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The execution of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset

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On 22 January 1552 Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was beheaded at Tower Hill watched by a large crowd. Despite orders from the government for the citizens of London to remain in their homes that morning, a great multitude had gathered to watch the final moments of the ‘Good Duke’. Yet just five years earlier Somerset had been planning for a long and successful future.

When his nine-year old nephew, Edward VI, ascended the throne in January 1547, Somerset had been appointed Lord Protector of England. For nearly three years he governed as king in all but name but some of his enlightened ideas on how best to rule proved unsuitable for the time in which he lived. 

His efforts to lessen the authoritarian rule imposed by Henry VIII and to improve the well-being of the poor folk raised their expectations unrealistically and led to the outbreak of widespread rebellion. His attempt to subdue the Scots and bring about the union of Scotland with England failed and left the government desperately short of money.

Towards the end of 1549, as his policies were failing and his increasing single-mindedness and over-bearing attitude towards the privy councillors alienated the very men whose support he needed, they finally lost patience with him. In a coup d’etat led by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Somerset was removed from his position as Lord Protector.

After a short spell in the Tower he returned to court and the privy council but it was only a temporary reprieve. Fearing Somerset’s continuing influence and popularity, Warwick plotted for his adversary to be arrested on false charges of planning to imprison and murder Warwick and two other councillors. Despite uncertainty amongst his trial judges, Somerset was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London, on the day before his execution he wrote his final religious devotions in a tiny book, an almanac just three inches square and covered in red velvet. Inside the flyleaf he penned phrases taken from the Bible.

‘Fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom. Put thy trust in the lord with all thine heart.’

Then, before adding his signature, he wrote the poignant words: ‘From the Tower the day before my death’.

At 8am the following morning, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and once Lord Protector of England, walked out to Tower Hill escorted by a large guard. His hope of a pardon had not been met.

Climbing the steps of the scaffold, Somerset knelt and commended himself to God before addressing the watching crowd. He acknowledged that he had been condemned by law to die and he accepted his fate, even though he believed he had done nothing to warrant execution. His greatest comfort, though, was that God had not taken him suddenly but had allowed him time to repent and prepare to die, the sixteenth century understanding of a ‘good death’.

Suddenly a great noise was heard, described by onlookers as like a mighty storm or an explosion of gunpowder. Terrified people ran in all directions, throwing themselves upon the ground and into the ditches. But it was only the tramping of feet as a large contingent of guards arrived late for the execution. Seeing Somerset already on the scaffold they had all rushed forward with their bills and halberds.

As the people returned to their places a rumour spread through the multitude that Sir Anthony Browne had been seen riding towards the scaffold. Already agitated, the crowd grew excited that he might be bringing a pardon from the king and cries went up of ‘Pardon, pardon is come. God save the king.’ But it was not so.

Throughout all this tumult Somerset had stood quietly upon the scaffold, his cap in his hand. When the people had settled again he continued his address. There would be no pardon, he said, and he asked them to remain quiet and so help him to remain calm. ‘For albeit the spirit be willing and ready, the flesh is frail and wavering, and, through your quietness, I shall be much more the quieter.’

As a soldier he had been close to death many times but now he needed the courage to face his own end. He had witnessed executions and he must have hoped for a quick death with one stroke of the axe.

Kneeling in the straw, Somerset read a brief confession to God. Then, standing, he took the hand of each man on the scaffold and bade them farewell before giving several gold sovereigns to the executioner.

Removing his gown, and outwardly calm, he knelt at the block and untied the strings of his shirt collar. The executioner moved forward to turn down the collar about his neck and handed him a handkerchief to tie about his eyes. Somerset raised his hands to God and laid his head upon the block. The only sign of fear was a flush of blood to his cheeks.

Then, as he knelt ready to die, the executioner bade him rise and remove his doublet - perhaps it covered his neck making it difficult to see where to strike. Somerset lay down again with his head across the block. His lips moved and as he uttered the words ‘O Lord Jesus preserve me’ for the third time, the axe fell. With one stroke he was dead.

As his body and head were bundled into a wooden chest and carried into the Tower for burial, many in the crowd rushed forward to dip their hands and their handkerchiefs into his blood. Their ‘Good Duke’, who had tried to improve the lives of ordinary men and women, was gone.

It had been a dramatic and brutal end for a man who had, for a short time, been a central and powerful character on the stage of Tudor England.

By Margaret Scard

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