In the years since publication of his award-winning biography of Thomas Cranmer, one cannot stop marveling at the scholarship of Prof MacCulloch, at his indubitable talent of an author, and at how deftly and effortlessly he adapts it to the restrictions of an academic narrative. `The Boy-King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation', published in 2001 in hardback and in 2002 in paperback, has been a definitive treat for many Tudor students, providing them with an engaging story of the English Reformation in the years between 1547 and 1553, as well as containing references to a mesmerising range of archives, from the good old British Library to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
Thanks to Prof MacCulloch's being one of the leading British church historians, this book has rather successfully done what other monographs did not quite manage to achieve. Its main achievement is in the fact that one can no longer think of Edward VI as a juvenile parrot in terms of his political involvement. Although this does not immediately imply that his raison d'etat was promising to be terrific, his participation in the matters of state must not be underestimated, let alone overlooked. MacCulloch illustrates this, for example, with his brilliant analysis of Edward's proposal for the reform of the Order of the Garter in the light of its deriving from Edward's tutorship and contemporary political discourse.
The reason why this change in the view of Edward seems so important is because scholars until this day continue to debate the political potential and intellectual faculties of a young king, being mostly critical about both. The most blatant example is Stephen Alford's biography of Edward VI and the review of it by George Bernard. Those, however, who read MacCulloch's book attentively will - hopefully - realise by the end of the last chapter that it is futile to either extol Edward or to dismiss him. Indeed, the boy did not reach his 16th birthday, and no matter what promises had been there, these were buried with him in June 1553. He nevertheless contributed to the affairs of state, by writing proposals, notes, discourses, etc. Certainly, one must still see the forest for the trees, but these documents, written by the young king himself, cannot ever be ignored. One must remember that in all times children were engaged in political discourse, however superficial, especially if they had been destined to the throne. Consequently, these documents, even if they had little or no impact, must be read with all due seriousness to catch the glimpses of an emerging character. For this reason, there cannot be too much praise for MacCulloch, who with a simple phrase `the boy-king' captured the whole ambiguity of Edward's reign and his contribution to the mid-Tudor politics.
The book's attention to the representation of power in Edward's reign only further stresses this ambiguity. The careful analysis of many `personas' attributed to Edward VI at different stages of his life in politics shows that today's historians are preoccupied with the same paradox, as perplexed Edward's contemporaries. As A. Pollard said, for the first time a ten-year-old became the head of the Church, and MacCulloch studies two main religious `images' attached to Edward - Josiah and Solomon. He carefully investigates the rationale for choosing these exact kings and the incongruities of the lives of these biblical characters, to see how those were adapted to the mid-Tudor realities.
This is all the more significant, as prior to MacCulloch's book there was no in-depth study of this peculiarity of the English Reformation in Edward VI's reign, which stemmed from the fact that the Church reform was now heralded by a child. Some scholars, most successfully, perhaps, the late Jennifer Loach, paid much attention to Edward's secular activities and representation of him as the head of the State, which, although giving out new information, hardly made historians any more serious about the boy-king. Normally, before and even after her post-mortem book, scholars have preferred to focus on political moves of Somerset, Northumberland, Cranmer, et al., overlooking, for example, the necessity those had to represent the king's age and his legitimacy in both domestic and external affairs. MacCulloch's study of representation of Edward as the head of the Church puts the reader in the position of making a choice: to look at the years 1547-1553 as a series of farcical attempts of mid-Tudor officials to pretend that England was high and mighty; or to admit that political farce has always been there, and hence Edward VI's reign is not an exclusion and must then be treated appropriately. Books by both Loach and MacCulloch are the examples of this kind of treatment: they both showed the full awareness of the fact that their study of either mid-Tudor monarchy or Church would not break free from any conventions, unless they constantly kept the boy-king in the focus.
In addition to a variety of sources used, MacCulloch's book is rich in illustrations, supporting his arguments that derive from the reading of the written documents, and thus providing his reader with much food for thought. In that, his book dwells both on Loach's monograph, as well as on a brilliant, although not always definitive study by Margaret Aston, `The King's Bedpost'. The trend was continued by Stephen Alford in his biography of Edward VI, and will certainly carry on.
Together with the books by Loach, Aston and, most recently, Alford, `The Boy-King' by Diarmaid MacCulloch underlines the importance of the ever-wide scholarship and the use of different sources, if one wants, in Ranke's words, to penetrate history. And this is exactly what MacCulloch's book allows to do to its reader. To a professional historian, like myself, it gave insight into new sources and the way to employ them, as well as highlighted the questions that require an answer. To those who are simply interested in Tudors, the book tells the story of one of the most ambiguous yet fascinating periods in English history, after reading which one may be compelled to understand why it is better if the monarch is mature, even if he is not very popular.