Edward VI: The Lost King of England Paperback – 24 Jan 2008
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The struggle for the soul of England after the death of Henry VIII
On the death of Henry VIII, the crown passed to his nine-year-old son, Edward. However, real power went to the Protector, Edward's uncle, the Duke of Somerset. The court had been a hotbed of intrigue since the last days of Henry VIII. Without an adult monarch, the stakes were even higher. The first challenger was the duke's own brother: he seduced Henry VIII's former queen, Katherine Parr; having married her, he pursued Princess Elizabeth and later was accused of trying to kidnap the boy king at gunpoint. He was beheaded. Somerset ultimately met the same fate, after a coup d'etat organized by the Duke of Warwick. Chris Skidmore reveals how the countrywide rebellions of 1549 were orchestrated by the plotters at court and were all connected to the (literally) burning issue of religion: Henry VIII had left England in religious limbo. Court intrigue, deceit and treason very nearly plunged the country into civil war. Edward was a precocious child, as his letters in French and Latin demonstrate. He kept a secret diary, written partly in Greek, which few of his courtiers could read.In 1551, at the age of 14, he took part in his first jousting tournament, an essential demonstration of physical prowess in a very physical age.Within a year it is his signature we find at the bottom of the Council minutes, yet in early 1553 he contracted a chest infection and later died, rumours circulating that he might have been poisoned. Mary, Edward's eldest sister, and devoted Catholic, was proclaimed Queen. This is more than just a story of bloodthirsty power struggles, but how the Church moved so far along Protestant lines that Mary would be unable to turn the clock back. It is also the story of a boy born to absolute power, whose own writings and letters offer a compelling picture of a life full of promise, but tragically cut short. See all Product description
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Death is a recurring theme of this biography, and for a modern reader it is a sobering reminder of how different our world is from that of previous generations. Edward's mother (Jane Seymour) died soon after he was born of blood poisoning caused by poor hygiene. Edward probably died of TB.
I am grateful for modern medicine.
Edward led a gilded yet very constrained childhood, with little contact with his father. Educated from birth to be king he was unusually gifted, showing an intellectual flair that was extraordinary. He was also committed to the Reformation cause, with a conviction that intensified as he grew older. Reading this biography, one of the most striking things is the role that religion played in public and private life in the Tudor age. Everyone was a believer - and what they believed really mattered. Faith was at the centre of all life and activity in a way that is almost incomprehensible now. Following Henry's partial Reformation, the extent to which England would become truly Reformed, or slip back into Catholicism was the most crucial issue of the day, and Edward held all the promise of being "a new Josiah" who would lead his nation into a glorious new age.
As religion was so central to every aspect of life, the change from Catholicism to Protestantism had an impact on day to day life that is very hard for the modern mind to grasp. Reformation really did make everything different - the whole cycle of life and established pattern of being was turned on its head. And not everyone was happy with this change. It was also a time of economic change and turmoil, as wealthy landowners enclosed common land to turn it over to sheep production, leading to popular uprisings and great discontent.
In this religious and economic maelstrom Edward's council sought to hold the nation together, and jockey for power. Much of this story is the rivalry between the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland. In the end, both were destroyed by their ambition, and lost their heads at the block.
The last Machiavellian twist of Edward's reign was a `devise' to disinherit his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth, and redirect the succession to the resolutely Protestant Lady Jane Grey. Jane was Queen for only nine days, before the council and the nation switched allegiance to Mary.
On Edwards death Calvin wrote that England had `been deprived of an incomparable treasure of which it was unworthy. By the death of one youth, the whole nation has been bereaved of the best of fathers.' Mary's rise to power meant the crushing of the Reformation, and the remorseless persecution of those who favoured it. What the course of history may have been had Edward enjoyed a long reign is a matter of fascinating conjecture.