Edward Seymour was the senior political figure in the reign of Edward VI before he was levered out of power by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Edward Seymour, regardless of his loyalty to the king, was executed for conspiracy in 1552.
Edward Seymour is thought to have been born in 1505. Seymour was the eldest son of Sir John Seymour and brother to Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII. With such a connection, it was guaranteed that Edward Seymour would rise in the household of the king. Though the marriage between Henry and Jane was brief, it had brought Henry the son he so wanted. Henry had also ordered that he should be buried next to the tomb of Jane – so his relationship with the Seymour’s remained strong even after the tragic death of Jane.
Under Henry, Edward served as a soldier, diplomat and politician. Seymour served as Lord Admiral from 1542 to 1543 and fought in Scotland and France between 1544 and 1546. By the time of Henry’s death in 1547, Seymour was the leading political figure in the land. John Dudley had a military reputation while Seymour had the same within the field of politics. Both men were Protestants and Seymour announced himself to be the new young king’s governor on the death of Henry. This served to out-manoeuvre the Catholic faction led by the Duke of Norfolk. As Seymour had the support of Dudley, who was very well respected by the English Army, the Catholics were easily shunted to one side on the accession of Edward.
Seymour put the country’s religious guidance in the hands of Thomas Cranmer; Seymour himself became the Protector of the Realm and Duke of Somerset and Protestantism became the religion of the land. Seymour was confident in his belief that he could rely on John Dudley and his standing in the army to maintain discipline within the country. To all intents, the influence of the Catholic Church had ended. Dudley was very happy to support Seymour at this time as he wanted to use his power to gain as much Church land as was possible.
Seymour foolishly trusted the friendship of Dudley. Seymour himself was highly ambitious but arrogant. He failed to ever assume that his ‘friend’ was anything other than this. Seymour also believed that he could solve all the ills of England. He greatly overestimated his own ability and found that he was frequently out of his depth. It was Seymour’s plan to arrange a marriage between Edward and the Catholic Mary (Mary, Queen of Scots). It is difficult to know why he assumed that a Catholic would even contemplate a marriage to the king of country that had rejected Catholicism. Seymour also agreed to hand back to the French the port of Boulogne that had been captured in 1544 by Henry VIII. For this the English Treasury received 400,000 crowns despite an agreement made in the reign of Henry VIII, that the handing back to the French would cost the French government 2 million crowns. Seymour quickly gained a reputation for government mismanagement – a reputation that Dudley was happy to exploit.
Seymour also pushed through a large number of major religious reforms. Cranmer’s 2nd Prayer Book was enforced and the seeming liberalism of Seymour’s religious policy attracted many European preachers to England. This led to the development of a number of extreme religious groups based in the country. The secularisation of land and the allowance of clerical marriage were just two of the religious policies that were either continued with or introduced. So many changes in such a short space of time was bound to cause problems and Seymour was blamed for these.
Seymour tried to redress the problems faced by rural society by introducing legislation that favoured the poor at the expense of the landed class. This was bound to bring him into conflict with Parliament as many in Parliament were landowners. Seymour favoured ending enclosure and giving peasants
security of land tenure. Such ‘modern’ beliefs were not welcome amongst those who believed that they had a stake in society. John Dudley came out as a supporter of those who owned property.
The stance of Seymour encouraged those who took part in Ket’s Rebellion in July 1549. Those who participated in the rebellion believed that Seymour was on their side – he was referred to as the ‘good Duke’. They wanted an end to enclosure and greater rights extended to the rural community. Seymour, for right or for wrong, gained a reputation for being on the side of the people. Those who held power in London were alarmed by his perceived radicalism. It was a fear that John Dudley was to grasp with great skill in his efforts to outmanoeuvre Seymour. It was also Dudley who put down the Ket Rebellion – so he himself was associated with social conservatism.
Seymour lost the vital support of the king. Edward saw Dudley as the most important politician in the land. Seymour himself simply angered many and his failure to realise this almost certainly led to his downfall. As an example, Seymour started the building of Somerset House in London. This required the demolition of numerous church properties and did little to endear him to the public.
When the time was ripe, Seymour’s erstwhile friend, John Dudley, seized his opportunity. Whereas Seymour had angered many, Dudley had spent his time developing important friendships. There was little controversy that could be attached to Dudley. There were many who wanted to get rid of Seymour. All Dudley had to do was to knit together his support and the antagonism that was directed at Seymour.
On October 10th 1549, Seymour was arrested. However, he was released on February 2nd 1550 as at this stage little could be proved except incompetence, which was not a capital offence. There is little doubt that Dudley wanted Seymour permanently out of the way as a live Seymour always represented a potential threat. On October 16th, 1551 Seymour was arrested for conspiracy. This was a false charge but such was the opposition to him, that this was ignored. On January 22nd, 1552, he was taken to Tower Hill and executed. He was replaced by the man who had been his friend but who had worked to removed him from power – John Dudley.