Happy Birthday to Edward VI!

King Edward VI of England was born on 12 October 1537 to the great rejoicing of the populace and profound relief of his father, Henry VIII.


Few children have been welcomed into the world with the eagerness in which an entire nation awaited the birth of Edward VI. The pregnancy of Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII and the first queen the aging king would acknowledge as his true wife, had been announced on 27 May 1537 with the accompaniment of a Te Deum at St Paul’s Cathedral. King Henry was forty-six – an old man by Tudor reckoning – and he wanted a male heir more than any other earthly thing. Would the baby in Jane’s belly be the longed-for prince?

Henry and his wife weren’t the only ones longing for a boy. England had been ripped apart by yet another bloody civil war just a generation before, and a Prince of Wales would give the country hope for a continuity of succession and the peace that would come from it. The nation could only wait through the summer and into the autumn to see if Jane would bear male fruit, or would another disappointing daughter join her elder half-sisters? Jane could only wait and pray that her child be a boy, and no doubt wonder what would happen to her if she failed to deliver the son Henry wanted.

Jane had begun her confinement in September, coddled away in a darkened room as the king’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, had long-ago determined was best for a gravid queen. Jane rested and grew larger while an anxious king and country could do nothing but twiddle their thumbs as Mother Nature took her own sweet time. Finally, on 9 October 1537 the queen went into labor. Like many first labors, it was a prolonged one.

Protracted labors were tinged with worry, because they could so easily be fatal to the baby or the mother during this time of limited medical technology. As the hours of Jane’s labor stretched into days, there was little anyone could do but petition God for the queen’s safety and a healthy babe. On the 11th there was a “general procession in London, with all the orders of friars, preistes, and clarkes going all in copes, the mayor and aldermen, with all the craftes of the cittie, following their liveries, which was done to pray for the queene that was then in labour of chielde”. Happily for the court, country, and king (and doubtlessly a great relief to Jane herself) the queen was delivered of a healthy baby boy in the dawn hours of Friday 12 October.

There was jubilation throughout the kingdom. Jane had come through the long labor without undue complications and appeared to be in no danger. (In spite of later historical rumors, Jane was not given a caesarean-section and Henry did not command the midwives to save the baby at the expense of the mother’s life.) The baby was hale and strong, and propitiously born on the eve of St Edward’s Day. Every church in London sung Te Deum and there was a formal procession of thanksgiving in St Paul’s at eight o’clock that morning. The church bells rang all through the day and into the night, pealing out the nation’s happiness that God had blessed them all with a prince. There were bonfires everywhere, ‘fruites and wyne’ were distributed generously by royal command, and there was a 2,000-gun salute from the Tower.

The infant was swaddled and placed immediately with his wet-nurses and nursemaids. In the care of these devoted servants, Edward was whisked away from his mother. The newly-built nursery in Hampton Court had been thoroughly scrubbed down on Henry’s orders, and the tiny prince was taken to the security of his new residence.

There is no record, as there was with Anne Boleyn, that the baby’s mother asked to nurse him herself. This does not mean, of course, that Jane didn’t love her son as much as Anne loved her daughter. It is just as likely that Jane did not want to ask for something she already knew she would be denied than that she didn’t care if she nursed little Edward or not. With few exceptions, what we know of Jane suggests she was extremely leery of evoking her husband’s displeasure.

Jane, though doubtlessly exhausted from her physical efforts, had one more chore to perform before she could rest. By tradition, it was the queen’s job to formally announce the birth of her child to the king. There is still a record of Jane’s letter to Henry, and it bursts with the elation and pride she was clearly feeling:

Right trusty and well beloved, we greet you well, and for as much as by the inestimable goodness and grace of Almighty God, we be delivered and brought in childbed of a prince, conceived in most lawful matrimony between my the king’s majesty and us, doubting not but that for the love and affection which you bear unto us and to the commonwealth of this realm, the knowledge thereof should be joyous and glad tidings unto you, we have thought good to certify you of the same. To the intent you might not only render unto God condign thanks and prayers for so great a benefit but also continually pray for the long continuance and preservation of the same here in this life to the honour of God, joy and pleasure of my lord the king and us, and the universal wealth, quiet and tranquility of this whole realm.

For a week or so, all seemed perfect in the royal household. Then, eleven days after the birth, Edward’s mother became suddenly ill and passed away within twenty-four hours. Inasmuch as there was no prior mention of fever or sickness, historian Chris Skidmore (2009) theorizes that Jane did not die of the form of sepsis known as childbed fever, but instead from the retention of a piece of the placenta, which brought on the “naturall laxe” (heavy bleeding) that killed her via exsanguination. If so, Skidmore also points out that Jane’s medical care suffered because she was the queen. Midwives, who were highly skilled professionals who deserve more credit than they are given, would have known to check the placenta to make sure it was whole. The royal physicians knew more about astrology and humours than of birth, and probably weren’t even aware they should examine the placenta, or that there was any danger on the horizon.

Edward would also lose his father at a young age, becoming both king and orphan on 28 January 1547. At the tender age of nine, King Edward VI was clearly too young to rule the kingdom himself. His need for regents would usher in six years of men jockeying for positions of power around him, culminating in multiple judicial murders and even a case of fratricide.


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