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Duke of Somerset

Duke of Somerset

The English statesman Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford Duke of Somerset (ca. 1506-1552), who served as lord protector, favored Protestantism, union with Scotland, and economic change.

Edward Seymour was the son of Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall, Wiltshire. The flowering of Henry VIII's passion for Jane Seymour, Edward's younger sister, opened the gates to royal preferment. One week after Jane's marriage to Henry (March 30, 1536), Edward was created Viscount Beauchamp of Hache, and 3 days after the christening of his nephew Edward, he was made Earl of Hertford (Oct. 18, 1537). Henry VIII's death (Jan. 28, 1547) provided him with his opportunity. With the cooperation of Henry's secretary, he kept Henry's death a secret until he secured possession of his 9-year-old nephew, now Edward VI. He made known Henry's death at a council meeting on Jan. 31, 1547, and secured assent to his becoming lord protector; later he became Duke of Somerset (Feb. 16, 1547).

On Easter, 1548, Somerset instituted a new religious service. The first Act of Uniformity, prescribing the new service and commanding the use of an English Prayer Book, passed in 1549. The tone was Protestant, the emphasis on transforming the Mass into a commemorative act. Somerset's dream of Scottish union foundered on his inability to complete arrangements for marrying Edward VI to Mary, Queen of Scots, who instead married Francis, the Dauphin of France. In 1548 Somerset issued a proclamation forbidding enclosure and set up an investigatory commission which led to discontent among landowners. Moreover, his plan to place a head tax on sheep aroused opposition.

The revolts of 1549—the rebellion in the western counties of Devonshire and Cornwall, a reaction to the Prayer Book; and Ket's Rebellion in Norfolk, originating from economic discontent—caused further dissatisfaction. John Dudley, the Earl of Warwick, who had successfully crushed Ket's Rebellion, gained control of the council, and Somerset was sent to the Tower on Oct. 14, 1549. Released later, he was ordered to appear before the council on Oct. 4, 1551, the same day that Warwick became Duke of Northumberland. Somerset was sent to the Tower on October 16 and executed after trial at Tower Hill on Jan. 22, 1552.

Handsome and personally gracious, Somerset was an ambitious man who lacked the patience to bring his visionary ideas to fruition. A successful general who beat the Scots at Musselburgh (Sept. 10, 1548), the last pitched battle fought between the two countries, he did not pay enough attention to the practical politics which might have prevented his fall. His enduring monument is the part he played in the advance of Protestant views and the promulgation of Thomas Cranmer's magnificent Prayer Book.

Further Reading

The best book for the details of Somerset's policies is A. F. Pollard, England under Protector Somerset: An Essay (1900). For a view of religious change see Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer (1962), and A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (1964; rev. ed. 1967). Consult the admirable work by S. T. Bindoff, Ket's Rebellion, 1549 (1949), for an analysis of agrarian discontent. □

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