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Seymour, Edward, duke of Somerset [known as Protector Somerset]locked

(c. 1500–1552)
  • Barrett L. Beer

Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset (c. 1500–1552)

studio of Nicholas Hilliard, 1560 (after unknown artist)

Seymour, Edward, duke of Somerset [known as Protector Somerset] (c. 1500–1552), soldier and royal servant, was the eldest surviving son of Sir John Seymour (1473/4–1536), landowner and courtier, of Wolf Hall, Wiltshire, and his wife, Margery (d. 1550), eldest daughter of Sir Henry Wentworth of Nettlestead, Suffolk.

Family and early life

Edward Seymour was descended on both sides from ancient families, each having links with the Percys and Cliffords. His father served Henry VII and Henry VIII as a soldier and was sheriff of Wiltshire and of Somerset and Dorset a total of six times between 1498 and 1527. Of his ten children four predeceased him. The others included Thomas Seymour; Jane, who became Henry VIII's third wife; Elizabeth, who married successively Sir Anthony Ughtred, Gregory, son of Thomas Cromwell, and John Paulet, second marquess of Winchester; and Dorothy, who married Sir Clement Smith, an important exchequer official. The course of his early life suggests that Edward was born about 1500, probably at Wolf Hall, Wiltshire. He is said to have been educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, although there is little evidence to suggest that he was a learned man.

Edward Seymour married twice. Before 1518 he married Katherine (d. in or before 1535?), daughter and coheir of Sir William Fillol, a landowner in Dorset and Essex. They had two sons: John was MP for Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire in 1547 and died on 19 December 1552, being buried at the Savoy Hospital, London. Edward (1529–1593), who was knighted at the battle of Pinkie in September 1547, was restored in blood by act of parliament of 29 March 1554 and settled at Berry Pomeroy, Devon. Reports that Katherine was repudiated by her husband because of misconduct, and that the paternity of her eldest son was suspect, circulated during the seventeenth century.

Seymour married his second wife, Anne (c.1510–1587), before 9 March 1535. Anne Seymour was the daughter of Sir Edward Stanhope of Rampton, Nottinghamshire, and his wife, Elizabeth Bourchier; she was a descendant through her mother of Edward III. Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, addressed to her an ode, 'On a lady who refused to dance with him'. Contemporaries often criticized her arrogance, but she none the less wrote a moving letter in defence of her husband in October 1549 during his fall from power. She later married Francis Newdegate of Hanworth, Middlesex, one of her first husband's stewards, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Anne and Edward had four sons and six daughters: their eldest surviving son, Edward Seymour (1539?–1621), became earl of Hertford, while Henry (b. 1540) was appointed admiral of the squadron of the narrow seas; he kept close watch on the duke of Parma off the coast of the Netherlands, and played an important part in the battle off Gravelines in 1588. Among their daughters were Anne, Margaret, and Jane. Anne (1538–1587) [[see Dudley, Anne], under [Seymour, Lady Jane]] was married first to John Dudley, earl of Warwick, eldest son of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and second to Sir Edward Unton. Jane Seymour (1541–1561) was accused of plotting to marry Edward VI, became a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, and died unmarried. Lady Margaret Seymour (b. 1540) [see under Seymour, Lady Jane], like her siblings, received a humanist education and probably died young.

Early years at court

Edward Seymour was introduced to court by his father. In 1514 he was a page of honour to Henry VIII's sister, Mary, when she married Louis XII of France. On 15 July 1517 he was associated with his father in a grant of the constableship of Bristol Castle. He probably attended Charles V when the emperor visited England in 1522, since Eustache Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, later mentioned him as having been in Charles's service. In August 1523 he accompanied the invasion of France led by Charles Brandon, first duke of Suffolk, and was subsequently present at the capture of Bray, Roye, and Montdidier. He was knighted by Suffolk at Roye on 1 November. In the following year he became an esquire of the king's household. On 12 January 1525 he was made a JP for Wiltshire, and in the same year became master of the horse to the duke of Richmond, Henry VIII's illegitimate son. In July 1527 he accompanied Cardinal Thomas Wolsey on his embassy to France, and in 1528 was granted lands of monasteries dissolved for the benefit of Wolsey's colleges. On 5 March 1529 he was made steward of the manors of Henstridge, Somerset, and Charlton, Wiltshire.

On 12 September 1531 Seymour was appointed an esquire of the body to Henry VIII with an annuity of 50 marks. Increasingly in favour with the king, in 1532 Seymour and his father accompanied Henry and Anne Boleyn to Boulogne to meet François I. In the following year he quarrelled with Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, and was supported by the latter's stepson, John Dudley, later duke of Northumberland, over lands in Somerset. In October 1535 Henry VIII and Queen Anne visited Seymour at his Hampshire manor of Elvetham, during that year's royal progress. He was made a gentleman of the privy chamber on 3 March 1536, and a few days later, he, his wife, and his sister Jane were installed in the palace at Greenwich in an apartment which the king could reach through a private passage.

Henry VIII married Jane Seymour on 30 May 1536. A week later, on 5 June, her eldest brother Edward—now the king's brother-in-law—was created Viscount Beauchamp of Hache, Somerset. His further advancement at court was a direct consequence of his new position in the royal family. On 7 July he was made governor and captain of Jersey, and in August chancellor of north Wales. He was admitted to the council on 22 May 1537; in the same month he was among the commissioners who tried barons Darcy and Hussey for their role in the Pilgrimage of Grace, having been called upon to provide 200 men to suppress the rebellion in the previous year. On 15 October he carried Princess Elizabeth at Prince Edward's baptism, and three days later was created earl of Hertford. While the death of his sister, Queen Jane, initially diminished his influence at court, and he was subsequently described as 'of small power', albeit 'young and wise' (LP Henry VIII, 13/2, no. 732), nevertheless he remained prominent, particularly in military affairs, for the remainder of Henry's reign.

In 1538 Hertford served on commissions for the treason trials of Henry Courtenay, marquess of Exeter, Henry Pole, Baron Montagu, Sir Geoffrey Pole, and others, and in March 1539 he was sent to provide for the defence of Calais and Guînes. In August the king and Thomas Cromwell spent four days with Hertford at Wolf Hall, inherited from his father in 1536. He met Anne of Cleves, Henry's fourth wife, at Calais in December and returned with her to London. Writing to Cromwell he exclaimed that nothing since the birth of Prince Edward had pleased him so much as this marriage.

Hertford not only survived the fall of Cromwell in 1540, but grew steadily more influential during the latter years of Henry VIII. He was elected a knight of the Garter on 9 January 1541, and during the king's progress to the north, between July and November, he managed affairs in London, along with Archbishop Cranmer and Baron Audley. In November he and Cranmer received the charges against Queen Catherine Howard that led to her trial and execution. In September 1542 Hertford was appointed warden of the Scottish marches, but he served there for only a few weeks, resuming attendance on the king in December 1542. Further promotion followed, lord high admiral on 28 December, and lord great chamberlain on 16 February 1543. In April he was closely involved in the prosecution of Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, who was convicted for eating meat during Lent and breaking windows while carousing through the streets of London. During that year the king again visited Hertford at Wolf Hall.

Soldiering in Scotland and France

In December 1543 after prolonged indecision the Scottish government broke with England and allied with France. Consequently Hertford was appointed lieutenant-general in the north, embarking from Berwick for Leith in March 1544. Offered the keys to Edinburgh if he would allow all who so desired to leave with their personal property he demanded unconditional surrender on the grounds that the Scots had been faithless to past agreements. When the Scots refused the English soldiers pillaged the city for two days without resistance, and then seized ships at Leith which they loaded with plunder. The operation achieved no lasting result, however, except that it increased Scottish dependence on France and created greater animosity toward England.

Following his Scottish campaign Hertford was appointed lieutenant of the kingdom under Queen Katherine Parr, who was regent while Henry VIII led an army into France. But on 13 August 1544 he joined the king, and was present at the capture of Boulogne on 14 September. Hertford is said to have secured the capture of the town by bribing the French commander. After the war Hertford was active as a diplomat at Calais and Brussels. The negotiations with France and the emperor, Charles V, broke down, however, and fighting resumed. Hertford surveyed the fortifications of Guînes in January 1545 and took command of Boulogne when the French attempted to recapture it. With a force of 4000 foot and 700 horse he took a French army of 14,000 by surprise on 5 February, driving the enemy away in a victory which secured Boulogne for England.

Reversals in Scotland led to the reassignment of Hertford to the north. On 2 May 1545 he was again appointed lieutenant-general, being charged with organizing a new invasion, with the intention of compelling the Scots into union with England through the marriage of the infant Mary, queen of Scots, to Prince Edward. He proposed delaying operations until August because of a lack of soldiers and supplies, and throughout the summer remained near Newcastle to protect the country from an attack from either France or Scotland. He advanced into Scotland on 6 September and proceeded toward Kelso and Jedburgh. Meeting little opposition, in a campaign of systematic devastation later known as the ‘rough wooing’, the English army burnt castles, monasteries, and villages along its route. He left Scotland in October to attend parliament and apply himself to government business, and remained in and around London until March 1546, when he resumed command of forces defending Boulogne. The next month he began peace negotiations with France which culminated on 7 June in the treaty of Camp, allowing England to occupy Boulogne until 1554 when the French would buy it back. Moving to and fro between London and the continent Hertford was back in England in October where he strengthened his position at court by forging close ties with John Dudley, now Viscount Lisle, who had served with him in Scotland and France, and with Sir William Paget, the king's secretary.

In the last months of Henry VIII's reign the political map was suddenly redrawn by the fall of Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk, and his son, the earl of Surrey. Relations between Hertford and Surrey had been strained since at least 1537, when the two men almost came to blows at court. In June 1546 Norfolk sought an alliance with the Seymours by offering to marry his daughter, Mary, duchess of Richmond, to Thomas Seymour, but Surrey was apparently able to persuade his sister to decline, so ensuring that the Seymours and the Howards failed to make a dynastic alliance. Late in 1546 Henry VIII heard reports that Surrey had displayed heraldic decorations that suggested royal ambitions as well as claiming royal blood, and talked of his father's appointment as regent for Prince Edward. These indiscretions provided a pretext for an attack on the powerful Howard family. Hertford and other leading councillors, supported by the king, claimed that the Howards' actions were treasonous, and Surrey, after trial at the Guildhall, was executed, but Norfolk, though attainted by parliament, was saved by Henry VIII's own death.

The fall of the Howards greatly strengthened Hertford's position, though later, as lord protector, he declined to use his authority to order Norfolk's execution, and the aged duke lived on into the reign of Mary. The conflict between Hertford and the Howards involved personal, political, and religious issues. A. F. Pollard and other scholars saw a conflict primarily between the religious conservatism of Norfolk and the reformist programme associated with Hertford, while M. L. Bush argued more persuasively that until the death of Henry VIII Hertford's association with protestants was shadowy and provided no clear evidence of his own beliefs.

Establishing the protectorate

The accession of Hertford's nephew, Edward VI, on 28 January 1547 brought his uncle to the pinnacle of his career. Since events at the end of the reign of Henry VIII left Hertford in a position that no other leader could challenge, the controversial events leading to his appointment as lord protector must be seen from the perspective of the recent past. Hertford and Henry's secretary, Sir William Paget, were with the king at his death and agreed to keep the news secret for a short time. They had possession of the king's will (Seymour was given it by Henry), only parts of which were immediately made public, and Seymour hastened to the town of Hertford to escort the new king back to London.

The will of Henry VIII named his son as heir to the throne and appointed a body of sixteen executors who were to govern collectively until the king reached the age of eighteen. The fact that the will was signed with the dry stamp did not affect its legality. Since the king may have regarded his will as provisional it was reasonable for the executors to reject the notion of collective or collegiate government contained in it, and to give the new government what they saw as a more workable form. To this end the executors, with King Edward's assent, on 1 February appointed Hertford to two further offices, those of lord protector of the realm and governor of the king's person. He was also high steward of England for the coronation, lord treasurer, and earl marshal. These positions gave Hertford more power than had been exercised by any subject since the beginning of the Tudor era. In addition he was advanced within the peerage to become duke of Somerset on 17 February, on the grounds that the late king had so wished to strengthen the nobility.

Although Somerset's authority as protector initially required him to govern with the advice and consent of the executors, a patent dated 12 March 1547 empowered him to do anything that a governor of the king's person or protector of the realm ought to do. A second patent of 24 December 1547, though it made Somerset's protectorate dependent on the king's pleasure rather than limiting it as earlier, to Edward's minority, added to his powers in other respects, making it easier for him to bypass the council and govern through a small group of personal advisers, who included Paget, Sir Thomas Smith, William Cecil, and John Hales.

The magnitude of Somerset's power, especially his use of the royal ‘we’, offended some members of the council, but their opposition was swiftly dealt with through the dismissal of Thomas Wriothesley, first earl of Southampton, as lord chancellor on 6 March 1547. Authoritarian tendencies may likewise be seen in Somerset's use of royal proclamations, on a scale which exceeded that of Henry VIII's reign. Paget became alarmed, and from 1548 sent Somerset a revealing series of letters in which he boldly admonished the protector to alter his policies and reminded him of an earlier promise to follow his advice in all political affairs. But perhaps the greatest challenge to Somerset's position came from his brother Thomas, who had been advanced to the peerage as Baron Seymour of Sudeley.

Thomas Seymour felt that as Edward VI's uncle he should have a larger role in government and demanded promotion as the king's governor. When Somerset refused Thomas began a series of rash initiatives to undermine his brother that ultimately led to his own execution. He courted and married Katherine, the queen dowager, only four months after the death of Henry VIII. Following her death in childbirth he turned his attention to Princess Elizabeth, then fourteen. He also worked to gain personal influence over the king and drew a group of similarly disaffected nobles and gentry to his side. These actions, as well as rumours of a plot to kidnap Edward and Elizabeth, led to Thomas's arrest in January 1549; he was condemned for treason by a parliamentary act of attainder and executed with his brother's reluctant consent on 20 March 1549. Few would deny that Thomas Seymour was an ambitious and irresponsible man, but Somerset's willingness to sanction the execution of his own brother in order to protect his authority irreparably damaged his reputation.

Religious reformation

As lord protector Somerset pursued a cautious but consistent programme of religious reform, one that transformed the Henrician church into one that can be described as protestant or evangelical. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer provided the religious leadership, but Somerset and his political allies determined the pace at which the reform programme proceeded. During Somerset's protectorate English became the language of religious services, first in the order of communion (1548) and later in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549). The reformed services not only introduced new liturgies that offended traditionalists but also incorporated a reformed theology that moved the Church of England closer to continental beliefs and practices. In 1547 parliament repealed the conservative Henrician Act of Six Articles, and in January 1549 passed an Act of Uniformity that sought to maintain religious unity through the use of a new English prayer book. Another act of 1549 permitted priests to marry but emphasized unequivocally the superiority of celibacy. Further measures required the complete destruction of religious images, whitewashing of churches, and dissolution of remaining chantries, one of the largest architectural changes of the century. The iconoclasm which resulted in areas where these policies were zealously enforced was greatly resented.

Although the leading evangelicals enthusiastically regarded Somerset as one of their own after 1547, his personal beliefs are not easily defined, and it has been suggested that they were not exactly mirrored in the religious policies of his protectorate. None the less there is evidence that by the late 1540s he favoured reducing the power of bishops while increasing lay participation in religious reform, believed in the superiority of scripture and salvation by faith alone, and regarded images as idolatrous. Such views were fully consistent with an evangelical outlook, as was his close association with three leading protestant reformers, William Turner, Thomas Becon, and John Hooper. Thus Turner, who served Somerset for more than three years as his physician, wrote in opposition to altars, vestments, and organs. Becon, the protector's chaplain, proclaimed the characteristically protestant doctrine that good works were a distinct sign of grace, while Hooper, consecrated as bishop of Gloucester in 1551, was an intimate of Somerset's family who played a major role in the Edwardian reformation, and even challenged the leadership of Archbishop Cranmer, especially over vestments. Somerset also developed a warm relationship with John Calvin, Pietro Martire Vermigli (Peter Martyr), and the Flemish Calvinist Valérand Poullain, who established a community of Flemish weavers on the duke's newly acquired estate in Glastonbury.

Further evidence of Somerset's personal religion may be found in his own devotional writings, which include two translations from Calvin published in 1550, An Epistle both of Godly Consolacion and also of Advertisement (a letter sent by the Swiss reformer to Somerset himself following the 1549 risings) and A Spyrytuall and moost Precyouse Pearle. His contacts with Geneva suggest that Somerset was moving towards an increasingly radical reformism, just as the prayers he composed in the Tower of London before his death attest to the straightforward religious belief which directed his actions:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.Put thy trust in the Lord with all thine heart.Be not wise in thine own conceit, but fear the Lord and flee from evil.

BL, Stowe MS 1066

As lord protector Somerset's patronage of protestant writers was recognized by contemporaries like Roger Ascham, who praised him as the supreme patron of letters. Somerset was the successor to Thomas Cromwell in sponsoring Richard Grafton, Edward Whitechurch, William Gray of Reading, and Miles Coverdale, but he 'extended his patronage on a far more sweeping scale' (King, 106). Although no writings were dedicated to him during the reign of Henry VIII, Somerset received twenty-five dedications under Edward VI, and members of his immediate family received twelve more. After his death in 1552 John Foxe, Thomas Becon, and Robert Crowley remembered affectionately his committed support for the protestant cause.

Social and economic policies

Somerset's programme of religious reformation was accompanied by bold measures of political, social, and agrarian reform, in areas which included the treason law, inflation of prices, depopulation, social injustice, and university education. Unfortunately the good intentions of commonwealth reformers associated with Somerset often led to bad results. Legislation in 1547 abolished all the treasons and felonies created under Henry VIII and did away with existing legislation against heresy. Two witnesses were required for proof of treason instead of only one. Although the measure received support in, and was in part redrafted by, the House of Commons, its passage contributed to Somerset's reputation for what later historians perceived as his liberalism, even though it brought back treason by words and the offence of concealment of treasons.

Because of the overriding demands of war in Scotland, Somerset's government rejected an early end to the debasement of the coinage as a remedy for price inflation, and turned its attention to illegal enclosure. In a policy intended to reduce depopulation and rural poverty, and at the same time to increase grain production by discouraging sheep grazing, on 1 June 1548 a royal proclamation announced the appointment of commissions to collect evidence and enforce existing legislation restricting enclosures. But the commission achieved little, leading to the issuing of another, on Somerset's authority, on 11 April 1549. It had greater powers than its predecessor, but was likewise ineffective thanks to the widespread opposition of gentry landowners. Other attempts to deal with agrarian problems through parliament faced similarly strong opposition, though the government successfully passed a novel tax on sheep and woollen cloth in 1549. A projected reform of the universities collapsed, however, in the face of opposition and changing political priorities. University visitors appointed by Somerset, who became chancellor of Cambridge in 1547, wished to reform the curriculum in order to place greater emphasis on humanistic studies and to promote the study of civil law in place of that of canon law, abandoned in 1535. Neither end was achieved.

Other measures embodied no worthy motive and did not promote the best interests of the Tudor commonwealth. Thus in 1547 there was harsh legislation against vagabonds, themselves largely a by-product of agrarian poverty and enclosure, which called for branding with hot irons and enslavement; however, the act was never enforced and was repealed in the next session of parliament. The transfer of crown wealth to private hands and the extensive appropriations of episcopal lands which Somerset's government permitted are also difficult to defend. In two years about £20,000 of the crown's annual income was transferred to private hands, about 40 per cent of it in the form of outright gifts. The wealth of the church was also substantially diminished, strikingly so in some cases: the income of the see of Lincoln was reduced by £1300 out of nearly £2000, that of Bath and Wells by £1450 out of £1850. In these two cases the principal beneficiary was Somerset himself, who acquired four large manors and several smaller ones from Lincoln, and seven manors from Bath and Wells, to add to the site (acquired under Henry VIII) of Somerset House in London, which was built on property that had once belonged to the bishops of Worcester and of Coventry and Lichfield.

Relations with Scotland and France

An aggressive foreign policy along lines inherited from Henry VIII ran parallel to Somerset's domestic programme. When Henry died the country was preparing for a new attack on Scotland, and Somerset made the defeat of Scotland his highest priority. His ultimate policy was to reassert England's claim of suzerainty and unite the crowns of the two kingdoms by enforcing the marriage of Edward VI to Mary Stewart. His vision of a greater Britain required English domination of the northern kingdom. A gifted soldier, who had learned from his experience of war on the continent, and particularly from recent developments in fortifications, Somerset intended to achieve these objectives by defeating the Scots in the field and then garrisoning the country at strategic points to guarantee compliance. In a break with past military policies Somerset wanted to create an English pale in Scotland, and then to win the loyalty of the Scottish population within the pale and to introduce the reformed religion there. To this end his military campaign was accompanied by an aggressive one of propaganda.

Leading an army of about 19,000 men into Scotland, Somerset won a notable victory over a larger Scottish force at Pinkie, 9 miles east of Edinburgh, on 10 September 1547. But his efforts to garrison the country provoked intervention by France, historically Scotland's ally against England. In June 1548 a French army landed at Leith, attacked English positions, and garrisoned positions sought by the English. At the same time renewed fighting broke out on the continent, where England was committed to the defence of Calais and Boulogne. Although Somerset received praise for defeating the Scots at Pinkie he was also criticized for failing to enforce a naval blockade that would have prevented the French landing, and for inadequate recruitment at home that led to the employment of continental mercenaries instead. Hiring the latter contributed to the most disastrous aspect of Somerset's Scottish policy: its great cost forced his government to supplement insufficient parliamentary appropriations with debasement of the coinage, sale of crown lands, including former chantry and college property, and substantial borrowing. In the end he was forced to withdraw English troops, evacuate many of the garrisons, and consider abandoning his ambitious objectives, leaving nothing except massive debts to show for his great effort.

Although England and France remained formally at peace until August 1549, the French exerted pressure on the English not only in Scotland but also around the recently captured town of Boulogne. By creating a diversion at Boulogne in August 1548 the French made the English position in Scotland more difficult. The construction of a mole extending into the harbour of Boulogne constituted a provocation that caused the French artillery to bombard the town, an action which Somerset countered by threatening to hand Boulogne over to Charles V. But English efforts to secure support from the emperor against France failed when Charles refused to include Boulogne in an alliance that also protected Calais. French attacks on Boulogne continued into spring and summer 1549, leading to the capture of most of the outforts protecting the town, but then strong English resistance forced the French army to settle down 'to the dreary and slow process of siege' (Jordan, Young King, 304). Although Somerset was angry about substantial losses and the failure of the commanders, reinforcements were not forthcoming because of the rebellions at home. But it was only in 1550, after his fall from power, that a diplomatic agreement reflecting England's inability to continue the war returned Boulogne to France.

The rebellions of 1549

The greatest test of Somerset's capacity for leadership came from a series of popular rebellions and riots that began in Cornwall in 1548 and spread through more than half the counties of England the next year. Somerset was faced by nothing less than the most extensive English risings of the sixteenth century. The western rising affected Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset, where conservative Henrician clergy with support from the gentry and commons resisted Somerset's religious programme. The new vernacular liturgy contained in the Book of Common Prayer was the most evident grievance of the Cornish rebels, but the other religious changes of recent years and opposition to enclosures were also important. Revolt began in Cornwall in April 1548 when the clergy and commoners resisted the removal of religious images from parish churches and killed a government official, while in Somerset weavers and other commoners pulled down hedges and fences. When the mayor and leaders of Exeter refused to ally with the rebels of Devon in June 1549 that city was besieged. Pacification required a substantial military force, but Somerset responded only after delays that frustrated other councillors, especially John, Baron Russell, who assumed command of the army sent to relieve Exeter in July. But not until the middle of August was the western rising crushed.

Meanwhile in East Anglia agrarian rebels formed camps in July 1549 to protest against landlords who had defied Somerset's efforts to restrict enclosures of common land and misused their control of local government. Robert Kett, a prosperous Wymondham tanner, emerged as the most able rebel leader. The rising in East Anglia reached its high-water mark on 22 July when Kett's men occupied Norwich, England's second largest city, with the support of some of the urban population. Somerset's response to this and the other disturbances can arguably be called populist. In a series of letters he expressed sympathy for the rebels, offered them pardons, and even undertook to recall parliament early so that their grievances could be discussed. He also set up a new enclosure commission (8 July 1549). Such policies infuriated his colleagues, however, and eventually the protector dispatched a small force commanded by William Parr, marquess of Northampton, to Norwich to assert the king's authority, but it failed to pacify the rebels and came to grief in the city streets. Later a larger army commanded by John Dudley, now earl of Warwick, reoccupied Norwich and then crushed Kett's supporters at Dussindale on 27 August, killing at least 2000 rebels.

The outbreak of the rebellions brought Somerset's social programme, especially the enclosures commission, into question. His reluctance to employ force and refusal to assume military leadership merely made matters worse. When peace was restored most of the nobility and gentry had lost confidence in his leadership. Somerset did not at first appreciate this, and in a proclamation issued on 30 September commanded all soldiers to proceed to their appointed commands and to avoid London. On 5 October, however, he issued a letter over the king's signature commanding all subjects to arm themselves and proceed to Hampton Court to defend the king, and followed this up with appeals to Russell and Sir William Herbert for military assistance, and by moving the king from Hampton Court to the fortified castle of Windsor on 6 October. But at the same time his opponents within the council, including Warwick, Southampton, Baron St John (Paulet), Rich, and Northampton, met in London to demand his removal as lord protector, and in this they eventually procured the support of the mayor and aldermen of London. Faced with overwhelming opposition among the ruling élite, and unwilling to endanger king and country in a civil war, Somerset surrendered himself on the 11th, his protectorate was dissolved on the 13th and he was lodged in the Tower of London the next day. Interrogated by his former colleagues he confessed to charges against him contained in twenty-nine articles and threw himself on the mercy of the council. On 14 January 1550 his deposition as lord protector was confirmed by act of parliament, and he was also deprived of all his other positions, of his annuities, and of lands to the value of £2000 a year.

Deposition and rehabilitation

The end of Somerset's protectorate was the consequence of the disastrous and costly war with Scotland and France, opposition to his domestic reforms, growing factionalism among nobility and gentry opposed to his authoritarian leadership, and fear that his populist policies would lead to further disorder among the commons. In December 1549 religious conservatives led by Thomas Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, attempted to exploit the charges against Somerset to execute the former protector and discredit Warwick, with the intention of themselves taking control of government. But Warwick faced down the conspiracy and tightened his grip on the council and royal household, and by February felt secure enough to permit Somerset's release from the Tower on the 6th and his pardon on the 8th. For about six weeks the duke and his wife lived under virtual house arrest. Somerset dined with King Edward at Greenwich on 8 April and was readmitted to the council on the 10th. He was restored as a gentleman of the king's chamber on 14 May having resumed attendance at the council on 24 April, when he was given precedence over all other members. Three days later all his property, except those estates which had already been regranted, was restored. There is also evidence of a rapprochement between Somerset and Warwick, for on 3 June the former's eldest daughter, Anne, married John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, Warwick's eldest son, at Sheen in the presence of the king.

A few days later Somerset led a delegation of councillors to attempt to win the conformity of his old adversary, Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, who was imprisoned in the Tower for opposition to the Edwardian religious reforms. But despite Gardiner's willingness to accept the Book of Common Prayer and articles endorsing the Reformation, the council made further demands that he refused. Later, on 18 October 1550, Somerset suffered a public slight when the council refused to go into mourning on the death of his mother. He was made lord lieutenant of Berkshire and Hampshire on 10 May 1551 and in August took an armed force to Wokingham to pacify commoners who had organized a conspiracy to destroy the local gentry; several offenders were subsequently executed.

Somerset made an exchange of lands with the king in June 1550 whereby he obtained the remaining property of the former abbey of Glastonbury. On this land he helped a group of Flemish protestant refugees establish a community for the manufacture of cloth. Each household was provided with 5 acres of land for the maintenance of two cows along with tools and material for cloth production. Then in 1551 thirty-four more families and ten widows arrived in Glastonbury, together with news that a further ten families were going to join them. Somerset's imprisonment in October 1551 ended involvement in the scheme, but the council accepted responsibility for his commitments to the Glastonbury community.

Early in 1551 rumours began to circulate suggesting that Somerset was becoming restless with his position and wished to regain the power he had lost in 1549. In February 1551 he was said to have quarrelled with Warwick, and about the same time the earl of Shrewsbury was sounded out concerning his feelings about the rival peers. Behind these reports may have lain the activities of lesser men who hoped to profit if Somerset was restored as protector. Thus Richard Whalley, the duke's chamberlain, began to canvas support for his master, while Sir Ralph Vane, another supporter, picked a quarrel with Warwick over pasture rights. There was also talk of Somerset's allying himself with religious conservatives among the peerage in order to advance himself. He may have seen problems ahead in July 1551, when he wrote to Sir John Thynne asking him to bring the necessary books and documents to Syon in Middlesex so that he could prepare his will.

In fact it is likely that Somerset had abandoned serious ambitions of regaining power by summer 1551 because he knew that he lacked a strong political following. Nevertheless Warwick (now duke of Northumberland) regarded him as a threat to effective government and was prepared to believe the allegations of Sir Thomas Palmer that Somerset planned to invite Northumberland and the marquess of Northampton to a banquet where he would cut off their heads, seize the Tower, and raise the people of London. After dining with the king on 16 October, Somerset was arrested on a charge of high treason and sent to the Tower. His wife was arrested two days later.

Trial and execution

The trial of Somerset is among the most controversial episodes of his career. His continuing popularity almost certainly explains why the council ordered householders in London to see to their potentially riotous apprentices before the trial began. Tried by his peers on 1 December 1551 with William Paulet, marquess of Winchester presiding as high steward, Somerset pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. He skilfully conducted his own defence and was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony under the terms of a recent statute (3 & 4 Edward VI c. 5) against bringing together men for a riot. Historians sympathetic to Somerset argue that the indictment was largely fictitious, that the trial was packed with his enemies, and that Northumberland's subtle intrigue was responsible for his conviction. Other historians, however, have noted that Northumberland agreed that the charge of treason should be dropped and that the evidence suggests that Somerset was engaged in a conspiracy against his enemies.

When the trial concluded many Londoners thought Somerset had either been acquitted of all the charges or that his life would be spared despite his conviction for felony. The Christmas holiday celebrations gave him a temporary respite, but the new year ended any hopes that his life would be spared. On 19 January the king and the council decided to proceed with the execution. Somerset prepared himself for death with prayer and Bible reading and on the night before his death wrote a simple but moving prayer on the pocket calendar that he took to the Tower in which he placed his trust in God and repudiated the conceits of the world.

Somerset was brought to Tower Hill at 8 a.m. on 22 January 1552 and beheaded. As the execution risked causing disorder, householders were ordered to remain in their houses until 10, and the king's guard and a thousand men from the city's trained bands attended to guarantee security. Large crowds gathered none the less. On the scaffold Somerset denied that he had ever offended the king in word or deed and proclaimed that he had always been faithful to his country. He admitted, however, that he was condemned to die by the law of the land and exhorted those present to follow the reformed religion that he had promoted. A rumour that he would be pardoned for a moment excited the large crowd assembled for the execution, an incident that provides further evidence of the sympathy Somerset enjoyed among the common people. He was buried in the north aisle of the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower, between two queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

Four of Somerset's closest supporters, Sir Thomas Arundell, Sir Miles Partridge, Sir Michael Stanhope, and Sir Ralph Vane, were executed on 26 February. But most of his former associates escaped with their lives, although they suffered financial losses and political disgrace. Sir Thomas Smith had already retired to a quiet life as provost of Eton College, while Sir William Cecil, one of the two principal secretaries, shrewdly looked after his own interests and entered the service of Northumberland. The king's response to the death of his uncle is unclear. In his chronicle Edward VI recorded no emotion or remorse at the death of his closest surviving relative, but according to the early seventeenth-century biography of Edward by Sir John Hayward, the king wept for his uncle and said that his trial had been unfair. The duchess of Somerset, who was sent to the Tower on 18 October 1551 taking with her personal possessions for a long stay, was not released until the accession of Mary in 1553.


Like other politicians favoured by Henry VIII, Edward Seymour received large grants of land from that king. As protector he was in a position to reward both himself and his friends, and he did so generously. At his father's death he had inherited estates worth about £275 per annum, and also had lands worth some £170 from his first marriage. By the mid-1540s he had increased his estates, mostly through grants and purchases, to about £1700, and enjoyed an income of some £2500 from all sources. Then in the early years of Edward VI's reign he acquired lands worth £3000 more (including those he obtained under Henry VIII's will), and also augmented his income with a further £2000 from his various offices, not including an annuity of 8000 marks to maintain his estate as protector. With a total annual income of around £12,800 Somerset was the crown's wealthiest subject under Edward VI, but, as he was a duke, lord protector, and the king's maternal uncle, his economic status was hardly inconsistent with his position in the political and social hierarchy.

Somerset's acquisitions of lands were largely concentrated in the south of England, and especially in Somerset and Wiltshire. During the reign of Henry VIII he augmented his family estates in those counties with manors formerly belonging to Wolsey in Yorkshire, former monastic property in Hampshire and Somerset, additional manors in Wiltshire and Somerset, the Carthusian priory at Sheen, Surrey, and property belonging to the Howards. After 1547 he acquired episcopal lands formerly held by the bishops of Bath and Wells and of Winchester. He also acquired London property, notably Somerset House in the Strand in 1539/40 which he began building shortly after the death of Henry VIII. The church of St Mary-le-Strand as well as two former episcopal inns were demolished to make room for the new construction. Building materials were obtained by the demolition of the former priory of St John of Jerusalem at Clerkenwell and of part of the cloister on the north side of St Paul's Cathedral and the charnel house there. The burial-ground near the latter was opened and hundreds of human bones were removed and dumped in Finsbury field. Between 1548 and 1551 Somerset spent over £15,000 on Somerset House and Syon House.

Somerset House was the first major Italianate classical building project in early modern England. Its designer is unknown, but Robert Lawes, clerk of works, and Sir John Thynne helped with the initial planning. One of the principal craftsmen was William Cure, who had worked at Nonsuch for Henry VIII. Somerset House was a two-storey building constructed round a quadrangle which was entered from the Strand through a three-storeyed gateway. At either end of the front were bay windows crowned with ornamental attics. This Renaissance palace was completed only after the death of Somerset. He built the hall and provided an ornamental screen, but the arcaded terrace was added under James I. After the duke's death the house passed to Princess Elizabeth, who, following her accession, allowed his son to occupy part of it. Somerset House was demolished in 1776.

Somerset also began to build a majestic country mansion to replace Wolf Hall at the end of 1548. The site chosen was about 3 miles east of Wolf Hall, between Wilton and Great Bedwyn on Bedwyn Brail. Two million bricks and a considerable quantity of Wilton stone were brought to the site, but when his protectorship ended construction stopped. Fine houses and a huge income from landed estates and office-holding permitted Somerset to live in great luxury. At the height of his power he maintained 167 domestic servants, and during three and a half years from 1548 to 1551 he is estimated to have spent a minimum of £14,325 maintaining himself and his household. During that period the expenses of his steward, kitchen, and stable were £1291, £2621, and £427 respectively, while tradesmen's bills amounted to a total of £1445.

By an act of parliament in 1540 Somerset's estates were entailed upon the issue of his second marriage in preference to that of his first. As he was convicted of felony rather than treason his property was not seized until an act of attainder passed on 12 April 1552 declared his dignities forfeited. Edward Seymour, Somerset's eldest surviving son from his second marriage, having been corrupted in blood by his father's attainder, was restored by act of parliament under Mary and was created Baron Beauchamp and earl of Hertford on 13 January 1559 by Elizabeth. Somerset's titles remained in this branch of the family until 1750, when Sir Edward Seymour, bt, a descendant of Somerset and his first wife, succeeded to his ancestor's dukedom.


Somerset remains controversial. Zealous contemporary clerical reformers praised him as a champion of protestantism, but Sir William Paget, who knew Somerset well, and Sir John Hayward, the early seventeenth-century biographer of Edward VI, criticized him severely for political failures. From its publication in 1631 until the end of the nineteenth century Hayward's critical biography was the most authoritative work on Somerset and the politics of the reign of Edward VI, and it clearly damaged the duke's reputation. The debate on his character and political career continued into the twentieth century. In 1900 A. F. Pollard portrayed Somerset as a liberal who believed in constitutional freedom, a view he supported by reference to the letters of Paget, even though the latter considered the duke's populism extremely dangerous and a threat to social stability. Pollard's Somerset was a committed protestant and a friend of the poor and oppressed despite his personal acquisitiveness.

Although Pollard was not the last historian to reaffirm the views of Tudor clerical leaders praising Somerset's support of religious reform, in the late twentieth century historians became more critical, emphasizing Somerset's arrogance, his aggressive and costly policy of conquest in Scotland, and his political incompetence as protector. W. K. Jordan (1968–70) recognized the complexity of his character and praised his magnanimity and moderation in religion, as well as drawing attention to his political faults, whereas M. L. Bush (1975), in a largely hostile study, concluded that 'Somerset's political behaviour was directed not by ideals, but by idées fixes' (Bush, 5). But more recently still Diarmaid MacCulloch (1999) offered guarded praise for Somerset's concern for the poor who shared his religious enthusiasm.

Somerset, like all leaders of his generation, served his political apprenticeship under Henry VIII, a king who governed with a firm hand. The accession of the nine-year-old Edward VI created challenges for which nobody was prepared. Somerset provided strong leadership that carried England in directions pursued long after his death. Thanks to his religious policies the country developed along protestant lines even though the Church of England was not firmly established until the reign of Elizabeth. His assertive policies toward Scotland—however prejudicial to the northern kingdom—ultimately foreshadowed the Act of Union of 1707. If his rhetorical favour towards the agrarian poor was not matched by his own behaviour, he was hardly the last politician to promise more than he could deliver and open himself to charges of hypocrisy. The absence of royal leadership during the reign of Edward VI forced Somerset to assume responsibilities for which he lacked experience, and might have led to political conflict with disastrous and long-lasting effects. Not the least of his contributions to the structure of authority was his declining to fight for his own place within it in October 1549. It is in deference to such restraint, as well as for the policies he pursued, that it can be concluded that England's surviving the troubled era of Somerset unscathed constitutes one of his enduring achievements.


  • M. L. Bush, The government policy of Protector Somerset (1975)
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  • G. W. Bernard, ed., The Tudor nobility (1992)
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  • D. M. Head, The ebbs and flows of fortune: the life of Thomas Howard, third duke of Norfolk (1995)
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  • J. Loach, Edward VI (1999)
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  • G. Redworth, In defence of the church Catholic: the life of Stephen Gardiner (1990)
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  • M. Aston, The king's bedpost: reformation and iconography in a Tudor group portrait (1993)
  • J. Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530–1830, 8th edn (1991)
  • R. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean portraits, 2 vols. (1969)
  • BL, Stowe MS 1066
  • A. Bryson, ‘“The speciall men in every shere”: the Edwardian regime, 1547–1553’, PhD diss., U. St Andr., 2001
  • M. Merriman, The rough wooings: Mary queen of Scots, 1542–1551 (2000)


  • BL, official corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 32648, 32654–32657
  • Longleat House, Wiltshire, papers
  • BL, letters and papers, Cotton MSS
  • BL, Harley MSS, corresp. with Lord Cobham, and papers
  • Longleat House, Wiltshire, Thynne MSS
  • TNA: PRO, SP domestic


  • oil on panel, 1535, Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire
  • oil on panel, 1537–47 (or later copy), Longleat House, Wiltshire
  • portrait, 1548, Syon House, Middlesex
  • portrait, 1548, Claydon House, Buckinghamshire
  • studio of N. Hilliard, miniature, 1560 (after earlier portrait), Buccleuch estates, Selkirk [see illus.]
  • group portrait, oil on panel, 1570 (Edward VI and the pope), NPG

Wealth at Death

c.£12,800 p.a.: Bryson, ‘The speciall men in every shere’

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