No one expected King Edward VI to die so young.
Although he was re-written retroactively as “frail” and unhealthy, there is no evidence to support that conclusion. A French ambassador described Edward as being “remarkably tall for his age” when the future king was four years old, which indicates reasonably good health. (Murphy, 2011:246). Furthermore, in the spring of 1551 the imperial ambassador reported that Edward was “beginning to exercise himself in the use of arms” and a Venetian ambassador reported that the young king was “arming and tilting, managing horses and delighting in every sort of exercise, drawing the bow, playing rackets, hunting and so forth, indefatigably, though he never neglected his studies” (Loach, 2014:157). Notwithstanding this display of physical verve, Edward was never described with the same glowing terms as his father had been at the same age. Although he resembled Henry VIII in height and coloring, Edward was not the same kind of athletic paragon. Was this an indicator of a less hardiness or perhaps only so-so health?
The trouble started in February of 1553. The imperial ambassador to England, Jehan Sceyfve, wrote that, “On the very evening of the arrival of the said Princess [Mary] 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” (CSP Spain, 17 February 1553). 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” (CSP Spain, 17 March 1553).
Things grew steadily worse for the teenage king, so that on 11 April he was moved to Greenwich to aid his recovery and by 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” (CSP Spain, 5 May 1553).
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 (CSP Spain, 12 May 1553). By the end of May the king was, “wasting away daily, and there is no sign or likelihood of any improvement. Some are of 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.” (CSP Spain, 30 May 1553).
Although Edward seemed to rally a bit in June, it 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” (CSP Spain, 15 June 1553).
The last weeks of June were essentially a death watch over King Edward, 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 the 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 (CPS Spain, 24 June 1553). Despite the fact that the king survived those 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 since February.
But what killed him? His death did not fit the common pattern for tuberculosis, which is the usual suspect for his demise. In my book, Edward VI in a Nutshell, I present evidence supporting my theory that it was actually a heritable, genetic illness that killed the teenage monarch. I suspect that Edward died of nonclassical (atypical) cystic fibrosis, an ailment that can leave a young person seeming healthy enough, but presents opportunities for systemic infections and is eventually fatal without modern biomedical care. Moreover, I think this same inherited form of CF also killed Edward’s half-brother, Henry Fitzroy, and his uncle, Arthur Tudor, who also both previously healthy and then died in their mid-teens from what looked like a strange form of tuberculosis.
Whatever killed the Edward VI, it was a tragic loss for England. He had all the hallmarks of a genius and a great king.