The Short, Unhappy Life of England’s King Edward VI



England’s King Edward VI began life as the hope of an entire nation; the male heir that Henry VIII at long last produced after a series of unfortunate marriages ending in a couple of beheadings and a divorce that completely changed the religious map of England. Unfortunately for Edward especially, but really almost all concerned, his birth occurred too late in his father’s life to ensure the smooth transition that such a celebrated event was intended to guarantee. A mere child when he was handed the crown of England, Edward VI was never more than a figurehead; a puppet monarch whose strings were pulled by a variety of ambitious overseers. But such was the instability of transition in a monarchy that even the powerful Duke of Somerset was not free to rule young Edward as he might have hoped.

Henry VIII died when Edward was just nine years old. Henry’s will requested that sixteen executors be named as members of a Council of Regency until his son turned 18. Almost as if knowing he never would, the Council voted to lower Edward’s age of assumptive majority to 16 in a vote taken in 1552. In addition to the sixteen executors, Henry also willed the addition of twelve assistants who would assume the mantle of executor should any of the original sixteen not prove fit for their duties. The council quickly moved to elect Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour, as Lord Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King’s Person until Edward achieved maturity. Seymour was then given the title Duke of Somerset and appointed to the positions of Lord High Treasurer and Earl Marshal.

Another unfortunate thing for young Edward was that he assumed the throne during one of the most politically contentious periods in British history to that point. His father’s divorce had resulted in a break with the Catholic Church, setting up centuries of deep division within the country between reformists and those loyal to Rome. The Duke of Somerset set for himself the goal of reaching a state of unification between Protestant England and Catholic Scotland. Of course, Somerset was hardly alone in figuring that control of the boy king meant control of the direction of Britain. As a result, Edward’s short reign was marked by political infighting and manipulations intent on ensuring that England became a rigidly Protestant country, which meant battling both Catholic interests from without. Somerset rose and fell, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer was deeply influential on Edward, and the Earl of Warwick eventually rose to prominence to take on the same position in Edward’s life as Somerset. The wives and offspring of Henry VII, as well as political figures of the court constantly conspired against each other to ensure that their wishes would result in Edward’s issuance of edicts.

The political maneuvering only became more intense once it became obvious that Edward’s reign would not see him reach maturity as a result of contracting tuberculosis. The hard-line Protestants conspired not only against the Catholic Mary in Scotland, but against the moderate Protestant Elizabeth, hoping to place the hard-line Protestant Lady Jane Grey in line for succession upon his death. Though successful, Lady Jane’s reign was infamously short, paving the way for the glorious reign of Edward’s sister Elizabeth.