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Mid-Tudor Crisis

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Mid-Tudor Crisis

The Mid-Tudor Crisis is a traditional view of historians that during the reign of Edward VI and Mary I, the English government and society were on the verge of collapse. What made them believe this, and is there any truth to it? Let's find out.

How would we define the mid-Tudor crisis?

Simply put, this describes a crisis in the mid-Tudor period. Although some early nineteenth-century historians place the Mid-Tudor Crisis from 1539 to 1563, the consensus among recent historians is that the Mid-Tudor Crisis was from 1547, with the death of Henry VIII, to 1558, with the death of Mary I. Some early nineteenth-century historians argued that weak rulers, economic pressures, and a series of rebellions were just some of the reasons that the English government and society were facing an imminent collapse.

Crisis

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a crisis is a time of great disagreement, confusion, or suffering. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that a crisis is a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention. Finally, the Oxford Languages dictionary states that a crisis is a time of intense difficulty or danger.

Historical interpretations of the mid-Tudor crisis

The big question is: was there a mid-Tudor crisis? This is a difficult question to answer. As mentioned above, early nineteenth-century historians have argued that several things led to a crisis severe enough that it could collapse the English government and society. However, more recent historians have actually discounted this theory.

The historian John Matusiak believes that both parties are over-simplifying their arguments.

Before going into details about who said the mid-Tudor crisis did and did not exist, let’s have a look at some people who are involved in this discussion.

Who said it did exist:

  • Whitney Jones, an early nineteenth-century historian.
  • Albert Pollard, a late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century historian.
  • Stanley Thomas Bindoff, an early nineteenth-century historian.

Who said it didn’t exist:

  • David Loades, a mid to late-nineteenth-century historian.

Let's look in more detail at both the for and against arguments, as well as what John Matusiak has to say about it.

Factors of the mid-Tudor crisis thesis

While Pollard and Bindoff argued that there had been a period of crisis, it was Jones who first presented a systematic analysis of the state of both the government and society during those years.

Jones wrote The Mid-Tudor Crisis 1539-1563 (1973) in which he mentioned eight factors that, combined, created a crisis in mid-Tudor England.

FactorExplanation

Weak rulers

Edward VI, who became king at just age nine, was a mere pawn of his Council Regents Edward Seymour (Duke of Somerset) and John Dudley (Duke of Northumberland). Somerset's policies were the primary cause of the 1549 rebellions whilst Northumberland was all about benefitting the rich at the expense of the poor.

Mary I who reigned from 1553 to 1558 was intolerant and dogmatic. She demonstrated this by burning Protestants, as she made Catholicism the state religion once again. She also appeared to be a puppet who was controlled by her husband King Philip of Spain.

Dogmatic

Inclined to lay down principles as undeniable truth.

Economic dislocation

Real wages fell by as much as 60% in this period. This is striking given that around 80% of the average worker’s wages were spent on food. The debasement of the coinage to pay for foreign wars and population growth were major causes of the economic problems.

Debasement of the coinage

Lowering the value of coins.

Rebellions

  • The Western Rebellion of 1549, also known as the Prayer Book Rebellion, was mainly a response to Somerset’s religious reforms.

  • The Kett’s Rebellion of 1549 was caused by economic factors.

  • The Wyatt’s Rebellion of 1554 was largely the result of Mary I’s marriage to Philip.

Faction fighting and unstable government

The fall of Thomas Cromwell led to a fight between the conservative camp, led by the Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, and the radical camp, led by Somerset and Catherine Parr. This fighting enabled both the rise and fall of Somerset.

Foreign policy

Somerset’s wars with Scotland and France were unsuccessful, so they were ended by Northumberland. It did, however, lead to the loss of Boulogne, which was now back in French hands.

The war against Scotland also led to economic problems and social unrest, and Mary I’s war with France led to the loss of Calais.

Local problems

Local problems grew as local politics was neglected. Both Kett’s Rebellion and Wyatt’s Rebellion clearly showed unsolved local issues that were growing into uprisings or rebellions.

Religious change

This was a period with major religious changes during which England went from Catholic to Protestant due to Henry VIII’s break with Rome. It saw moderate Protestant reform from Somerset yet radical Protestant reform from Northumberland, then it went back to Catholicism under Mary I.

These religious reforms were significant in both the Western Rebellion and Wyatt’s Rebellion.

Succession crisis

Because Edward VI did not want the country to go back to Catholicism, he bypassed his father’s will that restored both Mary and Elizabeth to the throne and made Lady Jane Grey his successor. This decision did not sit well with the Catholic people. Mary was still popular and considered the rightful heir. She protested and was made queen after Lady Jane Grey had reigned for just nine days.

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was chief minister to King Henry VIII from 1535 until 1540 when he was beheaded. Cromwell had directed Henry's radical religious reforms and the Pilgrimage of Grace rebels articulated their anger towards him rather than the King. Despite this, he retained his position and Henry made him Earl of Sussex in 1540.

Shortly after, Cromwell's enemies convinced the King that Cromwell was a traitor so Henry had him executed. His removal left a power vacuum, which led to faction fighting.

Mid-Tudor Crisis: The revisionist interpretation

In more recent decades, Loades and other historians have proposed a new interpretation, which is almost the complete opposite of the traditional mid-Tudor crisis thesis.

Revisionist interpretation

Explanation

The crisis is an exaggeration

Revisionists say that England was not in a state of true crisis at all. There were some notable events but none of them threatened to collapse both the government and society. They say that the so-called essential machinery of the state survived intact.

Strength of the state

Even though there were coups against both Somerset and Northumberland, these were short-term and unsuccessful. They did not damage the state and the monarchy.

Faction fighting did occur. However, it stayed within the Council rather than destabilising the wider government or society.

Continuity in government

The central government was strengthened by continuity in key and experienced figures. These include Thomas Gresham, William Paget, William Herbert, and William Cecil, who all remained in office throughout the period.

Comparison with other periods

There is no doubt that the mid-Tudor period had moments of unrest and rebellion. However, they are considered less serious than moments that happened outside of the mid-Tudor period. The cloth crisis of 1551–52 was considered nothing compared to the agrarian crisis of 1596–98.

The Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, during Henry VIII's reign, was far more serious than all three Mid-Tudor rebellions combined. Also, the threat of the Spanish Armada during Elizabeth I's reign was far greater than the French and Scottish wars of this period.

The three rebellions were exaggerated as a threat

Many of the rebels were more concerned about local issues and most of the rebels still remained loyal to the monarchs. An example of this took place during Kett’s Rebellion, where a lot of rebels still shouted: ‘God Save the King.’

All three rebellions were marred by mistakes, disorganisation, chaos, and blunder. This meant that the rebellions were easily crushed, and they were no threat to national security or the Throne. Other rebellions outside the mid-Tudor period proved to be a far greater threat, and still, the government and society were not hurt.

Under Northumberland’s time as regent, there were no more rebellions. This showed an improvement in social stability.

The economic problems have been exaggerated

The mid-Tudor crisis thesis used price indexes, which only focused on the fortunes of agriculture, even though this period was notable as the beginning of industrialisation in England. They also ignored the decline in the number of holidays as a result of the introduction of Protestantism.

The mid-Tudor crisis thesis focused on pay, missing the point that many workers were paid in kind (i.e. they were given food and accommodation).

Statistically speaking, the economy appeared to be struggling. However, the lives of ordinary English citizens were not as affected as they might seem when you consider all the facts and figures.

Strengths and achievements of the rulers

Somerset and Northumberland, Edward VI’s regents, were more effective than they are given credit for. Northumberland inherited many problems and dealt with them efficiently.

Mary I had achievements in military and economic policies. Her failures were due to bad luck and a lack of time, not due to being a weak monarch.

Edward VI was considered a relatively weak monarch, but we cannot forget that he became King at the age of nine and died at the age of 15. He never ruled himself as King of England and Ireland. However, his biggest achievement was laying the foundations of the modern Church of England with the help of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.

There were no civil wars during this period and Parliament survived. England remained independent, and the important reforms in finance and administration which laid the foundations for the late Tudor state, suggest that the rulers of this period provided a relatively effective rule.

Mid-Tudor Crisis: The post-revisionist perspective

As mentioned earlier, John Matusiak, who is a specialist in the mid-Tudor period, offers another perspective. He claims that both parties have over-simplified their arguments and that neither of them paints an accurate picture of the mid-Tudor period. Matusiak himself calls it ‘Years of trauma and survival’. He lists four aspects of his reasoning.

  1. There was no crisis

In this, he actually agrees with the revisionists. While there were times of trouble, they did not warrant the term ‘crisis.’

  1. Reassessment of the scale of failure

The traditionalists called the rulers in question weak, and the revisionists portrayed them as rather exceptional given their achievements. While Matusiak states he does not consider these rulers weak, he argues that the state survived but through no particular and exceptional efforts of these rulers.

  1. The revisionists downplayed the problems faced during this period

The economy was facing severe issues. Wages were 60% less in 1559 than they were 50 years earlier. The consecutive harvest failures in 1556–57 had a big impact on the economy, as well as the outbreaks of sweating sickness in 1551–52, and the epidemics of 1556 and 1558. The latter reduced the population by 200,000 (6%).

This period saw constant changes between Catholicism and Protestantism in the space of two decades.

The loss of both Boulogne and Calais damaged English nationalism and was a stark contrast with the relatively successful ventures of Henry VIII. Furthermore, Parliament had to be dissolved in 1549, 1550, 1552, and 1553, which demonstrated its instability.

  1. Comparison with other periods

Matusiak said that even though the problems listed above are not unique to the Tudor period, they all happened in a 25-year timeframe. This period was thus particularly eventful.

Matusiak concludes his theory by saying:

While there was no apocalypse in Mid-Tudor England, there were many who sensed keenly enough the passing of the four horsemen. 1

We can say that there was no actual crisis. However, there was still trauma and the state was more focused on survival rather than achievement.

Mid-Tudor Crisis: Summary and analysis

As you can see, there are three groups with clear ideas and theories. All theories have some merit. We know that there were severe issues that arose between 1547 and 1558. These were not the results of crises, but rather due to long-term problems, mainly those left over by Henry VIII’s reign.

Some examples are the huge debts that Henry left the government and his unstable foreign policy. This had put Edward VI and his regents in a difficult position from the start. That being said, the financial problems that were started by Henry VIII were exacerbated by Somerset with massive inflation rates due to his wars and policies against Scotland.

The two rebellions that followed this economic crisis led to 1549 being called ‘the worst year in the Tudor period’. These rebellions, however, were crushed easily with no threat to national security and the throne. Additionally, as we discussed earlier, there were rebellions all throughout the Tudor period. Indeed in comparison, those during the mid-Tudor period seemed to have a lesser impact than those outside the mid-Tudor period.

Due to poor harvests in the early 1550s, food became more expensive, and there were trading issues with the Netherlands in 1551 due to problems in Antwerp. Although the economic crisis continued, Northumberland and Mary I attempted to tackle these problems, which eventually improved the economy.

Although she had some success regarding economics, Mary I’s foreign policies were criticised, in particular her marriage to Philip. However, Mary put the following rules in place to protect England from foreign influence:

  • Philip would only hold the title ‘King’ without actually being a king.
  • Philip was not permitted to hold English offices.
  • Philip would lose his claim over the English throne upon Mary’s death.

This shows that while the move of marrying a foreigner was not welcomed, she put measures in place to make sure that no foreigner would actually rule over England.

Mid-Tudor Crisis: Conclusion

What can we conclude from all this information? We can conclude that indeed, there were issues during the mid-Tudor period. There were economic issues, rebellions, and foreign policy issues, but no more than during other Tudor periods, or during other historical periods in general. The issues were certainly not severe enough to destabilise the English government and society. If we consider this, then the word crisis in ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’ is an exaggeration.

Just remember that all the people involved in this ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’ idea have their own views and opinions and as people, we are prone to bias. We will, subconsciously, use our bias when forming opinions. Considering everything you just learned, try to form your own opinion and see what you think about the mid-Tudor crisis.

Below are some primary sources that historians have used to think about the mid-Tudor crisis. What do you think? Which sources would you use to argue in favour or against this theory?

Mid-Tudor Crisis: Primary sources

After the rebellions were crushed, many of the lords and councillors secretly plotted to overthrow the Lord Protector. Each lord and councillor went through London armed, and had their servants likewise armed. They published a proclamation against him containing the following charges. First, that through his malicious and evil government, the Lord Protector had caused all the recent unrest in the country. Second, he was ambitious and sought his own glory, as appeared by his lavish buildings. Third, that he ignored the advice of the councillors. Fourth, that he told untruths about the council to the King.

- An excerpt about the rebellions of 1549 by Richard Grafton, a well-informed Londoner (1568). Taken from OCR A Level History AS: Mid Tudor Crisis, 1539-69.

And the said Northumberland wrought so much with the King and the nobles that they were not ashamed to declare publicly that her Highness was illegitimate: and that, both on this account and for her being (as they called it) a Papist, which name they have given to the Catholics, and designing to marry a foreign prince, she might be rightfully disinherited.

- An excerpt from The Accession of Queen Mary: Being the Contemporary Narrative of Antonio De Guaras, a Spanish merchant resident in London (1892) about how the Duke of Northumberland got Mary I disinherited.

Amongst all and singular histories touched in this book before, as there be many pitiful, divers lamentable, some horrible and tragical; so is there none almost either in cruelty to be compared, or so far off from all compassion and sense of humanity, as this merciless fact of the papists, done in the isle of Guernsey, upon three women and an infant, whose names be these as follow:- Katharine Cawches, the mother; Guillemine Gilbert, the daughter; Perotine Massey, the other daughter; an infant, the son of Perotine...

- An excerpt from John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) about Mary I's burning of Protestants.

Mid-Tudor Crisis - Key takeaways

  • According to some historians, the mid-Tudor crisis took place from 1547, with the death of Henry VIII, to 1558, with the death of Mary I.
  • Witney Jones, Albert Pollard, Stanley Thomas Bindoff, and other historians say that the mid-Tudor crisis did happen while David Loades and other historians claim it did not happen.
  • The mid-Tudor crisis thesis lists eight reasons for what created the crisis:1. Weak rulers2. Economic dislocation3. Rebellions4. Faction fighting and unstable government5. Foreign policy failures6. Local grievances7. Religious disasters8. Succession crisis
  • The revisionists take almost the opposite perspective that the 'crisis' has been exaggerated whilst post-revisionist John Matusiak says both groups have over-simplified their arguments.
  • While there was unrest and there were issues, using the word ‘crisis’ is an exaggeration. Therefore, the conclusion is that there was no mid-Tudor crisis

Sources

1. John Matusiak, 'Mid-Tudor England: Years of Trauma and Survival', History Review, 52, 2005.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mid-Tudor Crisis

Considering the word crisis is an exaggeration, the general consensus is that there was no Mid-Tudor Crisis.

A traditional view of historians that, during the reign of Edward VI and Mary I, the English government and society were on the verge of a collapse.

The main cause was the religious reforms during both Edward VI’s and Mary I’s reign.

The Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, which did not happen during the Mid-Tudor period.

118 years.

Final Mid-Tudor Crisis Quiz

Question

What religion was Mary I of England?

Show answer

Answer

Catholic

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Question

Who were Mary I of England’s parents?

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Answer

Henry VIII and Catherine Aragon of Spain

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Question

What happened when Henry VII tried to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon?


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Answer

The Pope refused to annul his marriage, and this led to Henry VIII removing the pope as the head of the Church and appointing himself the head of the Church of England. 


Henry then used his religious supremacy to annul his marriage to Catherine, and this led to Mary being eliminated as an heir to the throne.

Show question

Question

 Why did Mary I of England have to fight for the crown?

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Answer

Just before King Edward VI (Mary’s half-brother) died he and the Duke of Northumberland concocted a plan to eliminate Mary as heir to the crown. 


They granted Lady Jane Grey, a distant relation of Henry VII the crown, however, Mary assembled an Army and won the crown.

Show question

Question

Why did Mary I of England gain the nickname “Bloody Mary”?


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Answer

Mary gained this name from her very violent religious pogroms against protestants during her rulership. 



Show question

Question

Who did Mary I of England marry?

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Answer

 Prince Phillip of Spain

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Question

In what year did Mary I of England have a false pregnancy?


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Answer

1554

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Question

In what year did Mary I of England approve plantations in Ireland? 


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Answer

1556

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Question

 Why was the economy so bad during Mary I of England’s rule?


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Answer

The economy was bad because England and Ireland experienced extreme wet seasons and terrible harvests. 


Mary also failed to create a mercantile trade system which many other kingdoms had begun to be extremely wealthy from.

Show question

Question

What territory did Mary I of England lose after her war with France?


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Answer

 Calais

Show question

Question

What was the Mid-Tudor Crisis?

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Answer

A traditional view of historians that, during the reign of Edward VI and Mary I, the English government and society were on the verge of a collapse.

Show question

Question

When did the Mid-Tudor Crisis take place according to general consensus?

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Answer

From 1547, when Henry VIII died, to 1558, when Mary I died.

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Question

What is the essential meaning of ‘crisis’ according to Merriam-Webster?

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Answer

A difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention.

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Question

Name three historians who said that the Mid-Tudor Crisis did exist.


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Answer

  1. Whitney Jones
  2. Albert Pollard
  3. Stanley Thomas Bindoff

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Question

Name one historian who said that the Mid-Tudor Crisis did not exist.

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Answer

David Loades

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Question

What was the book Whitney Jones wrote and when was it published?

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Answer

The Mid-Tudor Crisis 1539-1563, and it was published in 1973.

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Question

How many factors created the Mid-Tudor Crisis according to Jones?

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Answer

8

Show question

Question

What are the eight factors that Jones mentions?

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Answer

  1. Weak rulers
  2. Economic dislocation
  3. Rebellions
  4. Faction fighting and unstable government
  5. Foreign policy failures
  6. Local grievances
  7. Religious disasters
  8. Succession crisis

Show question

Question

Which rebellions does Jones mention?

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Answer

  1. The Western Rebellion, or Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.
  2. Kett’s Rebellion of 1549.
  3. Wyatt’s Rebellion of 1554.

Show question

Question

What was the cause of the Western Rebellion of 1549?

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Answer

It was mainly a response to Somerset’s religious reforms.

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Question

What do the revisionists say about the crisis?

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Answer

They say that the crisis is an exaggeration and that England was not in a state of true crisis at all. There were notable events but none threatened to collapse the government and society.

Show question

Question

The revisionists state that there was a continuity in Government. Who were the key experienced figures?

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Answer

  1. Thomas Gresham
  2. William Paget
  3. William Herbert
  4. William Cecil

Show question

Question

Which event did the revisionists consider to be far more serious than the three Mid-Tudor rebellions combined?

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Answer

The Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, which is outside of the Mid-Tudor period.

Show question

Question

What is the name of the Mid-Tudor Crisis historian that gives another perspective?

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Answer

John Matusiak

Show question

Question

How does Matusiak call the Mid-Tudor Crisis period?

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Answer

Years of trauma and survival.

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Question

What is Matusiak’s take on the Mid-Tudor Crisis?

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Answer

He states that both other parties have over-simplified their arguments and that neither of them paints an accurate picture of the Mid-Tudor period.

Show question

Question

What does Matusiak say about the existence of the crisis?

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Answer

He agrees with revisionists, saying that there were times of trouble, but they do not warrant the term ‘crisis.’

Show question

Question

What does Matusiak say about the comparison with other periods?

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Answer

Matusiak said that even though the problems listed were not unique to the Tudor period, they all happened in a 25-year timeframe. Thus, the period was particularly volatile.

Show question

Question

What measures did Mary I take in order to have as few foreign policy issues as possible regarding her husband, Philip?

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Answer

  1. Philip would only hold the title ‘King’ without actually being a king.
  2. Philip was not permitted to hold English offices.
  3. Philip would lose his claim over the English throne upon Mary’s death.

Show question

Question

Describe the conclusion as the whether or not the Mid-Tudor Crisis really existed.

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Answer

There were economic issues, rebellions, and foreign policy issues, but no more than during other (Tudor) periods. They were not severe enough to destabilise the English government and society. Considering that the word ‘crisis’ is an exaggeration, the view that there was a Mid-Tudor Crisis from 1547 to 1558 is not valid.

Show question

Question

When was Edward VI born?

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Answer

On 12 October 1537

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Question

Who were Edward VI’s parents?

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Answer

Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour

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Question

While growing up, who was Edward VI close to?

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Answer

  1. Catherine Parr, his stepmother

  2. Mary, his half-sister

  3. Elizabeth, his half-sister

  4. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

Show question

Question

When did Edward VI become King?

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Answer

On 28 January 1547, upon the death of his father Henry VIII

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Question

How old was Edward VI when he became King?

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Answer

He was just nine years old

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Question

What was special about Edward VI’s ascension to the throne?

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Answer

Edward was too young to rule, so Henry VIII had put in place a council of 16 executors who would act as regents.

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Question

When was the Rough Wooing?

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Answer

From December 1543 until March 1551

Show question

Question

Besides Edward VI, who else was involved in the Rough Wooing?

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Answer

Mary, Queen of Scots

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Question

Who were the three major players in Edward’s Regency Council?

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Answer

  1. Edward Seymour

  2. Thomas Seymour

  3. John Dudley

Show question

Question

What became Edward Seymour’s title which led to his nickname?

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Answer

Duke of Somerset, leading to him simply being called Somerset

Show question

Question

What was Somerset’s official title in the Regency Council?

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Answer

Lord Protector of England, or Lord Protector of the Realm

Show question

Question

Why did the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh happen?

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Answer

Because Somerset tried to have the Scots voluntarily join a union with England but they refused. Somerset then invaded Scotland and defeated the Scots.

Show question

Question

When was Somerset executed?

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Answer

On 22 January 1552

Show question

Question

Which three battles and rebellions happened during Edward VI’s reign?

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Answer

  1. Prayer Book Rebellion

  2. Kett’s Rebellion

  3. Battle of Pinkie Cleugh

Show question

Question

Who helped Edward VI lay the foundation of the modern Church of England?

Show answer

Answer

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

Show question

Question

What was the name of the book that was a product of the English Reformation and when was it published?

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Answer

The Book of Common Prayer. It was published on 15 January 1549

Show question

Question

When was Thomas Cranmer executed?

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Answer

On 21 March 1556

Show question

Question

When did Edward VI die and how old was he?

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Answer

He died on 6 July 1553. He was 15 years old.

Show question

Question

What were the causes of Edward VI's death?

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Answer

He had a weakened immune system from catching measles. He was then susceptible to catching tuberculosis, which ultimately killed him.

Show question

Question

Who was initially named Edward VI's successor and what was special about their reign?

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Answer

Lady Jane Grey, daughter-in-law of John Dudley. What was special about her reign is that she was queen for a mere nine days.

Show question

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