The Lord Protector Somerset


   I don't cover religious policy extensively in this node, because I've done that here as part of a series of nodes on the English Reformation. Similarly, the chronology of Ket's Rebellion and The Prayer Book Rebellion can be found in their respective nodes.

   The Lord Protector Somerset ruled England for only two years,1547-9. He was a member of the nobility during the reign of Henry VIII, but upon the latter's death he managed to leverage his influence in the Privy Council to become Protector.

   Born Edward Seymour, and Earl of Hertford, he managed to gain influence around the court of the King, and was put on the King's Privy Council (the most important Council of the land) in 1536. He saw the fall of Thomas Cromwell and the vicious faction of Henry's court throughout the 1540s. Faction at the time was mainly based on religious issues, particularly the English reformation. Predictably, there were two parties - the conservatives and the reformers. Seymour was a reformer and had also led English troops in the recent wars with Scotland, which no doubt boosted his popularity.

   There were other reasons why Seymour emerged as the head of the Council after Henry's death. A little background is needed to understand why this Council was needed at all - where was the next monarch? The next monarch, Edward VI, was safe and well, but sadly only nine year's of age - and in these turbulent times, a strong adult male was needed to rule a country (for an example of what happens when none is present, consult the War of the Roses).

   The exact reasons for Seymour's rise to power are to some degree unknown, but he was the uncle of the young Edward (as he was the brother of Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife), which no doubt had some effect. It is also thought he may have appealed to both moderates and reformers in the clergy. But perhaps the most influencial factor was that he and his fellow Councillor and ally, Sir William Paget, had control of Henry's will. In fact, they even managed to keep his death secret from the rest of court for several days after it transpired.

   After having himself declared Lord Protector of the Realm and Governer of the King's Person "for the better conduct of business", Seymour was undisputed ruler of England. He had the power to dismiss members of the Privy Council, which now had the strong head it needed to conduct business properly. It was at this point he secured himself the title of Duke of Somerset.

   Somerset's rise to power is often attributed more to the good sense of Paget (who was more of a mentor than an ally) than his own ability, and so to get a sense of the man we must examine his conduct while in power over the next two years.

Somerset and the machinations of Tudor government

   During his two years in power, Somerset changed the government of the realm little - indeed, he had little time to do so. Parliament was still used to approve taxes and new laws (supposedly showing that the support of the political nation was behind such moves), whereas the King could exercise his royal perogative in matters of religion, war and diplomacy.

   In Tudor times, the Privy Council attended to the day-to-day running of the government, with the monarch acting as the leader. The Privy Council was composed of nobles, clergy and lawyers who were chosen for their administrative abilities and talents as statesmen (this was a practice which harked back to the first Tudor, Henry Bolingbroke).

   Somerset introduced no reforms in this machinery of government, and the men that continued to exert an influence over the Council were those that had rose to power during the last years of the reign of Henry VIII. Somerset is accused of being overly autocratic, and many historians view him as a typical Tudor statesman, concerned mainly with fighting France and Scotland, with these goals made all the worse by his lack of political acumen. The reason he is accused of autocracy is that he neglected the Council to a large degree, except to use it as a sort of "rubber stamp" to legitimize what he was doing. Perhaps his most deplorable act was the execution of his own brother, Thomas Seymour, on allegations of him trying to seduce the Princess Elizabeth to advance his own interests in the state (which Thomas had a history of doing). Some historians think he was forced into this, some think it was his own choice - the former shows a weakness, the latter a streak of ruthlessness which would earn him few allys.

The foreign policy of the Protector

   The most pressing problems for Somerset when he gained power in 1547 were that Auld Alliance which caused English Kings immeasurable heartache - France and Scotland. Henry VIII had left commitments against both of these, and the cost of modern warfare was crippling the English treasury - the receipts from crown lands (the lands owned by the Crown, their main source of income) were £200,000 in 1547. Not enough to run the government and pay off the massive debts of Henry VIII, never mind fight a war! Had Somerset been a true reformer, he might have set about reforming the taxation and customs system to secure more long-term capital. Instead, he debased the coinage and seized Church property.

   In relations with Scotland and France, the legacy of Henry VIII dominated affairs. Henry had stipulated in his will that Edward VI should be married to Mary Queen of Scots. However, it was feared that France would try and take control of Scotland to re-impose Catholicism on England and undo the Protestant English reformation. France sent troops to Scotland in 1547, and Somerset was forced to intervene in Scotland himself. His troops defeated the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie, but didn't have sufficient resources to occupy the entire country, so they withdrew. This defeat for Scotland only strengthened their distaste for the English, and they became much more open to negotiations with the French. It was decided that Mary Queen of Scots should marry the dauphin of France rather than Edward VI, and it looked inevitable the English would have to war with both France and Scotland.

   In January 1548 Somerset wrote to the Scots, proposing a union between the two countries -

"Who hath read the histories of time past doth mark and note the great battles fought between England and Scotland, the incursions, raids and spoils which hath been done on both parties and shall perceieve, that of all nations in the world that nation only beside England speaketh the same language, and as you and we be annexed and joined in one island, so no people so like in manner, form, language, and all conditions as we are; shall not he think it a thing very unmeet, unnatural, unchristian that there should be between us so mortal war, who in respect of all other nations be, and should be, like us two brethern of one island of Great Britain?"

   The Scots (who were Catholics) favoured the French, and a French army landed in Scotland in June of 1548. Henry II of France declared Scotland and France one country. The French and Scottish troops laid siege to English strongpoints in Scotland, and the French began to amass their troops around Boulogne (the only part of France England still held). Although Somerset could do little to counter them because of domestic strife (see below), the French eventually decided to withdraw their support from the Scots because it was too expensive. The cost of wars in Scotland had further crippled the English, however - £580,000 was spent on one campaign.

   As they do with many aspects of his rule, historians accuse Somerset of being overly autocratic and unwilling to delegate in his military affairs, although he was a capable Commander on the battlefield.

Domestic affairs under Protector Somerset

   Somerset faced massive popular opposition from the unlanded classes. In 1549, there were popular uprisings in Somerset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Kent, Sussex, Essex, Devon, Cornwall, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Rutland. Troops had to be called in in some of these cases, while the local gentry and nobility dealt with the rest without expense to the Crown.

   The reasons for this domestic rebellion can be traced to two distinct poles of Somerset's government - religion and social policy. In The Prayer Book Rebellion, the most isolated parts of England (The West Country) rebelled against the reformation and called for a return to traditional Catholicism. They also shared with Ket's Rebellion a number of social demands - including restricting the rights of the gentry, calling for the gentry to take more responsibility, and calling for an end to enclosure. Somerset said of the rebels that they

"hath conceived a wonderful hate against the gentlemen and taketh them all as their enemies."

   Somerset was by no means free of blame, however. He had shown concern for the peasants and the plight put upon their heads by enclosure (whereby nobles and gentlemen enclosed the common land to rear sheep, which is what inspired Thomas More's comment in Utopia about "a land where sheep eateth up men"). Often, the rebels believed they were acting with the Protector's backing, after hearing rumours that he wished for reform! Criticism began to be levelled against him by the Council for his own "good will", and saying that he was been too kind to the peasants, even when they were in rebellion. Even his most trusted servant and mentor Sir William Pagent was critical of him.

   Historians used to actually think Somerset was a high-minded idealist and reformer who had a genuine concern for the peasants. Nowadays, this isn't so fashionable, and the "typical Tudor statesman" view is in place. His leniency towards the rebels was probably an attempt to make them disband and leave him alone, so he could deal with the much more pressing issue of the foreign affairs of his country.

The fall of Protector Somerset

   As has been noted, Somerset was not well liked by the Privy Council, who thought he excluded them from the government of the realm. After the popular revolts of most of the country in 1549, particularly Ket's rebellion, the majority of the Council wanted rid of him. Seeing what was coming, Somerset issued a proclamation calling for all loyal Councillors to join him at Hampton Court. 18 Councillors issued counter-proclamations, and Somerset was placed in the Tower of London on the 14th of October. Ket's rebellion had been the final blow which allowed Somerset's enemies to rally opposition to him, and his autocratic methods had left him with few friends and allys to fight back with. Somerset had demonstrably failed to prevent popular discontent, and the anarchy in England was only put down by his successors.

   Somerset was let out of the Tower a year later and even reinstated on the Council, but he was accused of plotting against the government. He was put to death in the Tower on the 22nd of January 1552, and then attainted on the 12th of April of the same year. He was put to death for felony, his real crime being achieving a revival of his influence over the Council.


The Tudor Years, Edited by John Lotherington (Hodder & Stoughton, 1994)
Edward VI and Mary: A Mid-Tudor crisis? by Nigel Heard (Hodder & Stoughton, 1990)
Peace, Print & Protestantism: 1450-1558 by C. S. L. Davies (Paladin, 1976)
England and Wales under the Tudors by Sinclair Atkins (Hodder & Stoughton, 1975)
Disorder and Rebellion in Tudor England by Nicholas Fellows (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001)
Tudor Rebellions by Anthony Fletcher (Longman, 1968). For those interested in the topic of disorder in Tudor England, this is perhaps the best general work.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.