6 July 1553 – Death of Edward VI

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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20 thoughts on “6 July 1553 – Death of Edward VI”
  1. I can’t feel anything else but sorry for poor Edward.. He grew up without a mother and his father dies when he was still a child. And Edward himself dies so young.. RIP.

  2. I had never heard that Edward had one shoulder lower than the other. A mild scoliosis? Would it have worsened with time and killed him even if he hadn’t contracted a wasting disease? If his lung was compressed by the twisted spine, he would have been vulnerable to respiratory illnesses and had less stamina to fight it off.

    I’ve always wondered what would have happened had Edward not died of this illness, but it seems he was doomed to a shorter life, anyway. Poor child!

  3. It is such ashame that Edward didn’t get the chance to live into old age, I like to think he would have made a fair and just King, the country certainly would not have had to go through the traumatic reign of Mary, the down side would we would never had the golden years of Elizabeth either….Does any one think there is any truth in he story of Northumberland administering small doses of arsenic to the King to keep him alive longer to give him the time to finally persuade the King and put in place all the necessary backup, to place Jane Grey on the throne. Did anyone know of the correct diagnosis on what the poor young King died of. I read that he had caught both smallpox and chicken pox , in another account I read it was tuberculois inherited from his grandfather Henry VII.

    When you think of all the turmoil caused to bring about the birth of this young man, it was the cruel hand of fate for him to be taken so young…. R.I.P King Edward, as none of it was your doing, and you suffered terribly in your illness before you died.

    1. Northumberland introduced a “wise woman”, but under the supervision of the physicians, and source doesn’t say it was to lengthen his life (entirely hopeless anyway) . Italian and Jesuit writers later in the 16th century and in the 17th century claimed that the skin of Edward’s laundress peeled off when washing his shirt. No one mentions arsenic and it’s clear that these stories are part and parcel of the claims that Edward was poisoned by the Duke for seven months or so. It’s been repeated for centuries by authors, including many modern authors/biographers, but it’s the same sort of poppycock you find on Anne Boleyn and many other figures, the difference being that it is more eagerly believed.

      A principal problem with Edward is that the most appealing sources to writers were written in hindsight, wise after the event (all foreign visitors, many French ambassadors’ reports, Venetian etc., and most “chronicles”, especially those which have details on political intrigue/faction etc., they are mostly Elizabethan or even Jacobean). The Imperial ambassador is almost the only exception, but he is extremely hostile; it is like writing the interna of U.S. history exclusively from Soviet propaganda reports. That’s why Edward’s own journal (ends Nov. 1552) has been called “the principal source for the reign”!

      1. P.S. I am not arguing any sources are useless, but the spicier ones are often later legends and many authors have used narratives as if written in Edward’s time, when they are in fact post 1553 or even Elizabethan (or later), which can make a huge difference.

        Edward’s illness was probably either tuberculosis or an abscess of the lung with renal failure. It certainly had to do with the lung and not poison, which would affect the intestines, and you can’t poison a person endlessly. The problem with this whole conspiracy theory is that Northumberland had absolutely no motive to poison him, and if yes, he would have made sure that the March parliament passed a new order of succession (he wouldn’t have waited till parliament was over while poisoning Edward all the time): and he would have managed to kill Mary before he killed Edward, and he wouldn’t have bothered with Jane Grey but taken the crown for himself as the French suggested .

        1. I. e. the French asked him why he would not take the crown himself, he answered it was too big for him. The Habsburg ambssdrs. pet rumour was that Northumberland would divorce his wife and marry Elizabeth (who had many “intimate communications” with him), and then they would claim the throne together; this was reported in 1550 and 1553! So sad no one else noticed; almost as good a love story as Robert D. & Eliz.

        2. My apologies for posting yet again (I should not do so on blogs), but of course the French had resident ambssdrs who sent home reports (but there are related accounts, like “memoirs” and “receuils”, which I meant in my first post). My point is well illustrated by the most often quoted characterisation of Northumberland: “This Earl had such a head that he seldom went about anything but he had three or four purposes beforehand.” Now, I am not suggesting this isn’t true (I do like it), but I have found no author quoting it and saying that this was written by Morrion in 1553/1554, in exile under Mary (he held a grudge against Northumberland because the duke had once recalled him from his post). Everybody uses this quote, but nobody would use what Morrison wrote about Winchester (a man with a tongue for all occasions), let alone Mary (God’s punishment for England).

          You definitely couldn’t prolong your life by taking arsenic or any substance whatsoever; I would also doubt that tuberculosis is a hereditary illness.

        3. Thanks Christine, I looked up tuberculosis and you are correct it isn’t hereditary. As for the arsenic, no I don’t think Northumberland was poisoning him in the real sense of the word, as you say he had no motive. I didn’t ask my question clearly enough, case of fingers not typing what the brains telling them to,lol. In those times arsenic was used to treat syphilis, used to purge the body, and in some cases to slow down the progression of other illnesses,( goodness knows how that works), at the expense of pain that poisoning causes, and of course certain death. What I was trying to say was, do you think that this is what was happening to Edward at the end, that Northumberland was allowing the administration of arsenic to slow down the advancement of the illness that he was dying from, until he had everything prepared for his ‘take over’, but like you said there is a lot of poppycock written by people after the event, many lies by those you had made enemies etc. I can relate to the renal failure, as Edward had been described as head and feet blown up, it happened to my son 18mths ago and his body did the same, luckily we now have modern medicine. Did you know that a couple of centuries ago Ladies took small doses of arsenic to give them the ‘peaches and cream’ look to their skin which was in vogue then, the ovious happened eventually, if they were overly vain!! Anyway thanks for your help. Dawn

        4. Dawn, thanks so much:
          The most accurate source regarding Edward’s symptoms we have is the Imp. ambassador (cited by Claire above) who writes on 11 June that “he has been unable to keep anything in his stomach, so he lives entirely on restoratives”; he doesn’t write what that was, though, nor does he criticize it as sinister, so maybe it was arsenic if that was indeed common usage; but Edward then had still some 3 1/2 weeks to live, so he must have eaten something in between … I’d still think that arsenic would rather shorten your life than the opposite, if that were the case it would long have been an expanding business. Renaissance medicine was very odd from our perspective of course … Northumberland definitvely sought the advice of his own doctor (an Oxford don) and a “wise woman”, a sort of witch (these witches were practising “white magic” with herbs and so on, they typically also knew about “women’s problems”). Now, in the later tradition (Italians, Jesuits, Hayward who wrote in the 17th century) it is she who gives Edward poison to live longer (and then she suddenly vanishes from the scene). I personally think this is black legend, there was also a story that Edward’s body was so deformed that another boy was killed to present him as the dead Edward, while the real one was secretly buried on Northumberland’s orders …

          I think what exonerates Northumberland from this particular suspicion of “prolonging with ulterior purposes” is that he simply didn’t prepare anything until Edward was indeed dead (this may in part have to do with Edward’s own wishes, as I have recently realized: while he didn’t want his sisters on the throne, he didn’t want to harm them otherwise, and he didn’t want civil war) … but of course the duke would have desperately wanted to save Edward.

          Regarding the illness, tuberculosis is still the front runner, I guess. Edward’s biographer Jennifer Loach had formed another opinion, basically that he caught a cold with high fever in February 1553 and that then a pulmonal infection resulted, developing into lung abscesses and ending in renal failure and general septicaemia after a couple of months; she detailed her findings in her book “Edward VI”, published at Yale University Press. (It seems not to be viewable at google books, but it’s not an expensive book; it’s relatively short because the author died while still working on it, but it’s a nice text on Edward and his reign, and very easy to read).

        5. Thanks again Christine. That is more than likely what I have read, as I remember the part of Edwards body being replaced. I can’t recall the book it is a long time ago. I think when it comes to history when there are vague recordings, or writings that have occurred many years after the event things are left to the supposition of the reader, and a lot of the time I think we tend to look to the ‘dark side’, as it adds more intrigue and interest. At the end of the day no one will ever know what was going on in the mind of a man about to instigate the taking over the throne albeit through those poor young people Lady Jane and her husband. his son. It must have been a very dark place full of twists and turns…..As for the arsenic, not just concerning Edward, I am going to do a bit of research into the ‘medical uses’ of it past and present purely out of interest,just to see what it can be used for, apart from the ovious of course, because there are a lot of toxics used in medicine, digitalis, the common foxglove, for one, very poisonous, but a major drug used for heart conditions. Hope the other half doesn’t read this post , he might start to worry a bit, ha ha. Take care.

  4. In my early 30s, I contracted a bad case of bacterial pneumonia. I then developed a dangerous pocket of infection in one lung which turned septic. I could have easily died except for strong, intervenous antibiotics – and I was a heathy, adult woman. Tudor times were dangerous times. Poor Edward didn’t have a chance – and I don’t think poison was a factor in his death.

    1. Very dangerous times! I definitely wouldn’t have survived the birth of my first child which, after a long labour, ended in an emergency caesarean. It’s scary! No, I think the poison story was just a way of blackening the Dudley name.

  5. Oh Edward I see how much you have suffered and that you were scared.You were right that England would not be peaceful with catholic rule so you persisted, even on your deathbed you were trying to secure succession to Lady Jane grey.But the Londoners followed Mary and which they got what they never wanted.Poor Jane was executed and Mary took over and ruled with exceedingly strong Catholicism. Edward all I can say to you now is that you were the greatest king I have ever known. Just a boy yet a smart and determined ruler. And for all of you Eddy very sadly died of Tuberculosis, The strong medicines the doctors were using also infected him with arsenic poisoning. The arsenic prolonged his death making him suffer longer. Now little Eddy you are at rest, you have to worry no more… I beg of you god to keep him in your loving hands… Forever.

  6. The poor boy suffered so much such a shame because in those days they didn’t have the knowledge and the right medicines to cure him, or ease his suffering I think he would have been a just and fair king, he appears a bit pompous to me, I doubt he would have been a womaniser like his father from what iv heard of him he seems to have the personality of his mother, and he seemed a bit fanatical about his religion but I think given the chance he would have made a good king, he was intelligent to, something which all the Tudors were known for their academic prowess, he was the son King Henry had waited so long for and then his life was cut short, so sad.

  7. Does any one consider that Mary poisoned Edward?
    Maybe you consider it unthinkable she would poison her brother, but “Bloody Mary” was quite brutal, and Edward was undermining the Catholic faction in dramatic ways. And she clearly had no qualms about killing protestants.

    He he ruled long, he would have, in her mind, destroyed her catholic England and Mary would be relegated to sitting on the sidelines her entire life despite being the rightful heir. She could easily have rationalized the need (or right) to remove him.
    Whether done directly or through others, she’s the obvious suspect regardless of what you think of her.

    1. I’ve come to the same conclusion. There is also the fact that Mary and Edward argued over religious matters quite severely more than once.

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