Edward VI (12 October 1537 – 6 July 1553) became King of England and Ireland on 28 January 1547 and was crowned on 20 February at the age of nine. The son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, Edward was the third monarch of the Tudor dynasty and England's first Protestant ruler. During Edward’s reign, the realm was governed by a Regency Council, because he never reached maturity. The Council was led from 1547 to 1549 by his uncle Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, and from 1550 to 1553 by John Dudley, 1st Earl of Warwick, who in 1551 became 1st Duke of Northumberland.
Edward's reign was marked by economic problems, military withdrawal from Scotland and Boulogne, and social unrest that in 1549 erupted into riot and rebellion. It also saw the transformation of the Anglican Church into a recognisably Protestant body. Henry VIII had severed the link between the Church of England and Rome, and during Edward's reign, Protestantism was established for the first time in England, with reforms that included the abolition of clerical celibacy and the mass, and the imposition of compulsory services in English. The architect of these reforms was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, whose Book of Common Prayer has proved lasting.
When Edward fell terminally ill in 1553, he and his Council drew up a "Devise for the Succession" in an attempt to prevent a Catholic backlash against the Protestant Reformation. Edward named his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his heir and excluded his two half sisters, the Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth. On Edward's death at the age of 15, the succession was disputed. Jane survived as queen for only nine days, before the Privy Council proclaimed Mary, for whom the people had risen in support in the counties. As queen, Mary proceeded to undo many of Edward's Protestant reforms, but Elizabeth's religious settlement of 1559 was to secure his Protestant legacy.
Edward was placed in the care of Margaret Bryan, "lady mistress" of the prince's household, and until the age of six he was brought up, as he put it later in his Chronicle, "among the women". A formal royal household was established around him, at first under Sir William Sidney, and later under Sir Richard Page, the stepfather of Edward Seymour's wife, Anne Stanhope. Henry demanded exacting standards of security and cleanliness in his son's household, stressing that Edward was "this whole realm's most precious jewel". Visitors described the prince, who was lavishly provided with toys and comforts, including his own troupe of minstrels, as a contented child.
From the age of six, Edward began his formal education under Richard Cox and John Cheke, concentrating, as he recalled himself, on "learning of tongues, of the scripture, of philosophy, and all liberal sciences"; he later also received tuition from Elizabeth's tutor, Roger Ascham, among others, and in French from Jean Belmain. In addition, he is known to have studied geometry and learned to play musical instruments, including the lute and the virginals. He collected globes and maps and, according to coinage historian C. E. Challis, developed a grasp of monetary affairs that indicates a high intelligence. Edward's religious education is assumed to have favoured the reforming agenda. His religious establishment was probably chosen by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, a leading reformer; and both Cox and Cheke were "reformed" Catholics or Erasmians and later became Marian exiles. By 1549, Edward had written a treatise on the pope as Antichrist and was making informed notes on theological controversies. Many aspects of Edward's religion were still essentially Catholic in his early years, including celebration of the mass and reverence for images and relics of the saints.
Both Edward's sisters were attentive to their brother and often visited him—on one occasion, Elizabeth gave him a shirt "of her own working". Edward "took special content" in Mary's company, though he disapproved of her taste for foreign dances; "I love you most", he wrote to her in 1546. In 1543, Henry invited his three children to spend Christmas with him, signalling his reconciliation with his daughters, whom he had previously illegitimised and disinherited. The following spring, he restored them to their place in the succession with a Third Succession Act, which also provided for a regency council during Edward's minority. This unaccustomed family harmony may have owed much to the influence of Henry's new wife Catherine Parr, of whom Edward soon became fond. He called her his "most dear mother" and in September 1546 wrote to her: "I received so many benefits from you that my mind can hardly grasp them".
Other children were brought to play with Edward, including the granddaughter of Edward's chamberlain Sir William Sidney, who in adulthood recalled the prince as "a marvellous sweet child, of very mild and generous condition". Edward shared his formal education with sons of nobles, "appointed to attend upon him" in what was a form of miniature court. Among these, Barnaby Fitzpatrick, the son of an Irish peer, became a close and lasting friend. Edward was more devoted to his schoolwork than were his classmates and seems to have outshone them, motivated to do his "duty" and compete with his sister Elizabeth's academic prowess, though Cox felt it necessary to beat him on at least one occasion. Edward’s surroundings and possessions were regally splendid: his rooms were hung with costly Flemish tapestries, and his clothes, books, and cutlery were encrusted with precious jewels and gold. Like his father, Edward was fascinated by military arts, and many of his portraits show him wearing a gold dagger with a jewelled hilt, in imitation of Henry. Edward's Chronicle enthusiastically details English military campaigns against Scotland and France, and adventures such as John Dudley's near capture at Musselburgh in 1547.
Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547, when Edward was only nine. Those close to the throne, led by Edward Seymour and William Paget, agreed to delay the announcement of the king's death until arrangements had been made for a smooth succession. Seymour and Sir Anthony Browne, the Master of the Horse, rode to collect Edward from Hertford and brought him to Enfield, where Princess Elizabeth was living. He and Elizabeth were then told of the death of their father and heard a reading of the will. The Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wriothesley, announced Henry's death to parliament on 31 January, and general proclamations of Edward's succession were ordered. The new king was taken to the Tower of London, where he was welcomed with "great shot of ordnance in all places there about, as well out of the Tower as out of the ships". The following day, the nobles of the realm made their obedience to Edward at the Tower, and Seymour was announced as Protector. Henry VIII was buried at Windsor on 16 February, in the same tomb as Jane Seymour, as he had wished.
Edward VI was crowned at Westminster Abbey four days later on Sunday 20 February, the first coronation in England for almost forty years. The ceremonies were shortened, because of the "tedious length of the same which should weary and be hurtsome peradventure to the King's majesty, being yet of tender age", and also because the Reformation had rendered some of them inappropriate. On the eve of the coronation, Edward progressed on horseback from the Tower to the Palace of Westminster through thronging crowds and pageants, many based on the pageants for a previous boy king, Henry VI. He laughed at a Spanish tightrope walker who "tumbled and played many pretty toys" outside St Paul's Cathedral. At the coronation service, Cranmer affirmed the royal supremacy and called Edward a second Josiah, urging him to continue the reformation of the Church of England, "the tyranny of the Bishops of Rome banished from your subjects, and images removed". After the service, Edward presided at a banquet in Westminster Hall, where, he recalled in his Chronicle, he dined with his crown on his head.
Henry VIII's will named sixteen executors, who were to act as Edward's Council until he reached the age of 18. These executors were supplemented by twelve men "of counsail" who would assist the executors when called on. The final state of Henry VIII's will has been the subject of controversy. Some historians suggest that those close to the king manipulated either him or the will itself to ensure a shareout of power to their benefit, both material and religious. In this reading, the composition of the Privy Chamber shifted towards the end of 1546 in favour of the reforming faction. In addition, two leading conservative Privy Councillors were removed from the centre of power. Stephen Gardiner was refused access to Henry during his last months. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, found himself accused of treason; the day before the king's death his vast estates were seized, making them available for redistribution, and he spent the whole of Edward's reign in the Tower of London. Other historians have argued that Gardiner's exclusion was based on non-religious matters, that Norfolk was not noticeably conservative in religion, that conservatives remained on the Council, and that the radicalism of men such as Sir Anthony Denny, who controlled the dry stamp that replicated the king's signature, is debatable. Whatever the case, Henry's death was followed by a lavish hand-out of lands and honours to the new power group. The will contained an "unfulfilled gifts" clause, added at the last minute, which allowed Henry's executors to freely distribute lands and honours to themselves and the court, particularly to Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, who became the Lord Protector of the Realm, Governor of the King's Person, and the Duke of Somerset.
In fact, Henry VIII's will did not provide for the appointment of a Protector. It entrusted the government of the realm during his son's minority to a Regency Council that would rule collectively, by majority decision, with "like and equal charge". Nevertheless, a few days after Henry's death, on 4 February, the executors chose to invest almost regal power in Edward Seymour. Thirteen out of the sixteen (the others being absent) agreed to his appointment as Protector, which they justified as their joint decision "by virtue of the authority" of Henry's will. Seymour may have done a deal with some of the executors, who almost all received hand-outs. He is known to have done so with William Paget, private secretary to Henry VIII, and to have secured the support of Sir Anthony Browne of the Privy Chamber.
Seymour's appointment was in keeping with historical precedent, and his eligibility for the role was reinforced by his military successes in Scotland and France. In March 1547, he secured letters patent from King Edward granting him the almost monarchical right to appoint members to the Privy Council himself and to consult them only when he wished. In the words of historian G. R. Elton, "from that moment his autocratic system was complete". He proceeded to rule largely by proclamation, calling on the Privy Council to do little more than rubber-stamp his decisions.
Somerset's takeover of power was smooth and efficient. The imperial ambassador, Van der Delft, reported that he "governs everything absolutely", with Paget operating as his secretary, though he predicted trouble from John Dudley, who had recently been raised to Earl of Warwick in the share-out of honours. In fact, in the early weeks of his Protectorate, Somerset was challenged only by the Chancellor, Thomas Wriothesley, whom the Earldom of Southampton had evidently failed to buy off, and by his own brother. Wriothesley, a religious conservative, objected to Somerset’s assumption of monarchical power over the Council. He then found himself abruptly dismissed from the chancellorship on charges of selling off some of his offices to delegates. His removal forestalled the forming of factions within the Council.
In summer 1548, a pregnant Catherine Parr discovered Thomas Seymour embracing Princess Elizabeth. As a result, Elizabeth was removed from Catherine Parr's household and transferred to Sir Anthony Denny's. That September, Catherine Parr died in childbirth, and Thomas Seymour promptly resumed his attentions to Elizabeth by letter, planning to marry her. Elizabeth was receptive, but, like Edward, unready to agree to anything unless permitted by the Council. In January 1549, the Council, led by John Dudley, who had just engineered the recall of Wriothesley, had Thomas Seymour arrested on various charges, including embezzlement at the Bristol mint. King Edward, whom Seymour was accused of planning to marry to Lady Jane Grey, himself testified about the pocket money. Lack of clear evidence for treason ruled out a trial, so Seymour was condemned instead by an Act of Attainder and beheaded on 20 March 1549. The execution of the Protector's brother had at last given his enemies a chance to damage him. It was the latest of a series of disasters that had marked the Protector's rule. From this time, Somerset’s position was increasingly under threat.
The same justification for outbreaks of unrest was voiced throughout the country, not only in Norfolk and the west. The origin of the popular view of Somerset as sympathetic to the rebel cause lies partly in his series of sometimes liberal, often contradictory, proclamations, and partly in the uncoordinated activities of the commissions he sent out in 1548 and 1549 to investigate grievances about loss of tillage, encroachment of large sheep flocks on common land, and similar issues. Somerset's commissions were led by an evangelical M.P. called John Hales, whose socially liberal rhetoric linked the issue of enclosure with Reformation theology and the notion of a godly commonwealth. Local groups often assumed that the findings of these commissions entitled them to act against offending landlords themselves. King Edward wrote in his Chronicle that the 1549 risings began "because certain commissions were sent down to pluck down enclosures".
Whatever the popular view of Somerset, the disastrous events of 1549 were taken as evidence of a colossal failure of government, and the Council laid the responsibility at the Protector's door. In July 1549, Paget wrote to Somerset: "Every man of the council have misliked your proceedings ... would to God, that, at the first stir you had followed the matter hotly, and caused justice to be ministered in solemn fashion to the terror of others ...". By that autumn, plans were afoot to eject Somerset as Protector.
The sequence of events by which Somerset was removed from power has often been described as a coup d'état. By 1 October, Somerset had been alerted that his rule faced a serious threat. He issued a proclamation calling for assistance, took possession of the king's person, and withdrew for safety to the fortified Windsor Castle, where Edward wrote, "Me thinks I am in prison". Meanwhile, a united Council published details of Somerset's government mismanagement. They made clear that the Protector's power came from them, not from Henry VIII's will. On 11 October, the Council had Somerset arrested and brought the king to Richmond. Edward summarised the charges against Somerset in his Chronicle: "ambition, vainglory, entering into rash wars in mine youth, negligent looking on Newhaven, enriching himself of my treasure, following his own opinion, and doing all by his own authority, etc. In February 1550, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, emerged as the leader of the Council and, in effect, as Somerset's successor. Although Somerset was released from the Tower and restored to the Council, he was executed for felony in January 1552 after scheming to overthrow Dudley's regime. Edward noted his uncle's death in his Chronicle: "the duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o'clock in the morning".
Historians contrast the efficiency of Somerset's takeover of power, in which they detect the organising skills of allies such as Paget, the "master of practices", with the subsequent ineptitude of his rule. By autumn 1549, his costly wars had lost momentum, the crown faced financial ruin, and riots and rebellions had broken out around the country. Until recent decades, Somerset's reputation with historians was high, in view of his many proclamations that appeared to back the common people against a rapacious landowning class. More recently, however, he has often been portrayed as an arrogant ruler, devoid of the political and administrative skills necessary for governing the Tudor state.
In contrast, Somerset's successor John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, made duke of Northumberland in 1550, was once regarded by historians merely as a grasping schemer who cynically elevated and enriched himself at the expense of the crown. Since the 1970s, the administrative and economic achievements of his regime have been recognised, and he has been credited with restoring the authority of the royal Council and returning the government to an even keel after the disasters of Somerset's protectorate. Nonetheless, that he shared Somerset's ambition, greed, and corruption is undisputed.
The Earl of Warwick's rival for leadership of the new regime was Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, whose conservative supporters had allied with Dudley's followers to create a unanimous Council which they, and observers such as the Emperor's ambassador, expected to reverse Somerset's policy of religious reform. Southampton's faction intended to appoint the Catholic Princess Mary as regent for King Edward. Warwick, on the other hand pinned his hopes on the king's strong Protestantism and, claiming that Edward was old enough to rule in person, moved himself and his people closer to the king, taking control of the Privy Chamber. Paget, accepting a barony, joined Warwick when he realised that a conservative policy would not bring the Emperor onto the English side over Boulogne. Southampton prepared a case for executing Somerset, aiming to discredit Warwick through Somerset's statements that he had done all with Warwick's cooperation. As a counter-move, Warwick convinced parliament to free Somerset, which it did on 14 January 1550. Warwick then had Southampton and his followers purged from the Council after winning the support of Council members in return for titles, and was made Lord President of the Council and great master of the king's household. Although not called a Protector, he was now clearly the head of the government.
In accordance with his use of the king's personal authority as the source of his own, Warwick encouraged the king to come to Council meetings, which enabled him to cite the king's authority for his decisions. Although Edward was precocious and able to understand much government business, his contributions during Warwick's presidency probably amounted to no more than assent to decisions already taken. In Dale Hoak's view, "Edward VI's speeches and papers really present the somewhat pathetic figure of an articulate puppet far removed from the realities of government". His greatest influence was in matters of religion, where the Council followed the strongly Protestant policy that Edward favoured.
The new duke of Northumberland's mode of operation was very different from Somerset's. Careful to make sure he always commanded a majority of councillors, he encouraged a working council and used it to legitimate his authority. Lacking Somerset's blood relationship with the king, he added members to the Council from his own faction in order to control it. He also added members of his own family to the royal household. After a time, he insisted it was "some derogation to his Majesty's honour and royal authority" for the Council to countersign his letters and so gained control of Edward's name. He saw that to achieve personal dominance, he needed total procedural control of the Council. In the words of historian John Guy, "Like Somerset, he became quasi-king; the difference was that he managed the bureaucracy on the pretence that Edward had assumed full sovereignty, whereas Somerset had asserted the right to near-sovereignty as Protector".
Warwick's war policies were more pragmatic than Somerset's, and they have earned him criticism for weakness. In 1550, he signed a peace treaty with France that agreed to withdrawal from Boulogne, recalled all English garrisons from Scotland, and cancelled Edward's betrothal to Mary, Queen of Scots, in favour of one with Henry II's daughter Elisabeth. In practice, he realised that England could no longer support the cost of wars. At home, he took measures to police local unrest. In order to forestall future rebellions, he kept permanent representatives of the crown in the localities, including lords lieutenant, who commanded military forces and reported back to central government.
Warwick also tackled the disastrous state of the kingdom's finances, drawing on the talents of Thomas Smith, William Cecil, and William Paulet, and on the financial advice of men such as Walter Mildmay and Thomas Gresham. However, his regime did not take action until after it had succumbed to the temptations of a quick profit by further debasing the coinage. The economic disaster that resulted handed the initiative to the experts, and the debasement was reversed. By 1552, confidence in the coinage was restored, prices fell, and trade at last improved. Though a full economic recovery was not achieved until Elizabeth's reign, its origins lay in the Duke of Northumberland's policies. The regime also cracked down on the widespread embezzlement of government finances and carried out a thorough review of revenue collection practices which has been called "one of the more remarkable achievements of Tudor administration".
In the matter of religion, the regime of Northumberland followed the same policy as that of Somerset, supporting an increasingly vigorous programme of reform. Although Edward VI's practical influence on government was limited, his intense Protestantism made a reforming administration obligatory; his succession was managed by the reforming faction, who continued in power throughout his reign. The man Edward trusted most, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, introduced a series of religious reforms which revolutionised the English church from one that, while rejecting papal supremacy, remained essentially Catholic, to one that was institutionally Protestant. The confiscation of church property that had begun under Henry VIII resumed under Edward—notably with the dissolution of the chantries—to the great monetary advantage of the crown and the new owners of the seized property. Church reform was therefore as much a political as a religious policy under Edward VI. By the end of his reign, the church had been financially ruined, with much of the property of the bishops transferred into lay hands.
The religious convictions of both Somerset and Northumberland have proved elusive for historians, who are divided on the sincerity of their Protestantism. There is less doubt, however, about the religious devotion—some have called it bigotry—of King Edward, who was said to have read twelve chapters of scripture daily, enjoyed sermons, and was commemorated by John Foxe as a "godly imp". Edward was depicted during his life and afterwards as a new Josiah, the biblical king who destroyed the idols of Baal. He could be priggish in his anti-popery and once asked Catherine Parr to persuade Princess Mary "to attend no longer to foreign dances and merriments which do not become a most Christian princes". Edward's biographer Jennifer Loach cautions, however, against accepting too readily the pious image of Edward handed down by the reformers, as in John Foxe's influential Acts and Monuments, where a woodcut depicts the young king listening to a sermon by Hugh Latimer. In the early part of his life, Edward conformed to the prevailing Catholic practices, including attendance at mass: but he became convinced, under the influence of Cranmer and the reformers among his tutors and courtiers, that "true" religion should be imposed in England.
The English Reformation advanced under pressure from two directions: from the traditionalists on the one hand and the zealots on the other, who led incidents of iconoclasm (image-smashing) and complained that reform did not go far enough. Radical new doctrines were made official, such as justification by faith alone and communion for laity as well as clergy in both kinds, of bread and wine. The Ordinal of 1550 replaced the divine ordination of priests with a government-run appointment system, authorising ministers to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments rather than, as before, "to offer sacrifice and celebrate mass both for the living and the dead". Cranmer set himself the task of writing a uniform liturgy in English, detailing all weekly and daily services and religious festivals, to be made compulsory in the first Act of Uniformity of 1549. His Book of Common Prayer of 1549, intended as a compromise, was attacked by traditionalists for dispensing with many cherished rituals of the liturgy, such as the elevation of the bread and wine, and by radical reformers for retaining too many "popish" elements, including vestiges of sacrificial rites at communion. Cranmer's prayer book was also opposed by many senior Catholic clerics, including Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, and Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, who were both imprisoned in the Tower and, along with others, deprived of their sees.
After 1551, the Reformation became even more radical, with the approval and encouragement of Edward, who began to exert more personal influence in his role as Supreme Head of the church. This hardening of the Reformation was also a response to criticism from such extreme reformers as John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, and the Scot John Knox, who was employed as a minister in Newcastle under the Duke of Northumberland and whose preaching at court prompted the king to oppose kneeling at communion. Cranmer was also influenced by the views of the continental reformer Martin Bucer, who died in England in 1551, by Peter Martyr, who was teaching at Oxford, and by other foreign theologians. The progress of the Reformation was further speeded by the appointment of more reformers as bishops. In the winter of 1551–52, Cranmer rewrote his Book of Common Prayer in less ambiguous reformist terms, revised canon law, and prepared a doctrinal statement, the Forty-two Articles, to clarify the forms of the new religion, particularly in the divisive matter of the communion service. Cranmer's formulation of the new religion, finally divesting the communion service of any notion of the real presence of God in the bread and the wine, effectively abolished the mass. According to Elton, the publication of Cranmer's revised prayer book in 1552, supported by a second Act of Uniformity, "marked the arrival of the English Church at protestantism". The prayer book of 1552 remains the foundation of the Church of England's services. However, Cranmer was unable to implement all these reforms once it became clear in spring 1553 that King Edward, upon whom the whole Reformation in England depended, was dying.
During the winter of 1552–53, Edward VI became ill, and by May his condition, which included chronic coughing and swollen legs and head, was grave. The prospect of the king's death and the succession of his Catholic sister Mary threatened disaster to those around the king. It placed in jeopardy not only the English Reformation but the powerful and lucrative positions enjoyed by Edward’s Council and officers. For these reasons, an attempt was made in June 1553, shortly before Edward's death, to subvert the succession. Henry VIII had appeared to establish the convention that an English king could dictate his own heirs and set aside the ordinary rules of descent. Edward therefore wrote out several drafts of a document headed "My devise for the succession" in which he passed over the claims of the princesses Mary and Elizabeth in favour of his first cousin once removed, the seventeen-year-old Lady Jane Grey, who on 21 May was married to Guildford Dudley, the fourth son of the Duke of Northumberland, "with a display regal". Northumberland and his supporters insisted that deeply reluctant lawyers draw up a will in the terms of Edward's device, and on 21 June, this was signed by over a hundred notables, including councillors, peers, archbishops, bishops, and sheriffs, many of whom later claimed that they had been bullied into doing so by Northumberland. In the atmosphere of approaching uncertainty, Northumberland further secured his ties to the crown by betrothing a brother, son, and daughter to three individuals high in the line of succession to the throne. He also sealed an alliance with the French, banking on their support in the event of an armed challenge from Princess Mary.
The plan to exclude Princess Mary from the succession shows that those at the centre of power had lost touch with political reality. Though Henry VIII had tampered with the succession, his exclusion of his sister Margaret's heirs was understandable because her heirs were aliens. Edward's device to alter the succession was not only unconstitutional in its violation of Henry VIII's Third Succession Act of 1543 but was demonstrably the product of hurried and illogical thinking. At first, Edward had provided for the succession of Jane's male heirs, but, as his death approached, he altered the wording so that Jane herself should succeed, since he had willed the crown to male heirs who had not yet been born. Those who drew up the legal documents failed to make the same change for her two sisters, who, inconsistently, remained excluded from the succession in favour of their male heirs. By the logic of the device, Jane's mother, Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk, the daughter of Henry VIII's sister Mary Tudor, but unlikely now to bear a male child, should have been named as Edward's heir, but she waived her claim in favour of her daughter. On 21 June, Edward issued letters patent bastardising the princesses Mary and Elizabeth. Why the Protestant Elizabeth was cut out of the succession along with Mary is unknown; it may be that if Mary was to be excluded on grounds of bastardy, Elizabeth, who had once been bastardised herself, had to be barred for the same reason. Whether the device was Edward's own idea or the result of manipulation by his advisors has been a matter of debate for historians. In practice, Edward's aims and those of Northumberland and his followers had become identical by 1553. Edward, who believed that his word was law, understood and accepted the proposals for the succession, even if they were not his own idea.
In recent decades, revisionist historians such as Dale Hoak and Stephen Alford have emphasised that Northumberland alone did not engineer the plot to subvert the succession and place Lady Jane Grey on the throne. In his confession on the scaffold, the duke claimed that "some others" were involved, but he would not name them, "for I will hurt now no man". Although the marriage between Lady Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley, as well as other "suddenly knit" betrothals that tied Northumberland to the crown, were contracted in the last weeks of Edward's life, it has been shown that Northumberland had begun making arrangements for these alliances a year earlier, before Edward became ill. However, Edward Montagu, the Chief Justice, recalled that when legal objections to the device were raised in the Privy Council, Northumberland "fell into a great anger and rage, and called me traitor before all the Council, and said that in the quarrel of that matter he would fight in his shirt with any man living". The final responsibility for the alteration of the succession, however arrived at, must therefore be laid jointly at the door of Northumberland and of the young king himself.
Edward's illness began in January 1553 with a fever and cough that gradually worsened. The imperial ambassador, Scheyfve, reported that "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 ... I opine that this is a visitation and sign from God". Edward felt well enough in early April to take the air in the park at Westminster and to move to Greenwich, but by the end of the month he had weakened again. Scheyfve, who had an informant in the king’s household, wrote that “the matter he ejects from his mouth is sometimes coloured a greenish yellow and black, sometimes pink, like the colour of blood”. In May, ulcers—possibly bedsores—spread across his body, and his doctors believed he was suffering from "a suppurating tumour" of the lung. Members of the Council and other nobles began arming themselves for the troubles ahead; Windsor Castle and the south coast, among other places, were guarded and prepared for the worst; forces in the Tower and the city were strengthened, and naval vessels massed in the Thames. By mid-June, the doctors were admitting that Edward's life was beyond recovery. After this time, his legs became so swollen that he had to lie on his back, and he lost the strength to resist the disease. To his tutor John Cheke, he whispered "I am glad to die".
Edward made his final appearance in public on 1 July, when he showed himself at his window in Greenwich Palace, horrifying those who saw him by his "thin and wasted" condition. On the next two days, large crowds arrived hoping to see the king again, but on the 3rd, they were told that the weather was too chilly for him to appear. Edward died at the age of 15 at Greenwich Palace on 6 July 1553. According to John Foxe’s legendary account of his death, his last words were: "I am faint; Lord have mercy upon me, and take my spirit". He was buried in Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey on 8 August 1553, with reformed rites performed by Thomas Cranmer. The procession was led by “a grett company of chylderyn in ther surples” and watched by Londoners “wepyng and lamenting”; the funeral chariot, draped in cloth of gold, was topped by an effigy of Edward, with crown, sceptre, and garter. At the same time, Queen Mary attended a mass for his soul in the Tower, where Jane Grey was by then imprisoned.
The cause of Edward VI's death is not certain. As with many royal deaths in the 16th century, rumours of poisoning abounded; but no evidence has been found to support them. The Duke of Northumberland, whose unpopularity was underlined by the events that followed Edward’s death, was widely believed to have ordered the imagined poisoning. Another theory held that Edward had been poisoned by Catholics seeking to bring Mary to the throne. The surgeon who opened Edward’s chest after his death found that "the disease whereof his majesty died was the disease of the lungs". The Venetian ambassador reported that Edward had died of consumption—in other words, tuberculosis—a diagnosis accepted by many historians. Skidmore believes that Edward contracted the tuberculosis after a bout of measles and smallpox in 1552 that suppressed his natural immunity to the disease. Loach suggests instead that his symptoms were typical of acute bronchopneumonia, leading to a "suppurating pulmonary infection", septicaemia, and kidney failure.
Princess Mary, who had visited Edward in February, was fully aware of the progress of her brother’s illness and of the plot to transfer the succession to Jane Grey. She maintained contact with Emperor Charles V and his ambassadors, who advised her to accept the throne even if it were offered to her on condition she made no change in religion. Two days before Edward’s death, she was summoned to court. Instead, she left Hunsdon House, near London, and sped to her estate at Kenninghall in Norfolk, fearing a trap. Northumberland sent ships to the Norfolk coast to prevent her escape or the arrival of reinforcements from the continent. He delayed the announcement of the king’s death while he gathered his forces, and Jane Grey, who may not have been told of Edward's device until this moment, was brought to the Tower on 10 July. Later that day, she was proclaimed queen in the streets of London, to murmurings of discontent. Northumberland now pressed Jane to make his son Guildford Dudley king, which, according to her own account, she refused to do. The Privy Council received a message from Mary asserting her "right and title" to the throne and commanding that the Council proclaim her queen, as she had already proclaimed herself. The Council replied that Jane was queen by Edward's authority and that Mary, by contrast, was illegitimate and supported only by "a few lewd, base people".
Northumberland soon realised that he had miscalculated drastically, not least in failing to secure Mary's person before Edward's death. Although many of those who rallied to Mary were conservatives hoping for the defeat of Protestantism, her supporters also included many legitimists, for whom her lawful claim to the throne overrode religious considerations. Northumberland was obliged to relinquish control of a nervous Council in London and launch an unplanned pursuit of Mary into East Anglia, from where news was arriving of her growing support, which included a number of nobles and gentlemen and "innumerable companies of the common people". Northumberland marched out of London with three thousand men, reaching Cambridge on 14 July; meanwhile, Mary rallied her forces at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, gathering an army of nearly twenty thousand by 19 July. Seeing his troops melt away in support of Mary, Northumberland sent desperate messages to the French pleading for assistance, promising them Calais, among other inducements, in return.
It now dawned on the Privy Council that it had made a terrible mistake. When news reached the councillors in the Tower that even the Norfolk fleet had declared for Mary, they abandoned Northumberland and offered a reward for his arrest. On 19 July, the Council completed its turnabout by publicly proclaiming Mary as queen; and Jane's nine-day reign came to an end. The proclamation triggered wild rejoicing throughout London. Stranded in Cambridge, Northumberland had no alternative, as a member of the Council, but to proclaim Mary himself. William Paget and the Earl of Arundel rode to Framlingham to beg Mary’s pardon, and Arundel arrested Northumberland on 24 July. The duke was beheaded on 22 August, shortly after renouncing Protestantism. His recantation dismayed his daughter-in-law, Jane, who followed him to the scaffold on 12 February 1554, after her father's involvement in Wyatt's rebellion.
Although Edward reigned for only six years and died at the age of fifteen, his reign made a lasting contribution to the English Reformation and the structure of the Church of England. The last decade of Henry VIII's reign had seen a partial stalling of the Reformation, a drifting back to more conservative values. By contrast, Edward's reign saw radical progress in the Reformation. In those six years, the Church transferred from an essentially Roman Catholic liturgy and structure to one that is usually identified as Protestant. In particular, the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal of 1550, and Cranmer's Forty-two Articles formed the basis for English Church practices that continue to this day. Edward himself fully approved these changes, and though they were the work of reformers such as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, backed by Edward’s determinedly evangelical Council, the fact of the king's religion was a catalyst in the acceleration of the Reformation during his reign.
Queen Mary’s attempts to undo the reforming work of her brother’s reign faced major obstacles. Despite her belief in the papal supremacy, she ruled constitutionally as the Supreme Head of the English Church, a contradiction under which she bridled. She found herself entirely unable to restore the vast number of ecclesiastical properties handed over or sold to private landowners. Although she burned a string of leading church radicals, many reformers either went into exile or remained subversively active in England during her reign, producing a torrent of reforming propaganda that she was unable to stem. Nevertheless, Protestantism was not yet deeply "printed in the stomachs" of the English people, and had Mary lived longer, her Catholic reconstruction might have succeeded, leaving Edward’s reign, rather than hers, as a historical aberration.
On Mary’s death in 1558, the English Reformation resumed its course, and most of the reforms instituted during Edward’s reign were reinstated in the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. Queen Elizabeth replaced Mary's councillors and bishops with ex-Edwardians, such as William Cecil, Northumberland's former secretary, and Richard Cox, Edward's old tutor, who preached an anti-Catholic sermon at the opening of parliament in 1558. Parliament passed an Act of Uniformity the following spring that restored, with modifications, Cranmer’s prayer book of 1552; and the Thirty-nine Articles of 1563 were largely based on Cranmer's Forty-two Articles. The theological developments of Edward's reign provided a vital source of reference for Elizabeth's religious policies, though the internationalism of the Edwardian Reformation was never revived.