You Would Think Somerset Would Learn

I am not a big fan of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset.

Edward_Seymour 1st duke of somerset

He appears, based on the historical record, to have been a cruel, power-hungry tool. He coldly disowned his sons by his first wife, pimped his sister Jane out to King Henry VIII, pulled some serious shenanigans with the king’s will to make himself a duke and lord protector, murdered his brother when Thomas Seymour threatened the absolute rule of his tin-pot dictatorship, sent foreign mercenaries to slaughter Cornishmen, and kidnapped King Edward VI in October of 1549 to try to maintain his control over the government.

King Edward was freed on 11 October and rode triumphantly back into London on 17th.

Portrait_of_Edward_VI_of_England 1550

Although the king was happy to be free and in agreement with his privy council regarding Somerset’s protectorate, he still loved his uncle enough to pardon him and keep him as a gentleman of the chamber. Unfortunately, Somerset could not leave well enough alone, and exactly two years later, on 17 October 1551, Somerset was arrested for treason and thrown into the Tower. This time, the duke would find no more mercy from either the council or his nephew than that which he had given his brother, Thomas.

Why did Somerset risk everything by stirring up trouble again? Perhaps he was maddened by jealousy when his rival Warwick was elevated to the 1st Duke of Northumberland that that autumn, or perhaps he was unhappy with riches that lacked the spice of power. For whatever reason, roughly a year after he had scarpered away with the king’s person, Somerset began to plot with a handful of shady conspirators to overthrow the council and resume his position as lord protector. Part of the plan included the murders of Northumberland, the Marquess of Northampton, and the Earl of Pembroke. As fate would have it, one of Somerset’s conspirators realised how futile their attempt would be and ratted out the whole plot to Northumberland and the privy council. 

Somerset was put on trial 1 December 1551, and the king recorded in his personal diary:

The duke of Somerset cam to his triall at Westmyster halle. … He answerid he did not entend to raise London, [. . .] His assembling of men was but for his owne defence. He did not determin to kill the duke of Northumberland, the marquis, etc., but spake of it and determined after the contrary; and yet seamid to confess he went about there death. The lordis went togither. The duke of Northumberland wold not agree that any searching of his death shuld bee treason. So the lordis acquited him of high treason, and condemned him of treason feloniouse, and so he was adjuged to be hangid. He gave thankis to the lordis for there open trial, and cried mercy of the duke of Northumberland, the marquis of Northampton, and th’erle of Penbroke for his ill meaning against them, and made suet for his life, wife and children, servauntes and dettes, and so departed without the ax of the Toure. The peple, knowing not the matter, shouted hauf a douzen times, so loud that frome the halle dore it was hard at Chairing crosse plainly, and rumours went that he was quitte of all.

After a few weeks grace to put his affairs in order, Edward Seymour, once the most powerful man in England, was led from his prison and executed on 22 January 1552. The king, once an ardent partisan supporter of his uncle, merely noted that, “The duke of Somerset had his head cat of apon Towre hill betwene eight and nine a cloke in the morning.” There is no way of knowing any private turmoil in the king’s head, but why was Edward so blasé about Somerset’s execution, when he had been so loving just two years prior? Perhaps it was because the young king was not stupid. He had learned that his uncle viewed him mainly as a lodestone for power and was willing to kill members of the privy council to gain control over him. Why should Edward mourn such a rapacious relative?

Certainly I regard Somerset’s death as a fitting karmic end to a man willing to murder his own brother for gold and a shadow crown.

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