The set of any given Tudor-era costume drama is a walking Who’s Who of scaffold superstars, most notably, of course, the wives of Henry VIII. That king’s bed did not cease exuding power and danger with Henry’s death.
With Henry’s demise, the crown fell to the only legitimate son the old man had produced in a lifetime of trying, the sickly 9-year-old Edward VI, son of Henry’s beloved* third wife Jane Seymour.
Jane’s brothers had leveraged their late sister’s favor into political muscle, and Edward Seymour smoothly outmaneuvered rival factions late in Henry’s life to set himself up as the true ruler of England during the boy king’s regency.
Created Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector,** Edward ran the country for going on three years, executing the other Seymour sibling as a rival along the way.
But the power of the king’s office without the attendant legitimacy turned out to be a double-edged blade.
Edward inherited a campaign against Scotland (and France) to secure the betrothal of the king to the young Mary Queen of Scots, then just beginning her own lifetime as a political and matrimonial football.
That wearisome (and costly) military scenario could only exacerbate the enmities a somewhat tin-eared Somerset generated in the course of everyday politics at the treacherous Tudor court. Catholics resented his liberal religious policy (Thomas Cranmer produced the first Book of Common Prayer on Edward Seymour’s watch); noble rivals wheedled and flattered the youthful king in his charge; and Edward Seymour’s populist political style rubbed stodgier nobles the wrong way without quite satisfying discontent among commoners† who rebelled widely in 1549, a year of terrible harvests and economic breakdown. By October of 1549, he had been politically isolated and was supplanted by John Dudley. (Guess what happened to him.)
Interestingly, that transition initially looked to be as bloodless a coup d’etat as 16th century England could enjoy: Seymour did a couple months in the Tower of London but accepted his place and not only rejoined the Privy Council but dynastically married his daughter to Dudley’s heir.
All it took, however, was an ounce of paranoia on Dudley’s part to suspect the former Lord Protector of plotting against him. The peers of the realm wouldn’t convict him of a trumped-up treason charge, but “compromised” with a felony conviction that had, for old man Somerset, the exact same result.
We have an account of the Duke’s oddly portentous end from diarist Henry Machyn, whose record of the scene in the original text of Early Modern English we present here beside its “translation” — courtesy of Machyn diaries here and here.
|[The xxij of January, soon after eight of the clock in the morning, the duke of Somerset was beheaded on Tower hill. There was as] grett compeny as have bene syne . . the kynges gard behynge there with ther ha[lbards, and a] M1. [i.e., a thousand] mo with halbards of the prevelege of the Towre, [Ratcliffe,] Lymhowsse, Whyt-chapell, Sant Kateryn, and Strettford [Bow], as Hogston, Sordyche; and ther the ij shreyfs behyng th[ere present] seyng the execusyon of my lord, and ys hed to be [smitten] of, and after shortely ys body was putt in to a coffin, [and carried] in to the Towre, and ther bered in the chyrche, of [the north] syd of the qwyre of sant Peters, the wyche I beseeche [God] have mercy on ys sowlle, amen! And ther was [a sudden] rumbelyng a lytyll a-for he ded, as yt had byn [guns] shuttyng [i.e., shooting] and grett horsys commyng, that a M1. [i.e., a thousand] fell [to the] grond for fere, for thay that wher at the on syd [thought] no nodur butt that one was kyllyng odur, that [they fell] down to the grond on apon anodur with ther halb[ards], they thought no nodur butt that thay shuld . . . . . sum fell in to [the] dyche of the Towre and odur plasys, . . . and a C. [i.e., 100] in to the Towre-dyche, and sum ran a way for [fear.]||He [the Duke of Somerset] was beheaded soon after eight o’clock in the morning, being brought to his execution the sooner to prevent the concourse of the people, who would be forward to see the last end of one so well beloved by them. It was the greatest company as have been seen. The King’s guard being there with their arms, there were a thousand more with halberds of the privilege of the Tower, from Ratcliff, Limehouse, Whitechapel, St. Katherine, and Stratford Bow, as Hoxton, Shoreditch.
And there the two sheriffs being there present seeing the execution of my lord. And his head to be off. And after shortly his body was put into a coffin and carried into the Tower and there buried in the church of the north side of the choir of St. Peter. The which I beseech God have mercy on his soul. Amen.
And there was a sudden rumbling a little before he died as it had been guns shooting and great horses coming, that a thousand fell to the ground for fear. For they that were at the one side thought no other but that one was killing other. That they fell down to the ground, one upon another with their halberds. They thought no other but that they should flee. Some fell into the ditch of the Tower and other places, and a hundred into the Tower ditch, and some ran away.
* Henry was buried next to Jane, a meek spouse who had stayed out of politics, given him an heir, and died from the birth.
† Notably, Somerset ordered a commission to look into nobles enclosing common land, a burning issue throughout the century. Some think this raised hopes in the hoi polloi for a resolution to the great class conflict that the Duke didn’t have the juice to implement.