THE ten-year-old boy who succeeded to the throne of England as Edward VI had been painted by Holbein four years before in one of the most appealing of all portraits: feathered beret, red hair, ermine-collared robe, and a face of such gentleness and wistful delicacy that we should imagine him to be all Jane Seymour, nothing of Henry VIII. Perhaps he inherited the physical frailty that had made her life his ransom; he never gained the strength to rule. Yet he took in noble earnest the obligations falling to him as prince or king: zealously studied languages, geography, government, and war; kept close watch on all affairs of state that were allowed to come under his ken; and showed to all except nonconforming Catholics so much kindness and good will that England thought it had buried an ogre to crown a saint. Educated by Cranmer, he had become an ardent Protestant. He discouraged any severe punishment for heresy, but was unwilling to let his Catholic half-sister Mary hear Mass, for he sincerely believed the Mass to be the most blasphemous idolatry. He accepted gladly the decision of the Royal Council that chose as regent for him his uncle Edward Seymour—soon made Duke of Somerset—who favored a Protestant policy.
Somerset was a man of intelligence, courage, and integrity imperfect but, in his time, outstanding. Handsome, courteous, generous, he shamed by his life the cowardly and self-seeking aristocracy that could forgive him everything but his sympathy for the poor. Though almost absolute in power, he ended the absolutism established by Henry VII and VIII, allowed much greater freedom of speech, reduced the number of actions previously classed as treason or felony, required sounder evidence for conviction, returned their dowries to the widows of condemned men, and repealed the more oppressive laws of the preceding reign concerning religion. The King remained head of the English Church, and to speak irreverently of the Eucharist was still a punishable offense; but the same statute ordered the sacrament to be administered in both kinds, prescribed English as the language of the service, and repudiated purgatory and Masses for the dead. English Protestants who had fled from England returned with the pollen of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin on them; and foreign reformers, scenting the new freedom, brought their diverse gospels to the troubled isle. Peter Martyr Vermigli and Martin Bucer came from Strasbourg, Bernardino Ochino from Augsburg, Jan Laski from Emden. Anabaptists and Unitarians crossed the Channel to preach in England heresies that shocked Protestants as much as Catholics. Iconoclast crowds in London removed crucifixes, paintings, and statues from the churches; Nicholas Ridley, Principal of Pembroke College, Cambridge, preached powerfully against religious images and holy water; and, to cap it all, Archbishop Cranmer “did eat meat openly in Lent, the like of which was never seen since England was a Christian country.”1 The Royal Council thought this was going too far, but Somerset overruled it, and gave Reform its head. Under his lead Parliament (1547) ordered that every picture on church wall or window, commemorating a Prophet, Apostle, or saint, should be extirpated “so that there should remain no memory of the same.” Most of the stained glass in the churches was destroyed; most of the statues were crushed; crucifixes were replaced with the royal arms; whitewashed walls and stainless windows took the color out of the religion of England. There was a general scramble in each locality for church silver and gold; and in 1551 the government appropriated what remained. The magnificent medieval cathedrals barely remained.
The leading spirit in these changes was Archbishop Cranmer; their leading opponents were Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester; Cranmer had them sent to the Fleet.* Meanwhile the Archbishop had been working for years on an attempt to provide in one book a substitute for both the missal and the breviary of the defeated Church. Peter Martyr and other scholars helped him; but this First Book of Common Prayer (1548) was essentially Cranmer’s personal product, in which zeal for the new faith merged with a fine sense for solemn beauty in feeling and phrase; even his translations from the Latin had the spell of genius on them. The Book was not quite revolutionary; it followed some Lutheran leads, as in rejecting the sacrificial character of the Mass, but it neither denied nor affirmed transubstantiation; it retained much Catholic ritual, and could be accepted by not too precise a Romanist. Cranmer submitted it not to Convocation but to Parliament, and that laic body had no qualms of jurisdiction in prescribing religious ritual and belief. The Book was made law of the realm, and every church in England was ordered to adopt it. Bonner and Gardiner, who were released from jail in a general amnesty (1549), were reimprisoned when they rejected the right of Parliament to legislate on religion. Princess Mary was allowed to hear Mass in the privacy of her chambers.
A dangerous international situation quieted for a time the violent debate between Catholics and Protestants. Henry II of France demanded the evacuation of Boulogne; refused, he prepared to besiege it; and at any moment Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, then a girl of five in France, might bring Scotland into the war. Learning that the Scots were arming and were stirring up rebellion in Ireland, Somerset led a force across the border, and defeated them at Pinkie Cleugh (September 10, 1547). The terms that he offered to the Scots were remarkably generous and farseeing: the Scots were not to suffer any forfeiture of liberty or property; Scotland and England were to be merged into one “Empire of Great Britain”; each nation was to have self-government under its own laws, but both were to be ruled, after the current reign, by the offspring of the Queen of Scots. This was precisely the union effected in 1603, except that it would have facilitated a restoration of Catholicism in England, and its continuance in Scotland. The Catholics of Scotland rejected the plan for fear that English Protestantism would infect their own land; besides, Scottish nobles were receiving pensions from the French government, and thought a livre in the hand worth two pounds in the bush.
Frustrated in seeking peace, facing war with France, struggling to establish a compromise among uncompromising faiths at home, and hearing renewed noises of agrarian revolt in England, Somerset drank the cup of power to the dregs when his own brother plotted to overthrow him. Thomas Seymour was not content to be Lord High Admiral and a member of the Privy Council; he would be king. He wooed Princess Mary, then Princess Elizabeth, but in vain. He received money stolen from the mint, and spoils from the pirates whom he allowed in the Channel; and so financed he gathered secret stores of arms and ammunition. His conspiracy was discovered; he was accused by the Earls of Warwick and Southampton; he was almost unanimously condemned by both houses of Parliament; and on March 20, 1549, he was put to death. Somerset tried to protect him, but failed; and the Protector’s prestige fell with his brother’s head.
Somerset’s ruin was completed by Ket’s rebellion. That uprising illustrated the apparent anomaly that whereas in Germany peasant revolt was Protestant, in England it was Catholic; in each case religion was a front for economic discontent, and in England the front was Catholic because the government was now Protestant. “In the experience of the agricultural poor,” wrote the Protestant Froude, “an increase of personal suffering was the chief result of the Reformation.” 2 It is to the credit of Protestant divines in this reign—Cranmer, Latimer, Lever, Crowley—that they condemned the sharpened exploitation of the peasantry; and Somerset with hot indignation denounced the merciless exactions of new landowners “sprung from the dunghill” of city wealth.3 Parliament could think of no wiser remedies than to pass ferocious laws against beggary, and instruct the churches to take up weekly a collection for the poor. Somerset sent out a commission to get the facts about enclosures and high rents; it met with subtle or open resistance from the landlords; tenants were terrified into concealing their wrongs; and the modest recommendations of the commission were rejected by the Parliament, in which the agricultural districts were represented by landowning gentry. Somerset opened a private court in his own house to hear the complaints of the poor. More and more nobles, led by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, joined in a movement to depose him.
But now the peasants, furious with accumulated wrongs and frustrated suits for redress, burst into revolt from one end of England to the other. Somersetshire rose first, then Wilts and Gloucestershire, Dorset and Hampshire, Berks and Oxford and Buckingham, in the west Cornwall and Devon, in the east Norfolk and Kent. At Norwich a minor landlord, Robert Ket, organized the rebels, seized the municipal government, and set up a peasant commune that for a month ruled the town and its hinterland. On Mousehold Hill, north of the city, Ket encamped 16,000 men, and there, under an oak tree, he sat daily in judgment upon offending landlords arrested by the peasants. He was not bloodthirsty; those whom he condemned were imprisoned and fed. But of property rights and title deeds he made small account. He bade his men scour the surrounding country, force entry into the manor houses, confiscate all weapons, and corral for the commune all cattle and provisions wherever found. Sheep—chief rivals of the peasants for the use of the soil—were rounded up to the number of 20,000, and were incontinently consumed, along with “infinite beeves,” swans, hinds, ducks, venison, and pigs. Amid this feasting Ket nevertheless maintained remarkable order, even allowing preachers to exhort the men to abandon the revolt. Somerset felt much sympathy with the rebels, but agreed with Warwick that they must be dispersed lest the whole economic structure of English life should be overturned. Warwick was sent against them with an army recently raised to fight in France. He offered the rebels a general pardon if they would return to their homes. Ket favored acceptance, but hotter heads were for judgment by battle, and Ket yielded to them. On August 17, 1549, the issue was decided; Warwick’s superior tactics won; 3,500 of the rebels were cut down; but when the remnant surrendered Warwick contented himself with nine hangings, and sent Ket and a brother to prison in London. News of the defeat took the heart out of the other rebel groups; one after another laid down its arms on promise of amnesty. Somerset used his influence to have most of the leaders released, and the Ket brothers for a while surviveo.
The Protector was accused of having encouraged the revolt by his outspoken sympathy with the poor. He was branded also with failure in foreign affairs, for France was now besieging Boulogne. He was justly accused of allowing corruption among governmental personnel, of debasing the currency, of augmenting his own fortune, of building his sumptuous Somerset House amid the near-bankruptcy of the nation. Warwick and Southampton led a move to unseat him. The majority of the nobles, who could pardon his wealth but not his tenderness for their peasants, seized the opportunity for revenge. On October 12, 1549, the Duke of Somerset was paraded as a prisoner through the streets of London, and was shut up in the Tower.