King Henry VIII is one of the most legendary kings of England - for many of the wrong reasons. He gained a fearsome reputation among his subjects. Nevertheless, his break with the Papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the English Reformation - which ultimately helped lead to the foundation of the United States. His two daughters would gain unforgettable legacies during their respective reigns as well. Yet, little is known about the male heir Henry had sacrificed three wives and national stability for. In his unfortunately short reign and life, King Edward VI of England still managed to stamp his own mark on history before being overshadowed quickly by his two half-sisters.
Casey Titus explains.
1. Edward was King Henry’s only legitimate son
Henry VIII was famously known to have had six wives, two divorced, two executed, one died in childhood, and the last that outlived him. Along with six wives came innumerable mistresses. His first wife, Katherine of Aragon, bore him five stillborn children and one surviving daughter, Mary I. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, miscarried two sons and birthed one living daughter, Elizabeth I. His third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to one surviving son, Edward VI. Henry acknowledged one illegitimate child, Henry Fitzroy, the son of his mistress Elizabeth Blount, and granted him a dukedom. At least six others are suspected of being his illegitimate children, including Catherine and Henry Carey, the children of Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn.
2. Edward grew up coddled and educated
From the age of six, Edward was educated in philosophy, theology, the sciences, French, Spanish, and Italian. He was even said to have a high intelligence and a firm understanding of monetary affairs. Visitors spoiled Edward with toys and luxuries that included his own troupe of musicians. Both of Edward’s sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, doted on their younger brother. Edward wrote to Mary in 1546 that he “love(d) her most,” and Elizabeth had gifted him a shirt of her own working. Henry demanded his son’s household be strictly secured and cleaned, as little Edward was “this whole realm’s most precious jewel.”
3. Prince Edward was betrothed as a young boy
In July 1543, Henry VIII signed the Treaty of Greenwich with the Scots which would not only unite the two kingdoms but the betrothal between six-year old Edward and seven-month old Mary, Queen of Scots. In a turn of events, the Scots renounced the treaty six months later to renew their alliance with France. Henry was furious and ordered Prince Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, to attack Scotland in possible the most brutal military assault launched by England against the Scots. This war, known as “The Rough Wooing”, would continue into Edward’s reign.
4. Edward ascended to the English throne at just nine years old
King Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547 and was laid to rest beside Edward’s mother, Queen Jane Seymour, at his request, possibly for the sole reason of having bore him the son he desperately desired. Since Edward was still young at the time Henry passed away, he arranged a council of regency that would rule on Edward’s behalf. This was overridden by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who took power and named himself protector. Nine-year-old Edward VI was crowned at Westminster Abbey on February 20, 1547 the first English Protestant King. At his coronation service, Thomas Cramner, a leader of the English Reformation, even referred to Edward as a “second Josiah” and would urge him to propel the reformation of the Church of England as the focus of young Edward’s reign.
5. Edward had quite the busy 6-year reign
An English Prayer Book was published in 1549 with an Act of Uniformity to ensure it was used across the country. Peasants in the West Country rebelled against the Book. Simultaneously, Kett’s Rebellion from Norfolk responded to the enclosure of land, concentrating on economic and social injustices. In addition, the French declared war on England. Kett’s Rebellion was suppressed by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Dudley would unexpectedly use this victory to engineer the downfall of Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour. The 14-year-old Henry wrote of his uncle’s execution plainly and coldly: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.” By this time, Edward was writing on subjects such as military campaigns and currency reform and was being briefed by advisors selected by him. He was beginning to resemble his father; when his Lord Chancellor refused to accept a document signed by King Edward because it had been countersigned by his advisors, Edward reacted forcefully: “It should be a great impediment for me to send to all my council and I should seem to be in bondage,” he wrote. Like Henry, Edward VI believed the king was free to use his powers any way he felt was necessary.
In 1553, Edward was rapidly dying from a lung infection, most likely tuberculosis, and composed a “Devise” for royal succession. The “Devise” was the most puzzling document of Edward’s reign, a trick of the elusive and shrewd boy-king.
Edward compelled the judicial and political establishments of his kingdom to sign the “Devise” while ignoring the lawful, legitimate claims of Mary (first) and then Elizabeth (second) to the throne. Edward recognized them both as illegitimate, especially Mary for her Catholic faith and her threat to dismantle Protestant efforts in England.
Edward named his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor.
On July 6, 1553, Edward whispered his last prayer and died at the age of 15 at Greenwich Palace at 8PM. His last words were: “I am faint; Lord have mercy upon me, and take my spirit.” He was buried in Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey on August 8, 1553 with reformed rites performed by Thomas Cramner. Lady Jane Grey would only be queen for nine days before Mary took the throne with overwhelming popular support.
Many historians have judged the legacy of King Edward VI. One school of thought stamps him as weak and sickly, never likely to survive to manhood. Another is Edward being a puppet, manipulated by powerful revolutionaries around him. The third remembers Edward as a brilliant intellectual and ruler. Less commonly known is that Edward was Protestant England’s hero in their fight against the Pope and the Catholic Church.