Edward VI

Edward VI (1537-1553) was king of England and Ireland from 1547 to 1553. His short reign witnessed the introduction of the English Prayer Book and the Forty-two Articles, and thus this period was important in the development of English Protestantism.

The son of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour, Edward VI was born on Oct. 12, 1537. His mother died 12 days after his birth. Edward spent most of his childhood at Hampton Court, where he pursued a rigorous educational regimen. He learned Latin, Greek, and French and studied the Bible and the works of Cato, Aesop, Cicero, Aristotle, Thucydides, and the Church Fathers. Roger Ascham, the author of The Schoolmaster, was a sometime tutor of his penmanship, and Sir John Cheke of Cambridge instructed him in classical subjects. Philip van Wilder taught him the lute. Edward knew a little astronomy and occasionally jousted. When lost in his studies, he was cheerful.

Since Edward was only 9 years old when he became king in 1547 on the death of his father, a group of councilors stipulated in Henry VIII's will ruled the kingdom in his name. His council elected his uncle Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, as lord protector, and Hertford soon was created Duke of Somerset.

Somerset's Protestantism and his interest in solving the government's financial difficulties set England on a course of religious and economic change. Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, given liberty to indulge his Protestant tendencies, pushed through the repeal of Henry VIII's six Articles (1547), dissolved the chantries (1547), and through the Act of Uniformity (1549) endorsed an English Prayer Book that prescribed a new religious service. This Prayer Book was subsequently revised in 1553 (Second Act of Uniformity). All Englishmen were forced to use it and to adopt the Protestant form of worship. Reaction to the first Prayer Book stimulated an uprising, the Western Rebellion in Cornwall in 1549, which was quelled at Exeter. The Forty-two Articles of religious belief adopted by Parliament in 1551 demonstrated further movement toward Protestant doctrine and were eventually made the basis of Elizabeth's Thirty-nine Articles.

Edward had a consuming interest in religion. No study delighted him more than that of the Holy Scriptures. He daily read 12 biblical chapters, and he encouraged preachers with strong Protestant views. For example, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, both later executed for their beliefs by Queen Mary I, were regular preachers. Even the Scottish reformer John Knox delivered a few sermons. John Calvin, the Geneva reformer, wrote to him.

Resistance to a new tax on sheep (1548) and an inquiry into enclosure led to a Norfolk rising called Ket's Rebellion (1549), which was instrumental in precipitating Somerset's fall. The rebellion fueled the antagonism of John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, who thought Somerset too lenient in dealing with the rebels. Warwick became Edward's chief minister and was created Duke of Northumberland. He had, however, little time in which to practice his authority. Edward contracted measles and smallpox in April 1552 and was never well thereafter. He was still too young for marriage. A contract made in 1543 for his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots, had been abandoned in 1550. In 1551 a contract had been drawn for the hand of Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry II of France. But on July 6, 1553, Edward died of tuberculosis.

A priggish, austere boy, Edward had little sympathy for his uncle Somerset and almost no friends. He was short for his age and fair-complected and had weak eyes. His death at 15 left the English Protestant cause without its principal defender and caused Northumberland hastily and unlawfully to place his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. Though Edward's reign was brief, it marks an important milestone in the development of English Protestantism.


Further Reading on Edward VI

The best biography of Edward VI is Hester W. Chapman's scholarly and well-written The Last Tudor King (1958), which underscores personal detail. See also the older, less objective study by Sir Clements R. Markham, King Edward VI: An Appreciation (1907). For background on the religious change consult Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer (1962), and A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (1964; rev. ed. 1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Hayward, John, Sir, The life and raigne of King Edward the Sixth, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993 (originally published in 1630).