By Michael A.G. Haykin
Stephen Alford, Edward VI: The Last Boy King (London: Allen Lane, 2014), xii+98 pages.
Stephen Alford’s adroit use of a wide variety of sources contemporary to Edward VI makes this a delightful biography to read, one of the first in the new series initiated by Penguin Books, “Penguin Monarchs.” In a concentrated space of less than a hundred pages, Alford ably documents not only the power politics that surrounded Edward—two of his Protestant uncles attempted coups and paid the price for their treason—but also Edward’s devotion to learning—by his death he was reading and writing fairly fluently in Latin, Greek and French—and his love of such things as astronomy and various court festivities (though firmly Protestant, Edward did not share the later distaste by some Puritans of the latter). Alford is also able to capture another dimension with regard to Edward through his commentary on various contemporary portraits of Edward—one by Guilim Scrots of Edward at fourteen is particularly striking. These mini-studies provide further aid the reader’s understanding of the way Edward appeared to those who knew him.
Alford is quite aware of the importance of religious issues for Edward—he was firmly committed to the faith of the Reformation personified in the work of men like Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer. In a lengthy discussion of Edward’s important document “My device for the succession,” drawn up in the final months of his life so as to secure a Protestant monarchy after his death, Alford notes that guiding Edward was “one question only”: “Who was best qualified after his death to rule England and Ireland as defender of the faith and Supreme Head of the Church of England…?” (p.76–77). Yet, there is really very little said about the monumental religious changes that Edward’s reign brought to the English state.
Alford does cite a portion of an intriguing sermon preached by Latimer after the downfall of Edward’s uncle, Thomas Seymour, who had married Henry VIII’s widow, Katharine Parr. But it seems that this extract is primarily introduced to draw attention to the fact that it took two blows by the executioner’s axe to decapitate the traitor (p.42). Cranmer is mentioned a number of times, but nothing said about the religious changes his archbishopric had brought to English religious life beyond the fact that the revolutionary “[c]hange had come from the top” (p.45). This remark may well reflect the relatively recent revisionist opinion that Protestantism was very much an elite affair in England until well into Elizabeth’s reign, an opinion belied in part by the large numbers of Bibles circulating in England during the reigns of both Edward and his father, Henry VIII and also in part by the many “common folk” who perished for their evangelical convictions during the reign of Edward’s Roman Catholic sister, Mary I.
On the other hand, Alford provides the reader with an excellent character study of “the last boy king” of England, which reveals a young man increasingly assuming the reins of power when he died at the age of fifteen. Had he lived he might have proven to be a formidable monarch and major religious player in England and even beyond.
Michael A.G. Haykin Professor of Church History The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary