Edward VI, Henry VIII’s only son, was crowned king at the age of 9, but died at the age of 15. He was a gifted young man and convinced evangelical, who, despite his short life, has impacted our national life down to modern times.
On 27 January 1547, Henry VIII knew he was near death. Refusing to see any other cleric, he summoned Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the early hours of the next day, Cranmer urged him to place all his hope in the mercy of God through Christ, and to give him a sign that he had done so.
Unable to speak, the king grasped Cranmer’s hand, as hard as his failing strength would allow, and then breathed his last. So ended a tumultuous reign of 37 years that had seen Henry make the historic break from the Church of Rome and establish the Church of England. With Cranmer at its helm, the new church had, albeit in fits and starts, embraced much of the evangelical faith espoused by the Reformers on the continent.
Of Henry’s six queens, Catherine Parr was his surviving widow and step-mother to his three children. Mary, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, was 30 years old; Elizabeth was 13, his daughter by Anne Boleyn, his second wife.
Henry’s only son Edward had been born to Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife), who had died from complications arising from the birth — Edward later lamenting, ‘My mother I slew at my birth’.
But Edward had been born to much rejoicing throughout England, as now, at last, the succession was clear. Although technically there was nothing to stop the throne passing to Mary, any surviving sons normally took precedence.
The fear had been that, with a female succession, there would be many uncertainties, not least that any queen might marry into one of the continental dynasties and England be subject to a foreign king.
The historical record is unequivocal. By any measure, Edward was a remarkable child prodigy. Although he died aged just 15, he was fluent in Latin and French and could write in Greek.
He studied Scripture at what has been described as a ‘phenomenal rate’ and was totally immersed in the new evangelical theology. From contemporary accounts, it seems he had a photographic memory.
Martin Bucer, resident at Cambridge during Edward’s reign, described his learning as miraculous. As a young child Edward could recite four books by Cato from memory, and it is known that he had the ability to recall the names of all the ports, havens and creeks, and the movements of their tides, in all of England, Scotland and France!
The breadth of his reading and knowledge was kaleidoscopic, demonstrated by his surviving personal library, and the more than 100 essays of his in Latin and Greek that survive today in the British Library.
But now, orphaned at the age of 9, Edward was propelled into the most powerful position in the land, in one of the most powerful nations in the world in what were difficult and dangerous times.
Nonetheless, expectations for his reign were high. At his coronation, on 20 February 1547, some suggested he was a young Solomon, ready to build the ‘temple’ of the Reformation that his father had never finished. And Cranmer, in his coronation sermon, articulated his belief that Edward had the absolute right to rule: as the anointed king, he was subject to God alone, not to the church. Cranmer said he looked to Edward to be a second Josiah.
On the death of Henry, a regency council had been appointed, but the young king soon realised he had inherited many difficulties. England was in considerable debt and there was discontent at the move away from the ‘old religion’ that had been marked by the destruction of the altars, stained glass and statues of Catholic England.
This move had accelerated during the closing months of Henry’s reign, as, after many years of prevarication, he seemed surer of his own Protestant convictions.
Nonetheless, after Edward’s coronation in 1547, the reform agenda continued apace. Although the council were in effective control, it seems clear that they also knew they had, or at least would have on his eventual accession to power, Edward’s approval.
Previously, under Thomas Cromwell, various religious establishments had been dissolved on largely economic grounds. But the Chantries Act of that December declared that the singing of masses to hasten the journey of the dead through purgatory was based on superstition, and any endowments for such should in future be used for ‘good and godly uses’.
Thus many chantries were re-founded as Edward VI schools, which are still in evidence today, although it is not clear how much they benefited financially, as many of the endowments were absorbed into the Tudor government’s depleted coffers. Notwithstanding that, the number of grammar schools in Edward’s short reign increased considerably.
In March the following year, a new order for communion was introduced that said the bread and wine were to be provided for the laity, changing the laity’s status from spectators to participants. Furthermore, various religious processions were banned.
The reforms were now directly impacting the routine of the lives of many ordinary English people and popular discontent grew. Cranmer, often criticised for his cautious approach, had warned of this possibility many times before.
In 1549, there were uprisings in many parts of the country, fuelled by both the difficult economic conditions and the new ecclesiastical reforms. Furthermore, France, taking advantage of what they saw as the weakness of the protectorate, attacked Boulogne, held at that time by the English.
All the evidence is that Edward, though still not 12 years old, supported the Reformed cause and wanted to see the end of the rituals associated with the old religion. In his own copy of the 1549 Prayer Book, he had struck out the title the ‘Holy Communion, commonly called the Mass’, preferring to refer to it as the ‘Supper of our Lord’.
Furthermore, he saw it as a ‘remembrance’, seemingly leaning to Zwingli’s interpretation and rejecting the concept of a ‘spiritual presence’ embraced by many Reformers.
However, in light of the fact that Edward held Cranmer in high esteem, it seems unlikely that at this early stage Edward was driving the rapid ecclesiastical changes.
Despite the problems, the reforms continued, and three acts of Parliament were passed in 1550 that, in effect, changed the role of a priest from someone who offered sacrifices and divine grace, to one who preached the Word of God and administered communion.
But, for John Hooper, the reform agenda was still not going fast enough. Despite his clashes with Cranmer on this, in 1551 he was nominated as Bishop of Gloucester. However, he was not happy about the ecclesiastical vestments Cranmer insisted he wear.
An appeal to Edward resolved the situation, when the young king told Hooper he could wear what he liked in his church, but asked that he wear his episcopal robes at court.
Another problem for Hooper was the mention of ‘saints’ in the Oath of Supremacy he was to swear, on taking office. Cranmer could see that this was anachronistic to a Reformed liturgy, but ever cautious, was reluctant to change the specific wording of the oath chosen by Henry.
The issue was not resolved until the very day of Hooper’s formal confirmation in the presence of the 13-year-old king. Somebody pointed out the anomaly to Edward, who simply reached forward and crossed out the offending words with his own pen. In one stroke, the months of agonising by Cranmer about how to deal with the issue were over.
During this time, the young king had a running battle with his half-sister Mary, who wanted to celebrate mass with her household. We are accustomed to living in a plural society with religious freedoms, so it is often difficult for us to comprehend some of these issues that confronted the nation (and other European countries) at this time.
Edward and others saw Mary’s stand as a challenge to his own authority and that of Parliament. The seriousness of the situation was demonstrated when Emperor Charles V threatened war with England in support of his cousin Mary. The council immediately suggested they relent, but Edward refused, much to both the alarm and admiration of Cranmer. The Emperor chose to back down.
In 1552 a new Book of Common Prayer came out, followed by 42 Articles of faith. Both thought to be largely the work of Cranmer, they clearly demonstrate where the archbishop wanted to take the fledgling Church of England now he had a free hand under Edward VI.
Many see that the 1662 Prayer Book, the version that survived into the twentieth century, pulled back from the strongly Reformed stance of the 1552 version, particularly in relation to the communion service.
To the disquiet of many, the young king had suffered several illnesses, but, in May 1553, the council was told by his doctors that his latest illness was probably terminal (it is thought today that it was tuberculosis).
Edward’s successor under the terms of Henry VIII’s will was Edward’s half-sister, Mary. It was clear that she would turn against evangelicals and look to move the nation back to the Church of Rome, although the ferocity with which history demonstrates she did this could not have been foreseen.
To forestall this, it was decided by Edward and the council that Lady Jane Grey (Edward’s first cousin, once removed) be nominated by Edward to be his successor. Edward signed his will on 17 June 1553 to that effect.
Attached were several provisions, one of which stated that the executors would ‘not suffer any piece of religion to be altered’ and that ‘they shall diligently travail to cause godly ecclesiastical laws to be made and set forth, such as may be agreeable with the reformation of religion now received within our realm’.
Edward’s death came sooner than expected — on 6 July — aged just 15 years 8 months. Nevertheless, the legalities were all in place and the proclamation went out declaring Lady Jane to be Queen.
But Mary fled to East Anglia and managed to garner popular support. The uprising that ensued proved unstoppable and Mary was proclaimed queen on 20 August 1553. She has posthumously acquired the title ‘Bloody Mary’, for her many executions of those who had pursued the reform agenda (including Thomas Cranmer).
However, her reign was short and it was on her death in 1558, just five years later, that Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, assumed the throne.
It is said there is no justice in history. Certainly, Edward’s early death was a great loss to the Reformed cause. But any attempt to discern the mind of God in a providence, adverse or otherwise — although a fevered source of speculation in a Tudor England emerging from superstitious, medieval Catholicism, and indulged in by many believers today — appears to be discouraged by our Lord (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:2-3).
But it is surely right to be thankful for what was achieved in Edward’s short reign. Christopher Skidmore sees that it was ‘Edward’s brilliant precociousness’ that kept his realm together, and that the young king set out a vision of a nation that was later taken up by his sister Elizabeth and still impacts us today (in Edward VI: the lost king of England, Phoenix, 2008, pp. 7-8).
Certainly Edward VI was a remarkable young man, and it can only be wondered what might have been, had he lived the allotted ‘three score years and ten’.
Colin Hamer served for many years as an elder of Grace Baptist Church, Astley. He was recently awarded a PhD by Chester University for the thesis: Marital imagery in the Bible: an exploration of Genesis 2:24 and its significance for the understanding of New Testament divorce and remarriage teaching which is to be published by Apostolos this October.