Seymour (pronounced ‘Seemer’) is a name that rings bells throughout British history. There is still a Seymour Marquess of Hertford living at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. One of the best-known from that brood of planners and plotters was Edward, Ist Earl of Hertford (pronounced ‘Harfod’) and Duke of Somerset. He was born around 1500 and managed to survive to fifty-two, something of a miracle in the sixteenth century, for reasons of health or politics.
Edward was regent-ruler of England on behalf of the boy king Edward VI, a sickly son of Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour. Jane was Edward’s sister of course. The great Tudor monster died in 1547, and England sighed with relief and accepted Edward as Lord Protector. Almost immediately he took to good generalship and thrashed the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie.
Religion as always was to be his undoing, as it has been for numberless men in European history. Edward proposed to enforce the use of a purely Protestant Prayer book by act of Parliament in 1549 and made some deadly enemies. The Catholics in the West Country arose in violence to protest. This was called ‘Kett’s Rebellion’ and happened to coincide with the plans of the then Earl of Warwick, John Dudley (another historical name to conjure with). Dudley planned to remove Protector Somerset, and used the Protector’s unpopularity with the barons to orchestrate his downfall. Poor young Edward VI was a puppet in the hands of Somerset but not even he could stop Dudley from making himself Duke of Northumberland and overthrowing Edward. Though the boy king begged the Duke to spare Somerset, the hapless man had his head chopped off at Dudley’s command in the Tower of London in 1551.
It was religion, again, that did for John Dudley, ex-Earl of Warwick and now Duke of Northumberland. Before the death of the desperately ill young Edward, Dudley was planning to succeed him with a teenage girl – Lady Jane Grey, whom he had married, much against her will to his son Guildford, who was handsome, often drunk, and not yet twenty.
Dudley wanted Jane on the throne because she was devoutly Protestant, and most of England wanted to avoid the ascent to the throne of Henry VIII’s daughter Mary Tudor, daughter of Catholic Spanish Catherine of Aragon.
Lady Jane was royal herself, descended from Henry VII (first Tudor). Dudley it was who persuaded the sick king to name Jane as his successor. The plot failed, though English folk were not given to much love for Catholics. Young Edward died, Lady Jane (seventeen years old) was Queen of England for nine days; Mary Tudor ousted her easily enough aided mainly by the Catholic Duke of Norfolk. She had Jane and her nineteen year old husband imprisoned in the Tower for treason. Shortly afterwards they were both decapitated on the same day and died bravely. Jane and Guildford might well have made a good monarch and consort, but Mary came First.
Dudley of Northumberland declared to Mary that he was as Catholic as she was but this lie did not save his head. He lost it in 1553. Mary I was a resoundingly bad queen after all, married unsuccessfully to Felipe II of Spain, suffered from permanent headaches, provoked Wyatt’s Rebellion, burned around 300 leading Protestants including Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer; she also lost Calais, England’s last outpost on the Continent. Mercifully, this deluded and perhaps mentally disturbed woman died in almost constant agony in 1558, allowing her half-sister to become Elizabeth I of England – the only acceptable Tudor monarch. Some historians will deny this, saying that young Edward VI was weak but good, but we must put against this theory the fact that the teenager very much liked attending executions and burnings, and confessed this in a diary.