In that period of turmoil in the England of the 16th century it is hard to keep up with the Catholic sovereigns, Protestant schisms and the long list of wives that Henry VIII married. The King, on the throne since 1509 until his death in 1547, was popular for having rejected Catherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn and for then having the latter executed for a series of accusations. The desire of marrying Anne, as well as having a male heir, was the basis of the Anglican schism which led to the first fracture between England and the Roman Church.
Anne Boleyn though did not last long
The new queen of England was able to remain in power only for 3 years (1533-1536) and then she gave up on the headsman’s axe. The day following Anne’s execution, Henry VIII started a relationship with Jane Seymour, way milder and more compliant than the previous woman; the two tied the knot 10 days after the death of Anne.
Below: painting of Henry VIII
The King sincerely loved Jane, yet good fortune was not with him. On the 12th October 1537 the woman gave birth to the so wanted male heir, Edward VI Tudor, and everyone though that the lineage question of the King was then fixed for good.
But it was the 1500 and the medical knowledge was not the one we have nowadays
Shortly after the birth Jane started showing the first signs of “Puerperal Fever”(also known as Postpartum Infections), a pathology common for women in labour which was defeated only centuries later by an Austrian doctor. She died on the 24th of October in Hampton Court in London, 12 days after the birth of Edward. After her, Henry remarried other 3 times but, when he died in 1547, he asked to be buried next to his Jane.
The prince Edward VI, brought up orphan of mother, grew up very much loved by his father and surrounded by any type of comfort. His health was constantly checked by the court doctors: they would measure his temperature on a daily basis and made sure for him to follow an adequate diet, rich and various.
In October 1541, the French ambassador described Edward as beautiful, well fed and extraordinary tall for his age.
Below: painting of Edward VI made by Hans Holbein
The Imperial embassy noticed that the posture of the young Edward had a minor flaw as in his right shoulder was lower than the left one; the child could have inherited a mild form of scoliosis of the spinal column from his maternal uncle Edward Seymour.
In the same month Edward contracted the quartan fever, often sign of Malaria. For approximately 10 days Edward was so exhausted to suggest he was about to die. His father Henry was shocked and sent his personal doctor William Butts at the sickbed of Edward. The doctor was regularly visiting the child and restricted his diet to only soups and broths, while in reality he needed meat. Edward could not stand the rigorous methods of the doctor and soon started defining him a scoundrel and a fool. Mr Butts eventually granted his some meat, but Edward asked either way for him to leave. That was a good sign of recovery, and in fact the heir to the throne recovered fully. They let him come back to his usual lifestyle but later on he would have started developing recurring flus.
The concern about the Prince’s health conditions was on top of Henry’s priorities, so the young man was kept away from the London court. Edward was indeed based in Windsor, far from pestilences and variola which lashed out against the population of the city every now and then; for this reason, whoever was hanging out at the Palace was supposed to follow a series of strict hygienic rules. For example when a courtier wanted to approach the Prince he was supposed to wash his hands several times before touching him, precaution as current as well as already known back in the day.
But the years went by and King Henry VIII, consumed by an exaggerated existence, died. In February 1547 Edward succeeded his father and became King of England at the age of 10 years old. The child was guided by his uncle Edward Seymour, and the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the maximum spiritual authority of the Anglican Church. Both the men had Lutheran tendencies and made Edward promote the “Book of Common Prayer”, become fundamental for the Anglican communion, completing this way the process of the English Protestant schism.
Below: On his deathbed, Henry VIII indicating his son Edward as his successor. In the foreground the pope with his head leaning, symbol of the defeat of the Catholic Church in the Kingdom of England
Edward VI though did not enjoy great health. In 1550 when he was only 13, he was already bedridden for a mysterious disease. Everyone was waiting for his death, but one more time, he unexpectedly recovered. Not for long though.
In spring 1552 Edward contracted measles and variola, but the development of those was brief and the King came back to normal rapidly. In October 1552 he met the Italian astrologist and doctor Gerolamo Cardano, who noticed how the boy was myopic and slightly deaf. In his study the boy did not only wear spectacles but he would also have a magnifying glass to help himself reading.
Below: illustration of Gerolamo Cardano
In December 1552 Edward’s conditions started worsening exponentially, revealing the first symptoms of an illness which would have been deadly for the King. It is believed that the guy had contracted tuberculosis right before measles. One of the known consequences of measles is the suppression of the immune system which gives room to all the dormant infections.
Below: painting of Edward VI who signs his first death sentence, made by John Pettie RA
On the 15th of February 1553, Edward got a cold and several flu episodes. His older sister, the Catholic Mary I daughter of Catherine of Aragon, renamed “Bloody Mary” later on, went to visit her brother, hoping to go beyond their disagreements in terms of creed. The meeting occurred with Edward on his bed, stuck for a violent episode of cough. The last details of Edward’s conditions come from the words of the French Imperial ambassador, Jean Scheyfve. He had close contact with John Banister, a 21 years old Medicine student whose father was a minor official for the King’s family.
Below: painting of Mary I sister of Edward called “Bloody Mary”
The suspects that Edward had been poisoned by John Dudley, ruler after the death sentence of the uncle Edward Seymour for embezzlement, were soon denied. The King was kept isolated and his conditions top secret.
In March Edward was still sick, lean and weak and he could not leave his room; in April he seemed to feel better, to the point he could go out in the park of Westminster to have some fresh air and move to Greenwich. By the end of the month though his conditions went one more time downhill and on the 7th of May he went back to bed, even though the doctors had no doubts on the destiny of his healing.
The situation became complicated on the 11th of June and Sir Scheyfve wrote down:
“the substance that he expels through his mouth has yellow, green and black tones, sometimes pink, like the blood tone”.
His doctors believed he had a “suppurating tumor” of his lung and some believed that Edward was doomed. The Italian writer Giulio Raviglio Rosso said that a woman was let inside Edward’s room, who believed to be able to cure the King. Despite the dissent of the doctors, she was close to Edward for quite some time, giving him potions which soon made him worse. His body started to swell and his legs became so big that he had to lay on his back and lost his strength completely. To his tutor, Edward revealed:
I am glad to die
Edward made his last public appearance on the 1st of July, when he showed up from his window in his Greenwich Palace, shocking the crowd for his thin and consumed look. During the following 2 days many people came back to the Palace, hoping to find one more time the King, but on the 3rd of July they had been told that the air was too chill for him to come out.
Edward VI died in his 15 years old in his Palace in Greenwich at 8 PM on the 6th of July 1553
According to the legendary report of John Foxe on his death, the last words of the King were:
“I’m passing out. May God have mercy on me and take my soul”
The young man was buried in the chapel of Henry VII in the Abbey of Westminster on the 8th of August 1553, with the reformed ceremony made by Thomas Cranmer. The procession was seen by mourning Londoners while the hearse, draped in golden fabrics, was overcome by an effigy of Edward with a crown, sceptre and garter. They did not reveal the King’s burial place until 1966, when a stone with his name inscribed was placed on the floor of the chapel.
Cause of death
The cause of death of Edward VI is not certified. Like with many other death of sovereigns from the 16th century there were rumours of poisoning but in reality no evidence of such a theory has ever been found. The 1st Duke of Northumberland John Dudley was accused of being responsible, and so he became unpopular after the events which followed his death. Another theory would see Edward being poisoned by the Catholics, trying to lead Mary I to the throne.
Below: painting representing John Dudley
All those rumors were negated by the surgeon who analysed the chest of the boy after his death. He discovered that the “deadly condition of His Majesty was related to the lungs”. The Venetian ambassador in London wrote that Edward had died of consumption, archaic term indicating tuberculosis. The official version wants that that specific condition was contracted after an episode of measles and variola in 1552, which suppressed his natural immunity to the disease. Other people forwarded the hypothesis that his symptoms were the typical ones of bronchial pneumonia, leading to a suppuration of the lung infection or lung abscess, sepsis and kidney failure.
The unlucky existence of Edward VI was inspiration for the novel written by Mark Twain “The Prince and the Pauper” from the 1881.
After Edward VI
Fourth in order of succession, the Protestant Jane Grey came afterwards, and she was the first Queen of England. The epopee of Jane lasted only for 9 days as in Edward’s cousin and step sister Mary I Tudor managed to capture lady Grey and her husband Guilford Dudley, son of that John Dudley ruler on behalf of Edward. Dudley and Jane Grey were executed. Mary I Tudor ascended the throne while trying to reestablish the Catholic creed in England. This is another story though.