How far does Somerset deserve his reputation as the ‘Good Duke’? Essay
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Edward Seymour, also known as the 1st Duke of Somerset, in many ways did not deserve his title as the ‘Good Duke’ due to the fact that not only did he used his position as Edward VI’s uncle to gain autocratic power as ‘Lord Protector’, his arrogant and selfish style of government led to a collapse of not only the economy, but created many social, religious and political problems, leading to rebellions spreading across the country. Because of this, it would be unfair to call him a ‘Good Duke’ as his legacy did little good for his successors, having created a nation in a terrible state to save the governing of.
Somerset (then known as Earl of Hertford) claimed the title of Lord Protector after the death of Henry VIII, when sometime before it was decided that he and an equal group of others (forming the Regency Council) would manage the throne for Edward VI whilst he was a child, ‘thinking it the surest form of government and most fit for that commonwealth’. Being the boy king’s uncle, it seemed natural for him to be his guardian, and he had soon gained trust by many members – allowing him the favour of being one of the leaders on this council. Somerset, however, played a game of factions, and his rise to power quickly as (self-named) ‘Lord Protector’ allowed the so called ‘Good Duke’ to successfully alienate others – giving his supporters positions of authority around him, whilst leaving those with other ideas along the sides to look upon with confusion and bitterness.
Ruling alone was his style of government, and appeasing his supporters with wealth, offices, land and titles was one of his ways to keep control. Somerset, who had made himself Duke – building a grand estate for himself as if he were the real king – gained much resentment from the Privy Council, who, although offered Somerset advice, could see that he was not interested in their views. Sir William Paget – an advisor to the former king – often criticised Somerset’s way of government, noticing that the policies created by the so called council were those only of Somerset, and later he would be one of the forces bringing Somerset down from power.
It seems right to suggest that the power Somerset held had gotten to his head – where every policy he wrote, decision he made, and action he took were nothing but his own, and this can be an argument opposing the title of the ‘Good Duke’ he has earned by some, being quite selfish and power-hungry, cavorting around as if he was the actual king. As historian Susan Brigden put it (New Worlds, Lost Worlds): ‘Since Somerset had taken the devising of policy to himself, his would be the blame if, and when, it failed’.
As a hard on, military commander, it seemed only natural that Somerset’s attention would have been strongly focussed on foreign policy, particularly, the issue of Edward VI’s suzerainty over Scotland. However, it can be said that Somerset was obsessed with the idea of ruling over Scotland – perhaps using Henry VIII’s initial idea of marrying the young Edward VI to the infant Mary Queen of Scots to strengthen the alliance between the two countries, as an excuse for the insanely increased expenditure over the war. Although relations with France so far had been fairly calm, the idea of Mary Queen of Scots marrying the dauphin of France allowed Somerset to see clearly in his way what was needed to gain Scotland – a war – in his opinion. All seemed well for Somerset, who’s tactic was to defeat the Scots and French in battle and force rule, and this subsequently started off successfully – bringing England victory with the Battle of Pinkie in September 1547.
Nevertheless, Somerset failed to recognise the fierce economic problems that were facing the nation at the time. The previous ruler, Henry VIII had already mangled inflation with the debasing of the coins – yet Somerset foolishly allowed this to continue, trying to fund the war with the Scots. In his Lenton Sermon of 1549, Latimer spoke of the debasing of the silver coin ‘so reddened with copper it blushed for shame’. Financing the war was still a huge problem and Somerset’s tactics seemed to have been failing due to the inability to defend all the forts that had been blocked previously. Without money, the war was crumbling, which led to further problems with the economy.
Crop prices were a new high, and it was hard enough to grow grain as it was – this allowed the people of England to start resenting Somerset. In terms of his reputation at the ‘Good Duke’, his actions did not support this title – firstly, he chose to ignore the increasingly terrible economic situation of the country, allowing the rise of inflation and poor exchange rate to continue as a result of the debasing of the silver coins. Likewise his obsession with resolving the Scottish conflict led to heavy military expenditure for little gain, with the resultant garrisoning expensive and frail. Also, by avoiding confrontation with France, Somerset simply passed on England’s major concerns to future monarchs.
These decisions were clearly poorly made and short sighted, and whilst he continuously debased the coins of the ordinary, spent much money on his own lavish property and funding a war that he seemed to have underestimated (both financially and skilfully – he realised the French Army was very strong), he refused to admit fault in his own policies, placing ‘the cause of society’s ill elsewhere’ (Brigden.), the ultimate show of arrogance, allowing further bitterness from the Council towards him. As a protector and so called ‘Good Duke’ he seemed to have failed to make any effective progress.
In terms of Religious Policy, it was under Edwards VI’s rule, and so under Somerset, that the real changes to the church started to happen. Henry VIII had not only left a legacy that was riddled with debt for the economy, but also tensions amongst the Catholic Church after Henry’s controversial break from Rome. Edward VI, who at the time was being raised protestant, was sure to make reforms that made the majority Catholic country convert, according to his father’s wishes. How things were done was up to Somerset, who, totally different from his hard-faced and somewhat cruel military persona, was quite tolerable in terms of religious change.
February 1547, one of the first and noticeable moves to convert to Protestantism made was the denunciation of images in churches in London, although it was not an official change, this act of iconoclasm was fully supported by the government and the protestant extremists such as Nicholas Ridley, showing the starting of religion reform under Somerset. It was not until July of that year that the government sent out injunctions to further attack the Catholic church – this time picking up on things such as candles, bell ringing, stained glass windows and images of saints in Catholic churches across the country, with visitations made by government which were to ‘precipitate the most sweeping changes in religion England had yet seen’ (Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Alters).
In December of that year came a further change which had significant impact. Chantries, which were used to pray for the souls trapped in Purgatory – a state between heaven and hell in Catholic belief – were dissolved, with these buildings turned into bookshops and other things. Although these changes were changing the appearance of Catholicism in England, Somerset seemed to have ‘gotten away with it’ so far, as although people were perhaps angry with the changes, a lot of people accepted the changes quietly – after all they were not too hard to live with. It can be argued that these policies were soft – and Somerset in a kind fashion had not introduced any cruel punishment to punish those who opposed his idea – which led a lot of Catholics to hide their churchly images in annoyance rather than rebellion.
It was not until May 1549 that Somerset introduced the Book of Common Prayer, did he really have a huge impact in terms of the religious reforms. These books were a guideline of what was to be said at all church services, and were completely in English, which was a huge leap from catholic Services which were held in Latin. This change aimed to make churches simpler – less about money and the show of religion, but more about the faith – according to the most radical Protestants. If the Book of Common Prayer was in English, it would be easier for everyone to hear the messages of God in clear plain English, something Catholics disagreed with, as they thought only trained and blessed priests should have been able to read the bible. It was this change that acted as a catalyst for the later rebellions.
Although these religious changes seemed somewhat inevitable, and perhaps would have happened under anyone – not just Somerset – it can be argued that Somerset did not do much to drive the changes that were being made, and instead he cared about the conflict with Scotland overall much more. Another thing to take notice was that Somerset was interested in foreign policy, and of course for the future succession of the throne after Edward VI.
At that point, most of Europe was Catholic, and Somerset knew that if there was much radical change in England with the church, England would lose important links to major countries such as Spain – which to Somerset – perhaps was not worth the risk of fast change. On the whole, this could have been the reason as to why he didn’t make too obvious changes at the beginning, explaining the relatively slow progress of change, with some policies not lasting very well under Somerset, which would explain why he seemed to be tolerating of religious change and didn’t try and force it too hard, even though it did eventually lead to rebellions.
In 1549 many commons’ uprisings were occurring. These were surprising – ‘Not since 1381 had there been such widespread rebellion’ (Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds). Particularly significant, two rebellions occurred under Somerset – the first being the Western Rebellions, in the Cornish area of England. There was a building of tension here with the Cornish, who had a history of disliking the government as they wanted independence. This very strongly catholic state was outraged with the religious changes being made – and so challenged Somerset and his government with a list of demands.
The second rebellion was the Kett Rebellion, taking place in East Anglia – which occurred less due to religious reforms, but in rise of the desperation of economic reform, especially after the extreme expenditure thanks to the Scottish war conflict and the over-debasing of the silver coins. The rebellion – named after Robert Kett who took lead – also had a list of things they wanted changing, however interestingly, were written with much more politeness, and had nothing to do with the religious reforms. This suggests to us that only a few parts of the country had so far been greatly affected by the religious reforms under Somerset.
These rebellions tell us the general antagonism and resentment the population felt towards the condition of the country under Somerset, suggesting that he was far from being a ‘Good Duke’ However, it is important to argue that it was not just Somerset’s fault – it was too the gentry, ‘who in pursuit of self-interest had abdicated their duty to the commons, seemed powerless to act and looked upon one another’ (Susan Brigden). Although about different problems and the uprisings seemed to be unrelated, there was a ‘particular sharpness in social conflict’ (Andy Wood, the 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England) that was very significant, and this blame that fell onto Somerset led to his demise in the time coming.
Somerset was growing increasingly desperate to sort out the problems with the rebellions, and so appointed Lord Russell, a nobleman in the West, to sort out the uprisings in the area. Although it took time and strength, on the 4th August 1549, Somerset was able to defeat the rebels in the west, leaving him only the rebels in Kett, against whom he was defeated humiliatingly later on. Somerset then turned to his last hope, as he saw it, the Duke of Northumberland (then known as Earl of Warwick) to help him out with Kett, despite knowing that Northumberland was actually his potential rival.
His strong opponent successfully sorted out the rebels, and bought light to the failures of Somerset – his demise was inevitable – and his enemies (Northumberland, Cranmer) who once sat in the shadows in resent towards his arrogant and autocratic rule were able to speak up against Somerset, using his failure against Scotland, worsening of the economy and religious reforms done poorly to accuse him of being a unsuitable Lord Protector, as after all, he did fail to protect the country from rebellions.
Somerset, knowing his end was near and his enemies were plotting against him, moved himself and the young King to the Windsor Palace where they were safer. Edward in his diary, wrote ‘Me thinks I am in a prison’, and when it was discovered that Somerset had in fact locked Edward up – thinking that the ‘possession of his person was the key to power’ (Brigden). When discovered, Somerset surrendered and was executed for treason – offering ‘his life, not his liberty’ (Brigden). The fall of Somerset seems like he was perhaps targeted and plotted against, and the fact that he had many enemies alongside the knowledge of his failing policies, supports the argument that Somerset perhaps didn’t deserve the title of the ‘Good Duke’.
On the other hand, to not argue Somerset as the ‘Good Duke’ would be unfair as there are things that made him perhaps not as bad as it seemed. Somerset did indeed inherit a legacy full of debt, economical issues, and religious conflict from Henry VIII, and so it would be unreasonable to say that the rebellions started solely due to Somerset’s policies – as he believed he was just carrying out the will of Henry VIII. Furthermore, Somerset was often described being very caring of the poor – ‘Somerset saw himself as the champion of the oppressed, hearing complacently the benisons if the poor.’ (Susan Brigden).
This suggests that he was not as brutal as he was made out to be (normally because of his cruel Military regime against Scotland), another reason as to why he good have been considered ‘Good’ to an extent, as previous Monarchs/rulers weren’t often praised with ‘Oh the commons pray for you sir’. Also, he could also be compared to the Duke of Northumberland, who inherits his position as Lord Protector. Northumberland has been compared to being a typical ‘Machiavellian’ character – a person who stabbed the back of others to get what he wanted, and although reform was perhaps more effective under Northumberland, it would be unfair to, if talking in terms of morals, call Northumberland a better Duke than Somerset. Overall, there are some things supporting the argument that Somerset could be described as a ‘Good Duke’ if comparing him to Northumberland.
Overall it would seem that Somerset did not deserve the title as the ‘Good Duke’ because of the overall negative effect he had in government, and his policies that failed to successfully bring religious reform in the country, whilst causing further economic damage due to his blind war expenditure from his obsession with the Scotland conflict. Somerset’s overall attitude towards governing was also partly to blame – he created many enemies for himself due to making decisions on his own constantly, alienating certain members who would then plot against him and because of this, he would be solely to blame for the actions he took. Although he didn’t mean to cause extra damage, it is undeniable that his actions proved that he didn’t deserve to be called the ‘Good Duke’.