Chapter 1: Character
It is not easy to understand the character of any sixteenth century person at this distance of time. The best that can be done is to gather the fragments of description in contemporary reports and letters. During the early stages of his career, Somerset (as he will be called, although his title changed several times) was sent to the Emperor Charles at Worms. Charles said that he was ‘very pleased’ with him – which may have been a genuine compliment, or a polite nothing. Two years later, the Duke of Suffolk knighted him during the French campaign – although he was not the only one honoured, it suggests a level of personal courage and competence on the battlefield that was noteworthy.
In the autumn of 1538, an unknown Italian correspondent wrote a short description of Henry VIII’s councillors. He described Somerset as ‘young and wise [but] of small power’, by which he meant with limited lands or retainers. This lack was something that he had been making every effort to remedy, and it seems he was not too particular about some of his methods. For several years, from 1533 onwards, he seems to have been involved in several schemes, alongside his friend, John Dudley, (later the Duke of Northumberland) and Lord Daubeney, to relieve Dudley’s stepfather, Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, and Lisle’s other stepson, John Basset, of some of their properties.
The complexities of the various deals struck, and the intricacy of Tudor land law make it difficult to discover the details, but, in short, it appears that Lisle mortgaged some land that would, after his death, pass to Dudley, whilst Dudley sold his rights to the reversion to Somerset. When Lisle repaid the loan, because he had not complied with some of the provisions of the mortgage, Somerset took the money, but held onto the lands. He wrote in peremptory fashion to Lisle, in 1534.
…it should appear that you had sufficient matter to discharge me of three score pounds a year of the said lands, which of right I ought to have, which promise is nothing kept, nor your counsel can by no lawful means avoid me from having of the land the said £60…[and that] the use of the residue of the lands is in me…
Lisle’s factor wrote that ‘it is hard trusting to [Somerset’s] courtesy, for he hath small conscience’.
In 1538, Somerset came up with a scheme with Lord Daubeney that sought to relieve Lisle’s other stepson, Mr Basset, of some of his lands. It seems that the law was on their side, but not equity. Cromwell drew the matter to the king’s attention, but the king declined to overturn common law. Others of the councillors, particularly Lord John Russell, did their best for Lisle and Basset, but the most they could manage was a delay in the loss of the lands.
Somerset had also agreed that if, now that he was brother-in-law to the king, he could procure an earldom for Daubeny, he would receive over £100 pa worth of lands on Daubeney’s death.
Somerset was not, of course, the only Tudor gentleman to use the law and his influence with the king to his own advantage, but he seems to have been one of the most adept. Later, he was later to quarrel with the dowager-queen, Katherine Parr, over some of her property. She was so annoyed that she told her husband, Somerset’s brother, that if he, Somerset, had been nearby she would have ‘bitten him’.
Immediately after Henry VIII’s death, the Imperial ambassador, van der Delft, wrote to Mary of Hungary, regent of the Netherlands, about the state of affairs in England, and what might be expected for Edward VI’s reign. He identified four men as likely to emerge as leaders from amongst the rest. These were Somerset, Dudley, Thomas Wriothesley, and William Paget. He noted that Somerset had already managed to promote himself from merely first amongst equals on the regency council to Lord Protector. But he was also aware of the ambition of Dudley.
….It thus seems probable that the earl of Hertford and the Lord Admiral (Dudley) will enjoy the honours and titles of rulers of the realm, whilst the Lord Chancellor and Paget will in reality have the entire management of affairs….
He then astutely presages what did, in fact, come to pass.
…It is, of course, quite likely that some jealousy or rivalry may arise between the earl of Hertford and the Lord Admiral, because, although they both belong to the same sect they are nevertheless widely different in character: the Lord Admiral being of high courage will not willingly submit to his colleague. He is, moreover, in higher favour both with the people and with the nobles than the earl of Hertford, owing to his liberality and splendour. The Protector, on the other hand, is not so accomplished in this respect, and is indeed looked down upon by everybody as a dry, sour, opinionated man…
This description of Somerset as opinionated might explain his unwillingness later to take advice – a topic on which Paget addressed him more than once. He wrote at least eleven letters to the Protector between Christmas of 1548, and late summer of 1549, urging him to listen to others, and to deal with the most pressing problems, because it seems that by this point, Somerset’s previous capability as a military commander was failing him as a governor. In his commands against Scotland, the evidence suggests that he was a meticulous planner, decisive, and ruthless at suppressing all opposition, whilst his reactions to the rebellions show him as vacillating, unwilling to grasp the nettle, and putting his hope in the better nature of his fellow-nobles, to stop illegal enclosures – a faith which his experience should have told him was misplaced.
At the same time, evidence in contemporary sources suggests that he was believed to be strongly influenced by his wife, Anne Stanhope. The couple were apparently happily married. During one of his campaigns in Scotland she wrote that she would ‘not be merry’ until she had heard from him. Somerset’s biographer, Scard, suggests that it was Anne’s influence that encouraged him towards more radical Protestantism. But Anne did not have it all her own way - in 1549, he was furious with her, believing that she had betrayed secrets to Lady FitzWilliam. She told Lady Fane that ‘she had never so much displeasure of her husband since she was first Sir Edward Seymour’s wife’.
Once Protector, and amassing the lands for Somerset Place, Somerset again used his power to acquire the holdings of others. However, to counterbalance this picture of rapacity, it is fair to consider his management of the issue of enclosures. As has been noted elsewhere, enclosing of arable or common land for pasture, whilst originally a way of managing the population loss of the Black Death, by the sixteenth century, was causing significant hardship. The practice was inveighed against by the ‘Commonwealth Men’ – those who saw the duty of the leaders of the country as being to protect society as a whole. Somerset seems to have been deeply influenced by this ideal. Where he enclosed land himself, he made some provision for those who had been dispossessed and he also sought, by means of enforcing legislation, to have illegal enclosures removed.
At the same time, the Vagrancy Act, enacted under Somerset’s protectorship in 1547, was the most brutal attempt to deal with unemployment and poverty in the whole of English history after the Norman Conquest. It stipulated that ‘who so ever…man or woman’ who was of sound health and who did not have private means, but did not apply ‘them self to some honest and allowed arte, Scyence, service or Labour…’ must offer himself for work, and if no-one would employ them, offer to work for food alone. Anyone who did not, or who left any such work, could be brought before the magistrates, and, if found guilty, branded with a V for vagabond, and be enslaved to the informant. The informant had no obligation to feed the slave beyond bread and water, and such ‘refuse of meate as he (the slave-owner) shall thinke mete’. He could also beat the slave, or sell him. Any captured escaped slave would be enslaved for life, or hanged after a second escape. It is hard to reconcile Somerset’s approval of this bill (he did not introduce it to parliament) with his professed concern, as retailed to the Imperial ambassador that he wanted ‘to give to the subjects a little more reasonable liberty without in any way releasing them from the restraints of proper order and obedience’.
None of these insights give the impression of Somerset as a particularly likeable man – but nor do they give the impression of a monster – he was a man of his age. Eager to attain wealth and power, he was not completely impervious to the strictures of his religion on how that power should be used. It may be that his talents fitted him to be a second-in-command, but that the very attention to detail that had made him a successful commander in the field, made him unsuited to the strategic vision and ability to delegate and consult that mark out the true leader. Consequently, he became defensive, unwilling to take advice, and quick to take offence.