6 July 1553 – Death of Edward VI

Posted By on July 6, 2011

King Edward VIBetween 8 and 9pm on the 6th July 1553 King Edward VI lay dying at Greenwich Palace. Historian Chris Skidmore writes of how he prayed:

“Lord God, deliver me out of this miserable and wretched life, and take me among thy chosen: howbeit not my will, but thy will be done. Lord I commit my spirit to thee. O Lord! Thou knowest how happy it were for me to be with thee: yet, for thy chosen’s sake, send me life and health, that I may truly serve thee. O my Lord God, bless thy people, and save thine inheritance! O Lord God save thy chosen people of England! O my Lord God. defend this realm from papistry, and maintain thy true religion; that I and my people may praise thy holy name, for thy Son Jesus Christ’s sake!”1

Then, Sir Henry Sidney, one of the Chief Gentleman of his Privy Chamber, took the dying King in his arms and Edward said “I am faint; Lord have mercy upon me, and take my spirit”2, as, indeed, his spirit was taken by his Father in Heaven.

Edward VI’s death was not a shock to those around him, he had been ill for some time. It had started with a cough in early January 1553 and when his half-sister, Mary, visited him on the 10th February she found him bedridden. The Imperial Ambassador, Jehan Scheyfve, wrote to the Emperor on the 17th February:-

“On the very evening of the arrival of the said Princess in this town the King was attacked by a fever caused by a chill he had caught, and was so ill that the Lady Mary could not see him for three days. When she went to Court, the Duke of Northumberland and the members of the Council went to receive her even to the outer gate of the palace, and did duty and obeisance to her as if she had been Queen of England. She afterwards proceeded to the King’s presence, and he received her in his bedchamber, to which he is still confined.”3

And then, in a letter to the Bishop of Arras:-

“the King of England is still confined to his chamber, and seems to be sensitive to the slightest indisposition or change, partly at any rate because his right shoulder is lower than his left and he suffers a good deal when the fever is upon him, especially from a difficulty in drawing his breath, which is due to the compression of the organs on the right side. It is an important matter for consideration, especially as the illness is increasing from day to day, and the doctors have now openly declared to the Council, for their own discharge of responsibility, that the King’s life is threatened, and if any serious malady were to supervene he would not be able to hold out long against it. Some make light of the imperfection, saying that the depression in the right shoulder is hereditary in the house of Seymour, and that the late Duke of Somerset had his good share of it among the rest. But he only suffered inconvenience as far as it affected his appearance, and his shoulder never troubled him in any other way. It is said that about a year ago the King overstrained himself while hunting, and that the defect was increased. No good will he ever do with the lance. I opine that this is a visitation and sign from God.”4

In the superstitious world of Tudor England there were omens of doom. Chris Skidmore writes of how an anonymous prophecy told of sorrow ahead and that the Thames would run with blood and a dog was seen carrying part of the body of a dead child. Doom and gloom…

Edward was well enough to attend the opening of Parliament on 1st March 1553 but on the 17th March Scheyfve was describing him as “very weak and thin” and writing that “his doctors and physicians have charged the Council to watch him carefully and not move away from him, as they are of opinion that the slightest change might place his life in great danger.”5 There was hope in April when the King was well enough to go out “in his park at Westminster of late”, although Scheyfve writes that his doctors and physicians “still observe him strictly, especially his diet”6, but this hope was short-lived as Scheyfve reported to the Emperor on the 28th April:-

“The King withdrew to Greenwich a few days ago. There seems to be no improvement in his condition, and he has only shown himself once, in the gardens, the day after his arrival. I hear from a trustworthy source that the King is undoubtedly becoming weaker as time passes, and wasting away. The matter he ejects from his mouth is sometimes coloured a greenish yellow and black, sometimes pink, like the colour of blood. His doctors and physicians are perplexed and do not know what to make of it. They feel sure that the King has no chance of recovery unless his health improves during the next month.”7

And then on the 5th May he reported that “the King’s life was in great danger”8. Although Skidmore writes that Edward then must have taken a turn for the better, because the Duke of Northumberland wrote to William Cecil of how it seemed sure that the King would make a full recovery and Mary wrote to Edward mentioning his recovery, Scheyfve was describing Edward as “indisposed” on the 12th May and reporting to the Emperor:-

“The physicians are now all agreed that he is suffering from a suppurating tumour (apostème) on the lung, or that at least his lung is attacked. He is beginning to break out in ulcers; he is vexed by a harsh, continuous cough, his body is dry and burning, his belly is swollen, he has a slow fever upon him that never leaves him.”9

In the same letter, Scheyfve mentioned that there were rumours that the King was recovering but that these had been spread simply ” to appease the people who were disturbed”. On the 20th May Scheyfve described Edward’s condition as “desperate” and on the 30th May:

“The King of England is wasting away daily, and there is no sign or likelihood of any improvement. Some are of opinion that he may last two months more, but he cannot possibly live beyond that time. He cannot rest except by means of medicines and external applications; and his body has begun to swell, especially his head and feet. His hair is to be shaved off and plasters are going to be put on his head. The illness is judged to be the same as that which killed the late Earl of Richmond.”10

It was while he was confined and wasting away that Edward VI wrote his “Devise for the Succession”, his plan to disinherit his illegitimate half-sisters and “to create a new dynasty, one founded upon the true faith”11. The original draft stipulated that the Crown would descend through the male heirs of Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, and the male heirs of her children, if Edward died childless. The problem was that there were no male heirs yet, so when Edward made a turn for the worse he decided to change the Device to read: “To the Lady Fraunceses heirs males, if she have any such issue before my death to the Lady Jane and her heirs males.”12 Edward had decided on Lady Jane Grey as his heir if she or her mother did nor produce a male heir in time.

On the 11th June, Scheyfve reported that “The King’s indisposition is becoming graver and graver”13 and on the 12th June the judges of the King’s Bench were shown the King’s Devise and ordered to turn it into a legal will. The judges refused, as they were worried that overturning the succession would be considered treason, but Edward explained the reasons behind his decision:-

“For indeed my sister Mary was the daughter of the king by Katherine the Spaniard, who before she was married to my worthy father had been espoused to Arthur, my father’s elder brother, and was therefore for this reason alone divorced by my father. But it was the fate of Elizabeth, my other sister, to have Anne Boleyn for a mother; this woman was indeed not only cast off by my father because she was more inclined to couple with a number of courtiers rather than reverencing her husband, so mighty a king, but also paid the penalty with her head – a greater proof of her guilt. Thus in our judgement they will be undeservedly considered as being numbered among the heirs of the king our beloved father.”14

He then demanded that the judges should accept his wishes and legalise his “Devise” and the judges were told that to refuse the King’s command would be seen as treason. Edward got his wish and the letters patent were drawn up there and then.

Edward was well enough to receive visitors and to continue with his studies with Sir John Cheke in early June but Scheyfve reported to the Emperor on the 15th June that Edward was attacked by a violent hot fever on the 11th June and by an even more violent one on the 14th, continuing:

“Since the 11th, he has been unable to keep anything in his stomach, so he lives entirely on restoratives and obtains hardly any repose. His legs are swelling, and he has to lie flat on his back, whereas he was up a good deal of the time (i.e. before the violent attack of the 11th). They say it is hardly to be believed how much the King has changed since the 11th.”15

On the 19th June, Scheyfve reported to the Emperor:

“The King of England has sunk so rapidly since my last letter of the 15th, that the physicians no longer dare to answer for it that he will last one day more. His state is such that the King himself has given up hope, and says he feels so weak that he can resist no longer, and that he is done for (qu’il est faict de luy).”16

And then on the 24th he wrote of how the King was so ill “that he cannot last three days”17 and that a prayer had been printed and posted up in London. On the 27th June Scheyfve reported that the King had been so ill on the 25th that it was thought that he was going to die but that there had been a change “and no one knows what the hour may bring forth.”18 On the 4th July Scheyfve wrote of how Edward had appeared at a window at Greenwich some days before, to prove to everyone that he was still alive, but that he was “so thin and wasted that all men said he was doomed”19 and that as Sheyfve was writing the King was seriously ill and could not last long. Scheyfve was right, the next document in the Calendar of State Papers, Spain, is a letter from Scheyfve and the other three ambassadors to the Emperor reporting on the King’s death between 8 and 9 o’clock on the evening of the 6th July.20

King Edward VI was no more and Lady Jane Grey was now queen, although it was to be a rather short-lived reign.

You can read more about Lady Jane Grey and the struggle for the throne in July 1553 in the following article:-

Notes and Sources

  1. Edward VI: The Lost King of England, p257-258
  2. Ibid., p258
  3. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, February 17th
  4. Ibid.
  5. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, March 17th
  6. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, April 10th
  7. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, April 28th
  8. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, May 5th
  9. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, May 12th
  10. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, May 30th
  11. Skidmore p248
  12. Skidmore p249
  13. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, June 11th
  14. Skidmore, p251
  15. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, June 15th
  16. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, June 19th
  17. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, June 24th
  18. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, June 27th
  19. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, July 4th
  20. Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 11:1553, July 7th
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