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Penguin Monarchs: Edward VI

August 14, 2021
Edward VI (r.1547-1553) | The Royal Family

This is one of the more successful of these volumes. Short reign, short life, short book. There’s a lively impressionistic style employed here, which well suits a biography which must necessarily depend on a deal of imaginative extrapolation.

I like the fact that Stephen Alford’s book begins with a childhood recollection of an illustration from the Ladybird book of kings and queens. How beautifully illustrated those books were. In this picture, Edward shrinks into the background while Somerset comes close to physical conflict with another Privy Council member. And this is warm and thoughtful book about this condition of being in the background.

Edward’s own words are never anything other than what he was educated to say. He sounds, therefore, rather priggish and annoying. But of course, these are merely the words of someone who has never regarded writing as the vehicle of authentic personal expression. Edward may not have had any concept of authentic personal expression for that matter. Edward was what people wanted him to be. He had no time to be anything else.

In most of these little books, discussion of future ruler’s education forms a fascinating early chapter. In the case of Edward the VI, this fascinating early chapter becomes most of the volume. John Cheke, Edward’s more inspirational tutor, is perhaps the hero of the whole book, as far as Alford is concerned. Cheke appears to have placed love of learning above fear of the rod as his pedagogic credo, making him something of a radical. We are encouraged to imagine (and why not?) a very affectionate relationship between Edward and Cheke.

Of course, this is a sympathetic account, or rather, full of sympathetic extrapolations. A boy born into a dangerous world who died of something very nasty and painful before he was sixteen cannot help but be given “the benefit of the doubt” unless you’re actually some kind of a monster.

This is not really a study of the politics of the years 1547-1553. This is not a study of the motives and strategies of Somerset, Thomas Seymour or the Duke of Northumberland. It’s not an economic history and nor is it a history of early English Protestantism. It is an imagining of a boy growing up among these warring giants, a boy who has to paid court to but who has simultaneously to obey. This is perhaps not a work of political history at all but an atmospheric effort of reconstruction that is full of generous lacunae. There is controversial imaginative work left, by Alford, for the reader to do.

Alford also plausibly argues that Edward’s “”My devise for the Succession”” for the succession of the throne deserves a book all of its own. He suggests that despite the fact that it so obviously favoured the ambitions of Northumberland, something of Edward’s own personality and policy can be read into this fascinating document.

The rapid rise and fall of the “Devise” says a deal about the unfettered scope and actual limitations of princely power, as well as the concept of “Rule of Law” and how far laws can bind the very essence of sovereignty.

I have thoughts about other books in this series.

See below.

Queen Mary:

Elizabeth I:

James I and VI:

Charles I:

Oliver Cromwell:

Charles II:

James II and VII:

William and Mary:

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reposting on the occasion of Edward’s birthday.

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