When we think of the powerful ministers of the Tudor age, there are four men who garner the most attention – Wolsey, the last of the great mediaeval churchmen; Cromwell, the Tudor Machiavelli (or, if Hilary Mantel is to be believed, the sensitive modern man, trapped amongst religious fanatics); Burghley, the architect of Elizabeth I’s triumphs, or John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, whose dastardly machinations the life of his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey.
We seldom contemplate the less colourful characters – Morton, Audley or Walsingham, for example - and nor do we often give much thought to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England. And yet, Somerset had more official power than all the others – he was, in fact, king in all but name. Invested by Letters Patent as Lord Protector, he had maces of office carried before him, his nephew, Edward VI, was surrounded by Somerset’s appointees and educated as Somerset directed, whilst the other councillors feared his wrath.
Somerset’s opportunities arose more from his family connections, than his innate talent. He was the older brother of Queen Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife and the wife who was most successful in performing her principal duty – production of a son and heir. Yet Scard’s biography shows that this was not Somerset’s only claim to high office. Even before his sister caught the king’s attention, he had been sent on high-profile diplomatic missions, earned a knighthood on the battlefield, and shown himself to be as financially acquisitive as any of his contemporaries. His promotion to Viscount Beauchamp, and then Earl of Hertford can certainly be linked to his sister’s success, yet, Henry VIII was a shrewd judge of character. Even after Jane’s untimely death, Somerset progressed.
Where this biography works well, is in tracing these interlinking factors of talent and opportunity – and showing that Somerset was able to grasp his chances. Scard takes us through the soft coup masterminded by Somerset and his friend, Paget, to overturn Henry VIII’s provisions for a regency council and concentrate power in Somerset’s hands. But what then unfolds is a salutary lesson in being what you wish for. Scard shows how Somerset, although he had many abilities, did not have the most important one – the ability to lead. He was in many ways a skilful administrator, and could lead a military campaign, where the men were obliged to obey orders, but the skill of persuasion, of carrying others with him, was one he ultimately lacked.
Yet, despite Somerset’s ultimate failure, Scard shows how his championing of religious reform ultimately created the Protestant church that Elizabeth built on to create the Anglican settlement. Which, perhaps, may reconcile his ghost to the loss of his head!