On January 22, 1552, Edward Seymour, the eldest brother of Henry VIII’s third queen Jane Seymour and uncle of King Edward VI, was beheaded on Tower Hill.
I’m not particularly sorry for him.
I’m schooled in postmodernism enough to assume everyone studying history develops partialities whether they admit it or not. One of the people I feel great antipathy toward is Edward Seymour. I think he was as shady as an oak-lined avenue in high summer.
First, I agree with the interpretation of the historical evidence laid out in Jessie Child’s book, Henry VIII’s Last Victim, that while Seymour was still merely the Earl of Hertford he took advantage of Henry VIII’s failing health to orchestrate the judicial murder of Henry Howard, the famous poet who was heir to the dukedom of Norfolk and the present Earl of Surrey. The Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey were the natural and obvious choices for regents, considering their lineage, and the much-lower-born Seymour needed them out of the way if he was going to become the attempted puppet master of the boy-king Edward VI.
By the time Seymour himself was executed he was the Duke of Somerset, and his elevated peerage was made in falsehoods and fratricide. King Henry VIII’s “will” supposedly contained an “unfulfilled gifts” clause which allowed the executors of his will to help themselves to a mind-boggling array of lands and titles:
Seymour, who became the Lord Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King’s Person, and who created himself Duke of Somerset. Henry VIII’s will did not provide for the appointment of a Protector. It entrusted the government of the realm during his son’s minority to a Regency Council that would rule collectively, by majority decision, with “like and equal charge”. Nevertheless, a few days after Henry’s death, on 4 February, the executors chose to invest almost regal power in the earl of Hertford. Thirteen out of the sixteen (the others being absent) agreed to his appointment as Protector, which they justified as their joint decision “by virtue of the authority” of Henry’s will. Seymour may have done a deal with some of the executors, who almost all received hand-outs. He is known to have done so with William Paget, private secretary to Henry VIII, and to have secured the support of Sir Anthony Browne of the Privy Chamber. Hertford’s appointment was in keeping with historical precedent, and his eligibility for the role was reinforced by his military successes in Scotland and France. In March 1547, he secured letters patent from King Edward granting him the almost monarchical right to appoint members to the Privy Council himself and to consult them only when he wished. In the words of historian G. R. Elton, “from that moment his autocratic system was complete”. He proceeded to rule largely by proclamation, calling on the Privy Council to do little more than rubber-stamp his decisions.
Once in power, Somerset showed no more conscious in the disposal of those who challenged his control than he had shown to his first wife and his two eldest sons, whom he disinherited in favor of the children of his second wife after he decided their mother had an affair. (There is no contemporary evidence of his first wife’s affair, and her descendants had the last laugh when the “line of Edward Seymour and Anne Stanhope died out with the seventh Duke of Somerset in 1750, when the descendants of Edward Seymour by his first wife, Catherine Fillol, inherited the Somerset dukedom in accordance with the Private Act of 1541.”)
One of the people Somerset murdered to keep his semi-monarchical hold as Lord Protectorate secure was his own feckless brother, Thomas Seymour.
Thomas was no prize of a human being; he either molested or tried seduce the future Queen Elizabeth I when she was barely in her teens and the ward of his wife (and Henry VIII’s widow) Kateryn Parr. Still, the “crime” for which he was murdered by his own brother was that he was trying to woo Edward VI’s affections and subsume some of the power and control enjoyed by Somerset. When Thomas possibly tried to “kidnap” the young king, his brother decided he was too much of a risk and had him beheaded for treason on March 20, 1549.
The Seymour’s mother, nee Margery Wentworth, didn’t die until October 1550, so how Somerset explained his choice to behead of one of her other sons to her has always been a subject of great wonder to me.
Somerset’s days were numbered, and he would lay his head on the chopping block at Tower Hill less than three years after Tomas was judicially murdered. Somerset’s inept leadership had opened the doors for social unrest and his overthrow by the Earl of Warwick.
The sequence of events that led to Somerset’s removal from power has often been called a coup d’état. By 1 October 1549, Somerset had been alerted that his rule faced a serious threat. He issued a proclamation calling for assistance, took possession of the king’s person, and withdrew for safety to the fortified Windsor Castle, where Edward wrote, “Me thinks I am in prison”. Meanwhile, a united Council published details of Somerset’s government mismanagement. They made clear that the Protector’s power came from them, not from Henry VIII’s will. On 11 October, the Council had Somerset arrested and brought the king to Richmond. Edward summarised the charges against Somerset in his Chronicle: “ambition, vainglory, entering into rash wars in mine youth, negligent looking on Newhaven, enriching himself of my treasure, following his own opinion, and doing all by his own authority, etc.” In February 1550, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, emerged as the leader of the Council and, in effect, as Somerset’s successor. Although Somerset was released from the Tower and restored to the Council in early 1550, he was executed for felony in January 1552 after scheming to overthrow Dudley’s regime. Edward noted his uncle’s death in his Chronicle: “the duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning”.
So ended the semi-reign of a man with more ambition than conscience or skill at ruling.