Reign of Edward VI

After the strong monarchy of Henry VIII, accession of a child brought government by factions with instability and corruption. Protestantism enjoyed the king’s support and that of powerful officials. This reign secured a Protestant presence that withstood Catholic resurgence under the next monarch.

Summary of Event

The reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547) featured a strong monarchy sometimes despotic in character. The king shrewdly preserved the appearances of constitutional government by making Parliament his accomplice in enacting policies that expressed his own will, and so measures that increased royal authority became law through legal means. Henry executed relatively few of his opponents, and even severance of relations with the Papacy involved little bloodshed. England prospered in many ways, so there was no great resistance to authoritarian rule. Edward VI
Somerset, First Duke of
Dudley, John
Kett, Robert
Henry VIII (king of England)
Dudley, John
Somerset, first duke of
Kett, Robert
Cranmer, Thomas
Grey, Lady Jane
Mary Tudor (queen of England)
Edward VI (king of England)

The maintenance of this situation would not be possible under the weak monarchy of Edward. At the time of Henry’s death, Edward was a child, and the government was relegated to a Council of Regency during the young king’s minority. Henry had done little to prepare the councillors, so ambitious noblemen such as Edward Seymour and John Dudley dominated king and council. Relations with Scotland and France were hostile, the economy was in decline, and corruption flourished. At the same time, English Protestantism made great gains, rooted in the anti-Catholic laws and actions of Henry’s reign.

The council made Seymour Lord Protector with the prerogative of appointing his supporters to government positions. After gaining this power, Seymour often ignored the council and ruled by decree, which caused animosity that led to his downfall. Edward made Seymour duke of Somerset with an income of £7,400 per year, but Seymour (now Somerset) regarded the king as a child to control. Eventually, this attitude alienated the intelligent monarch; he correctly perceived that the Lord Protector’s paternalism toward him was motivated, at least in part, by his desire to be the actual ruler.

While Somerset was in power (1547-1549), he pursued a rather liberal agrarian policy, one that sought to aid peasants, for whom he had genuine concern. He fixed rents to protect them from exploitation, but that antagonized landlords, whom he could not afford to alienate. In foreign affairs, he tried to exclude French influence from Scotland by arranging the marriage of Edward to Mary Stuart, the daughter of King James V, who was five years younger than Edward. The failure of this scheme led Somerset into a war against the Scots, which in turn led them to consolidate their alliance with France. They sent Mary to Paris for her education, where she became engaged to the heir to the French throne, Francis II. Somerset’s failed diplomacy caused war with France in 1549, a conflict that went badly.

The Lord Protector’s arrogant manner and disdain for the council finally led, in 1549, to an intrigue against him instigated by John Dudley. Somerset’s overthrow occurred after a peasant uprising led by Robert Kett in which the rebels seized control of Norwich until Dudley, as an agent of the council, defeated them. Similar uprisings elsewhere failed, but the disorder brought discredit upon the Lord Protector, who had sympathized with the peasants and had attempted to improve their lot. The affair ended Somerset’s career, and the cause of social reform fell with him. After Kett’s Rebellion Kett’s Rebellion (1549)[Ketts Rebellion (1549)] , Dudley organized a plot to make himself ruler. His faction sent Somerset to the Tower of London, and at the end of 1551, he was condemned to death for conspiring against Dudley, whom the king had made duke of Northumberland; his execution took place on January 22, 1552.

Northumberland became the dominant figure in government, but without the title Lord Protector. He was driven by ambition and had little regard for the people his predecessor had tried to help. Unrestrained by moral convictions, he flattered the king and posed as the monarch’s servant, a device to gain legitimacy for his position. He secured oppressive laws to deal with troublesome peasants, and in foreign affairs, he made peace with France by ceding Boulogne. To pacify the Scots, he removed English troops from their soil without compensation, measures he deemed necessary to pursue his domestic schemes.

In 1534, during the reign of Henry VIII, the Act of Supremacy Supremacy, Act of (1534) had made the monarch head of the Church of England, so the religion of the ruler but was bound to influence the policy of his government. Edward, unlike his father, was a devout Protestant and an enthusiast for continuing reformation. The Council of Regency was weighted toward Protestantism, with twelve of sixteen members of that persuasion, and among Edward’s teachers were noteworthy Protestant scholars. Protestantism;England The king was a fine student who mastered four languages, to the delight of tutors such as Roger Ascham and John Cheke, distinguished Humanist pedagogues. Under the influence of preachers such as Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Edward learned theology and developed the conviction that it was his duty to promote further reforms in both state and church.

The administration of Somerset had repealed the Henrician laws against heresy, and England had opened slowly to Protestant influence. Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury under Henry and now Edward, had revealed his Protestant convictions and composed the Book of Common Prayer (1549) to facilitate English-language church services. An Act of Uniformity (1549) Uniformity, Act of (1549) required use of the prayer book, and Parliament abolished reliquaries and chantries, prominent features of medieval Catholicism that Henry had retained. During Northumberland’s tenure, the government confiscated lands from chantry priests who had prayed for departed souls, a practice Protestants renounced.

Repeal of the heresy laws allowed Protestant theologians from the continent to teach in England, where they urged the government to enact anti-Catholic measures. With royal approval, first Somerset and now Northumberland encouraged the spread of Protestantism, as continental scholars joined their English colleagues in calling for abolition of the Mass, distribution to the laity of the Eucharist in both species, and permission for priests to marry. The success of their endeavors appeared in a revised Book of Common Prayer and the Forty-two Articles of Religion Forty-two Articles of Religion (1553)[Forty two Articles of Religion (1553)] , which Cranmer produced in 1552 and which were published in 1553. These documents show the influence of Martin Bucer of Strassburg, Pietro Martire Vermigli (Peter Martyr) of Italy, and Jan Łaski from Poland. England acquired through them the theological complexion of Reformed doctrine that had originated with Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and John Calvin in Geneva.

Thomas Cranmer was the central figure in the reform of the Anglican Church, as he guided the government in removing statues from church buildings, closing shrines, and replacing stained-glass windows with clear panes. Confiscations of Catholic endowments brought revenue to the royal treasury and to nobles who supported the policy. When some bishops opposed these changes, the Lord Protector coerced them at least to refrain from obstructing his program. The second edition of the Book of Common Prayer demonstrated beyond doubt that England’s official religion had become Protestant. Edward VI formally approved the revised prayer book and the Articles shortly before he died on July 6, 1553.

Although Protestants gained control of church and state, the population at large had not embraced the new religion. It was strongest in London, but even there only a minority professed the Reformed faith. Many Protestants were, however, people of wealth and political connections, so they exerted greater influence than their numbers might indicate. Somerset depended on Protestant nobles for support, and he and they were zealous to convert the nation to their beliefs. Throughout most of rural England common people remained Catholic, inclined either toward Rome or toward Anglo-Catholicism.

Somerset dealt with religious diversity by prohibiting preaching, except for delivery by licensed ministers of state-approved homilies. The approved sermons attacked the doctrine of purgatory and affirmed justification through faith alone, the cardinal principle of Protestant theology. When Northumberland gained power, he continued state patronage of the reformers, although he lacked fervent commitment to their beliefs. Legislation of 1550 had ordered destruction of any religious service books that the 1549 Act of Uniformity had not approved. A second Act of Uniformity (1552) Uniformity, Act of (1552) approved a more overtly Protestant edition of the Book of Common Prayer. This law categorically denied transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. The same act eliminated confessions to priests and removed Catholics from the Council of Regency and from bishoprics still in Catholic hands.

Edward became active in state affairs as he grew older and supported Northumberland’s measures to make England Protestant, even appealing to his sister Mary Tudor to renounce Catholicism. Perhaps he realized the insecurity of the Reformation and feared a return to Catholicism should Mary succeed him.

By the beginning of 1553, Edward was seriously ill and expected that his reign would end soon. To prevent a reversion to Catholicism, Northumberland persuaded the king to name Lady Jane Grey, Northumberland’s daughter-in-law, his heir, an action that negated the will of Henry VIII. Edward signed the official documents only days before tuberculosis took his life in July. The dying monarch regarded himself as God’s agent to protect the true faith, so he agreed to the scheme. He expired at Greenwich, as he prayed that God would defend England from papistry.


The plot to keep Mary Tudor from the throne failed, and England endured five years of turmoil, as the new monarch tried unsuccessfully to restore Catholicism. Her persecution of Protestants made her unpopular and actually aided the growth of the religion she despised. The reforms initiated in Edward’s reign withstood her opposition, and the next queen, Elizabeth I, affirmed the Protestant faith and restored most Edwardian reforms, although with some alterations.

In international affairs, England was still a second-rate power when Edward died. Failed foreign policy and the insecure monarchy left the nation’s future in doubt. The reign of Mary I brought additional troubles when she married Philip of Spain and allowed him to control English policy. The name of Tudor had been blemished by two weak monarchs by the time Elizabeth became queen. Against all odds, she would achieve national unity and gain for England the status of a great power.

Further Reading

  • Loach, Jennifer. Edward VI. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Scholarly history that emphasizes social and political aspects of Edward’s reign.
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Boy King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Excellent coverage of Protestant fortunes during Edward’s reign.
  • Weir, Allison. The Children of Henry VIII. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. Examines the personal lives of the monarchs rather than affairs of state; insightful treatment of Edward VI.

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

1544-1628: Anglo-French Wars

Jan. 28, 1547-July 6, 1553: Reign of Edward VI

Jan., 1563: Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England