusion and often outright lies. Even though it meant over-turning the terms and conditions of his own father's unsigned will, which had named Mary as next-in-line if Edward died without children, and even though his decision seemed harsh, it was not strictly illegal. As the king, he had every right to decide whom he passed the throne to when he died and it was the new monarch's will which mattered, not the old one.

 

Either way, with Mary and Elizabeth stricken from the list and Jane's succession seemingly secured, the young man slipped back into the lengthy process of dying. The rest is history.

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