Book Review: “Edward VI” by Jennifer Loach

Edward VI book cover

This biography is another volume in the Yale English Monarch series. Author Jennifer Loach, before her untimely death at forty-nine in 1995, was a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Somerville College, Oxford. Ms. Loach started out as an historian of parliament with a specialty in the Marian parliaments but she soon widened her field of study to cover European history in general and the reigns of Mary I and Edward VI in particular, bridging the gap between Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. Most of the work on the reign of King Edward VI had been published in the early to mid-twentieth century. In 1988, Loach was commissioned to write this book for Yale University Press and spent the last years of her life solely concentrating on its writing and publication.

It is unfortunate Ms. Loach died before the completion of the book. Her husband brought her notes and computer disks to Penry Williams and George Bernard, a student of Loach’s. The Preface of the book describes how these two editors managed to complete the project, a process in and of itself that is very interesting. Ms. Loach had discussed with them how she would construct the narrative of the book so they had a clear idea of her methods. For the reader, it is apparent the book was unfinished in some places although this doesn’t detract from the basic historical information provided.

Because Edward’s reign was short, he was young and had little say in the running of day-to-day government, it is necessary to concentrate on the regencies of his regime. This encompasses the retelling of the leadership of Edward’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, later Duke of Northumberland. In this volume, there is not a lot of detail about these men’s command but it is enough to give the reader an idea of the overall impact on the reign. Dr. Loach also gives a general overview of the social and economic difficulties of the reign as well as the religious policy.

The most interesting part of this biography is about the king himself. She tells us how Edward received one of the most complete humanist educations of his era. There is some fascinating information on Edward’s court and how he enjoyed magnificence, panoply and intricate ceremony and ritual, very much following in the footsteps of his father. Edward loved to dress in sumptuous clothes and personally participate in court entertainments as a performer and in inventing them. In many ways he was a typical sixteenth century teenager albeit fortunate enough to have a superb education and access to the royal treasury.

Loach includes an entire chapter on Edward’s last illness, containing her personal thoughts on a possible medical diagnosis for what ultimately proved to be fatal. The information on Edward’s “device” for changing the succession to Lady Jane Grey is most interesting. There is a brief description of Edward’s funeral and a chapter for what followed his death with the proclamation of Lady Jane Grey as Queen and how Mary fought to claim her throne and who fought with her. There are some wonderful illustrations in the book and an appendix describing a selected list of portraits of King Edward. This is a wonderful, no-nonsense history of the life and reign of the young King Edward.

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