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‘What Wickedness is Here, Hooper?’

They captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will encompass their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the second installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.

Edward VI: The Lost King of England

by Chris Skidmore
St. Martins Press, 2007

Edward VI, the only legitimate male heir of Henry VIII, provoked awe at an early age. The Venetian ambassador in later life had no doubt of it: the greatest of all English monarchs died before he could become so.

Edward VI was the male heir Henry longed for. His mother was Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, chosen by him for her pleasantness and quiet charisma (our present biographer is rather loutish in his photo caption, where he drones, “Jane Seymour’s fierce loyalty to the Tudor regime and determination to provide Henry with a male heir more than made up for her plain looks” – Holbein painted towards, rather than away from, plainness, but no later historian need doubt that Henry liked what he was looking at – the fate of Anne of Cleves, unceremoniously dumped roughly five minutes after Henry clapped eyes on her, on account of her true and abiding plainness, ought to make this clear) The Seymour clan was fiercely ambitious – a less imaginative tyrant than Henry would have worked pointedly to encompass their extirpation – and none moreso than Jane’s two brothers, Edward Duke of Somerset and Thomas, Lord Admiral. When Henry died, Somerset was made Lord Protector, regent for the 10-year-old Edward and de factohead of the King’s council.

That council is worth understanding, considering that it advised a boy. It was not a benign conclave – it was a wolf-pack of covetous men, virtually every one of whom had chafed under the heavy hand of the monarch now gone, all of whom yearned for the material advances only proximity to the crown could generate. Edward the boy – the flesh-and-blood human being who’d lost his father and never known his mother – mattered nothing to these men; he was a vessel through which privileges could be pulled.

This impersonal, predatory element was exceedingly rare in Tudor politics. The sixteenth century might have viewed female rulers as oddities of nature, but nevertheless the councilors of Mary and Elizabeth (with the exception of favorites, a subject that will receive its due attention in our next installment) wouldn’t have spoken an impertinent word to save their mortal lives – Mary was prim and doctrinaire but a Tudor warrior at heart, and Elizabeth had a tongue sharper than coral. Only that most unpitying bar to respect – only childhood – could have induced courtiers to think so brusquely of any Tudor.

The most amazing item in this entire drama sits at the heart of it: a little boy who, had he lived, might well have been the greatest of his great family. Even in his youth, all the signs were abundantly clear. Abundantly, even disturbingly: here were all the singular Tudor traits eerily untrammeled by the compromises of adulthood. Here indeed is the Tudor social consciousness, that aspect least studied by historians and least exhibited by the boy’s illustrious father but fully present in the heir’s concern for the endowment of schools and the restoration of the currency; here is the preternatural intelligence, in Edward’s case faithfully nurtured by his steadfast tutor Sir John Cheke (who had the most important quality in any preceptor, the ability to admit without rancor that your charge is smarter than you are); here is the superb facility with languages (by the age of 10, Edward could discourse fluently in highly technical Latin and could handle himself quite well in Greek); the mystifying Tudor memory can be seen clearly: Edward could recite the name of every river, pond, stream, and bog in the whole of England – and France, and Scotland, and Ireland … he knew the names of all of his innumerable courtiers, magistrates, and judges, and not just their names but something (often a good deal) about them. Like his grandfather Henry VII and both his sisters, he seems never to have forgotten anything (and the exception may be illusory: Henry VIII often chose the most convenient moments to forget what he didn’t want right then to remember), and his curiosities were deep and broad. He wrote royal papers on everything from economics to astronomy to liturgy. He rode well and loved hunting and archery, and he was a zealous prosecutor of the church reforms instigated by his father.

Even a reader of so brief a summary may be tempted to forget that its subject was a boy who died half-way through his sixteenth year.

Certainly many of his contemporaries forgot. The celebrated Italian astrologer Hieronymus Cardano had long, enthusiastic discussions with a 15-year-old Edward and was deeply impressed by how little the difference in their ages seemed to matter. Firebrand evangelical John Hooper, called into Edward’s presence so the two of them could review the new service of ordination line by line (this unassuming, athletic scholasticism was another hallmark Tudor trait), found himself confronting a mind no less nimble than his own – and a temper that was pure Tudor. Chris Skidmore, in this new biography Lost King of England, paints the picture:

They both went through the service of consecration, until Edward noticed that the last sentence of the oath – ‘so help me God, all saints, and the holy evangelists’ and [sic] growing ‘much excited’ exclaimed: ‘What wickedness is here, Hooper? Are these offices ordained in the name of the saints, or of God?’ Before Hooper could comment, Edward had struck the offending sentence through with his pen.

That temper, the bolt of thunder coming out of a clear blue sky, had its counterbalance in a capacity for great emotional coldness (the famous example being Edward’s private summary of the Duke of Somerset’s death: “The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning” – Somerset, the reader will recall, being the boy’s uncle), and both showed themselves in Edward at a remarkably early age.

This is the source of history’s fascination with the young monarch, and that fascination is heightened by two distinctive factors: the first is that he died so young, thereby forever fueling speculation about what he might have become (as Tudor scholar Christopher Morris puts it, “It is arguable that potentially Edward was the ablest of all the Tudors. It is also possible that, had he lived, he would have been the least attractive”), and the second was that in addition to everything else he found to fill his days, Edward VI also kept a personal journal, which survives – a thing unprecedented in English (or indeed, any other) monarchy. It’s an altogether fascinating little book, ranging across the whole of the boy-king’s life, from bear-baiting and playing at hoops to high matters of church and state. Without that journal, Edward would be a shadow-figure to later history, a princely puppet entirely overshadowed by the grown men who ruled his council.

Indeed, even with that journal, most histories of Edward’s brief reign concentrate more on these men than on Edward himself – specifically two men: Edward’s Seymour uncle and Lord Protector, Edward Duke of Somerset and John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland. Both these men were seasoned soldiers and darkly charismatic statesmen, and they detested each other, and Edward was the wishbone grasped between them. Somerset’s familial connection was countered by the fact that Edward hated him; Dudley’s solicitude of the boy couldn’t hide a violent and bottomless ambition. Such was the sheer speed with which Tudors became formidable that had Edward been even 15 when this rivalry started, he could have controlled it easily (indeed, he would almost certainly have used it, a trick his sister Elizabeth would raise to the level of art in her own reign), but at 9 he was simply too preoccupied with the raw urgency of growing up.

Dudley was the more patient, and Somerset’s absence from court during his epic invasion of Scotland (to punish the Scots for renouncing an earlier agreement that Edward should marry Mary Queen of Scots – a hypothetical to conjure with) lessened his influence to the point of virtually guaranteeing his doom, which Northumberland effected with the execution of 1552. Dudley’s subsequent ambition – to further strengthen his grip on royal power – was thwarted by Edward’s sudden decline and death.

About all this, Skidmore is almost unflaggingly excellent. His account of Edward’s life and court will stand as the definitive one for half a century, principally because he keeps his eye always on the hard realities of the Tudor era:

There was, however, one aim in common in the minds of all. For whoever gained access to the dying Henry sought not only to influence his judgement during his reign, but to control his son in the next.

The great Edward VI scholar W. K. Jordan wrote of his subject that “potentially he may have been, after his great sister, the ablest of his incredibly gifted family,” and Skidmore amply displays gifts of his own in fashioning a full and satisfying account of his young subject.

While we’re mentioning young subjects, a slight confession may here be in order. Last year, while reviewing a new biography of John Donne, I felt compelled not only to mention the mewling youth of the book’s author but to make issue of it, asserting, in effect, that nobody in their twenties could possibly have anything useful to say about a subject as abstruse as Donne. The assertion alarmed my co-editors (understandably, since they are the same age as that author), who responded respectively with on the one hand an urgent private conference over fried fish and on the other a spirited public broadside in defense of youth. In reviewing Edward VI: The Lost King of England, the whole subject comes up again, for Chris Skidmore was born in 1981. He did not earn his degree in 1981, nor did he publish his first book in 1981. Rather, he drew his first breath and took his first poo in 1981. Consequently, he wasn’t able to do any effective research into Tudor primary sources until roughly the same time this reviewer got out of bed this morning. My co-editors, taking one glance at Skidmore’s dust jacket photo (one presumes it’s from his yearbook) and seeing the hairless cheeks, the jutting ears, and the over-earnest brow, must have steeled themselves for a renewed ordeal.

Fortunately, it’s as happy a thing to find extraordinary competence in young biographers as it is to find it in young princes. Skidmore has mastered a truly staggering array of information, and he presents it throughout with an engaging restraint and a fluid prose that would be the envy of historians two, three, four, five, and six times his age. The pitch of Tudor-era political infighting necessarily reached its peak (as it would in any era) during a regency, and Skidmore navigates that jungle with considerable assurance.

He doesn’t walk on water, mind you. Modifiers, for instance, go astray all over his book:

Edward Seymour’s position amongst the nobility was unique. The elder brother of Jane Seymour and Edward’s uncle, the King held him in close regard, raising him to an earldom in 1537.

And (lacking experience?) he falls afoul of that most traditional arena for authors to make asses of themselves, the Acknowledgements. Here he missteps in an adroit three-pronged manner, first slighting generations of earlier scholars:

… it seemed this dramatic burst of history had gone ignored for too long, overshadowed by Henry VIII and Elizabeth.

Then using a formula that ought to be set aside under ‘wanker’ in the dictionary:

Above all, I realize that none of this would have been possible with the kind support of many friends – they know who they are – along the way

(it ought always to read ‘they know who they aren’t anymore, since I can’t be bothered in my gratitude even to write their names’).

And finishing up with a perhaps accidental allusion to his own greatness:

Ian Drury and Penny Gardiner at Weidenfeld have turned it [this present book by our author] into something marvellous, far beyond what I thought achievable.

I hesitate – for fear of clamor! – to mark these down as the mistakes of youth, but they hardly signify when weighed against the hefty merit of the book taken as a whole. The brief biographical notice beneath that incriminating dust jacket photo mentions that Skidmore is ‘Adviser to the British Shadow Secretary for Education.’ To American ears, this certainly sounds like a fictitious employment, or else something that should come with its own secret decoder ring. the British are different from you and me, and if the post actually exists, one hopes a precocious career in politics doesn’t arrest a precocious career in history. Politicians, after all, are numerous enough (even, intimidatingly, Shadow Secretaries); historians of Skidmore’s energy and talent are very much rarer.

It’s a sad addendum to any biography of Edward VI that each of his chroniclers, especially in the scientific modern age, must take a stand on why he died so young (a similar fate befalls Edward V, one of the so-called ‘princes in the tower’). On this subject there are basically two schools of thought. The first is that Edward was a perfectly healthy teenager who contracted an ailment that ended his life abruptly. Most recently, this position was taken by Jennifer Loach, who died while writing her own 1999 biography of Edward (Skidmore sometimes disagrees with her on various points but is unfailingly gracious to her memory). The second is that Edward had pretty much always been sickly and was sufficiently weakened by age 16 that any middling-serious illness could carry him off (a third theory, that he was poisoned, is usually dismissed out of hand). Skidmore is fairly firmly aligned with this second camp; his book features far more periods of suspected infirmity on Edward’s part than, for instance, Loach’s does. As for the final blow, Skidmore nominates tuberculosis, with the groundwork being laid by a bout of measles the young king suffered in 1552:

Modern research has shown that measles can suppress natural immunity to tuberculosis, reactivating the bacteria that can survive intercellularly within healthy lung tissue.

Loach had previously dismissed this possibility and should be heard on the subject:

… although there were many accounts of Edward coughing, and descriptions of his sputum, there is hardly any mention of the copious blood that would undoubtedly have been coughed up by a consumptive.

The cause was certainly pulmonary (there were great black putrefactions on both lungs, and Edward’s grotesque final symptoms display clear cyanosis), and whatever the final trigger, we cannot help but pity the poor sufferer, who at the end prayed God “deliver me out of this miserable and wretched life.”

That deliverance eventually came, and the two sisters he tried to disinherit (and, tragically, his cousin Jane, whom he tried to prefer) ruled after him, and the great mystery of his possibilities (what Skidmore calls a ‘promise unfulfilled’) went with him to a grave at Westminster.

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Steve Donoghue worked for most of his life as a mule-driver along the Erie Canal, during which time he composed hundreds of ballads and chanteys inspired by the territory. When his job was rendered obsolete by the steam tug he turned to the study of history and today he hosts the literary blog Stevereads.