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It is not always easy to tell the devout from the charlatans, although “doing well” while doing good can often be a pretty good indication that you’re dealing with the latter, not the former. England’s boy king, Edward VI, was a rose among thorns, intensely dedicated to the Christian faith while surrounded by political friends and family who used the Reformation to line their own pockets. Those who share Edward’s love for truth need to know his story.
The traditional story of Edward VI is largely the story of his two protectors. The standard histories say little about the boy king himself. The large outlines of the story are fairly consistent from writer to writer: Edward came to the throne in 1547 upon the death of his father, Henry VIII, who had arranged for a council of advisors to oversee the boy until he came of age. Of these, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset and the boy’s uncle, took control of the council and secured for himself the role of lord protector.
Somerset pursued a careful, but evangelical course in religious reform, and championed economic and political “liberty” for the lower classes. Like the other members of the council, he was guilty of padding his own fortune with spoils from the sprawling ecclesiastical structure they all worked to dismantle. Somerset largely ignored Edward and left the boy’s education to his tutors. But in time the protector’s own arrogance and his liberal economic attitudes garnered him the ire of his fellows on the council, and he fell from power. Eventually he was executed.
John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and later Duke of Northumberland, took control of the council and the young king. Unlike Somerset, he showed – or pretended to show – interest in Edward, spent time with him, and soon brought him into the workings of the council as well. Like his predecessor, Northumberland pursued an evangelical course; on other fronts, he looked out for himself and his own.
Most of what Edward’s administration did was the work of these two men, Somerset and Northumberland, and of one other: Thomas Cranmer.
Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, created the first English prayer book (1549) and later the second (1552). These moved the English church away from traditional forms of worship toward something more evangelical. They also involved the congregation more actively in worship, since they were written in the English of the time. Cranmer also devised the “42 Articles,” which summed up the new theology he hoped the English church would embrace. They rejected purgatory and papal authority and embraced justification by faith and eternal predestination. These were later edited and rearranged to become the “39 Articles.”
In this traditional version of the story, Edward comes across as a weak and sickly boy, never his own man, who enjoyed evangelical sentiments because that’s what he had been taught. He accomplished little, was flattered greatly and thought more of himself than he should. After a short reign, Edward’s frail health was further damaged by measles and small pox; eventually he succumbed to tuberculosis and died at the age of 15. Though Foxe and other evangelicals of the day spoke of him as a new Josiah or a latter-day Solomon, later historians have called both his faith and his significance into question.
The traditional story needs a bit of overhauling, though.
First, it seems Edward was healthy and robust enough for most of his life. He enjoyed hunting and participated in the other sports common to young nobles. The collapse of his constitution came in the last year of his reign, and the fatal illness may have been something more complicated than tuberculosis.
As for Edward’s faith and its ultimate significance for the English Reformation, we need to turn back to primary source documents. Though we have Edward’s journal, it is mostly a dry record of political events. It contains little theological reflection. We do not have his notebook on the sermons he had heard. We do have a good deal of Edward’s school work, however, and it shows us how Edward’s mind worked.
Edward’s education reportedly began at the age of three under Dr. Richard Cox, but in 1544, from the age of six, he was principally under the direction of John Cheke. Cheke describes his approach to education in a letter to Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s tutor:
I would have a good Student pass rejoicing through all Authors, both Greek and Latin; but that he will dwell in these few books only, First in God’s Holy Bible, and then join with it Tully in Latin, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophanes, Isocrates and Demosthenes in Greek, must needs prove an excellent man.
Here we have the confluence of the Reformation and the Renaissance. The question is: which would shape his thinking?
When Edward was about 13, he composed an oration in defense of astronomy, a science that had fallen into disrepute. He wrote the original in Latin; the excerpts below are from Heather Hobden’s translation. Edward left the oration untitled.
Knowledge, which is arisen from God, the source of all good, is divided into knowledge of the natural world, matters relating to discourse such as the arts of rhetoric and logic, and matters of ethics which apply to the morals of individuals and to the government of the State. … Being part of knowledge, arisen from God, who inspires us to investigate the natural world, Astronomy is certainly useful to man, for God does everything to some purpose.
The oration is standard fair for the time, though it does cast light on Edward’s attitude toward God’s creation and man’s responsibility for dominion within it.
More striking theologically is Edward’s composition on papal supremacy. After listing arguments for and against the doctrine, he considers the rise of the papacy and the nature of the Antichrist.
Though he follows other sources, as a school boy would, he arranges them to his own tastes, and he makes the issue personal: “If they do not do the Pope’s bidding, that is to offer to idols and devils, he burn us, and makes us bear a faggot.”
Notice the “us”; Edward identifies himself with the persecuted “poor lambs of God.” In the end he concludes that the Pope is “the true son of the devil, a bad man, an Antichrist and abominable tyrant.” This at 11 years old.
Of course, theology learned in childhood may be lost in later years. It is important that we see Edward’s perseverance in the evangelical faith both in his later words and deeds.
This is from his journal, discussing the Cathlolic faith of his sister: “The lady Mary, my sister, came to me to Westminster, where after greetings she was called with my council into a chamber where it was declared how long I had suffered her mass, in hope of her reconciliation, and how now, there being no hope as I saw by her letters, unless I saw some speedy amendment I could not bear it. She answered that her soul was God’s and her faith she would not change, nor hide her opinion with dissembled doings. It was said I did not constrain her faith but willed her only as a subject to obey. And that her example might lead to too much inconvenience.
“On 19 March,” the boy king continued, “the emperor’s ambassador came with a short message from his master of threatened war, if I would not allow his cousin the princess to use her mass. No answer was given to this at the time.
“The following day,” he continued, “the bishops of Canterbury, London and Rochester, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and John Scory, concluded that to give license to sin was sin; to allow and wink at it for a time might be born as long as all possible haste was used.”
Here is an extended account of the same events by another hand. It gives us a clearer idea of Edward’s theological training and religious convictions: “The two bishops were sent to persuade him. They did allege that there were good kings in the Old Testament that had suffered hill altars and yet were praised for good kings. He answered them roundly, that, ‘As examples when they are good, and had God’s word to allow them, are left to us to follow them, so are evil examples set out to show that they were men, and did fail of that perfection which God requires in his, to teach us not to be followers of them, but utterly to warn us in any wise to [shun] them. Abraham lay with Hagar his maid; David took Uriah’s wife to him, and to hide his adultery committed a murder; did they this that we should think it lawful for us to do it, or does Scripture make mention of it to this end that any should do as they did? Solomon did worship the idol Moloch may we therefore give priests our subjects leave to honor, yea to make a piece of dough bread for God?’”
Edward insisted that before he would grant their suit, the bishops would have to show him from Scripture that he would be right in allowing such idolatry.
Until they could do so, he insisted, “I shall require you to fear God with me, and to bend yourself rather to imitate me, and to contemplate any peril, than to set light God’s will, thereby to please an emperor.”
He then summed up Psalm 78, which describes how God dealt with Israel when she abandoned His covenant in favor of idols.
“I fell sick of the measles and the small pox,” Edward wrote in his journal for April 2, 1552.
Though he survived the disease, his constitution never fully recovered. By that summer his health had begun to deteriorate. In the months that followed his condition worsened greatly, and the attendant physicians could do nothing. He reportedly coughed and spat blood, his legs swelled painfully, eruptions broke out over his body, his hair fell out, then his nails. The physicians called it consumption; but given Northumberland’s character, some suspected poisoning.
Northumberland came to Edward to insist that the throne could not pass to Mary, lest all the work of reformation be undone. Edward concurred. He authorized a change in the line of succession. Lady Jane Grey, his father’s niece and now Northumberland’s daughter-in-law, would be next in line. She stood solidly with the Reformation and exchanged intelligent correspondence with its continental leaders. When the judges protested the illegality of the order, Edward roused himself to press them to obedience.
So young Edward died, having done what he could to establish the evangelical faith. And from the sky above thunder rumbled, lightning forked and flashed, and hailstones “red as clotted blood” rained down.