Edward, born in October 1537, was the only legitimate son of Henry VIII. His mother Jane Seymour died 12 days after his birth. On the death of his father nine years later, Edward became king. The realm, however, was governed by a Regency Council, which, initially, was led by Edward’s uncle Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset. Towards the end of 1549, Somerset was arrested for mismanaging the government - the year had seen widespread social unrest across England - and eventually beheaded in January 1552.
Thereafter, the Regency Council was led by John Dudley, 1st Earl of Warwick, and, from 1551, by Duke of Northumberland. But, as Edward fell ill in early 1553, so a succession crisis loomed. Edward himself named Lady Jane Grey, a great-granddaughter of Henry VIII and a Protestant married to one of Northumberland’s sons, as his heir presumptive. A few days after Edward’s death on 6 July, Jane was indeed proclaimed queen, though there is academic debate over whether she was ever a legitimate monarch. A further nine days on, the Privy Council changed its mind and named Edward VI’s Catholic half-sister Mary as queen. Jane was executed the following year, aged 16.
Edward, himself, probably died of tuberculosis, though some have claimed he was poisoned. He was a precocious child, and his short reign is considered to have made a lasting contribution to the English Reformation, and to have seen radical changes in how the church operated. The pace of change stalled then with Edward’s successor, Mary, until Elizabeth took the crown in 1558. Further biographical information is readily available from Wikipedia or English History for example.
Remarkably, while king, Edward kept a diary - its 68 leaves are held by the British Library. He may have been prompted to do so by one of his tutors. In order to make a complete chronicle of his reign, he started with a description of his childhood until 1547, followed it with a list of past events (mostly referring to himself in the third person), and then from March 1550 he kept daily entries until November 1552. It was first published in Gilbert Burnet’s The History of the Reformation of the Church of England (volume 4), and later, in 1857, as part of the Literary Remains of King Edward the Sixth by John Gough Nichols (from which the following extracts are taken). Nichols says the diary’s value does not lie in its completeness, nor in its minute accuracy, but rather in ‘its incidental disclosures of state policy, and in its continual reflection of the character and pursuits of the young monarch himself’. So dense are the historically important references, that Nichols’s footnotes often take up far more of the page than Edward’s diary itself.
In his 1966 study, England’s Boy King: The Diary of Edward VI, Wilbur Kitchener Jordan sums up the diary’s importance: ‘Surely in English history, and very possibly in European history, there is no historical source quite of the nature of the Chronicle of Edward VI. It is in part private diary, in part an educational exercise, and in part considered notes on policy and administration. The document stands as one of the major sources for our knowledge of the entire reign and not infrequently constitutes our only source of information for events of considerable significance.’ The full text of the diary - in the Literary Remains and in The History of the Reformation - is available online at Internet Archive and Googlebooks respectively; and, extracts from the diary can also be found at the Tudors Wiki and English History websites.
24 May 1550
‘The embassadours came to me, presenting the ligier, and also delivering lettres of credaunce from the French king.’
25 May 1550
‘The embassadours came to the court, where thei saw me take the oth for th’acceptation of the treaty, and afterward dined with me; and after diner saw a pastime of tenne against tenne at the ring, wherof on th’on(e) sid(e) were the duke of Sowthfolk, the vice-dam, the lord Lisle, and seven other gentlemen, appareled in yelow; on the other, the lord Stra(nge), mons. Henadoy, and yeight other, in blew.’
26 May 1550
‘The embassadours saw the baiting of the bearis and bullis.’
27 May 1550
‘The embassadours, after thei had hunted, sat with me at souper.’
28 May 1550
‘The same went to see Hampton court, where thei did hunt, and the same night retourne to Durasme place.’
29 May 1550
‘The embassadours had a fair souper made them by the duke of Somerset, and afterward went into the tems (on the Thames) and saw both the beare hunted in the river, and also wilfier cast out of botis, and many prety conceites.’
30 May 1550
‘The embassadours toke ther leve, and the next day departid.’
15 April 1551
‘A conspiracy opened of the Essex men, who within three dayes after minded to declare the comming of straungers, and so to bring peple together to Chemsford, and then to spoile the riche men’s houses if they could.’
16 April 1551
‘Also of Londoners, who thought to rise on May day against the straungers of the cité; and both the parties committed to warde.’
24 May 1551
‘An earthquake was at Croidon and Blechingliee, and in the most part of Surrey, but no harme was donne.’
10 July 1551
‘At this time cam the sweat into London, wich was more vehement then the old sweat. Por if one toke cold he died mthin 3 houres, and if he skaped it held him but 9 houres, or 10 at the most. Also if he slept the first 6 houres, as he should be very desirous to doe, then he raved, and should die raving.’
11 July 1551
‘It grue so much, for in London the 10 day ther died 70 in the liberties, and this day 120, and also one of my gentlemen, another of my gromes, fell sike and died, that I removed to Ampton court with very few with me. [The epidemic called the sweating sickness, which remains a mystery today, had visited England before but this was the last major outbreak to occur, and thereafter vanished.]’
1 December 1551
‘The duke of Somerset cam to his triall at Westmyster halle. [The record mentions three indictments: 1) that he had designed to have seized the King’s person, and to have governed all affairs; 2) that he, with one hundred others, intended to have imprisoned the earl of Warwick, afterwards duke of Northumberland; and 3) that he had designed to have raised an insurrection in the city of London.]
He answerid he did not entend to raise London, [. . .] His assembling of men was but for his owne defence. He did not determin to kill the duke of Northumberland, the marquis, etc., but spake of it and determined after the contrary; and yet seamid to confess he went about there death. The lordis went togither. The duke of Northumberland wold not agree that any searching of his death shuld bee treason. So the lordis acquited him of high treason, and condemned him of treason feloniouse, and so he was adjuged to be hangid. He gave thankis to the lordis for there open trial, and cried mercy of the duke of Northumberland, the marquis of Northampton, and th’erle of Penbroke for his ill meaning against them, and made suet for his life, wife and children, servauntes and dettes, and so departed without the ax of the Toure. The peple, knowing not the matter, shouted hauf a douzen times, so loud that frome the halle dore it was hard at Chairing crosse plainly, and rumours went that he was quitte of all.’
22 January 1552
‘The duke of Somerset had his head cat of apon Towre hill betwene eight and nine a cloke in the morning.’
8 June 1552
‘The lordes of the counsel sat at Gildhaul in London, where in the presence of a thousand peple they declared to the maire and bretherne their slouthfulnes in suffering unreasonable prices of thinges, and to craftesmen their wilfulnes etc, telling them that if apon this admonition they did not amende, I was holly determined to call in their liberties as confiscat, and to appoint officers that shold loke to them.’