The death of King Edward VI of England



On 6th February 1553, Mary rode to court to see Edward who was still ill. By March, some observers believed that he was dying. It was possibly about this time that he drafted his ‘device for the succession’, which proposed arrangements that ran counter to Henry VIII’s 1544 Act of Succession. On 11th April, he left London by barge for Greenwich.

In April, Archbishop Cranmer proposed a reform of canon law, but Northumberland sabotaged it in the House of Lords. The same month, Edward handed over his palace of Bridewell, in Fleet Street, to be a workhouse ‘for the poor and idle persons’ of London.

Edward VI, by William Scrots, c. 1550

Edward VI, by William Scrots, c. 1550

On 10th May, three ships departed from Tilbury to find a northeast passage to the lucrative spice markets of Asia, but they had to put into Harwich. They left England again on 23rd June.

In May, Archbishop Cranmer prepared a new catechism and primer for publication that laid down the doctrines of the church. Cranmer also produced 42 articles of faith, which were given royal assent on 2nd June, though they were never published. About this time, Edward ordered visitors to confiscate church ornaments, including vestments, jewels and plate.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

On 21st May, one of the Duke of Northumberland’s sons, Guildford Dudley, wed the king’s cousin, the 15-year-old Lady Jane Grey. In early June, King Edward collapsed and, knowing death was now close, he altered his ‘device’ so that Jane could inherit the throne herself. On 12th June, he ordered his justices to draw up letters patent to this effect. Despite their reluctance they finally complied, and Edward signed the letters on 17th June. Four days later they were signed by over 100 people: councillors, household officers, London civic dignitaries and peers.

Lady Jane Grey and Lord Guildford Dudley, 19th century polychrome print

Lady Jane Grey and Lord Guildford Dudley, 19th century polychrome print

In early July, the council summoned Mary – who was at Hunsdon in Hertfordshire – to her dying brother’s bedside. Once she was in London, she could be imprisoned and would consequently be unable to challenge Jane’s succession to the throne. However, an unknown informant warned Mary of the plot, and to avoid capture she fled the next day towards her estates in Norfolk.

The 'device for the succession' written by Edward Vi in 1553 [1.]

The ‘device for the succession’ written by Edward Vi in 1553 1

On Thursday 6th July, King Edward, the third Tudor monarch, died ‘towards night’ at Greenwich. There were now two prominent claimants to the throne: the Catholic Mary Tudor, heir by law, according to Henry VIII’s last Succession Act, and Lady Jane Grey, heir according to the wishes of Edward VI and recognized by Northumberland and the council.

The Streatham portrait, discovered at the beginning of the 21st century and believed to be a copy of a contemporary portrait of Lady Jane Grey

The Streatham portrait, discovered at the beginning of the 21st century and believed to be a copy of a contemporary portrait of Lady Jane Grey

Edward died before he could show his mettle as king, but his actions and behaviour suggest that in character he resembled his father: authoritarian, strong-willed and unsentimental. However, unlike his father he was an enthusiastic Protestant, and his reign was to prove the peak of religious reform in England. Indeed, Elizabethan zealots were to represent him to their own queen as the model of godly rule that she should follow.

England did not fare well, though, during the early years of Edward’s minority, suffering as it did from political instability at the centre, disturbances in the localities, a crippling war in Scotland, and inflation and financial dislocation owing to successive debasements of the currency. Once the Earl of Warwick took control, matters improved, although not immediately or dramatically. Peace with France helped enormously, as did the greater financial responsibility shown by the government. However, for a time political instability persisted as conspiracies and purges continued at the centre, culminating in the Duke of Somerset’s execution and the arrest of his friends in October 1551. In the localities, moreover, the dreadful harvests of 1550 and 1551 caused inflation to soar, with the price of flour doubling in London. For good reason, the government feared unrest, and it took measures to prevent a repeat of the 1549 disturbances: some councillors, for example, were licensed to retain 50 or 100 horsemen that could be used to suppress rising if necessary. Parliament also approved the principle that lord lieutenants should be appointed to suppress commotions, rebellions or unlawful assemblies.

Portrait of Mary Tudor

Portrait of Mary Tudor

Warwick’s regime was generally unpopular. So, in search of allies amongst the ‘evangelicals’ on the council – men like Archbishop Cranmer – Warwick decided to follow Somerset’s path of religious reform. As a result, a consistent feature of the Edwardian years was the destruction of the traditional fabric of life in the localities. Parishioners were no longer able to perform the seasonal rituals of the English church or enjoy semi-secular customs, such as Plough Monday gatherings or Corpus Christi plays. Churches were denuded of their images, wall-paintings, altars, bells and decorations. Communities lost their chantries and colleges. For the evangelical minority, the reign was an exciting moment of moral regeneration; for the silent majority, it was a time of despair.

King Edward VI and the Pope by an unknown artist

King Edward VI and the Pope by an unknown artist

from Susan Doran’s ‘The Tudor Chronicles 1485 – 1603’

  1. The text is now conserved at London’s Inner temple. Originally Edward and Northumberland optimistically planned to name the sons of Lady Grey as heirs, but there was no time for Jane to concieve. Hence, amendments were introduced to the device. As seen in the picture, the words ‘L. Jane’s heires masles’ (heirs males) were altered to red ‘L. Jane and her heires masles’.

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One Response to The death of King Edward VI of England

  1. Hello: this is a very interesting page, very educative!!!!!

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