Wednesday 6 July 2011

July 6th, 1553: The Death of King Edward VI

Edward VI's untimely death at the age of fifteen has given rise to the rumour that he was always a sickly child. This image of the frail boy-king, whose life was snuffed out by faulty Tudor and Seymour genetics, is not borne out by the accounts of Edward which pre-date the last eighteen months of his life. It may be that, like his late uncle Arthur, we have exaggerated his physical weakness and assumed that simply because he died young, he must have been infirm. Sixteenth century illness was a terrifying thing and it could often strike down a young man or woman who were otherwise in peak physical condition.

Either way, the once-robust health of the young monarch who had reigned since his father's death six years earlier, had given way to an agonising series of physical complaints. In a panic, his advisers had moved him from palace to palace - trying the cleaner air of Greenwich, away from the dust and dirt of the city or inflicting a series of increasingly desperate medical "remedies" on the young man, all of which prolonged his life, rather than saving it, and plunged him into ever-worsening pain. Thanks to his entourage and doctors, Edward VI's last few months in this life were positively hellish and devoid of comfort, relief or ease. As well as subjecting their sovereign, patron and meal ticket to progressively crueller and riskier medical treatments, Edward VI's government were also resorting to dishonest and desperate attempts to hide the truth of the king's deterioration from the public and, in particular, from his sisters.

Edward VI had been England's first truly Protestant monarch and, despite his youth (or perhaps because of it), he had embraced his faith with a zeal so intense that sometimes his own  Protestant councillors found it difficult to reason with him. The constant bullying he had subjected his elder sister Mary to on account of her Catholic faith was as mean-spirited as it was consistent and it rightly evokes considerable sympathy for Mary. (Although some modern writers seem to be getting rather carried away, bearing in mind that Mary was to move on to do exactly the same thing to Elizabeth once she became queen.) Now, Edward's resentment of his eldest sister's Catholic faith came back to torment the young man as he lay dying. However, it was not atonement or forgiveness Edward wanted. Instead, he wanted to carry their feud into the grave and ensure that before he died, he barred Mary from ever inheriting the throne.

Edward knew that with his eldest sister on the throne, all of his life's work to bring Protestantism to his kingdoms would be destroyed and that she would preside over the restoration of Catholicism with the same militant efficiency he had devoted to Protestantism. Time was to show that he under-estimated Mary on that point, but the general assessment was correct and it is this fear which tortured Edward, as much as his many illnesses, as he lay dying. Weak of body, but sound in mind, Edward colluded fully with the Duke of Northumberland and other members of the Council in disinheriting both his sisters. Since Edward was the last of the pure-blood Tudor males, the Crown would have to pass to a woman, meaning that he could not resort to the gender-driven trickery employed by King Stephen in 1135. He knew too that he could not remove Mary from the succession solely on the basis of her religion (that was not tried in England until the next century). He realised that he could not bar Mary from her inheritance without also doing the same to their younger sister, Elizabeth, and, despite all the affection that had once allegedly been between them, Edward displayed not one iota of hesitation in doing just that. The marriages of both Mary and Elizabeth's mothers to their father had been declared illegal by Acts of Parliament and it was this technicality which Edward now declared made them ineligible to inherit the throne when he died. Illegitimacy, based on much more tenuous evidence than that used to bastardise the Tudor princesses, had, after all, been used as the excuse to sweep poor Edward V off the throne by his uncle in 1483, why not try the same tactic now?

The inheritance would skip over the two sisters and pass instead to their second cousin, Lady Jane Grey, now rather conveniently married to Northumberland's son, Guildford. Jane, fifteen years-old, prim, devout, intellectually brilliant and ferociously Protestant was, in many ways, a female version of Edward and, with Northumberland's backing, she seemed the ideal candidate to oust Mary from her position as heiress to the throne.

Whether Edward's disinheritance of his two sisters was legal or not hardly seems to matter outside its immediate context. Sixteenth century law, both canon and secular, was a minefield of interpretation, loop-holes, confusion and, often, outright lies. The standard interpretation of Edward's actions is that they were illegal, because it meant over-turning the terms and conditions of his father's will, which had named Mary as next-in-line if Edward died without children. Jane Grey's most recent biographer, E.W. Ives, has rather convincingly argued, however, that although Edward's actions as he lay dying were unlovely, they were not necessarily illegal. As sovereign, he had every right to decide who he passed the throne to when he died and it was the new monarch's will which mattered, not the old one.

Either way, with Mary and Elizabeth stricken from the list and Jane's succession seemingly secured, the young man slipped back into the protracted process of dying. The imperial ambassador later heard that during the last two weeks of his life, Edward was forced to lie flat on his back at all times and vomited up everything he ate, living 'entirely on restoratives and obtaining little or no repose'. As the numerous diseases and ailments his body's failing immune system had opened him up to began to consume him, gangrene set in on his toes and fingers. The medical treatments had been subjected to had caused his skin to deform and blacken, whilst his limbs swelled and his hair began to fall out. Emaciated, ravaged by illness and in constant physical agony, Edward VI, the only son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, died at Greenwich Palace in the arms of his childhood friend, Henry Sidney. His last words were 'I am faint; Lord have mercy, and take my spirit.'

No-one knows, or knew then, exactly what it was which lead to Edward VI's horrific natural death. The Venetian ambassador to London believed it must be tuberculosis, since only that could explain the wasting away of the King's physique. Rumours that he had been poisoned either by Northumberland or by Mary are part and parcel of the habitual paranoia of sixteenth century politics and bear no more closer consideration than the idea that Anne Boleyn poisoned Katherine of Aragon or Elizabeth I poisoned Marie de Guise. Two of his modern biographers, the late Jennifer Loach and Chris Skidmore, have offered slightly varying explanations: Loach, in her Yale-published biography of Edward, suggested that Edward had contracted acute bronchopneumonia, which lead to a suppurating pulmonary infection and either lung collapse, kidney failure or septicaemia, the same disease which had killed his mother, if in very different circumstances. Chris Skidmore, whose work as a student at Oxford formed the basis for his biography of Edward, suggested that the young king had simply been spectacularly unlucky to contract measles and then smallpox in 1552, the year before his death, and before he had time to recover from either, his immune system was so weakened, that he contracted the tuberculosis which would later kill him. All of it exacerbated, of course, by the medicine his physicians and advisers chose to use on him - initially to save his life, but latterly to keep him alive long enough until he had authorised Jane's succession instead of Mary's.

Charming, brilliant, athletic, handsome and musically gifted, Edward could, and did, show himself to be ruthless and cold, like his father, and pedantic and often inscrutable in sentiment and motivation, like his mother. His attempts to create a Protestant monarchy in the British Isles were, ironically, only to be secured by the actions of his sister, Elizabeth, who he had disinherited in order to prevent Mary from becoming queen. More immediately, however, as Edward's disfigured corpse was prepared for burial in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey, the great crisis of "the Nine Days' Queen" and Mary Tudor's improbable, but heroic, triumph was about to begin.


  1. Hi Gareth, is it ok for me to write to the popular email in future or should I write to another one? Great article - went to both Oxford and Cambridge but have to admit I did prefer Cambridge. :)

  2. Oh Conor... how you wound me! But yes, feel free to use that address.

  3. Hi, thanks for that, I've just sent an email. Good luck with the book, see it already has a positive review on Amazon!!

  4. ummmmm...... btw Lady Jane Grey is seventeen when she inherits the throne, get your facts straight

    1. Dear "Anonymous,"

      Firstly, I know exactly who you are and have done ever since your comments on the Anne Boleyn review. So, start signing your name or I won't be publishing them anymore. You don't know how to use the caps lock key and yet you expect me to take intellectual advice from you? Seriously?

      Secondly, the only thing more unfortunate than your grammar are your manners. There is no need for you to come on to someone's site or blog and become chippy, aggressive and hostile. Why on earth do you feel the need to demean yourself by speaking like that to someone you've never met? The study of history is supposed to produce joy, genuine (sometimes passionate) debate; certainly interest, but not ire. If you had genuinely disagreed with me (which many do), you could have phrased it, "I've always believed Lady Jane Grey was sixteen at the time she inherited the throne, rather than seventeen" or "Because of the arguments favouring 1536, rather than 1537 for her date of birth..." You could have conveyed your point while remaining polite and interesting; you didn't.

      Thirdly, I could point out that there is still an ongoing debate about Jane Grey's date of birth and that even if it could be dated to the year 1536, the month cannot be determined, which means she could still have been 16 in July 1553. Basic mathematics should tell you that. I'm sure you knew this, though, since you couldn't possibly have been so intellectually arrogant as to use the juvenile phrase "get your facts straight," unless you had them straight yourself. Right?

      I enjoy interacting with all the readers of this blog; even those I disagree with and vice-versa. However, I have no interest in interacting with you; life is too short. Unless you start signing your name to your comments, I won't be publishing them. Even then, given your past record, it'll be touch and go. They contribute nothing to the discussion and they are extremely ill-mannered.

      Sincerely yours,


    2. I love you for that response. I have only seen this article of your blog, and I greatly enjoy it. I look forward to reading the rest of your blog!
      ~Lexi Grimbrooke

  5. interesting..nice blog..thanks

  6. historyglutton2 May 2013 at 04:05

    i had just been watching an old episode of "elizabeth r", which showed a scene depicting edwards death.
    curious as to what the cause may be, i came online.thankfully i found your fascinating account of this moment in time and am now armed with another slice of knowledge with which to bore the historically unenlightened :-)
    good work

  7. Thanks for this. I "took to the internet" after a fairly condescending BBC documentary hammered home the same simple points over and over, while avoiding the interesting details and uncertainties. My uncertainties are now far better informed!

  8. Is there any truth that Edward's body lies in a shallow grave in Greenwich Park?

  9. I was wondering if Edward VI was somewhat a bit rude with Mary I's Catholic faith. Was he right to try to correct her faith? It bothers me since everyone has a right to practice their faith/ religion/ beliefs.

  10. Enjoy your posts very much! Just discovered your site by chance while reading up on Edward VI. Have been interested in "King Josiah" since reading Twain's "Prince & The Pauper" as a child.

  11. I enjoyed your post. I agree there is NO NEED to be arrogant on someone elses post. Thankyou for writing. I love it.


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