Somerset left his childhood home of Wulfhall to join the household of Mary, the French Queen. His career took him to France, to Germany, and, most advantageously for himself, if not for the Scots, to invasion of Scotland. He built on his military success to become the highest authority in the land.
The numbers against the places correspond to those on the map here and at the end of this article.
Edward was born around the turn of the sixteenth century at the family seat of (1) Wulfhall (sometimes rendered Wolfhall). The house was on the edge of the Savernake Forest, and had been in the possession of the Seymour family since Roger Seymour, who died around the turn of the fifteenth century, married Maud Esturmi, the heiress of the estate. Edward’s mother had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth of York before her marriage, and this court connection together with his father’s presence in the royal army that took Thérouanne in 1513 made Edward a suitable candidate for page in the entourage formed for Mary, the king’s sister, on her marriage to Louis XII of France. They set out in October 1514, and, after an extremely unpleasant crossing of the English Channel and an arduous ride, arrived at Abbeville (2) where Mary was to meet Louis for the first time. Abbeville was the chief town of the County of Ponthieu, which had been held suo iuris by Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I of England, but subsequently lost by her son, Edward II. Consequently it had been one of the towns most deeply affected by the Hundred Years’ War as both England and France claimed it. The English victory at Crécy was fought nearby, and the subsequent Treaty of Bretigny confirmed Ponthieu as subject to the English Crown. By 1369 it was French again, then English from 1385 and Burgundian from 1421. French recognition of the Burgundian claim was used by Charles VII as a bribe to Duke Philip of Burgundy to break his alliance with England in 1435, which effectively ended the war. Ponthieu was finally annexed by France on the death of Charles the Bold in 1477.
Mary and Louis were married in Abbeville on the 10th October and Edward may have been amongst those who witnessed Mary’s coronation in Notre Dame that November. The majority of Mary’s household was dismissed soon after, but Edward was amongst the handful permitted to stay. He would have seen the splendour of the French court, and the magnificent tournament held to celebrate the marriage, at which the Duke of Suffolk and the Marquis of Dorset acquitted themselves well. Edward would have been too young to take part, even if he had had the requisite skills. He will also have seen the heir to the French throne, François, Duke of Angouleme, and been able to form a view of his character. Louis XII died within three months, and Mary made a clandestine marriage to the Duke of Suffolk. She and her entourage then returned to England in spring 1514. Presumably, in the three months spent in France, Edward will have perfected his French – a desirable talent.
There are no details of what Edward did for the next few years – he may have spent some time studying at Oxford, but he did not take a degree, not intending to enter the church. He may have remained with Mary, who kept a semi-regal court as dowager-queen of France. By 1521, he was in the employ of Cardinal Wolsey, who, judged from the future success of many of his employees, was skilled at spotting potential. That year, he was sent to the Emperor Charles V at Worms (3), with a request that he be admitted to Charles’ court. Worms was one of the oldest cities of the Empire, dating from the earliest days of the establishment of the kingdom of Burgundy in the first half of the fifth century. In 534 AD it became part of the Frankish kingdom that later developed into both France and the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne had a palace in the town. Charles V was in Worms to preside over the Imperial Diet (gathering of senior nobles and rulers within the Empire). The business of the Diet was to investigate the Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, accused of heresy. Charles was impressed with Edward, whilst it is likely that Edward was impressed by Luther.
Again, it is not clear how long Edward remained with Charles, for by 1523 he was part of the English army that invaded France, in pursuance of Henry VIII’s dream of conquering that country. It was here that Edward probably first became friends with John Dudley, later Duke of Northumberland. The army, led by the Duke of Suffolk, was initially successful, coming to within 50 miles of Paris, but the usual problems of poor weather, lack of supplies, and the failure of Charles V to keep his part of the arrangement with Henry VIII led to Suffolk having to fall back. Nevertheless, there had been some skirmishes, and plenty of opportunities for Edward to learn how to run a successful military campaign. His own part in it was recognised by Suffolk knighting him after the army had successfully captured the town of Roye (4), which had surrendered even though Suffolk thought the French ‘could have held it against 100,000 men, for they were well victualled, and the town was double walled…’.
Now Sir Edward, his next appointment was as an esquire of the king’s household in 1524. This led on to greater things the following year when Henry VIII formed a quasi-regal household for his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, ennobling the boy as Duke of Richmond and Somerset, and sending him to Sheriff Hutton Castle (5) in Yorkshire as head of the Council of the North. Edward was appointed as Master of Horse. This was a prestigious role, in a society where all travel was dependent on horses. The holder of the office was not only responsible for the riding horses of the head of the household, but also had overall responsibility for the frequent moves between properties, and arranging ceremonial processions. Edward was later to prove a skilled organiser and administrator – this was good training. Sheriff Hutton itself had been part of the paternal inheritance of Warwick the Kingmaker, and subsequently of his daughter, Anne, queen of Richard III; consequently, it fell to the Crown after the battle of Bosworth. Leland thought the castle very fine, saying he had not seen anything in the North so ‘like a princely lodging’ and admiring its great hall, but it the structure falling into disrepair by the reign of Elizabeth I and plans to do works came to nothing. In 1618 James VI & I granted it to Thomas Lumsden, and by 1624 it was a ruin. A still-awesome ruin remains. In private ownership, it can be admired from the road, or may be visited as part of an organised event
It does not appear that Edward stayed long in Richmond’s household, however the circle of boys and young men who surrounded the princeling later became some of his closest friends and allies – and almost all were adherents of the Reformed Faith. Amongst them were William Parr, whose sister, Katherine, would later be queen, and also Edward’s sister-in-law.
In 1527, in hopes of persuading François I to fulfil his obligations to Henry VIII, agreed in the Treaty of the More, and either wed the king’s daughter, Mary, himself, or marry her to his son, Henri of Orléans, Wolsey travelled to Amiens for a conference. Edward was part of his retinue – perhaps his French skills were useful. Back in England, again Edward disappears from the records, to reappear in September 1531 with the post of esquire of the king’s body – a step up from his appointment in 1521 as merely esquire of the household. This position carried a salary of 50 marks, and gave personal access to the king. In this role, Edward visited Calais again, during the state visit of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in October 1532.
In 1535, Edward and the rest of the Seymour family played host to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, now queen, not only at Wulfhall, but also at their second property at Elvetham (6) in Hampshire. Elvetham had also been part of the inheritance of Maud Esturmi, and after Edward’s death it continued in the Seymour family, being used by his grandson, the Earl of Hertford, to stage an elaborate entertainment for Elizabeth I in 1591. This earl had been in disfavour in the 1560s for marrying Elizabeth’s cousin, Lady Katherine Grey, without royal consent, but had eventually been rehabilitated. Edward’s great-grandson, the 2nd Duke of Somerset, sold Elvetham in 1649 to Sir Robert Reynolds, Solicitor General of the Commonwealth. The original house burnt down in 1840, but a replacement was built, which is currently a country house hotel.
It was probably during the royal progress of 1535 that Henry VIII’s fancy first settled on Edward’s sister. Such notice could only be good for the Seymours as a family, and Edward was soon profiting from it, being promoted to Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in early March of 1536. In order to preserve Jane’s reputation, Henry’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, gave up his apartments close to the king at Greenwich so that Edward and his wife, Anne Stanhope, could chaperone Jane there when the king visited her. Before the end of the year, following the bloody dispatch of Anne Boleyn, Edward was brother-in-law to the king. This was a profitable business – Edward received the viscountcy of Beauchamp of Hache within a week of the nuptials, although the reason for it was given as entirely for his own merits – ‘his circumspection, valour and loyalty’.
Jane proved her worth by falling pregnant in early 1537. Edward’s reward was appointment to the privy council in May of that year – a position he would retain throughout the remainder of Henry’s reign. In September, the queen went into confinement at Hampton Court (7), to await the birth. Hampton Court had originally been the property of Cardinal Wolsey but had been ceded to the king in the late 1520s and Henry had increased it in size and splendour. Edward and the other courtiers waited with baited breath until 12th October when Jane was delivered of a prince, named Edward. Not, presumably for his uncle’s sake, but because he was born on the feast of Edward the Confessor. It had also been the name of Henry VIII’s grandfather, Edward IV. Edward had an important part to play in the christening ceremony that followed. It began with a procession in which Edward had the duty of carrying the infant Lady Elizabeth, Henry’s now disinherited daughter by Anne Boleyn. On the return journey, he was burdened with the christening gifts of the Duke of Suffolk – two great pots, and flagons of silver and gilt. Edward received his own gift shortly after – the earldom of Hertford. The prince’s christening was a moment of triumph for the whole family, but it was soon marred by Jane’s death. There is no information about Edward’s relationship with his sister – they probably did not see entirely eye-to-eye in the matter of religion, as Edward was moving towards Protestantism, whilst Jane appears to have been conservative in her faith, yet, in the mid-1530s, such differences were not the unbridgeable gap they later became. It does not appear that Edward took any part in his sister’s funeral at Windsor, which is, perhaps, surprising, but it may have been a matter of protocol of which we are ignorant.
Without the passport to success of a sister as queen, Edward’s career trajectory slowed down, but he remained a privy councillor, and was mentioned as present at several court occasions, such as the presentation of New Year’s gifts in January 1538, when he gave his nephew a piece of gilt plate – entirely proper, if somewhat dull! Henry also stood as godfather to Edward’s first son by Anne Stanhope – a boy tactfully named Henry. The prestige of his godfather did not enhance the baby’s chances of life, and he died as an infant. It seems that Edward and Anne by now had a house of their own in what is now London, but was then the rural retreat of Brompton, rather than always lodging at court. Known as Beauchamp Place, its only traces are the retained street name, off Brompton Road, a few hundred yards from Harrods. He was building up a considerable property portfolio, that included the grant of the dissolved abbey of Sheen, close to the royal palace at Richmond. He continued to expand his holdings near Wulfhall, and again hosted Henry VIII there in 1539
In 1541, Edward was nominated to the Order of the Garter – this was an extremely prestigious appointment. Anne Boleyn’s brother had not received it, and nor did any of Katheryn Howard’s brothers, although she was queen at the time. It seems to have been reserved for those whom the other knights believed truly to merit it. Each knight had his own stall in St George’s Chapel at Windsor, where his arms were displayed. Windsor Castle (8), one of the earliest, and largest, of the English monarchs’ properties, was begun by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century and is the oldest inhabited royal residence in Europe. It was extended and enhanced in every subsequent century. In Edward’s time, the most recent major construction was St George’s Chapel – developed from its original footprint by Edward IV in the 1470s, in the gothic style. Around fifty years later, Henry VIII rebuilt the main gateway. The interior of the Castle, which has been the weekend home of HM Queen Elizabeth II throughout her reign, was devastated by fire in 1992, but has subsequently been renovated. As well as remaining a working royal palace, it is a major tourist attraction, easily reached from London.
In 1542, war with Scotland broke out. Edward was appointed to serve under the Duke of Norfolk, arriving at Berwick by late October. From this vantage point, he led several raids across the border, destroying Kelso as well as other, smaller towns, and devastating the surrounding lands. He was rewarded with a commission as Warden General of the Scottish Marches. The appointment filled him with dismay – not because he feared responsibility, but because he did not believe he would command the support of the northerners who were habitually levied to fight in the Borders. The king agreed with his reasoning, and in the end, Edward’s friend, John Dudley, now Viscount Lisle, was appointed. Clearly, he did not have any misgivings about his fitness for the post. However, Edward’s war work was not done. He spent some time meticulously planning his next move, then set out to destroy Coldingham so that James V could not garrison it. The next move was to confront the main Scottish force at Solway Moss (9). The battle took place on the south bank of the river Esk, just in English territory. The Scots were routed, and over twelve hundred Scots, including two earls and five lairds were taken prisoner. Their capture would permanently affect the politics of Scotland, as many were persuaded to support both religious reform and an Anglo-Scottish alliance to replace the historic Anglo-French tie. King James himself, although he did not fight in the battle, was taken ill and died within the month. Edward returned to London and was promoted to the prestigious post of Lord Great Chamberlain.
Edward’s importance and influence grew during the mid-1540s as Henry VIII’s declining health made it more likely that Edward’s nephew would inherit as a minor. Factions developed, in part along confessional lines with Edward and his friend, William Parr, now the brother of Henry VIII’s sixth queen, being leaders of the evangelicals, whilst Bishop Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk were in the conservative camp. The execution of Norfolk’s son, the Earl of Surrey, partly engineered by Edward and his coterie, but made easier by Surrey’s own rash behaviour, put them in a position of strength as Henry VIII’s life ebbed away. Edward’s closes confidant was William Paget, and between them they worked out a strategy for how to act when the king finally died. As January 1547 drew to a close, the corridors of Whitehall Palace (10) were hushed as Henry lay ill. He had rallied before, so no precipitate action could be taken that might lead to accusations of treason, but Edward and Paget huddled together, planning their next moves.
Whitehall incorporated York Place, the London palace of the archbishops of York that Henry VIII had appropriated from Cardinal Wolsey. Here, Henry intended to build a palace that would outdo all his other properties, replacing the old Westminster Palace destroyed by fire. Works on the palace were constant throughout Henry’s reign. The massive complex straddled the public thoroughfare, King Street, now known as Whitehall, with the royal privy apartments added to Wolsey’s Great Hall and chapel on the east side of the street, beside the Thames. Extensive recreation facilities, including a large tiltyard, tennis courts, cockpit and bowling alleys, were located on the west side of the street. The two sides of the palace were connected by the Holbein Gate to the north and King’s Gate to the south, enabling the king and his court to move around the palace without crossing the public road. The architectural historian, Simon Thurley, has identified that Anne Boleyn was an important influence on how the palace was developed. Whitehall continued to be the seat of the English monarchs until it burnt down in 1698 – the only large remnant being the Banqueting House, designed by Inigo Jones for James VI and Anne of Denmark. Some remnants of Wolsey’s wine-cellars lie under the present-day Ministry of Defence building and fragments of Henry VIII’s tennis courts are within the 19th century Cabinet Office building.
Henry died on 28th January 1547 but the news was kept secret until Edward could travel to Hertford Castle (11), where the prince was living. Edward’s journey had two purposes – to break the news of Henry’s death to his nephew personally, presumably in consideration of the boy’s feelings, but also to ensure he had physical control of the new monarch. The town of Hertford, about a half-day’s ride north of London, in the sixteenth century, was a Saxon burh, where King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, developed fortifications in 912 AD as part of defensive works against Danish invasion. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the castle was enhanced and eventually rebuilt in stone. In 1216, it was captured by the Dauphin Louis in the civil wars that surrounded the last days of King John. As a Crown property, it occasionally formed part of the English queens’ dower lands – Isabella of France, the mother of Edward III retired there after he had taken the reigns of power from her. It was then granted to Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. When his son became Henry IV, the castle reverted to the Crown. During Henry VIII’s reign, it was frequently used as a nursery palace for his children – Mary, Elizabeth and Edward all spent time there. In December 1545 Elizabeth dated her Christmas gift to her father from Hertford – a carefully copied manuscript. She continued to visit after acceding to the throne, enjoying the local hunting. Under Charles I, it was granted to William Cecil, 2nd Earl of Salisbury, and remains part of the Salisbury estate, centred on nearby Hatfield.
Henry had stipulated that the new king, Edward VI, should have a regency council to govern during his minority, with no single individual having supreme power, but within weeks, Edward, assisted by Paget, had persuaded his fellow-councillors to give him the role of Lord Protector. Letters Patent were issued by the young king and Edward had almost the power of a monarch. He was also given the title of Duke of Somerset. Selection of the title is interesting – was he remembering his youthful master, Henry Fitzroy? Or, more likely, was he using a quasi-royal title (previous holders had been Henry VIII’s infant brother and the Lancastrian branch of the royal family) to give himself an aura of royalty?
With such prestigious titles, Somerset (as he will now be called) needed a grand house to match it – his old property at Beauchamp Place would not do. So he acquired a property on the north bank of the Thames, south of the Strand, not far from Whitehall which became known as Somerset Place (12). He was not particular about how he acquired the land, or the destruction that was required to achieve a plot of around six acres, with a six-hundred-foot river frontage – access to the river being vital for moving between the royal palaces at Greenwich, Hampton and Richmond. Amongst the buildings pulled down to make room for it were St Mary-le-Strand and the Strand Inn – London property of the Bishop of Worcester. Building stone was acquired from the destruction of the church of St John of Jerusalem and the dismantled cloisters of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Architecture was one of Somerset’s interests, and, in his various diplomatic trips to Europe, he had seen the new Renaissance styles being built in France. The master builder may have been John of Padua, with Somerset’s secretary, John Thynne, being closely involved. Work continued for the rest of Somerset’s life, although he took up residence there immediately, presumably in one of the commandeered properties. After Somerset’s death, the property passed to the Crown, and during the seventeenth century was the principal residence of the queens-consort. Anne of Denmark, in particular, enjoyed spending time there. In 1775, George III gave the old, dilapidated Tudor palace to the Government in exchange for Buckingham House, which, as Buckingham Palace, remains the official London residence of HM The Queen. Its replacement, a great public building designed in the Neo-Classical style by Sir William Chambers to house the combined offices of the Royal Navy, became the largest government office block in Europe at the time. Today, under the name Somerset House, it is an arts centre, accommodating the Courtauld Institute of Art.
The war with Scotland had rumbled on during the final years of Henry’s reign, and Somerset was eager to pursue it. In the autumn of 1547, he began preparing for war. Given that the Treaty of Camp, which had been agreed with France, had included Scotland, and low-level border raiding had been excluded from being considered a breach of the treaty, it was necessary for Somerset to show good cause for aggression. His underlying aim was to force the Scots to accept the marriage of their queen, Mary, to King Edward, and thus unite the countries under English rule. Consequently, he needed to subdue Scotland before the French could intervene to prevent the marriage. The Warden of the March was instructed to amplify any Scottish raids into acts of war. A meeting was requested with the Scottish commissioners to persuade them to ratify the Anglo-Scottish marriage, but the Scots declined. As before, Somerset’s preparations were comprehensive. The result was the devastating Battle of Pinkie Cleugh (13) - the last pitched battle between the two countries, which took place not far from Edinburgh, just off the modern A1 near Musselburgh. Having annihilated the Scottish army, Somerset marched to Leith (14), the port for the city of Edinburgh, which had first been devastated by Somerset in 1543 during his earlier campaign in Scotland. On his departure, he again ordered the town and all its shipping to be burnt.
Somerset’s colleagues in council became increasingly tired of his autocratic rule, which during 1549 combined with an unusual level of hesitancy in decision making in regard to the rebellions of that year. He was ousted from power by his former friend, John Dudley, who took over the role of Lord President of the Council. Dudley, promoted from his earldom of Warwick to be Duke of Northumberland, was far cleverer at managing his colleagues that Somerset had been, and considerably more ruthless. Although it appeared that Somerset was rehabilitated in 1551, rejoining the council, it soon became apparent that there was not room for both of them. Somerset was accused of treason and sent to the Tower of London (15). Although the most serious charges against him were dismissed by a jury, he was nevertheless found guilty of felony, which carried the death sentence. On 22nd January 1552, less than five years after assuming almost total power in England, he was taken outside the Tower precincts to nearby Tower Hill, where he was beheaded – to the dismay of many of the commons of London, who thought of him as the ‘Good Duke’, for his attempts to alleviate some of the hardest burdens of the poor. His remains were interred in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, within the Tower, not far from those of Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard. Within two years, Northumberland had joined him.
The map below shows the location of the places associated with Edward Seymour discussed in this article.