Edward VI & Somerset
The succession of Edward and the
seizure of power by Somerset
Edward VI succeeded on the death of Henry VIII, 28 January
1547; he was nine years old.
His half-sister, Mary was thirty-one, and his other
half-sister, Elizabeth was fourteen years old.
A committed Protestant with a strong
personality, he wrote more than other Tudors, including a
Henry's death had been expected for at least a year and
1546 saw the various court factions jockeying for power.
The religious conservatives lacked leaders: - Charles
Brandon, Duke of Suffolk had died in 1545, and
Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke
of Norfolk was 73 years old. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was
unstable, while Bishop Stephen Gardiner's abrasive personality made
him many enemies.
The Protestant radicals had younger, more energetic and united leaders.
The two most important were
Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and
John Dudley, Viscount Lisle (son of
Henry VII's minister, Edmund Dudley)
William Paget - the greatest bureaucrat of Henry VIII's later
years - aligned himself with them.
The conservatives at
court struck the first blow, and attempted to oust their opponents as
heretics. The young Protestant, Anne Askew
was arrested by Gardiner and tortured to try and make
her accuse courtiers of sharing her heretical views. Richard Rich and
the Lord Chancellor, Thomas
Wriothesley (1st earl of Southampton) worked the rack; but
Askew refused to inform and was burnt.
also suggested to Henry that his wife, Catherine was a heretic; but Catherine submissively
agreed to take her religious views from Henry. It was Gardiner who
fell from favor, not Catherine.
1546, the radicals gained control of two important assets:
(1) the stamp used to put Henry's signature on official documents (because Henry himself could not be bothered
to sign everything).
(2) control of Privy Chamber.
The radicals tampered
with Henry's will before they stamped it, but just how much they
changed is unclear. The will was important not only in itself, but
also because an Act of Parliament had given it the force of statute.
that the succession go to Edward; if he died without heirs to Mary,
then to Elizabeth, and then to the
Greys, thus cutting
the Stuarts out of
The exclusion of the Stuarts was probably authentically Henry's will. He
loathed his sister Margaret,
who died in 1541.
The exclusion of Gardiner from power was also probably intended
by Henry VIII, but the dominance of the Seymour faction in the Council of sixteen
appointed by the will was probably the work of Seymour and his
The details of this smooth takeover were the work of William Paget; but
it primarily benefited
Seymour, who became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. He forced out his main enemy, Thomas Wriothesley.
After initially handing out large rewards from the crown's wealth to other Councilors,
Somerset imperiously ignored the Council, and ruled as an autocrat.
The rule of Somerset
power from 1547 to 1549. His main rival was his brother, Thomas who
increased his influence by marrying Henry's widow,
After her death, Thomas paid court to the young Elizabeth; he was
promptly arrested and executed for treason (20 March 1549).
Somerset viewed Scotland as an easy target, as the
death of James V had left the infant Mary, Queen of Scots on the
The English were victorious at the
Battle of Pinkie
(10 September 1547). But this only forced the Scots into the arms of
the French. Under the terms of the Treaty of Haddington, July 1548, Mary married
the Dauphin, Francis, and the French sent a large army to Scotland,
cutting off the isolated English garrisons. The French also besieged
Boulogne. The war was prohibitively expensive and forced further
debasement of the coinage.
Somerset was a
moderate Protestant. He abolished the medieval laws against heresy and
allowed the printing of Scripture in English.
He also abolished the chantries
that paid stipends to priests to pray for the dead) expressing Protestant opposition to belief in Purgatory and prayers
for the dead, and seizing the proceeds.
In 1549, clerical marriage was permitted.
In the same year, a new English prayer book was imposed by the Act of
Uniformity. The prayer book introduced Protestant doctrine whilst
retaining old ceremonies. This softly, softly approach was devised by
Somerset and Cranmer to minimize the appearance of innovation. Roman
Catholic forces were victorious on the European Continent, and
Protestants also feared conservative resistance at home.
In fact, even the bishops put up little resistance, only Stephen
Gardiner (Bishop of Winchester) and Edmund Bonner
(Bishop of London)
stood firm. In 1550, Bonner was committed to Marshalsea prison, and
remained there until Mary freed him on her accession.
The 1540s were a
period of acute price inflation - the purchasing power of silver was
falling at the same time as the silver content of English coins was
decreasing. The population was increasing more quickly than
By 1547, the cost of food was 45% higher than in 1540. Prices fell
slightly in 1548, only to increase by another 10% in 1549.
Wages could not keep pace, and their real value fell by about 50% over
Anyone living on a fixed income suffered. Only large farmers profited.
Debasement led to a fall in value of
pound abroad. This should have helped English exports, but cloth
exports remained sluggish - perhaps because of the disruption caused
ignored his sound analysis and turned to John Hales, who blamed
the selfish greed of enclosers.
Sir Thomas Smith
(1513-1577) saw debasement as the main cause of inflation.
moralizers such as Hugh Latimer also preached that economic
problems resulted from moral failings. In 1548, Somerset established
an (ineffective) commission to prevent the enclosure of land. The
brief-lived 1547 poor law mandated slavery as a punishment for
vagrants who refused employment.
that the harvest of 1549 would be as poor as that of 1548 increased the problems of inflation and helped spark the rebellions that began in the Spring of that year and continued throughout the
In Sussex, the public
appearance of a nobleman (the Earl of Arundel) was sufficient to subdue
In Oxfordshire, in order to quell the mob a number of
rioters were hanged.
It proved more
difficult to quell rebellion in two areas (i) Devon & Cornwall;
(i) In the Southwest, the rebels were supported by conservative clergy
and joined by some local gentry. Resentment of the new Prayer
Book was particularly pronounced in this region. Its date of
introduction was 9 June, and the rebellion began on 10 June.
The rebels intended to march on
London, but the need to besiege government forces in Exeter
delayed their advance.
This gave Somerset the time to
organize an army. The army under Lord Russell moved to Honiton
while awaiting supplies from Bristol.
He defeated the rebels around Exeter, 17 August 1549, and they
fled in disorder towards Launceston.
Russell pursued and savage repression followed - many of the
rebels were hanged.
broke out in Norfolk 10 July 1549
Enclosure was a real problem in Norfolk. It had created serious
tension between gentlemen and peasants.
The Howard family's fall from power had also undermined central
control over the region.
The rebels were led by Rober Ket (or Kett); he was a
tanner and yeoman farmer who wanted the government to introduce
agrarian reform. He and the rebels believed that the central
government would support them against the local nobles. Furthermore,
they were Protestant in sympathy. Indeed, the government did
repeatedly offer pardon to Ket, if he would only surrender.
Ket was an able military commander and organized his forces (including
artillery) well. He captured Norwich and easily repulsed the first
However, once the rebellion in the Southwest had been suppressed, the
government turned its full attention to Norfolk. John Dudley, Earl
of Warwick bloodily defeated the rebels on 17 August 1549 - about
3,000 died in battle. However, Dudley was (comparatively) merciful to
the prisoners; only about fifty were hanged afterwards.
The Fall of Somerset
The other members
of the Privy Council disliked Somerset's haughty conduct, and his
attempts to restrict access to Edward VI. They increasingly doubted
his competence, and the 1549 rebellions along with the unsuccessful war
with France confirmed this view.
Somerset took Edward to Windsor, but the Privy Council controlled
London. When Somerset saw how isolated he was, he resigned power (11
Somerset was brought down by an alliance between the conservatives
(led by Thomas
Wriothesley (1st earl of Southampton))
and a smaller group of Protestants, led by Dudley. These two groups
then fought for power.
gained influence over Edward VI by posing as a sincere Protestant, and
by playing on Edward's vanity - treating the child as if he were in
reality already king. Southampton tried to implicate Dudley in
Somerset's failed policies, but Dudley brought Somerset's case before
Parliament, and Southampton died soon after.
In February 1550, Dudley became Lord President of the Council, and
effective ruler of England.