July 6, 1553: Edward VI Dies, Northumberland Tries to Implement His ‘Device for the Succession’

"My Devise for the Succession" (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“My Devise for the Succession” (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Edward VI was a tragic figure. King at nine, dead at sixteen – and had to execute two uncles in between. He was also staunchly Protestant, and after he fell ill in early 1553 he started to worry that the existing legal structure would pass the throne to his Catholic sister Mary if he died without issue. This made him decide to take matters into his own hands: He wrote a will, entitled My Devise for the Succession, to bypass both of his half-sisters and vest the crown in the hands of his cousin, the Lady Jane Grey.

Where did this idea come from? Most people accuse John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, of creating the scheme. In the “follow the money” tradition, Northumberland was certainly the person with the most to gain from the decision: he married his oldest son to Jane Grey. More recently though, David Starkey and others have argued that Northumberland was more of an opportunist than anything else, and simply capitalized on the logic of Edward VI’s decision. This is borne out by the fact that the Dudley-Grey marriage took place in May 1553, well after Edward started drafting his plans.

Indeed, Edward started writing the will at a time when he still expected he might leave adult children behind, though the bulk of the will was devoted to the alternative scenarios – including one that would leave England with a Council waiting for a monarch yet to be born (!). It was confusing and didn’t quite work, and more importantly needed to be ratified by Parliament in order to supersede the succession established by Henry VIII. In late June, Edward had the key members of the nobility swear to uphold his plans, and he also instructed that writs be prepared for a new Parliament which would meet on September 18. Unfortunately, that proved to be far too late for the boy looking to leave a legacy.

Still, Northumberland tried to implement the boy king’s plan. He hastily assembled an army and marched against Mary in East Anglia…but he had not prepared for Mary to act as resolutely as she did – or for quite so many people to declare for her. On July 20, he learned that his own Privy Council had proclaimed Mary queen, and his resistance dissolved. Northumberland himself declared for Mary, claiming that he had merely followed the instructions of his deceased King. That strategy did not work, nor did his return to Catholicism: Northumberland was executed on August 22, 1553 on Tower Hill.


My Devise for the Succession

  1. For lack of [male] issue of my body to the male issue coming from this female, as I have after declared. To the Lady Frances’ male heirs if she have any such issue before my death, to the Lady Jane and her male heirs, to the Lady Katherine’s male heirs, to the Lady Mary’s male heirs, To the male heirs of the daughters which she shall have hereafter. Then to the Lady Margaret’s male heirs. For lack of such issue, to the heirs male of the Lady Jane’s daughters. To the heirs male of the Lady Katherine’s daughters, and so forth until you come to the Lady Margaret’s daughters’ heirs males.
  2. If after my death the heirs male be entered into 18 years old, then he to have the whole rule and governance thereof.
  3. But if he be under 18, then his mother to be governess until he enters 18 years old. But to do nothing without the advice and agreement of 6 persons of a Council to be appointed by my last will to the number of 20.
  4. If the mother die before the heir enters into 18, the realm to be governed by the Council, provided that after he be 14 years all great matters of importance be opened to him.
  5. If I died without issue, and there were no heir male, then the Lady Frances to be governess. For lack of her, then her eldest daughters, and for lack of them the Lady Margaret to be governess after as is aforeaid, until some heir male be born, and then the mother of that child to be governess.
  6. And if during the rule of the governess there should die 4 of the Council, then shall she by her letters call an assembly of the Council within one month following and choose 4 more, wherein she shall have their voices. But after her death the 16 shall chose among themselves until they come to (18 erased) 14 years old, and then he by their advice shall chose them.


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May 25, 1553 – A Triple Wedding

Guildford and Jane (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Guildford and Jane (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This day in history launched the scheme that would lead to the execution of John Dudley, the man who had clawed his way back up the political ladder after his father’s execution for treason in 1509, who had become Duke of Northumberland and President of Edward VI’s Privy Council, who was the de facto leader of the country as Edward was still a minor.

In February 1553, Edward VI had fallen ill – seriously enough that he had started to consider the succession. As an ardent Protestant, he did not want his Catholic sister Mary to inherit the throne, which was what would occur under the Act of Succession adopted during his father’s reign. Edward came up with his own “Devise for the Succession” in which the crown would bypass both Mary and Elizabeth as well as Mary Queen of Scots, and instead fall to Lady Jane Grey, whose claim arose through Henry VIII’s youngest sister. Unfortunately for Edward (and Dudley!), his Devise was not ratified by Parliament and therefore could not legally supersede the former king’s policy.

Still, Dudley sprang into action to profit from the action he hoped to shove down the country’s throat: on May 25, he married his son Guildford to Lady Jane Grey – with the clear intention of continuing his “reign” through them. He also took advantage of the day to marry his daughter Katherine to Henry Hastings (heir to the Earldom of Huntingdon), and to have Catherine Grey marry Lord Herbert, the heir to the Earldom of Pembroke. These unions gave him powerful and committed allies.

The weddings themselves were celebrated with the pomp that was to be expected for a royal marriage: a magnificent festival was held, with jousts, games, and masques. Guests included most of the highest nobles of the court, the Venetian and French ambassadors, and even “large numbers of the common people.” (In what with hindsight could be considered foreshadowing, Guildford and some others suffered an attack of food poisoning, blamed on “a mistake made by a cook, who plucked one leaf for another.”)

Six weeks later, Edward VI was dead and Dudley proclaimed Jane Grey Queen of England. She and Guildford made their ceremonial entrance to the Tower…then never emerged. Dudley’s scheme failed to sway a country that had long looked to Mary as the next rightful heir, and he and his children were quickly abandoned. Dudley was quickly executed, while Jane and Guildford were pardoned by a magnanimous Mary I – though not released. Unfortunately, they were condemned when opposition to Mary’s planned marriage to Philip of Spain resulted in the Wyatt Rebellion. While the rebels would likely have put Elizabeth on the throne instead of Jane Grey, Jane’s father joined the revolt – flaming the fans of governmental indignation and panic. Mary’s Privy Council unanimously advised execution, and Mary agreed.

Catherine fared a little better – well, she lived longer. Her new husband’s father sought to distance himself from the Grey family when Jane’s accession to the throne failed; he separated the couple and sought annulment of the marriage, which was granted in 1554 on the grounds that it had never been consummated. In 1560, after Elizabeth had come to the throne, Catherine secretly married again – Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford – and quickly became pregnant. Elizabeth was furious. Convinced that the marriage was part of a conspiracy against her crown, she promptly imprisoned poor Catherine. Catherine and Seymour remained in the Tower for three years, then after the two were permanently separated, Catherine was released but still kept under close confinement until she died of consumption in 1568, aged only 27.

As for Katherine Dudley, she seems to have been politically unaffected by her father’s treason. She went off to live with her husband in the English Midlands and Yorkshire for years, returning to court only in 1595 where she became one of Elizabeth’s closest friends. Definitely the winner of this round!


Wikipedia – John Dudley, Jane Grey, Guildford Dudley, Edward VI, Catherine Grey, Katherine Dudley


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January 22, 1552 – Execution of Edward Seymour

Edward Seymour by Magdalena de Passe, or by Willem de Passe, line engraving, 1620 (Creative Commons license from National Portrait Gallery)

What it is about power? The lust for power is often fed by power itself – and even more if that power is taken away.

In October 1549, Edward Seymour, fearing he was losing control, pulled a move that could have been copied out of his crazy younger brother’s playbook: he basically kidnapped his royal nephew and brought him to Windsor Castle “for safety’s sake.” He was quickly accused of treason and apprehended – but escaped the trap. John Dudley, then Earl of Warwick, quickly assumed control, immediately becoming Lord President of the Council (then in October 1551 he was raised to the Dukedom of Northumberland).

Despite Dudley’s relative kindness (Somerset’s release in the first place, his return to the Privy Council and Privy Chamber, a match between their kids…), Somerset missed his lost power and started to plan a coup. Rumors flew that he planned a “banquet massacre” that would assault the members of the Council and kill Dudley; he did later admit to “contemplating” Dudley’s arrest and execution. There would be no more mercy for Edward Seymour.

In Wriothesley’s Chronicle, we hear that:

“Friday, the 22 of January, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerest, was beheaded at the Tower Hill, afore six of the clock in the forenoon, which took his death very patiently, but there was such a fear and disturbance among the people suddenly before he suffered, that some tumbled down the ditch, and some ran toward the houses thereby and fell, that it was marvelous to see and hear, but how the cause was, God knoweth.”

Still, the most poignant and saddest report is given by Edward VI, the boy king. With little emotion for the uncle who had been an important part of his life since his birth, he simply wrote: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning.”

Thus ended an era.



A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, From A.D. 1485 to 1559

Nichols, Literary Remains of Edward VI, edited from his autograph manuscripts, with historical notes and a biographical memoir

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October 6, 1549 – Somerset Spirits Edward VI Away to Windsor

Edward Seymour, by an unknown artist.

Edward Seymour, by an unknown artist. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In 1549, the position of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was becoming precarious, as rebellions throughout the country were matched by dissention within the King’s council. The rebellions were spurred by expectations that the year’s harvest would be as poor as that of 1548 – though the truth was that the entire decade had been a period of acute price inflation. People questioned Somerset’s policies, especially his support of religious reform and agrarian enclosures – and  his wars with Scotland. They also mistrusted a man who would send his own brother to the block (though goodness knows Tom Seymour deserved it – for one, the man broke into the King’s apartments in the middle of the night and shot his dog! Check out the “Thomas Seymour” tags for posts I’ve written about those incidents!). Meanwhile John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, was rabble-rousing within the King’s Council.

So a beleaguered Somerset tried a desperation move. He took possession of the King’s person, and withdrew for safety from Hampton Court to the fortified and easily-defended Windsor Castle. Somerset had not taken into account the fact that the King had grown into a twelve year-old boy who did not appreciate being treated like a chess piece. Edward was outraged by Somerset’s behavior. “Me thinks I am in prison,” he wrote in his Chronicle. (This is really the greatest treasure, a diary written at times in the third person that gives a fascinating glimpse into his thoughts).

The Council reacted on October 8 by proclaiming the Protector a traitor, publishing details of his government mismanagement. By October 11, the game was over. They sent guards to rescue the King and arrest Somerset and his wife. Edward summarized the charges against Somerset in his Chronicle: “ambition, vainglory, entering into rash wars in mine youth, negligent looking on Newhaven, enriching himself of my treasure, following his own opinion, and doing all by his own authority, etc.” In the end, Somerset pleaded guilty to 29 counts of treason.

Still, Somerset escaped this trap. He apologized and was released from the Tower. John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, took over as President of the Council; he and the King accepted Somerset’s contrition, and even allowed him to return to the Council and Privy Chamber. As a mark of reconciliation, Warwick even married his heir John to Somerset’s daughter Anne. But that wasn’t enough for the ambitious Somerset. He started amassing political sympathizers and plotting to remove Warwick from the scene. It didn’t work. On October 11, 1551, Warwick was elevated to the Dukedom of Northumberland. Five days later, Edward Seymour was arrested for “contemplating” the Lord President’s arrest and execution. That was it for Somerset. He was executed on January 22, 1552.


As always, Wikipedia – Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset provides a good understanding of the subject. For more in-depth analysis, Albert Frederick Pollard offers a short (23 pages) biography entitled Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset


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