Stories From English History: II - Alfred J. Church

The Boy-King And The Three-Weeks Queen

When Henry VIII., died (January 28, 1547) there was no doubt about who was to succeed him. It was his son Edward, born of his third Queen, Jane Seymour, whom he had married after the death of Anne Boleyn. Edward was but eight years old when he came to the throne, and nearly four months short of fifteen when he died. What his character really was it is not easy to say. That he was very much bent on having his own way is clear; it is just what we should expect from the son of such a father. We are told that he was "inclined to generosity." It has been said that he was unfeeling, because he records in his diary without a word of pity or sorrow that his uncle had been executed. I am not sure that this is fair. A young boy, if he wrote such a thing down at all, probably would write it in the very shortest way. And he had been in the midst of such things ever since he was old enough to take notice of what was happening round him. Beyond all doubt he was clever. "He begins to wish to understand what is going on," says the person who describes him as inclined to be generous; while a physician who was called in to attend him during his last illness says that his knowledge of Greek and Latin and of other matters was quite extraordinary for his years. He showed his fondness for learning, not only by diligently following his own studies, but by taking great interest in the education of others. He had something to do with the foundation of grammar schools, many of which are called by his name. The most important of all, and one in which he took a particular interest, was Christ's Hospital in London. This still flourishes, and is often called the Blue Coat School, on account of the dress which the boys wear.

Edward VI


Another thing that he cared for even more than he cared for his books was his religion. A great change had been taking place in England, and elsewhere also, in what men believed since the early years of the sixteenth century. It had indeed begun long before, but I have said nothing before about it, because it is not a matter which it is fitting to write in such a book as this. Even now I will say no more than that there was one party which held by the old or Roman belief about Christian doctrines, and another which held by the new or Reformed belief. The young King was very strongly attached to the party of the Reformers, and was anxious that, whatever happened to himself, this should continue to rule the country. As time went on, it became very plain that he could not live very long. In the spring of the year 1552 he had an attack of both smallpox and measles, was often ill during the summer, and caught so bad a cold in the autumn that he never recovered from it. What was there to be done? Naturally his successor would be the Princess Mary, daughter of Katharine of Aragon. But Mary held most firmly by the old faith, and would not so much as listen to the preaching of the new. As she was seven-and-thirty years old, and was as determined to have her way as her father had been, she would certainly undo all that had been done in setting forward the Reformed faith. Then there was the Princess Elizabeth. She was of the party of the Reformers, but it would be very difficult to get England to accept her instead of her elder sister. And she too was of age—she was two-and-twenty—and with a much stronger will than the great nobles of her brother's Council liked, anxious as they were to keep power in their own hands. There was a Scotch cousin indeed, Mary, daughter of James V. of Scotland, and so grand-daughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII.'s sister. We shall hear of her again. At this time she was in France, and was to be married, when old enough, to the Dauphin, or eldest son of the King of France. It was quite out of the question that she should be Queen of England. The most powerful of King Edward's advisers, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, chose for the future Queen Lady Jane Grey, eldest daughter of the Marquis of Dorset and his wife Frances Brandon, Frances Brandon being the daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and Mary Tudor, younger sister of Henry VIII. First he brought about her marriage to his own son, Guildford Dudley. She was fifteen, and the bride-groom two years older. This was in May 1553. Edward did not particularly like Lady Jane; perhaps he was jealous of her, for she was even more learned than himself. But he was persuaded to name her as his successor, because she would hold by the new faith. Accordingly he allowed a deed to be drawn up by which the crown was to go first to any son there might be of Frances Brandon, then to Lady Jane Grey, then to Lady Jane's sons, then to her sisters, and so on. As Frances Brandon had no sons, this was to leave the crown to Lady Jane. The judges were called in to put this in proper shape. They said that it could not be done. The matter was settled by Act of Parliament and could not be altered except by Act. At last they consented, if they had an order to do it and a pardon, for it was high treason, under the Great Seal. The Council all signed it, Archbishop Cranmer last of all; he was most unwilling to do it, knowing that the King's sisters had the better right, but the dying boy begged him so earnestly to do so for the sake of religion that at last he gave way.

Edward died on July 6. Poor Lady Jane knew nothing of what had been going on. Even the King's death was kept from her for a time. Then her father and mother, with the Duke and her husband, came and explained what was done, and falling on their knees, did homage to her as their Queen. Astonished and troubled, she fainted away. For a time, after coming to her senses, she refused to consent. But she could not hold out against the persuasions and even threats of all her family, and gave way. That evening—it was the 8th of July—she was proclaimed, but no one cried, God save the Queen!

Her reign, if it can be called a reign, lasted twenty days only. Nobody cared for her, or indeed knew anything of her. What they did know of her father-in-law, who, they were sure, had set the whole affair going, they did not like. Even he saw that the thing was hopeless, and proclaimed Queen Mary at Cambridge. Lady Jane and her husband were sent to the Tower. They were both beheaded on February 12, 1555—Dudley on Tower Hill, Lady Jane, on account of her royal descent, within the walls of the Tower.