Edward VI of England: History, Family Tree, Reign, Death, & Successor

At just the age of nine years, Edward, the only legitimate son of King Henry VIII of England and his third wife Jane Seymour, inherited the English throne. He was crowned Edward VI on February 20, 1547 at Westminster Abbey. Known as the first English ruler to be raised a Protestant, Edward VI spent his reign (from 1547 to 1553) governing through a regency council as he was in his minority years. His reign is most remembered for making the Church of England more profoundly Protestant.

What else was Edward VI of England most known for? Below WHE delves into the life, reign, succession crisis, and death of Edward VI.

Edward VI of England

Edward VI of England. Portrait by William Scrots, c. 1550

Edward VI: Facts

Born: October 12, 1537

Place of birth: Hampton Court Palace, Middlesex, London, England

Died: July 6, 1553

Age at time of death: 15

Cause of death: Disease of the lung

Dynasty: Tudor

Father: Henry VIII of England

Mother: Jane Seymour

Half-siblings: Mary I, Elizabeth I

Reign: 1547-1553

Predecessor: Henry VIII

Successor: Mary Jane Grey

Birth and early life

Edward VI was born on October 12, 1537 to royal couple Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. His Christening took place three days after his birth. During the ceremony, his older half-sister Mary was chosen as his godmother. In keeping up with the tradition, Edward, the oldest male child of the king, was honored with the titles Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester.

He was the only legitimate child of his parents as his mother, Queen Jane Seymour, died just 12 days after his birth. It’s said that the queen suffered from complications that emerged after the birth of Edward.

King Edward VI's parents

Henry VIII’s reign marked the beginning of the fallout between the Church of England and the papacy in Rome. Image: Edward VI’s parents (L-R) – Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

In any case, Edward’s birth was met with tremendous joy as the king and kingdom had for many years eagerly waited for a male heir.

At the time of his birth, this future king of England was described as very frail, according to traditional sources. He would often suffer poor health in his first couple of years. However, as he grew up, he became strong and more physically active, especially in his youth. The young prince would remain largely healthy until a few a months before his death, when he suffered from what was most likely tuberculosis.

Like any Tudor prince or princes, Edward received a very sound education. Some of his tutors included the likes of Roger Ascham, Richard Cox, and Sir Anthony Cooke. The English humanist and scholar Sir John Cheke (1514-1557) also tutored Edward in many subjects, including Greek. Cheke, a devout Protestant, also helped inculcate a great deal of Protestant values in the young Prince’s heart.

Edward VI family tree

According to the will of Henry VIII, should Edward fail to have any heirs of his own, the English throne would then pass to Edward’s older half-sister Mary and finally to Elizabeth. And if those two women failed to have any heirs of their own, the Henry VIII’s will decreed that the crown should pass on to the male heirs of his younger sister, Mary Tudor.

Edward was described as very committed to his studies, having special interest in many languages, including Latin, Spanish, Italian, French and Greek. By his early teens, he had completely read Ethics by Greek philosopher Aristotle. He also received good praise from his tutors after he successfully completed the translation of De philosphia (by Roman historian and scholar Cicero) from Latin into Greek.

Influenced greatly by Protestantism, Edward is said to have written a treatise on the Catholicism in which he described the pope as Antichrist.

He had a very good relationship with his half-sisters – Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I) and Mary (later Queen Mary I of England). His father, the King, had also taken a number of measures to promote harmony among Edward and his sister, whom he had earlier illegitimized and disinherited.

Edward also developed a close relationship with his stepmother Catherine Parr, who was Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife.

Read More: The Six Wives of Henry VIII of England

Did You Know?

Following a peace treaty in 1543 between Henry VIII and the Scots, Edward was betrothed to his Scottish cousin, a seven-month-old Mary, Queen of Scots. Henry hoped that marriage would help unite the two kingdoms. However, the Scots, who had aligned themselves with France, repudiated the treaty less than six months later. An enraged Henry ordered his brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, to attack the Scots and ravage their lands. England’s invasion of Scotland in 1544 came to be called “the Rough Wooing”.

Coronation

Edward was just nine years old when his father, Henry VIII, died on January 28, 1547. Per the will of the deceased king, Edward was to succeed to the throne. Also, Henry VIII had also used the Third Succession Act of 1544 to reinstate Edward’s two half-sister – Mary and Elizabeth – into the line of succession. What that meant was that should Edward fail to have any heirs of his own, the English throne would then pass to Edward’s older half-sister Mary and finally to Elizabeth.

Edward’s father Henry VIII also inserted one final addition to the succession law. He decreed that should Elizabeth die without an heir, the throne should pass to the offspring of Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary Tudor.

About a month after Henry VIII’s death, Edward was crowned Edward VI at a spectacular ceremony in Westminster Abbey on February 20, 1547.

The regency council during Edward VI’s reign

Lord Protectors during the reign of Edward VI (L-R): Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, and John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland

As Edward was in his minority years, the will of Henry had instructed for the formation of a regency council to rule on behalf of the young king. Per the instructions of Henry VIII’s will, the council was to be composed of sixteen executors, who would govern the kingdom until Edward reached eighteen years.

Edward’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, was chosen as the head of the council. Somerset in effect served as the Lord Protector of the Realm, and by so doing, held an enormous amount of power. Somerset’s decisions were simply rubber-stamped by the King’s Privy Council.

However, no sooner had Somerset being appointed regent than did his jealous brother Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley (c.  1508 –1549) scheme to malign Somerset. Not even a barony or the Lord Admiralship position given to Thomas could appease him. As result, factions arose in the regency council. The two brothers vied for control over their nephew, King Edward VI. In the ensuing conflict, Thomas Seymour ended up losing out to his brother Edward, and he was subsequently charged with high treason and later executed on March 20, 1549. That same year, Somerset lost his position as regent to another scheming politician known as John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.

In keeping up with Edward’s strong commitment to the flourishing of Protestantism in England, his regency council introduced a host of policies to consolidate the English Reformation.

During Somerset’s time as regent of King Edward VI, he fought very hard to conquer Scotland as he hoped to unite the two realms. The Scots, helped by France, were able to repel English attack. Somerset’s war in Scotland had also started to drain the royal coffers of King Edward VI. Therefore, Edward ordered for the withdrawal of English troops from Scotland around the ending part of 1549.

The social unrest during Edward VI’s reign

With mounting economic problems due to England’s war with Scotland, frustration began to build among Edward’s subject. By 1549, the boy king found himself dealing with a full-blown social upheaval. Edward quickly dispatched his army to quell the unrest, especially the ones in Norfolk and Devon and Cornwall.

It’s also been said that the unrest was triggered by Edward’s strong suppression of Catholicism in England. Some protesters were also kicking against seizure of their lands by landlords, who had the backing of Edward’s regency council. Somerset’s handling of the protests and the issues raised by them left much to be desired. The Lord Protector of the Realm soon found himself a very isolated figure. Somerset’s demise was further worsened by the schemes and political machinations of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (later Duke of Northumberland).

By February 1550, Somerset had been removed from office by the Regency Council and replaced with John Dudley. In January 1552, he was executed after he was found guilty of trying to topple Dudley’s government. Dudley worked very hard to restore the Regency Council that began working to arrest the economic problems England was facing at the time. Unlike Somerset, Northumberland was able to give the impression that young King Edward was the one in charge. In actual sense, Northumberland was the one the one who truly ruled the kingdom.

Read More: Major Facts about the Life and Reign of Henry VIII

How did Edward VI die?

After staying on the throne for about six years, King Edward VI died at the age of 15 of a severe illness on July 6, 1553 at Greenwich Palace.

He suffered from a bad case of coughing and fever. He also had difficulty breathing. By June, the physicians attending to the king had given up all hopes of the king making a recovery. His last public appearance was on July I, when a pale looking Edward sat at his window in Greenwich Palace to show himself to the very concerned people that had come to see him. The king would die a few days later.

On August 8, 1553, King Edward VI was laid to rest in the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey.

Following an autopsy of the body, the physician claimed that the king most likely died of a disease of the lungs.

The generally accepted view among historians today is that Edward VI died of tuberculosis. There are others that claim he died of a type of pneumonia called bronchopneumonia.

Rumors surrounding the cause of Edward VI’s death

It is unclear what exactly caused the death of Edward. Rumors surfaced that the king was poisoned, and some people pointed fingers at the Duke of Northumberland as the culprit. Some senior Protestant figures accused the Catholics of poisoning the king.

The succession crisis that ensued after Edward VI’s death

Before his death, he made sure to exclude his older half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, from the line of succession to the throne. Perhaps influenced by Northumberland, the King ordered his courtiers to draft a will that would make his cousin once removed, the teenage Lady Jane Grey, his heir. Edward was concerned that an England under the rule of his Catholic half-sister Mary would see all the gains made in the English Reformation reversed.

The dying Edward drafted a document titled “My devise for succession” which provided all the necessary details pertaining to the change in succession line of the English throne.

It’s worth mentioning that Northumberland had successfully pulled off a marriage between his son, Lord Guildford Dudley, and Lady Jane Grey. Therefore, as father-in-law to Lady Jane Grey, Northumberland stood to benefit a lot from the change in the succession line.

Half-sisters of Edward VI

Edward VI’s exclusion of his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth from the line of succession caused a crisis to ensue, which ended in the removal of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Days’ Queen”. Image: Half-sisters of Edward VI (L-R): Mary (later Queen Mary I) and Elizabeth (later Elizabeth I)

As part of Northumberland’s schemes, the announcement of the death of Edward was purposely delayed in order to give Parliament enough time to get the will of the deceased king passed. It also gave Northumberland time to gather enough forces to either arrest Lady Mary or thwart any possible intervention from the continent. By this time, Mary had fled her residence in Hunsdon House to Norfolk, where she believed wholeheartedly to receive the support of her tennats.

On July 10, Northumberland took his daughter-in-law Jane Grey to the Tower of London, where he and some members of the Privy Council proclaimed Jane Grey queen of England. Lady Jane Grey is said to have been overwhelmed by flurry of emotions when she heard that she was to succeed to the English throne. The teenager was reluctant at first, but after some bit of persuasion from her father-in-law ultimately accepted the huge responsibility that had placed upon her.

Lady Mary quickly sent a letter to Privy Council voicing her discontent and demanding that she be proclaimed queen. As he had not taken Mary into custody, there was nothing much that Northumberland could have done. Therefore, Mary was able to rally a great deal of her sympathizers and political supporters, including those whose support for Mary did not ride on religious considerations.

Lady Jane Grey was queen of England for just nine days (July 10-19, 1553). She was ousted from power by her cousin Mary I (reigned 1553-58)

With about twenty thousand men in her army, Mary rode from Suffolk to London unopposed. With their backs against the wall and fearing the possible break out of civil war, the Privy Council was left with no other option than to proclaim Mary, a devout Catholic, queen of England on July 19. Mary had successfully brought to an end Jane’s reign, which lasted for just nine days.

The new queen then set about exacting revenge upon all the people who were involved in removing her from the line of succession. Many members of the Privy Council were arrested and later executed, including Northumberland who was beheaded on August 22. Queen Mary’s wrath also extended to the some family members of Northumberland, including the John Dudley, husband of Lady Jane.

The ousted queen, Lady Jane Grey, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Jane and her husband were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. After a few months delay, as Queen Mary did not want to execute her cousin, Lady Jane Grey and her husband’s fates were sealed following Jane’s father’s support of the Wyatt’s rebellion in January 1554. Mary ordered the executions of Lady Jane Grey and her husband to be carried out on February 12, 1554.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey took place on February 12, 1554. Portrait by the French painter Paul Delaroche, 1833. National Gallery, London.

Reason why Edward VI removed his half-sisters from the line of succession

Edward VI’s will in effect removed his Catholic half-sister Mary and his other half-sister Elizabeth from the line of succession. Edward’s final document cited his half-sisters’ bastardy as the reason why they were excluded from the line of succession. During the reign of Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth had been declared bastards only for Henry to later reconcile with the two and restore them using the Third Succession Act of 1544. Witnessed and signed by more than hundred notables, including high-ranking judges, bishops, councilors, and lawyers, Edward’s final document in the nutshell contravened the will of his father and the Third Succession Act of 1544.

It’s often said that Edward VI was persuaded into establishing a new line of succession by the people around him. Chief among those people was the king’s senior advisor John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, who was also the father-in-law of Lady Jane Grey. Northumberland went as far as threatening any judge or councilor that raised the slightest form of concern over the legality of Edward’s will.

Notable Achievements

Edward VI’s reign has sometimes been praised for the efforts taken by the head of the Regency Council in reducing financial corruption among government officials.

Another huge stride made during Edward VI’s reign came in the form of the religious reforms introduced by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Beginning during the reign of Henry VIII, Cranmer played a leading role in the English Reformation. It was Cranmer who helped establish the English monarch as the sovereign over the Church of England. During Edward’s reign, clerical celibacy, compulsory services in English, and Mass were all ended. Changes were also made in the use of images in places of worship.

More Edward VI Facts

  • Archbishop Cranmer described Edward as the second Josiah. Like the biblical king Josiah who destroyed many idols of Mesopotamian gods, Edward destroyed many of the religious artifacts of the Catholic Church.
  • In his six-year reign, many assets of the church were seized by the crown. As the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Edward VI had a tangible influence on the Reformation advances made during his reign.
  • Archbishop Cranmer played a leading role during Edward VI’s reign in terms of the laying the structures of the reformed English Church. Following the Archbishop’s release of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, a few senior Catholic figures in England criticized the book. That same year, close to 6,000 people died in Devon and Cornwall during skirmishes that later came to be known as the Prayer Book Rebellion.
  • In 1551, marriage negotiations began in order to have Edward marry Elizabeth of Valois, the daughter of King Henry II of France. Pope Julius III vehemently opposed the union, threatening to excommunicate Edward and Elizabeth should the marriage go through. The French monarch refused to listen to the pope and agreed to a 200,000 ecus dowry. Had it not been for the untimely death of Edward in 1553, the marriage would most likely have proceeded.
  • During the reign of Edward VI, revenue collection improved tremendously. This allowed the government to secure some economic gains and stabilize the economy a bit. However, it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that the English economy completely rebounded.

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