Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Thursday, 6 July 1553 – The King is dead

“... I have been with my lord prince, whose life I pray God long to prosper and continue; for his grace is the goodliest babe that ever I set mine eyes upon. I pray God make him an old man, for I think I should never be weary of looking on him.”

(Letter from Honor Plantagenet, Lady Lisle to her husband discussing her visit to the infant Prince Edward’s household, 1538)

I am faint: Lord have mercy upon me, and take my spirit.

(The alleged last words of Edward VI, 6 July 1553)

On the night of 12 October 1537, London was the scene of magnificent celebrations. Bonfires were lit, feasts were held and the Tower’s guns were fired continuously. For at 2am that same day the kingdom was blessed with a male heir – the Tudor dynastic line was secure. After three marriages, two ending in tragic fashions, Henry VIII had his healthy legitimate son. When the baby was christened three days later and brought back from the chapel to be handed over to his parents, his father was recorded to have wept for joy whilst holding his son.

Now, nearly sixteen years later, the boy was dead. His end was a prolonged and undignified one. His hair and nails had fallen out; the constant vomiting had led to extreme weight loss. The smell of the vile fluid he coughed up was as potent as the puss that had seeped from his aged father’s famous leg wound. In March 1553 the Venetian ambassador had reported that the boy, though ill, was still handsome. Now he was barely recognisable. Edward made one last confession, and between eight and nine o’clock in the evening he died in the arms of Sir Thomas Worth and long-term friend Sir Henry Sidney at the palace of Greenwich. He was fifteen years old.

It was popularly claimed that he had been poisoned but then almost any time a prominent individual died, especially at a young age, foul play was cited. Despite these accusations Edward alive was far more valuable to the duke of Northumberland and his men than otherwise. There were still things to do – Mary had not yet been captured – and the conspirators needed to act fast. The same day the duke ordered provisions for the royal ships sent to patrol the waters. Unaware of her brother’s death Mary continued to press on. It has been argued by Diarmaid MacCulloch and Anna Whitelock that she arrived at Bury St. Edmunds and was welcomed by John Bourchier, the second earl of Bath at his family seat of Hengrave Hall. When Robert Wingfield recorded the events of Mary’s accession only a year later he neglected to mention her stay at Hengrave but instead infers that she travelled to the residence of Lady Burgh where she was certainly present by the 7th. Whether we accept the Hengrave story or not, the role of the earl of Bath in Mary’s cause should not be ignored. The earl had notably been absent from London at this time which meant that, rather conveniently, he could not sign in person the final version of Edward’s alterations to the succession. He was also a religious conservative and had a wife who Mary may have been familiar with for her previous husband had been Sir Richard Long, a courtier highly favoured by Henry VIII. Mary’s accession to the throne is in essence a story of the importance of ‘connections’ in Tudor political life. Whether the earl of Bath entertained her or not on the 6th, he was one the first peers to support her claim.

Northumberland’s efficiency and enthusiasm was matched by another individual in London. Robert Reyns, a goldsmith, was preparing for an important journey. His discovery of Edward's death proved valuable to Mary’s cause. For Reyns was not any simple goldsmith but one who had been previously engaged by Mary, a great lover of jewels. Evidently it did not take Reyns long to decide which queen to back. Quickly fleeing the city and probably riding at breakneck speed with few rests, he rushed to be the first to tell Mary the news of her brother’s death and her own accession. Reyns was taking a gamble; if Jane’s cause prevailed, his end would shortly come. But Reyns’s story has a happy ending. Eight months later he was appointed as the royal goldsmith by a gratified Queen Mary. He would be kept rather busy over the next five years.

(Image - detail of a portrait of Edward VI, by an unknown artist, after William Scrots, c.1547. NPG, London.)


  1. This is a good series of posts--I can't wait to find out how it all turns out!!
    Seriously, even though we know the outcome, a day-by-day almanac of events adds tension to the retelling of the story.

  2. Thank you! I was worried that these posts were far too short and uninformative. If I didn’t have uni work to do at the moment I would expand upon them, but I wanted to write something on the events of July 1553 and try to look at what Mary was doing. There was a great book recently by Eric Ives that examines the events in detail but very much from the perspective of the duke of Northumberland and his 'side'. Mary is overlooked a bit, though it was her actions, along with the duke's mistakes, that won her the Crown.

  3. I enjoyed reading this, thanks! :)