On the 6th of July 1553, King Edward VI of England died at Greenwich Palace. He was fifteen. He was the first true Protestant King of England. Although his father initiated the break with Rome, it was his son who instituted a book of common prayer that changed the face of how people worshiped throughout the country. During his reign, there were many disturbances, within his family and in the realm. As the coinage was devalued, and his uncles fought for control over their nephew, Edward became colder and agreed that sacrifices had to be made to ensure the stability of his realm. The rebels were severely punished, his uncles were executed and everyone who celebrated the Catholic Mass was a traitor. On the latter, he faced a great backlash from his sister, the Lady Mary Tudor who refused to give up her religion and confronted him many times (on one occasion she forced him to recall all the times she’d been good to him and another one she confronted his officials when they visited her house head on and screamed at them as they left).
Because he was leaving no heirs, he created a document called “My Device for the Succession” in which he posed a legal question of who should take the throne if he died? The question was answered months later when he and his councilors excluded his sisters from the line of succession and replaced them with Frances’ male heirs and (in case there were none) her daughters from eldest to youngest and their male heirs.
On Sunday the second of July, the contents of the King’s will were made public and church services excluded the usual prayers for Mary and Elizabeth. This was a powerful symbol of things to come.
His eldest sister did not miss a thing. She knew something was amiss before the will was made public. She departed from her homestead the next day to Kenninghall in Norfolk from where she could flee in case Dudley and co. tried to apprehend her.
On Thursday between eight and nine o’clock on the evening, Edward VI drew his last breath. He had been surrounded by his two chief gentlemen of the privy chamber, Sir Thomas Wroth and Sir Henry Sidney, his groom Christopher Salmon and his doctors, Doctor Owen and Doctor Wendy. His last words, uttered in the form of a hoarse whisper were:
“Lord God, deliver me out of this miserable and wretched life, and take me among thy chosen: how be it not my will, but thy will be done. Lord I commit my spirit to thee. Oh Lord! Thou Knowest how happy it were for me to be with thee: yet, for thy chosen’s sake, send me life and health, that I may truly serve thee. Oh my Lord God, bless thy people, and save thine inheritance! Oh Lord God save they chosen people of England! Oh my Lord God, defend this realm from papistry, and maintain thy true religion; that I and my people may praise thy holy name, for thy Son Jesus Christ’s sake!”
Raising his head and looking straight at them he asked “Are you so nigh? I thought ye had been further off.”
“We heard you speak to yourself, but what you said we know not” was their reply. Edward told them it was because he was praying to the Almighty then when Sidney took him in his arms, he said with a note of finality “I am faint; Lord have mercy upon me, and take my spirit” then he died.
Some people were quick to say that the King had been poisoned by the ambitious Dudley who was eager to see Jane Grey on the throne (since she was married to his younger son Guildford) but these rumors have no basis. The people who whispered such things were immediately put in the Tower. Machyn, a merchant reported this in his diary. “The noble King Edward the VI was poisoned, as everybody says, where now, thank be God, there be many of the false traitors brought o their end, and I trust in God that more shall follow as they may be spied out.” Although this can be used by some to prove that he was poisoned, it is highly unlikely. Edward had been sick once of measles but he recovered very quickly. Now he wasn’t so lucky. This was the Tudor era where sickness ruled their world and everyone could be taken in the blink of an eye.
The Duke of Northumberland wanted to keep his death a secret for three days so it would give him enough time to install Jane as Queen and apprehend Mary Tudor before she could stir up any trouble or worse, escape to Flanders where she could receive Imperial support from her cousin, the Emperor and King of Spain.
His plans were foiled. Someone ran to Mary right away and informed her of her brother’s death and this gave her the perfect weapon to rally up her tenants and countrymen, being the first one to inform them of her brother’s death and the Duke’s plot as well as the coup d’ etat.
“The King was dead” as Leanda de Lisle writes in her biographies of the Tudors and the Grey sisters, “but the Tudor women were not finished yet”. And their fight would last decades until only one was left standing and we know who that was.
- Edward VI: The Lost Tudor King by Chris Skidmore
- The Sisters Who Would be Queen by Leanda de Lisle
- On this Day in Tudor England by Claire Ridgway
- Tudor: Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family by Leanda de Lisle