The traditional view of Edward VI is that of a sickly, pedantic child who had no weight or power as king. At the tender age of nine, Edward became king but even though young and fragile he could by no means be ignored. Before his unexpected death in 1553 at the age of 15, Edward was only four months away from outright kingship and was fully expected to assume this position. Edward commanded both reverence and respect. As a young contemporary of Edward’s, Roger Ascham, wrote at the time – “The ability of our Prince equals his fortune, and his virtue surpasses both….he is wonderfully in advance of his years.” Indeed with this revised view of Edward, the question must be ‘when’ and not ‘if’ Edward was at the fore of his governments and his countries policies.
To be able to evaluate Edward’s prominence in government, it is important to assess both his character and upbringing. Edward was born in 1537 and spent much of his early life being tended to by the women of the court. Edward’s mother Jane Seymour had died during childbirth and visits from Edward’s father Henry were infrequent and formal. Perhaps it was because of this that Edward was a cold, unaffectionate young man, only ever really showing warmth towards his friend Barnaby Fitzpatrick. Edward’s education began in 1547 at the age of six. Edward’s tutor was Richard Coxe, a stern protestant and humanist, something that undoubtedly had a bearing on Edward throughout his eight years of education and the latter stages of his life.
Edward was a devout Protestant but as well as religion, he pursued his studies with much the same vigour. Edward spent hours each day reading Greek and Roman stories, he learnt the scriptures and could speak at least five foreign languages. Coxe ensured that Edward advanced his knowledge of logic, natural philosophy and astronomy as well as the more traditional subjects of History and Geography. In preparation for his role as king, Edward was taught in government issues. He covered numerous topics such as religious and economic policies. Edward’s kingly qualities were also paid attention to, he was learned in good-manners, fencing and hunting.
The comparison of Edward to a modern child of his age is often a mistake made by many historians. Edward’s education, which was vitally important, is often overlooked. There is no doubt that Edward was a child and that at times he could be prone to childish behaviour. There is however one thing that we can be sure of and this is that with his intensive teaching, Edward was a child of much intelligence and awareness, and rather than a sickly bystander to others in his reign he would use his finely tuned skills to great effect.
After Henry’s death, Edward was crowned king, he was however not old enough to assume outright control until the age of eighteen. Henry intended a regency control until Edward became of age, but the Duke of Somerset had other plans. He took control of Edward and assumed the title of ‘Lord Protectorate’. Immediately Somerset began isolate himself from the council and the boy king. Edward was isolated and was not permitted to attend court, and showed many urges for a more active role.
Edward was quite obviously unhappy about his lack of freedom and showed his discontent by complaining about lack of pocket money and the conditions in which he was kept. Edward showed this resentment of his repressive uncle as Somerset’s grip on power began to falter. Public support of Somerset would have saved him but the young king’s abandonment of him was brutal. – “Methinks I am a prisoner”, Edward riled. Somerset could not be seen to contradict with the young but influential king. Once the wheels of Somerset’s fall from grace were set in motion, then there was no stopping them. Somerset’s alienation of his ‘childish’ nephew had lead to his demise.
With his repressive uncle gone, Edward was able to spread his wings and assume a much more active role in the governance of his country. Edward was ready for this role as Roger Lockyer suggests – ” Edward was a robust, quick-witted boy, and was carefully groomed for the part he was to play.” As 1551 drew to a close Edward was beginning to emerge from the hesitant withdrawn boy to an intelligent and politically active young man.
Edward’s impressive performance in Privy Council meetings didn’t go unnoticed, and the council announced the Edward would take outright control at sixteen instead of the previously agreed eighteen. Northumberland could see that Edward was quickly maturing and learning vital skills. He consulted Edward and involved him largely in Government business. Northumberland’s title was a firm and final tribute to Edward’s ever-increasing involvement in Government affairs. Instead of the ‘Lord Protectorate’ title, he was known as ‘Lord President of the Council’ and showed an ever-lessening influence as Regent.
To say that Edward VI ruled England solely during his years as king is undoubtedly an exaggeration. It is however only as wrong at the traditional view of Edward as a sickly, unimposing boy who made no real impression on the regencies of his reign. Edward’s six years had seen him mature from the small and serious nine year old who was bullied by his uncle to a clever, confident and forceful teenager about to assume kingship. Edward was, due to education and upbringing, more than ready to become King of England. As W.K.Jordan (Edward’s biographer) wrote – ” Few monarchs in History have been as well equipped for their task as Edward VI was.” Edward’s last years showed he was truly a monarch with much potential, time as they say got the better of him.