He became the boy-king at the age of nine when his father passed away in January of 1547, and after some squabbling for power Edward’s eldest maternal uncle, Edward Seymour the Duke of Somerset, became the Protector and regent for the young monarch. The king’s other maternal uncle, Lord High Admirable Thomas Seymour, wanted a slice of the regent-pie and tried to kidnap the king. Somerset – who had already proved himself ruthless by orchestrating the imprisonment of the Duke of Norfolk and the beheading of Norfolk’s son the Earl of Surrey – didn’t settle for consigning his brother to the Tower, as might be expected. Determined to rule in everything but name and jealous of power, Somerset ordered his younger brother executed in March of 1549. Somerset continued to feather his nest at the expense of his nephew and the peers of the realm, and was eventually overthrown as regent by John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, in 1551 and executed in January of 1552. Edward VI seems to have been blasé about his domineering uncle’s death, and appears to have come to trust and love Northumberland as a father figure.
It has been assumed that Northumberland acted as de facto monarch without much input from the king, but I am not so sure. I cannot imagine anyone safely bullying the now-teenaged king. Edward was young, but he brilliant and headstrong as any Tudor before or after him. He had been a child prodigy like his father, and by the time he was seven, “he could decline any Latin noun and conjugate any regular verb (L. and P., 1544, ii. 726); “every day in the mass-time he readeth a portion of Solomon’s Proverbs, wherein he delighteth much.” Sir John Cheke, Sir Anthony Cooke and Roger Ascham all helped to teach him Latin, Greek and French; and by the age of thirteen he had read Aristotle’s Ethics in the original and was himself translating Cicero’s De philosophia into Greek.” Edward was not shy about using his intellectual gifts as a young man, and there are several court documents concerning grave political matters that bear the king’s own handwritten notations or commands. Northumberland may have worked with and for the king more than he ruled in Edward’s name.
Certainly there is strong evidence that it was Edward, not Northumberland, who chose Jane Grey as his successor and suggested Jane marry Northumberland’s son Guilford. Edward had written the first draft of his “deuise for the succession” before Jane Grey’s betrothal to Guilford Dudley. Edward did not want a Catholic on England’s throne, and Jane Grey was closest protestant to the crown who was considered legitimately born. Anyone in Edward’s court or government who didn’t approve or agree with the king’s choice were summoned before Edward where he “with sharp words and angry countenance” forced them to accept his decision. Furthermore, it was Edward himself who made sure it was legal to dismiss his father’s will declaring Mary the next in line to throne, and he brusquely told the Archbishop of Canterbury that “the judges and his learned council said, that the act of entailing the crown, made by his father, could not be prejudicial to him, but that he, being in possession of the crown, might make his will thereof.” Edward signed the final version of his “deuise” drawn up by the court’s senior royal lawyers and named Jane Grey as his successor, on June 21, 1553. The document was signed by 102 witnesses (including the whole Privy Council) and the king’s Great Seal was applied to it. His will was official, legal, and binding two weeks before his death. For more details on the legitimacy of Jane’s rule, read Eric Ives’s excellent book, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery.
The young king’s death was not an easy one.
The imperial ambassador to England, Jehan Scheyfve, wrote to the Emperor Charles V on February 17th, 1553 that, “On the very evening of the arrival of the said Princess [Mary, his older half-sister by Henry VIII] in this town the King was attacked by a fever caused by a chill he had caught, and was so ill that the Lady Mary could not see him for three days”. A month later Scheyfve would write that the king “has never left his room since the beginning of the illness that came upon him not long ago. I have made inquiries whether his indisposition is likely to last long, and it appears that he is very weak and thin, besides which I learn from a good source that his doctors and physicians have charged the Council to watch him carefully and not move away from him, as they are of opinion that the slightest change might place his life in great danger”.
Things grew steadily worse for the teenage king, so that in early May “the King’s doctors and physicians conferred with his chief ministers over his illness. They requested very earnestly to be allowed to summon others of their art to consult with them and receive the assistance of their knowledge, as the King’s life was in great danger … the people are beginning to talk of the King’s illness”.
As the king’s illness became worse, more details emerged. Scheyfe wrote that Edward was “still indisposed, and it is held for certain that he cannot escape. The physicians are now all agreed that he is suffering from a suppurating tumour (apostème) on the lung, or that at least his lung is attacked. He is beginning to break out in ulcers; he is vexed by a harsh, continuous cough, his body is dry and burning, his belly is swollen, he has a slow fever upon him that never leaves him”. By the end of May the king was, “wasting away daily, and there is no sign or likelihood of any improvement. Some are of the opinion that he may last two months more, but he cannot possibly live beyond that time. He cannot rest except by means of medicines and external applications; and his body has begun to swell, especially his head and feet. His hair is to be shaved off and plasters are going to be put on his head.”
Although Edward seemed to rally a bit in June, this hopeful uptick didn’t last. The teen sovereign was “never quite free from fever, but on the 11th of this month he was attacked by a violent hot fever, which lasted over 24 hours, and left him weak and still feverish, though not as much so as at first. On the 14th, the fever returned more violent than before, and the doctors gave up the King and decided that he could not recover, but that about the 25th of this month, at the time of the full moon, he must decline to a point at which his life would be in the gravest danger, nay that he might die before that time, because he is at present without the strength necessary to rid him of certain humours which, when he does succeed in ejecting them, give forth a stench. Since the 11th, he has been unable to keep anything in his stomach, so he lives entirely on restoratives and obtains hardly any repose. His legs are swelling, and he has to lie flat on his back, whereas he was up a good deal of the time (i.e. before the violent attack of the 11th). They say it is hardly to be believed how much the King has changed since the 11th”.
The last weeks of June were essentially a death watch for young king, with his passing predicted almost daily. On the 24th, it was said that the king “cannot possibly live more than three days. It is firmly believed that he will die tomorrow, for he has not the strength to stir, and can hardly breathe. His body no longer performs its functions, his nails and hair are dropping off, and all his person is scabby”. Despite the fact that the king survived another three days and was said to be improving, Edward IV died on July 6, 1553 of the painful and protracted illness that had plagued him for so long.
Shortly after Edward VI died, Jane Grey was declared queen, but Edward’s oldest half-sister Mary staged a coup. Once she had usurped the throne, Mary I claimed that Jane was never the lawful queen and executed Northumberland as a “traitor” for obeying Edward’s last will and testament. Mary then tried to reverse the Protestantism of Edward’s reign and reinstate Catholicism as the official religion of England, but had limited success. Since King Philip of Spain refused to marry her unless the real queen, Jane Grey, was eliminated as a threat to her stolen crown, Mary had Jane and Guilford Dudley beheaded in February of 1554. By declaring Jane Grey his heir, Edward doomed his cousin to die in her mid-teens, just as he had.