Edward VI & Somerset

Edward VI


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 diary.

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.
Gardiner 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.

In 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. It provided 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 succession
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 cronies.


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

Somerset held power from 1547 to 1549. His main rival was his brother, Thomas who increased his influence by marrying Henry's widow, Catherine Parr.

Thomas Seymour 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 throne.

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 (endowments 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.


Social policy

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 agricultural production.

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 the decade.
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 by war.


Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577) saw debasement as the main cause of inflation.


But Somerset ignored his sound analysis and turned to John Hales, who blamed the selfish greed of enclosers.
Protestant 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.



The indications 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 summer.
In Sussex, the public appearance of a nobleman (the Earl of Arundel) was sufficient to subdue the rebels.
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; (ii) Norfolk.
(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 Prayer Book Rebellion

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.

(ii) Rebellion 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 government attacks.
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.

Robert Ket hanging
Robert Ket hanged


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.

The Tower of Windsor Castle

Somerset took Edward to Windsor, but the Privy Council controlled London. When Somerset saw how isolated he was, he resigned power (11 October 1549).

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.

John Dudley 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.


Previous lecture

Next lecture


Return to top of page Course schedule Home