1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Somerset, Edward Seymour, Duke of
SOMERSET, EDWARD SEYMOUR, Duke of (c. 1506–1552), protector of England, born about 1506, was the eldest surviving son of Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall, Wiltshire, by his wife Margaret, eldest daughter of Sir Henry Wentworth of Nettlested, Suffolk. The Seymours claimed descent from a companion of William the Conqueror, who took his name from St Maur-sur-Loire in Touraine; and the protector’s mother was really descended from Edward III. His father was knighted by Henry VII. for his services against the Cornish rebels at Blackheath in 1497, was present at the two interviews between Henry VIII. and Francis I. in 1520 and 1532, and died on the 21st of December 1536. Edward was “enfant d’honneur” to Mary Tudor at her marriage with Louis XII. in 1514, served in Suffolk’s campaign in France in 1523, being knighted by the duke at Roze on the 1st of November, and accompanied Wolsey on his embassy to France in 1527. Appointed esquire of the body to Henry VIII. in 1529, he grew in favour with the king, who visited his manor at Elvetham in Hampshire in October 1535. On the 5th of June 1536, a week after his sister Jane’s marriage to Henry, he was created Viscount Beauchamp of Hache in Somerset, and a fortnight after Edward VI.’s birth in October 1537, he was raised to the earldom of Hertford.
Queen Jane’s death was a blow to his prospects, and in 1538 he was described as being “young and wise” but of “small power.” He continued, however, to rise in political importance. In 1541, during Henry’s absence in the north, Hertford, Cranmer and Audley had the chief management of affairs in London; in September 1542 he was appointed warden of the Scottish marches, and a few months later lord high admiral, a post which he almost immediately relinquished in favour of the future duke of Northumberland (q.v.). In March 1544 he was made lieutenant-general of the north and instructed to punish the Scots for their repudiation of the treaty of marriage between Prince Edward and the infant Mary Queen of Scots. He landed at Leith in May, captured and pillaged Edinburgh, and returned a month later. In July he was appointed lieutenant of the realm under the queen regent during Henry’s absence at Boulogne, but in August he joined the king and was present at the surrender of the town. In the autumn he was one of the commissioners sent to Flanders to keep Charles V. to the terms of his treaty with England, and in January 1545 he was placed in command at Boulogne, where on the 26th he brilliantly repelled an attempt of Marshal de Biez to recapture the town. In May he was once more appointed lieutenant-general in the north to avenge the Scottish victory at Ancrum Moor; this he did by a savage foray into Scotland in September. In March 1546 he was sent back to Boulogne to supersede Surrey, whose command had not been a success; and in June he was engaged in negotiations for peace with France and for the delimitation of the English conquests. From October to the end of Henry’s reign he was in attendance on the king, engaged in that unrecorded struggle for predominance which was to determine the complexion of the government during the coming minority. Personal, political and religious rivalry separated him and Lisle from the Howards, and Surrey’s hasty temper precipitated his own and his father’s ruin. They could not acquiesce in the Imperial ambassador’s verdict that Hertford and Lisle were the only noblemen of fit age and capacity to carry on the government; and Surrey’s attempt to secure the predominance of his family led to his own execution and to his father’s imprisonment in the Tower.
Their overthrow had barely been accomplished when Henry VIII. died on the 28th of January 1547. Preparations had already been made for a further advance in the ecclesiastical reformation and for a renewal of the design upon Scotland; and the new government to some extent proceeded on the lines which Chapuys anticipated that Henry VIII. would have followed had he lived. He had no statutory power to appoint a protector, but in the council of regency which he nominated Hertford and Lisle enjoyed a decisive preponderance; and the council at its first meeting after Henry’s death determined to follow precedent and appoint a protector. Hertford was their only possible choice; he represented the predominant party, he was Edward VI.’s nearest relative, he was senior to Lisle in the peerage and superior to him in experience. Seven weeks later, however, after Lord-Chancellor Wriothesley, the leading Catholic, had been deprived of office Hertford, who had been made duke of Somerset, succeeded in emancipating himself from the trammels originally imposed on him as protector; and he became king in everything but name and prestige.
His ideas were in striking contrast with those of most Tudor statesmen, and he used his authority to divest the government of that apparatus of absolutism which Thomas Cromwell had perfected. He had generous popular sympathies and was by nature averse from coercion. “What is the matter, then?” wrote Paget in the midst of the commotions of 1549, “By my faith, sir, . . . liberty, liberty. And your grace would have too much gentleness.” In his first parliament, which met in November 1547, he procured the repeal of all the heresy laws and nearly all the treason laws passed since Edward III. Even with regard to Scotland he had protested against his instructions of 1544, and now ignored the claim to suzerainty which Henry VIII. had revived, seeking to win over the Scots by those promises of autonomy, free trade, and equal privileges with England, which many years later eventually reconciled them to union. But the Scots were not thus to be won in 1547: “What would you say,” asked one, “if your lad were a lass, and our lass were a lad?” and Scottish sentiment backed by Roman Catholic influence and by French intrigues, money and men, proved too strong for Somerset’s amiable invitations. The Scots turned a deaf ear to his persuasions; the protector led another army into Scotland in September 1547, and won the battle of Pinkie (Sept. 10) . He trusted to the garrisons he established throughout the Lowlands to wear down Scottish opposition; but their pressure was soon weakened by troubles in England and abroad, and Mary was transported to France to wed Francis II. in 1557.
Somerset apparently thought that the religious question could be settled by public discussion, and throughout 1547 and 1548 England went as it pleased so far as church services were concerned; all sorts of experiments were tried, and the country was involved in a grand theological debate, in which Protestant refugees from abroad hastened to join. The result convinced the protector that the government must prescribe one uniform order which all should be persuaded or constrained to obey; but the first Book of Common Prayer, which was imposed by the first Act of Uniformity in 1549, was a studious compromise between the new and the old learning, very different from the aggressive Protestantism of the second book imposed after Somerset had been removed, in 1552. The Catholic risings in the west in 1549 added to Somerset’s difficulties, but were not the cause of his fall. The factious and treasonable conduct of his brother, the lord high admiral, in whose execution (March 20, 1549) the protector weakly acquiesced, also impaired his authority; but the main cause of his ruin was the divergence between him and the majority of the council over the questions of constitutional liberty and enclosures of the commons. The majority scouted Somerset’s notions of liberty and deeply resented his championship of the poor against greedy landlords and capitalists. His efforts to check enclosures by means of parliamentary legislation, royal proclamations, and commissions of inquiry were openly resisted or secretly foiled, and the popular revolts which their failure provoked cut the ground from Somerset’s feet. He was divided in mind between his sympathy with the rebels and his duty to maintain law and order. France, which was bent on ruining the protector’s schemes in Scotland and on recovering Boulogne, seized the opportunity to declare war on August the 8th; and the outlying forts in the Boulonnais fell into their hands, while the Scots captured Haddington.
These misfortunes gave a handle to Somerset’s enemies. Warwick combined on the same temporary platform Catholics who resented the Book of Common Prayer, Protestants who thought Somerset’s mildness paltering with God’s truth, and the wealthy classes as a whole. In September he concerted measures with the ex-lord-chancellor Wriothesley; and in October, after a vain effort to rouse the masses in his favour, Somerset was deprived of the protectorate and sent to the Tower. But the hostile coalition broke up as soon as it had to frame a constructive policy; Warwick jockeyed the Catholics out of the council and prepared to advance along Protestant lines. He could hardly combine proscription of the Catholics with that of Somerset, and the duke was released in February 1550. For a time the rivals seemed to agree, and Warwick’s son married Somerset’s daughter. But growing discontent with Warwick made Somerset too dangerous. In October 1551, after Warwick had been created duke of Northumberland, Somerset was sent to the Tower on an exaggerated charge of treason, which broke down at his trial. He was, however, as a sort of compromise, condemned on a charge of felony for having sought to effect a change of government. Few expected that the sentence would be carried out, and apparently Northumberland found it necessary to forge an instruction from Edward VI. to that effect. Somerset was executed on the 22nd of January 1552, dying with exemplary patience and fortitude. His eldest son by his second wife was re-created earl of Hertford by Elizabeth, and his great-grandson William was restored as 2nd duke of Somerset in 1660. His children by his first wife had been disinherited owing to the jealousy of his second; but their descendants came into the titles and property when the younger line died out in 1750.