Review: Reigning in vain

The Guardian, Saturday 13th January 2007
Hilary Mantel enjoys Chris Skidmore's scholarly account of the brief life of Edward VI

Our stereotype Tudors are set in stone: Henry VII is a desiccated calculating machine, his son a syphilitic roaring boy. Mary is a hysterical sadist; Elizabeth is a minx who ages into a pantomime dame. Between them, like a trick of the light, slides the spindly form of Edward, king at nine, dead at 16.

Our thinking about this child-king is corrupted by hindsight. Because he died young we think he was always sick, and a pawn of his advisers, his reign simply a chance for history to draw breath before Mary's bloody persecutions and Elizabeth's long golden age. Chris Skidmore wants us to think freshly and to see Edward as a promising and brilliant young man who, if he had lived, would have been worth his father's tortured years of waiting for a legitimate son. Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, provided him with the baby he called "this whole realm's most precious jewel", but he did not live to see his son grow up. The breath was not out of his body before his attendants were altering his will, awarding themselves dukedoms, and sharpening their knives to carve up the inheritance, and each other.

Henry himself had been a second son, not expected to succeed to the throne. But the gorgeous baby Holbein painted, holding a gilded rattle instead of a sceptre, was trained for kingship from the time he could walk and talk. He inherited his father's sharp memory, his curiosity about the world and his passion for theology. His pinched features, his pallor, came from Jane, one of history's near-invisible women, who had faded away a few days after his birth. But Edward brought something of his own to the Tudor family business. He had a sombre, highly developed sense of duty and what seems like an impersonal coolness in his dealings with other people; possibly ideas excited him more. It is not easy to guess how Edward would have grown up. It seems he was hardly a child, but the era didn't embrace the concept of cuteness, and perhaps childlike behaviour wasn't thought worth recording. He held up his coronation procession because he was laughing at a tightrope walker, and soon afterwards, in the schoolroom, he began blaspheming and swearing by "God's blood". His shocked tutors asked him why, and he said that one of his playmates had told him that "kings always swore". The playmate was beaten; Edward had to watch.

Thereafter, he had to find new means to assert himself, a tiny child in a court packed with ferociously ambitious men who had learned their trade in Henry's murderous entourage.

The situation he inherited would have made a saint swear. The last seven years of Henry's reign had been disastrous. As Henry became more swollen and savage, he spent his money on war and debased the coinage; as Edward's reign progressed, hyper-inflation created economic problems that would trigger terrifying popular uprisings in the west country and in East Anglia. Religion, too, divided nobility, gentry and peasantry, and the divisions brought open revolt. It is not clear why the west country rebels thought that restoring the Latin mass would make bread cheaper, but then it is hard to see the sense in most Tudor rebellions; Skidmore is an astute guide, and clear about the competing interests that threatened to pull the nation apart. Henry's reformation had been an institutional one, based on expediency. He never gave up his papal title of "Defender of the Faith" because, as far as he was concerned, he was defending it to the close of his reign; his church, in the end, was doctrinally conservative. It was in Edward's time that the images were smashed and the altars stripped, and England became recognisably a protestant country. By the time Edward entered his teens, he had developed firmly reformist views and took his position as head of the English church very seriously. Though he was too young to assume the day-to-day work of government, he did not mean to delegate the workings of his conscience.

Henry had intended England to be governed by a council of regency. But Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who was the new king's uncle, emerged as Lord Protector. He dominated politics until forced out, and eventually executed, by John Dudley, later Duke of Northumberland. It is hard to get away from the good duke/bad duke divide that once made our perceptions of Edward's reign too tidy to be true. Skidmore tries hard to present the complexity and ambiguity of Edward Seymour's character, as well as giving full value to the novelettish exploits of his younger brother. Thomas Seymour married Catherine Parr, but only after he had thought of offering his hand - if the various sources are to be believed - to the Princess Mary, the Princess Elizabeth, and Henry's discarded wife, Anne of Cleves.

Skidmore leaves his reader convinced that Edward's reign is crucial in English history. It is difficult, and rather artificial, to isolate six years, write about them cogently and bring them alive, when so many of the issues and personalities go back to the previous reign. But Skidmore doesn't lose his reader in the tangle of circumstance. He writes with clarity and verve about convoluted events which refuse the satisfying dramatic structure we would prefer them to have. If Edward remains elusive, that can't be helped. The little king kept a diary, but it was a chronicle of public events rather than an exploration of his inner workings. His letters, especially to his sisters and to his stepmother, do indeed make him sound priggish. But Tudor children were taught by means of proverbs, precepts and rhetorical figures, sound learning being valued above originality. Even adults struggled to express themselves freely. Henry's treason laws had made words dangerous, sometimes fatal. Edward did not belong to a generation who could, as Shakespeare would phrase it in King Lear, "speak what we feel, not what we ought to say". He was, too, a recipient of others' projections. It was possible for all interest groups to fantasise that when Edward ruled alone, their grievances would be addressed and their purposes served. The papists thought he would restore the old religion, and the reformers, sure of his evolving convictions, believed he would be "the wonder and terror of the world".

At 13, he was hunting, playing tennis, learning the skills of horsemanship and the handling of weapons; one day, it was expected, he would lead his troops in battle. Then, in the spring of 1552, he contracted a chest infection that he couldn't throw off. In July, after weeks of suffering, he died, having asked God to "deliver me out of this miserable and wretched life", to save the "chosen people" of England, and "defend this realm from papistry". His father had believed that a woman on the throne would be a disaster, but now only women were left. Edward's "devise for the succession" disinherited his half-sisters, and left the crown to Lady Jane Grey, 16 years old, as formal, serious and dutiful as Edward himself, so frail and tiny that her subjects caught their only glimpse of her when, on her procession to the Tower at the beginning of her brief reign, she had high wooden pattens fitted under her shoes. They seem like wan little twins, these two lost rulers for whom a sermon was the height of entertainment. It is quaintly misogynistic of the author, in the brief biographies that begin the book, to call Jane "a bluestocking", and the picture captions need a second glance from an editor. "Jane Seymour's fierce loyalty to the Tudor regime and determination to provide Henry with a male heir more than made up for her plain looks."
If determination could produce baby boys, Henry's first two wives would have filled a nursery each. What they needed was a bit of luck; or, as Henry saw it, God on their side.

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