Part III: The history of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset

The reign of Edward VI – Part III

The Good Duke; a bad duke & ugly ambition….


1. The Good Duke….


For the better part of four hundred and fifty years historians have puzzled over the career of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England. Few men have risen to such heights. Few men without being a king have enjoyed such power. Fewer yet have sustained it for such a brief period.

Somerset’s emergence in January 1547 seemed predictable,  almost inevitable; after his astounding victory at Pinkie in September 1547 his ascendancy appeared complete, almost unassailable. By December 1547 Protector Somerset, his brother Thomas and the Seymour dynasty over-ruled England. The Protector’s word was virtually law: he controlled the court; he controlled the council; he controlled the king. He was able to pursue any political objective he chose and the one he chose to pursue was radical. It was characterised as a reforming agenda; one that included, but was not limited to,  iconoclastic religious innovation and social and economic reform.

Within two years it was all over.

Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford; later Duke of Somerset & Lord Protector

In October 1549, his younger brother Thomas Seymour already an executed traitor, Somerset was ousted in a coup. Two years more he too was executed on Tower Hill. Through these events Somerset’s royal nephew of Edward VI played the role of a silent partner; or perhaps more accurately, like the silent witness whose knowing silence disapproves. Edward VI coolly watched the rise, fall and execution of both his maternal Seymour uncles without passing comment whilst passively participating in their destruction.

The Somerset regime was swept away as if a sandcastle caught on the turning tide. Although its inter-locking complex of patronage had looked impregnable it had proved more friable than fret-work; more fragile than filigree: Somerset’s regime was a febrile lattice of hot ambition and melting loyalties. How was it that a man with apparently greater power than Cardinal Wolsey; a minister without any ‘great matter’ to thwart him or without any king to restrain him; how was it that he could be so easily brought down? That is indeed the question and once it is answered fully it will explain not only the narrow events of 1547-1549 but also the entire political progress of the two decades between the death of Henry VIII in January 1547 and the arrival of Mary Stewart in England in May 1568 after her defeat at Langside.

Henry VIII’s ‘will’ had created a ‘regency council’. It was a constitutional novelty. An Act of Parliament in 1544 had provided for Henry VIII to determine the English succession and depose organisational matters relating thereto by his signed Will & Testament. And in late January 1547 on Henry’s death the regency council established under his will was, at least initially, the only legitimate conduit for the exercise of royal power.  What Henry’s will  determined whilst he was alive was one thing but once he was dead it was another matter; indeed it was of no matter. History teaches that the words of dead king are never more than dead letters.

Katherine Parr – she wears a pendant from Henry VIII

In the days after Henry’s passing, whilst his death was still secret, much was settled to the naked advantage of the surviving interested parties. His principal beneficiaries did not feel themselves bound by either the letter or the spirit of their late master’s will but its very existence usefully camouflaged their own self-promotion. In effect Edward Seymour and his well prepared colleagues executed what might best be thought of as a coup-d’état. And during this succession crisis the fact that Seymour had Sir Anthony Denny on-side proved a decisive advantage. Denny was the principal gentleman of Henry’s privy chamber and the holder of the king’s dry stamp – the instrument used to execute Henry’s will. That powerful instrument enabled Somerset to buy support for his cause using the dead king’s signature to underwrite his purchase.

Edward Seymour was the eldest brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and consequently, maternal uncle to Edward VI. Shortly after Henry VIII’s death in January 1547 Seymour was formally promoted thrice: as Lord Protector; as Governor of the King’s Person; and as, Duke of Somerset. All three titles and dignities owned totemic political significance. The former two titles were familiar to the Tudor political class as they both had been employed during the last two royal minorities – those of Henry VI and of Edward V.

The title and office of Lord Protector  bestowed upon its holder precedence in the council and in parliament. It was therefore as an office akin to regent.

1544 – Mary about 28, note the sleeves – a stylistic flourish of her invention

A regency was exercised normally by direct blood-line relatives of a minor: a parent or sometimes step-parent; an older sibling; or paternal uncle; or another close (paternal) male relative. Queens consort also traditionally stood-in as regents to absent (or sick) husbands. In January 1547 there were two striking candidates for regency – the young King Edward VI’s eldest sister, Mary Tudor; and Henry’s last wife Queen Catherine (Parr).  Although both were women they represented interests greater than their personal followings. But strong male candidates has their own appeal in the Tudor patriarchy. And so although both these women would need to be squared to clear the path, prejudices favoured male government and that made Edward Seymour’s emergence most likely and similarly made it most likely it would be via the office of lord protector. The other restricting factor upon Seymour’s inauguration as lord protector was a direct consequence of Henry VIII’s will. Though Edward Seymour’s name was first in the list of ‘regency councillors’ the council of regency was deliberately designed to limit individual power by means of collective authority. In effect the council, exercising the royal prerogative, bestowed these offices upon Seymour. This reality imposed limitations on Somerset’s executive authority.

The second office, the Governorship of the King’s Person, was of equal importance. It bestowed custody of the monarch’s person on its holder and therefore the governor of the king’s person exercised all the patronage of and access to the royal household and the wider court. In the tumult after Henry’s death it was to this office John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, encouraged the king’s other uncle, Thomas Seymour, to lay claim. Thomas Seymour’s head had long been inflated as much by easy promotions and as by heedless ambitions. Spurred-on by his over-developed sense of personal rivalry with his elder brother, Thomas Seymour needed little encouragement. He duly demanded his portion of the spoils.

Protector Somerset – after 1547

Interestingly, Edward Seymour who might have been expected to know his brother better than most was clearly caught off-guard by Thomas’s demands. That error of judgment revealed Somerset’s ultimate weakness: whilst too sure of his own abilities, he was not too shrewd of others’ motives. The sibling rivalry played out behind closed doors in cold of January 1547. In short time it was to play out in wider and ever wider fora until it was so scandalously public it could no longer be overlooked by the Tudor political class.

The precedent for the division of these offices – lord protector and governor of the king’s person – between two men lay in the practice of the reign of Henry VI.  This practice later was seen to sew repeated division and to have fostered factional rivalry, the ebb and flow of which were popularly memorialised as the Wars of the Roses, political events which themselves had left a visceral scar on the folk memory of the Tudor governing class.

However, the alternative precedent from Edward V’s reign, uniting the two offices in the person of a single office-holder, was hardly more promising. In 1483 the office holder in question had been the dead King Edward IV’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who once in place quickly displaced his legal charges and seized the throne in his own right. He is known to History as Richard III and his history was the subject of partial, vitriolic but effective Tudor propaganda.

From this it can readily be seen the  offices of lord protector and king’s governor did not enjoy the happiest of political pedigrees. This explains why the minority of Edward VI was met with such trepidation on all sides of the political and religious divide. It also explains the lengths to which the dying Henry VIII went in order to ensure a stable structure of collective government through the untried mechanism of  a ‘regency council’, a council of equals, with Edward Seymour as no more than primus-inter-pares.

The title duke of Somerset also had its own significance and pedigree. Somerset was a royal duchy: the title had belonged to the (initially illegitimate) Beaufort children of John of Gaunt. The Beaufort brothers dominated much of the early years of Henry VI’s reign.  And most significantly the daughter of John Beaufort, the first duke of Somerset, Margaret Beaufort, had married Owen Tudor; and via her by now papally legitimised ancestry, her son, Henry VII, had laid his claim to the crown in 1485.  The title of duke of Somerset had briefly been bestowed upon Henry VII’s youngest son Edmund at his baptism in 1499; and finally and most significantly it again had been bestowed by Henry VIII on his own bastard son Henry Fitzroy when he created him Duke of Richmond & Somerset in 1525…..continued here….


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