The Protector Somerset

The Protector Somerset

Edward Seymour

The Protector Somerset was, firstly, Edward Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour. This made him Edward's uncle.

He was also the Earl of Hertford, and you may hear him refered to in this way.

He was given the title of the Duke of Somerset by Edward, shortly after the young boy became King and this is the title most used by historians. But it is important to remember that before 1547 he was not 'Somerset'.

He had served in Henry's council, and was well liked by the dead king. He probably earned Henry's respect through his military exploits. By 1547, he had a reputation as a fine soldier, having seen action in France and in the north.

He was one of the sixteen men appointed to rule as the regency council. However, he quickly rose to prominence, presenting himself as the 'natural' leader of the council due to the fact that he was the King's uncle. This must have appeared reasonable to those in council, as corporate rule by sixteen nobles was bound to prove difficult, even if most of them were of a reforming disposition, and not only did the young king have no father, but his mother was dead, and there were no paternal uncles.

Indeed, his contemporaries appointed him leader of the council 'for the conduct of better business'. (It is highly likely that all this had been planned with the help of Paget, another leading noble). By the end of February (1547) he was Lord Protector with powers to appoint and dismiss members of the Privy Council.

This section comes so high up on the list because it was always Somerset's priority.

The international position was such in 1547 that England was at war with France, and relations with Scotland were also very strained. To make matters worse, the French had an alliance with the Scots, which made their northern enemy all the more aggressive in their dealings with England, and it meant that England could easily find itself fighting a war on two fronts, which would be extremely costly.

Somerset was bound by Henry's will. Henry had made a bid for the Scottish throne by betrothing, his then six year old son, Edward, to the young Scottish princess, Mary (later Queen of Scots - don't confuse her with Mary Tudor, who was Edward's half-sister). An arrangement which was finalised by the Treaty of Greenwich, 1543.


However, the engagement was broken by the Scots, and it was arranged that Mary would marry the Dauphin. With the possibility of an alliance with France totally removed, Somerset began his campaign against Scotland. Things went well initially. Somerset and Dudley led their armies on Berwick, and with the aid of a number of foreign mercenaries marched up into the lowlands to defeat the Scots in the Battle of Pinkie (September 1547). But then Somerset did nothing for months, allowing the Scottish to secure French support, and this they did. In June 1548, over 6,000 French troops landed in Scotland. They captured English forts, and secured the safe passage of the princess Mary to France for her impending marriage.

Because of either personal stubbornness, or pressure from the nobility, or fears for the north of England, or because he ignored the advice of council, Somerset decided not to pull out of the conflict, but to press on. All this despite a severe lack of funds. Three more armies were sent to the border. Somerset spent over half a million pounds on the war in the north.

To add to his problems, Henry II of France declared war in August 1549. Somerset's resources were split, and in order to defend Calais and Boulogne, Somerset had to remove troops from the Scottish border. Nevertheless, Calais and Boulogne were not lost.

His protectorship ended with a war in France and a hostile Scottish/French coalition in the north.

The council was moderately reforming, but at the same time, Somerset had to make sure that he kept influential churchmen on his side, thus accommodating radicals like Latimer and Ridley, along with the more conservative like Gardiner. In addition to pleasing these churchmen and politicians, there was a growing radical minority in London and the Southeast. Albeit a minority, these men and women tended to belong to the gentry, and as such could not be alienated. Many of those who had exiled themselves during Henry's reign returned with hopes of not only toleration, but also further ecclesiastical reforms. There was also Charles V to consider. Because the French had allied with the Scots against England, Somerset had to ensure that relations between England and the Holy Roman Empire were at least cordial. This included making sure that Mary Tudor (Charles V's aunt) was not persecuted for her religious ideas and practices.

It was a real balancing act.

The first parliament's repeal of the Six Articles and the introduction of a less severe Treasons Act (which allowed people to discuss religious matters openly) may be seen to represent the amount of pressure and parliamentary support for religious reform. In the same year, 1547, Somerset felt secure enough to dissolve the chantries, the chapels where prayers were sung for the souls of the dead.

However, it was not until 1549 that a major piece of religious legislation was passed. This was the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and the legislation that went with it, The Act of Uniformity. The aim was again balance. Cranmer was instructed to write a prayer book, which would be acceptable to both radicals and conservatives.

The Prayer Book, by its nature leaned towards Protestantism. It was a book to be used for 'common prayer' - that is to say the congregation communing with God, and not the priest on their behalf. This idea of a personal relationship with God was a radical one, which must have offended those who held on to the old ways. There were no masses to be said for the dead, and the absence of a statement on purgatory. This satisfied neither the reformers nor the conservatives.

The Act of Uniformity stated that:

  1. The worship of saints was to be discouraged (but it was not banned).
  2. Statues, paintings and other similar artefacts were to be removed from the church.
  3. The Eucharist service was still to be in the old form of a Latin mass. There was nothing said about transubstantiation.
  4. The same number of Holy Days should be maintained.
  5. Clergy should wear their vestements (so no change there either).

As you can imagine, the Radicals felt very strongly that these measures did not go far enough, while they alarmed the Conservatives.

In conclusion, there was a move towards Protestantism under Somerset, but this was slow and cautious, which was a sensible policy. But there was a danger in compromise: that none of the people would be satisfied with the changes, rather than at least one group being pleased. All the same, it was probably, the most successful policy of his protectorship. (But that could say more about the level of failure in his other policies rather than the level of success in this.)

For effects of the Act of Uniformity and the Prayer Book, you need to go to 'The Rebellions of 1549'.

Somerset, by and large, used the systems that were already in place, rather than introducing anything new. He was the leader of a council, he called parliaments, and he made proclamations to introduce new laws when there was no parliament in session. This was exactly the way that Henry VIII had ruled.

Somerset's style of government was immensely personal. He used his own household officials, consequently excluding a number of leading nobles. He issued more proclamations than any of the Tudor Kings. He was stubborn, preferring his own ideas to those of others, blatantly ignoring council on occasions. Even one of his closest allies, Paget, berated him once saying, "I told your Grace the trouthe, and was not believed; well, now your Grace seithe yt what seythe your Grace?"

Lotherington believes that he used government as no more than a rubber stamp.

EN Williams has this to say on the matter of Somerset's style of government:

"In the circumstances, efficient pragmatism would have been better than this high-minded incompetence."

Historians agree that this was his most disastrous policy. Somerset was not a long-term planner. His financial planning was based around the financing of his foreign policy, consequently, he needed the cash straight away.

It has to be said that he was in a difficult position. The crown's revenue stood at only £200 000 a year, which was hardly enough to cover household expenses, never mind a war.

This is how he got the cash:


There was no reform of taxation or of the duties system.

The debasement of the coinage had a dramatic effect on the economy. Inflation was already bad in 1547 and this measure exacerbated the problem. Coupled with poor harvests and the poor state of the Antwerp market, inflation hit very hard. Prices rose while wages remained at the same level.

Somerset felt that enclosures (the practice of amalgamating land and fencing it off) were to blame for the hardships that the poor endured. He sought to decrease the amount of land being enclosed, and indeed became the head of the Enclosure Commission in 1548. All of this led historians of the past to see Somerset as 'The Good Duke' who cared passionately about the welfare of the commons. In actual fact his attempts to reduce enclosures had a minuscule effect on the lives of the people of England, except that is for the gentry farmers who felt that he was obstructing the improvement of their estates.

There was a real concern in this period about the state of the realm. The nobility feared rebellion, and there was much to upset the commons (and the gentry for that matter). There were problems of vagrancy and poverty in the towns as well as the countryside. Latimer and Ridley preached in favour of social reform including more workhouses and hospitals for the poor. The Vagrancy Act, 1547 was possibly not what they had in mind (a 'V' branded on the heads of the 'undeserving' beggars, and a duty for towns to provide more outdoor relief). There was religious ambiguity. A long and drawn out war was being fought in the north, and there was war in France. Then, in 1548 there was a very poor harvest.

There were riots in 1548, and in 1549 there was rebellion, twice.

Paget wrote to Somerset in 1549, "Now Syr, for the lawe: where ys it used in England at libertie? Almost no where."

In the past, Somerset has enjoyed the accolade of 'the Good Duke'. The Protector who cared for his people, who wanted justice for all, and who strived to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. WK Gordon wrote in his book, published in 1968, about how the poor wept at his execution (while the government of Northumberland was 'government by fearful men').

In fact there are three main opinions about his character:

  1. He was a genuine humanitarian who wanted to help the poor (S. T. Bindoff and A. Pollard share this view).
  2. He was arrogant and self-seeking. He was stubborn and would not heed the advice of councillors. He showed minimal interest in social reform (Dale Hoak and R. W. Heinz share this view).
  3. He was typical of a Tudor soldier and statesman. His priority was foreign policy and a continuity of the wars started by Henry VIII (M. L. Bush's view).

The more recent thinking on Somerset has not been as kind to him as in the past. There are fewer apologies. Nigel Heard writes, "what can be said is that he failed to show the leadership necessary for the absence of an adult monarch."

John Guy sees him as vacillating, self-willed and high-minded..."sugar-coating his natural severity with talk of clemency and justice."

Dale Hoak sees him as having "abrasive arrogance".