Edward was the eldest surviving son of Sir John Seymour of Wulfhall and Margery Wentworth. His career began solidly with posts in the households of Mary, the French Queen, the Emperor Charles, and the Duke of Richmond, but his real break came in 1536 when his sister, Jane, married Henry VIII. Within the eighteen months that followed, Edward became Viscount Beauchamp, a privy councillor, and finally, after the birth of his nephew, Earl of Hertford.
At the end of 1539, Hertford was sent to Calais to greet Henry’s new bride, Anne of Cleves. He wrote to Cromwell of his pleasure in the match – the best news, he said, that he had had since the birth of Prince Edward. Unfortunately, the match did not please the king and was annulled. Whilst Henry’s fourth marriage had pleased Hertford, the king’s fifth marriage, to Katheryn Howard, niece of the Duke of Norfolk was less appealing because of a growing rivalry between the Seymours and the Howards. The duke’s son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Hertford had quarrelled and almost come to blows in 1537.
Nevertheless, the marriage did not adversely affect Hertford and in 1541, he was elected to the Order of the Garter. Later that year when Henry VIII made a progress to York, Hertford remained in London with a core group of councillors, including Archbishop Cranmer. Whilst the king was away, Cranmer was informed that Katheryn had been unchaste before her marriage. Unable to decide what to do with such incendiary information, Cranmer consulted Hertford and Lord Chancellor Audley. They decided that Cranmer should write a letter to the king and leave it in his chapel pew. Devastated, Henry ordered investigation into the allegations, and Hertford was one of those who interrogated the queen’s friends and family, as well as being on the commission that tried her co-accused. The result was Katheryn’s execution, and the escalation of enmity between the Seymours and the Howards.
In 1542, as part of a wider, anti-French policy, Henry VIII began a full-scale attack on Scotland, led by the Duke of Norfolk, with Hertford in charge of the vanguard. By the end of October, he was burning and pillaging around the towns of Kelso and Jedburgh. However, there were insufficient supplies to maintain the army in the field and he was obliged to withdraw to Berwick whence he planned a major assault on Scotland, which resulted in a devastating defeat for the Scots at the Battle of Solway Moss, on 24th November 1542. Covered with glory, he returned to court, where he was rewarded with the position of Lord Great Chamberlain.
Henry hoped to drive home Hertford’s achievements in Scotland, by forcing the Scottish governor, the Earl of Arran, to agree a treaty whereby Scotland’s infant queen, Mary, would be married to Prince Edward, and brought to England for her upbringing. Although Arran ratified the treaty, the Scots Parliament rejected it. Henry was furious. Hertford was appointed Lieutenant General of a new force, with instructions to invade Scotland. On 4th May, 1544, the English ships sailed into Leith and Scottish forces were overcome. Leith was taken, and Edinburgh, including the palace at Holyrood and the adjoining abbey, was severely damaged.
With Scotland devastated, Henry VIII was free to attack France without fear of repercussions from the north and mounted an attack on Boulogne. Initially, Hertford remained in London as one of the privy councillors supporting the regent, Queen Katherine Parr. He was also given control of the household of his nephew, Prince Edward, appointing religious reformers as tutors, mirroring his own religious inclinations.
Hertford then joined the French campaign as Lieutenant-General, which again put Surrey’s nose out of joint, and scored another victory when, commanding a force of about 4,000 foot and 700 horse, he drove off a French force of over three times the strength, to put the English control of Boulogne on a secure footing.
Back in Scotland, the English had been defeated in a battle at Ancrum Moor. A vengeful Henry sent Hertford north again and the resulting campaign has become known as the War of the Rough Wooing – its intention being to force the Scots into the marital union of their queen with Prince Edward. Hertford attacked with gusto – during September and October of 1545, he wrought devastation throughout the Borders.
Hertford’s two closest associates were John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, and Sir William Paget. All three were religious reformers, and in the last few years of Henry’s reign, factions began to coalesce around the reformist versus the conservative groups. As the king’s health declined, the two factions began to jostle for power – Hertford, as uncle to the future king, was likely to hold high office, but Surrey boasted that his father, as the senior duke in the realm, would be Lord Protector. Surrey also harped on his royal blood. The king, unhappy with Surrey’s poor showing in France, was willing to listen to cries of treason from Surrey’s enemies. The upshot was that Norfolk and Surrey were both sent to the Tower of London, and Surrey was executed. Hertford and his friends thus had the upper hand at the time of Henry VIII’s death on 28th January 1547.
Henry VIII’s will was clear. No individual was to hold power as a regent or protector during the minority of his son, now Edward VI. Instead, there was to be a regency council. But these provisions were ignored, and, on 1st February 1547, Hertford was given the title of Lord Protector of the Realm and Governor of the King’s person, and power to appoint and dismiss councillors. Being a mere earl was not sufficient rank for such an exalted man, and on 17th February, Hertford was advanced to the dukedom of Somerset.
To sweeten the pill for anyone fearing that Somerset was arrogating too much power to himself, a whole swathe of titles, honours and valuable lands were handed out. Among other advances, Lisle became Earl of Warwick; while Somerset’s brother, Sir Thomas, became Baron Seymour of Sudeley, and Lord High Admiral. Thomas remained highly dissatisfied with his relative unimportance and over the following two years hatched several schemes, to improve his position, at the expense of Somerset’s, including a suggestion that he should marry the king’s half-sister, the Lady Elizabeth. Eventually, after he had broken into the king’s apartments and shot the royal spaniel, he was arrested, and, although there were some misgivings about whether treason could be proved against him, was convicted and executed. Somerset signed the death warranted, persuaded that Thomas was a danger to himself, and the peace of the realm.
Somerset offered a chance for reconciliation with Scotland, if the Scots would ratify the Treaty of Greenwich, but the Scots did not dignify the request with any official notice. Consequently, Somerset led a huge army north, culminating in the annihilation of the Scots army at Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. Although it was a campaign of great brutality, and Somerset can justly be described as an exceptionally talented general, it failed of its political purpose. The Scots turned even more firmly towards France, and smuggled their queen out of the country, to marry the French dauphin.
Whilst Protestant tendencies had had to be carefully hidden during Henry VIII’s reign, with Somerset now in charge of the government, the church reform party was able to move swiftly to take England from the doctrinally Catholic state of Henry VIII’s reign towards Calvinist Protestantism. From Whitsun 1549, the only legal service was to be that contained in Cranmer’s new, English, Book of Common Prayer.
The late 1540s were a time of rising unemployment, inflation and population growth, all of which contributed to an unhappy populace. Anger was focused on the practice of enclosing arable or common land for pasture by landowners. Somerset was persuaded that enclosure was an evil, and set up several commissions to investigate. Unfortunately, inconsistent policies, and lack of support from his fellow landowners caused rioting and vandalism, finally breaking out into rebellion in both the South-West (exacerbated there by rejection of the new Prayer Book) and Norfolk. The rebels of the South-West were defeated in a bloody conflict at Sampford Courtenay.
Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk proved harder to resolve. The Marquis of Northampton was sent to contain the revolt, but he disobeyed his orders not to provoke a battle and his troops were savaged. The news stunned Somerset and the council and London was fortified. A second army was sent out under the Earl of Warwick, who successfully overcame the rebels at Mousehold Heath.
Somerset’s handling of the rebellions of 1549 was considered entirely ineffectual by the rest of the government and he lost the support of many of the councillors, most notably, that of Warwick, who became the leader of a dissident group, tired of Somerset’s high-handed attitude, and unwillingness to accept advice. Somerset summoned Warwick, who refused to attend him. Fearing the worst, Somerset issued a proclamation, calling men to come to Hampton Court to protect both him and the king from a ‘most dangerous conspiracy’. The army that had subdued the Prayer Book rebellion had not yet been disbanded, so Somerset sent urgent messages to Russell and Sir William Herbert to support him with their forces.
By early October, seventeen of the twenty-five councillors had joined Warwick and civil war threatened. Somerset sent Sir Edward Wolf to take command of the Tower of London, but when Wolf arrived, he found that the council had already secured it. Somerset decided that Windsor Castle was the safest place for the king and hurried him there.
The two sides exchanged a barrage of letters, the councillors protesting that their only intention had been to talk reasonably to Somerset, to give him advice on governing the realm, and accept that he, too, was a subject, and not the sovereign. Somerset persisted in believing that Warwick and the others intended violence, but Russell and Herbert would not support him with their troops, telling him that he must step down.
Somerset understood that he could not win this quarrel. In front of the councillors at Windsor, he submitted himself to the king, saying that he had not intended to cause ‘any damage or hurt, but to defend only if any violence should be attempted against [Edward]’. He would talk to representatives of the council, in the presence of two independent commissioners. The king also sent a letter, presumably guided by Somerset and his loyalists, in which the king wrote that if the councillors did not bring ‘these uproars unto a quiet’, that he might have cause to suspect their loyalty.
Warwick’s supporter, Sir Anthony Wingfield, brought five hundred men to Windsor and Somerset was arrested. On 13th October, Letters Patent were issued by the king, revoking the office of Protector and the next day Somerset was transported to the Tower. He was charged with twenty counts of treason, including having ‘rebuked, checked and taunted’ other councillors and acted ‘against the will of the whole council’.
Edward was not told the whole story of Somerset’s whereabouts. When he discovered that his uncle was in the Tower, Edward demanded an explanation from Cranmer who replied that Somerset was in the Tower because the council feared he would harm Edward. The king insisted on his uncle being brought to him. ‘The duke’, he said, ‘never did [him] any harm’. Somerset received a formal pardon on 6th February 1550, but remained under house arrest.
Over the next few months, it seemed Somerset might regain some of his former power. He returned to the privy council on 7th May and in August was commissioned to lead a force against continued unrest in the countryside. But his relationship with Warwick deteriorated and by the summer, he was side-lined from council business. A major bone of contention, which also put Somerset at loggerheads with the king, was the question of the Lady Mary’s lack of conformity to the religious laws. Whilst protector, Somerset had given Mary permission to continue to hear the Mass in private. Warwick, and increasingly the king, objected to her being permitted to flout the law.
Mary had a powerful friend in her cousin, the Emperor Charles. With the prospect of Somerset having support from Mary’s conservative faction at home, and Imperial interference, Warwick thought the time had come to dispatch the duke once and for all. In early October, whilst at Hampton Court, Somerset was arrested, accused of planning to capture the Tower of London, take possession of the Great Seal and assassinate Warwick and Northampton. This, at least, was what Warwick told the king, and what Edward wrote in his journal. It is hard to believe that Somerset had any such bloody plans, but he may have had something less sensational in hand.
On 22nd October, the London guilds were summoned to hear these allegations. William Crane, one of Somerset’s servants, who had also been arrested, now deposed that the Duke of Northumberland (as Warwick now was) and Northampton’s heads were to be ‘stricken off at Lord Paget’s house, and that the Earl of Arundel knew of the matter’. Arundel, on being questioned, admitted that he and Somerset had discussed ‘reformation of the estate of the realm’, but they had certainly never contemplated random executions.
Juries were summoned, and Northampton was appointed High Steward. Twenty-two lords, as well as the council, were appointed to try the case. The trial began at 8am on 1st December and lasted until 3pm. The result was not a foregone conclusion – there was considerable discussion as to whether anything that had been alleged amounted to treason. Meanwhile, the commissioners could hear the populace shouting ‘God save the duke’. Either mindful of their duty to administer justice properly, or fearful of the public reaction, Somerset was found not guilty of treason. He was, however, convicted of felony which also carried the death penalty.
Generally, convicted criminals were dispatched quickly but, the reaction of the populace had given Northumberland pause for thought. However, with Parliament having been summoned for 23rd January, Northumberland decided that Somerset must die, lest the conviction be overturned. The French ambassador apparently encouraged a reluctant king, to agree that there was no alternative to Somerset’s execution.
Edward signed the death warrant and on 22nd January, 1552, Somerset was beheaded. He was buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula.