Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Fratricidal Monster

On 22 January 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 am repulsed that he disinherited his first two sons in favor of the children of his second wife after he decided, on little or no proven evidence, that his first wife, Catherine Fillol, had been unfaithful. Supposedly, the children were actually his brothers, since his father had moved in on his wife, but there is no contemporary evidence of this whatsoever. His first wife’s sons would have the last laugh, though, when the line of Edward Seymour and his second wife died out in 1750 and “the descendants of Edward Seymour by his first wife inherited the Somerset dukedom in accordance with the Private Act of 1541.”

Moreover, 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, but his elevated peerage was rooted made in falsehoods and fratricide.

There were some serious shenanigans surrounding the death of King Henry VIII and the execution of his will. Although Henry’s will called for a council to collectively act as regent, Edward Seymour managed to get himself named the Lord Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King’s Person, probably thanks to the “unfulfilled gifts” clause supposedly in Henry VIII’s will which allowed the executors of that will to help themselves to a mind-boggling array of lands and titles.

Seymour and the rest of the Privy Council made out like bandits in the few weeks between Henry VII’s death and Edward VI’s coronation.  Edward Seymour not only became became the Duke of Somerset, he also inducted himself into the Order of the Garter. 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 (like wills), 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. Lands, peerages, and money were also distributed with a generous hand to many others.

Once in power, Somerset showed no more conscience in the disposal of those who challenged his control than he had shown in throwing aside his eldest sons. 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 I cannot help but wonder how Somerset explained his choice to behead of one of her other sons to her. Holidays must have been great at the old homestead after a spot of familial murder.

Somerset’s days were numbered, though. His inept leadership had opened the doors for social unrest and his overthrow by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Just a few months after Thomas Seymour was executed, the members of the Privy Council sent him a letter asking him to step down from his position of Lord Protector.

Clearly, they hoped to effect a regime change in a calm and peaceful manner, without unduly alarming the populace or King Edward, but their hopes that Somerset would relinquish power without a fight were in vain. In a last ditch effort to save himself, he persuaded the young king that his enemies were also bent on Edward’s overthrow … and possibly the king’s murder. Believing that his uncle had been truthful with him, King Edward appeared before those assembled at Hampton Court to fight for Somerset and told them, “he was displeased that an attempt should be made to take his uncle the Protector away from him, and prayed that all would help him in resisting, for he himself was clothed, and ready to arm.”

Nonetheless, the Privy Councilors convened at the Tower and let it be known that they intended to force the duke to step down.  Panicked, Somerset grabbed the king and ran for it, dragging the young monarch to Windsor Castle late in the evening of 7 October 1549. The Councilors arranged to have a private letter smuggled in to Edward, assuring him that they only wanted to depose Somerset because he was abusing his position and taking advantage of his nephew, but the king was unmoved by their assurance and remained certain that Somerset was only trying to protect them both. When the duke was arrested via a coup at Windsor on 11 October, the king’s first reaction to his liberators was profound alarm. Happily for King Edward, he “was soon afterwards disabused; and when he went from there to Hampton Court and dismounted, he thanked all the company for having rid him of such fear and peril.”

King Edward rode triumphantly back into London on 17 October, trusting his Privy Council once more, but with enough good feeling towards Somerset that he demanded to see his uncle. Under Edward’s protection and due to the king’s intervention, the former Protector was able to pay a fine and be released from the Tower with the king’s pardon on 6 February, 1550. By May of that same year Somerset’s lands were restored to him and he had been elevated once again to a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, but he couldn’t leave well enough alone.

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 realized how futile their attempt would be and ratted out the whole plot to Northumberland and the Privy Council. On 17 October, 1551 Somerset was arrested and once more confined to 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.

Somerset was put on trial during the first of December, 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.”

So ended the semi-reign of a man with more ambition than conscience or skill at ruling.

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