Edward, the only son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, was crowned King of England in February 1547 at the age of nine. Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, presided over the boy’s coronation. Sixteen years earlier Cranmer had helped Henry VIII establish the crown’s supreme authority over the church. Now, Cranmer used Edward’s coronation to demonstrate his newfound power as Archbishop of Canterbury. He surprised the coronation audience by turning to face them and explain that the king’s imperial authority was not answerable to the people, but only to God. This manner of absolutism that began under Henry VIII was more fully realized in the kingship of young Edward VI.
From a very young age, Edward was educated into the new school of Protestant reform. He was a serious and studious young man who was fervent, severe, and self-righteous in his theological inclinations. The great Tudor historian G.R. Elton dubbed Edward “a cold-hearted prig.” Similarly Winston Churchill called Edward “the nominal King of England” and “a cold, priggish invalid of fifteen” (257).
Young Edward’s regent was his uncle, Edward Seymour (the future Duke of Somerset). He was a more skilled military tactician than a politician. Somerset was eventually accused of a variety of crimes and usurped by his brother. He was beheaded in 1552 and his brother John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, took his place as regent. At age 12 young Edward wrote a treatise attacking the pope, calling him the “anti-christ” (Treatise Against the Primacy of the Pope). When Edward’s kingship began he turned away from Henry VIII’s so-called ‘middle way’ (where England became nominally Protestant but church services were still largely operating under the old orthodoxy). Under Edward’s new rules a more intense Protestant revolution ensued. The country was consumed by a kind of religious fervor. Stained glass windows were broken, crucifixes and other iconography were publicly burnt, crosses atop churches were replaced with the royal coat of arms, pictures of the saints were painted over, and Latin masses were replaced with the English Book of Common Prayer (written by Archbishop Cranmer himself). A new kind of iconoclasm took hold and the country burned. Easter processionals, saint’s days, and pilgrimages were all banned. Foreign Protestant scholars from Germany, Switzerland, and Poland were given chairs at Oxford and Cambridge. Charitable institutions, such as hospitals and schools fell into disarray under the transformed religion. These institutions had previously relied upon people who believed the Catholic doctrine: that good deeds in this world rewarded souls in the afterlife. The new Protestantism redirected those beliefs toward otherworldly concerns. Thomas More’s description of government as “a conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of a commonwealth” was an apt characterization of this era.
Rebellions among the common people grew alongside an economic crisis, however a stronger challenge to Edward’s rule came from his sister, Mary. She continued to hear mass in Latin in defense of the old customs. She openly rejected Edward’s religious restructuring. By 1550 their sibling rivalry came to a head. Mary refused to accept Edward as her spiritual authority. She and her associates publicly wore Catholic rosaries. Mary was protected from punishment by her cousin on her mother’s side, Charles V (the Holy Roman Emperor) the most powerful man in Europe. Charles threatened foreign war if Mary was not offered freedom of religion in England.
The conflict may have extended if not for Edward’s poor health. In the winter of 1552, Edward contracted both measles and smallpox. Soon he started coughing blood. By the following Spring it became clear the young king was dying. Mary was set to succeed to the throne per Henry VIII’s final wishes. Fifteen-year old Edward knew this looming conflict well and he began attempting to solidify Protestant religious doctrine in England before he died. He drafted a document ‘My Device for the Succession’ which excluded both Mary and Elizabeth from succeeding the throne (and any other women for that matter). It attempted to transfer the kingship to the Grey family (Lady Jane Grey’s male heirs). Lady Jane Grey was hastily married to Lord Guildford Dudley, son of John Dudley, in an attempted coup of sorts.
Edward died on July 6, 1553 likely of pulmonary tuberculosis. Four days later Lady Jane Grey was brought to the Tower for coronation as the new Queen of England (she is sometimes called the “nine days queen”). However she would never again leave the Tower. Resistance to Lady Jane Grey was widespread. Popular support overwhelmingly swung to Mary Tudor. Lady Jane Grey was captured and imprisoned. She and her husband were initially sentenced to death but they were granted clemency only to be beheaded a few short years later amidst a political rebellion of the Grey family during the early reign of Queen Mary. Lady Jane Grey is one of the more tragic characters in English history. She was the victim of her family’s unscrupulous ambitions and the religious bigotry that permeated the age.
“She tied the kercher about her eyes; then feeling for the block said, ‘What shall I do? Where is it?’ One of the standers-by guiding her thereto, she laid her head down upon the block, and stretched forth her body and said: ‘Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit!’ And so she ended” (from the anonymous author of the Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary).
For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, G.R. Elton, The Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Queen Mary, and notes from the personal journal of Edward VI.