Edward Seymour, a man born to a mere country “sir”, became the Duke of Somerset on 17 February 1547 by a combination of ruthlessness, mendacity, ambition, and the good luck to have a sister whom King Henry VIII had wanted to boink.
Jane Seymour died less than two weeks after the birth of the king’s son and heir, leaving her eldest brother in the catbird seat regarding his sentimental brother-in-law. Henry made Seymour Viscount Beauchamp after he wed Jane in 1536, and elevated him to Earl of Hertford in 1537 after Jane gave birth to a boy. Seymour was now uncle of the future king, and as such was someone Henry trusted to put the needs of the infant Edward Prince of Wales first when Henry died. Inasmuch as the prince was Hertford’s lodestone for power when the boy became King Edward VI in 1547, his uncle DID take good care to keep the boy safe … but he also kept the small monarch under his thumb and used him as a springboard to become de facto king of the realm.
Hertford’s power grab started in earnest when Henry’s health began to fail sharply at the end of 1546. Men who were powerful enough, or influential enough, to sway the king to appoint a singular regent, or who were high-ranking enough to be that singular regent, were kept away from the dying king. During the last month of Henry’s life, the powerful Howard family was decimated by arrests and executions, which some historians argue (with convincing evidence) was actually orchestrated by Hertford (Childs, 2007). Henry Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, was spuriously accused of treason and arrested along with his son, the Earl of Surrey. Surrey was then beheaded shortly thereafter for the crime of knowing he and his father were traditionally more worthy to be the prince’s caretakers than the jumped-up son of Sir John Seymour.
Then there were the strange case of Henry’s will, which called for a council to collectively act as regent for Edward VI. However, after the king died on 27 January 1547, Henry’s will was mysterious found to authorize the giving of vague “gifts”, which Hertford took it upon himself to bestow. The Privy Council, whom Hertford needed to name him as sole regent, were given goods, titles, and lands hand over fist. John Dudley moved up from Lord Admiral and Viscount Lisle to the Earl of Warwick, and was also appointed Great Chamberlain. The now-vacant spot of Lord Admiral was given to a younger Seymour brother, Thomas, who was promoted to Baron of Sudeley. Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley, who had personally tortured Anne Askew to try and force her to implicate Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Kateryn Parr, for the crime of Evangelicalism, became Earl of Southampton. Kateryn Parr’s brother, William, became the Marquess of Northampton. Sir Anthony Browne, keeper of the “dry stamp” used to sign official documents (such as King Henry VIII’s will), became Keeper of Oatlands Palace and his eldest son was made a Knight of Bath. William Willoughby, the younger brother of the 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, was made peer as well, becoming the 1st Baron Willoughby of Parham. William Paget, son of middle-class parents, was made a knight, comptroller of the king’s household, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and would be further promoted to Baron Paget de Beaudesert in 1549. Another jumped-up member of the middle class, Richard Rich, became 1st Baron Rich of Leez. In sum, anyone whom Hertford needed to bribe was found to have been left a little something in Henry’s will.
Sated by these fat gifts, the councilors agreed that Hertford should become the Lord Protector of the Realm and the Governor of the King’s Person. Unsurprisingly, Henry’s will also contained a present or two for Hertford, who became the Duke of Somerset and was inducted into the prestigious Order of the Garter.
You would think even a man with delusions of grandeur would be satisfied to rise to the level of duke and Lord Protector, but it was not enough for Somerset. Roughly a month later he had his 9 year old nephew sign off on letters patent giving Somerset:
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.
By the sheer good fortune of having a sister who married the king and bore a son, as well as a dint of manipulation and unceasing self-aggrandizement, Edward Seymour had become king in all but name.