Review: Struggling for the soul of England

Daily Telegraph 4th February 2007
Jessie Childs reviews Edward VI: the Lost King of England

There is a wonderful illustration in Chris Skidmore's biography of Edward VI of the future king at 14 months. He has the chubby, rosy cheeks of an infant, but is dressed in expensive adult clothes. His left hand holds a rattle that resembles a sceptre and his right is raised as if in blessing. Just to drum in the message, a scroll of text accompanies the portrait, calling on Edward to "emulate thy father and be the heir of his virtue".

All early modern children had to grow up fast, but Edward, who became King of England at the age of nine and sat on the throne for six years until his premature death in 1553, had to do so faster than most.

The longed-for heir of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, he was born at Hampton Court on October 12, 1537 and was hailed as a symbol of divine blessing. Twelve days later Jane died, Edward later recalling that he "slew" his mother at his birth. For his first six years, he grew up "among the women".

Nobody under the degree of knight was allowed in his presence, he could only be touched by those approved by the king, anything he ate or wore was tested for infection, and his health was monitored daily. Early signs of stubbornness in the classroom were soon beaten out of him and Edward became a diligent student, "obsessed", Skidmore writes, "with self-improvement".

The difficulty in reconciling his immaturity with his majesty made for some awkward moments. When Edward was presented to some German ambassadors in 1539, he buried his face in his nurse's shoulder and burst into tears. At his coronation eight years later, he seemed more impressed by the antics of a tightrope walker than the grandeur and symbolism of the ceremony. Even later in his life, statecraft had to compete with homework.

Skidmore attempts to explore "the struggle for the soul of England after the death of Henry VIII". As the old king lay dying, his Secretary, William Paget, and Edward's uncle, Edward Seymour, conspired to seize power. Henry's wish, laid out in his will, for a majority-rule regency government was jettisoned. Seymour assumed control of the council and became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of the realm.

It was not long before he was signing warrants and using the royal "we" in his correspondence. Skidmore evokes the Machiavellian nature of Edwardian politics well. His accounts of the challenges to Somerset's authority, not least from his own brother, and of the coup d'état of 1549, successfully engineered by John Dudley, are particularly gripping.

The rule of a boy-king presented unique challenges to the body politic of England, but it proved remarkably resilient in the face of war with Scotland and France, inflation, sweating sickness, harvest failure, religious division and two large-scale rebellions. Bold, if often misguided, attempts were made to redress the ills of society, and Parliament remained supreme, passing revolutionary acts of religious uniformity.

This is not the first book to stress the dynamism and significance of Edward's reign, but the case is worth restating. The Church changed beyond measure. Altars were stripped, walls whitewashed, chantries dissolved and centuries-old ceremonies and images abolished. In 1552, the second Book of Common Prayer, described by Skidmore as "the high water-mark for Edward's Reformation", received statutory approval.

There would be no more prayers for the dead, no reference to the Virgin Mary or the saints and no hint of transubstantiation in the communion service. Mary did her best to reverse Edward's Reformation, but its legacy was preserved in the Elizabethan Settlement and has survived, if much altered, to this day.

One wonders what kind of king Edward might have become. A story, related by the imperial ambassador, has him seizing his pet falcon, plucking its feathers and tearing it into quarters, "saying as he did so to his governors that he likened himself to the falcon, whom everyone plucked, but that he would pluck them too thereafter and tear them in four parts".

It seems likely that, had he not succumbed to (probable) tuberculosis in 1553, he would have been more than capable of carrying out his threat. Like his father, he tried to rule beyond the grave, but his attempt to disinherit his sisters in favour of his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey faced public outcry. Mary's victory was the only successful popular revolt of the Tudor age.

This is an accomplished debut: measured, insightful and meticulously researched. Chris Skidmore, born in 1981, has impressive credentials – a double first from Oxford, numerous university prizes, a forthcoming Doctorate and a career that encompasses academia, journalism and politics. A biographer, then, perhaps as precocious as his subject. It is a fine match.

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