Among professional historians of Tudor England, the current tendency, however much some of us dissent, is to see Henry VIII as a weak king who enjoyed jousting, hunting and wenching but whose policies were determined by the dominant faction of the day, Elizabeth I as vacillating and only intermittently cajoled into action by groups of her councillors, and Mary as in thrall to her husband, Philip of Spain. Yet when it comes to the boy king Edward, Henry VIII's son by Jane Seymour, who came to the throne aged nine in 1547 and died before his 16th birthday in 1553, the fashion is to see him as precociously influencing politics and religious developments.
Chris Skidmore's account fits neatly into this pattern. He rightly sees Edward's reign as fully deserving scholarly attention rather than merely "a footnote in the margins of Tudor histories". But he goes further in presenting Edward as a child prodigy with "extraordinary gifts and intelligence", studying theology "at a phenomenal rate": "it was Edward's brilliant precociousness that kept his realm together".
The book Skidmore has written does not, however, offer him the best opportunity of vindicating such claims. It is arranged as a straightforward narrative of events, with only occasional interpretation. And that means that the complex and often tantalising sources for the reign do not receive the sustained analysis they need.
John Foxe, the martyrologist, included a lengthy prayer in his account of Edward's deathbed. Is it plausible that the dying 15-year-old boy was capable of speaking it? Or were its contents what Foxe thought Edward ought to have said at that point? Skidmore simply quotes it. Earlier, he quotes from essays that an even younger Edward was writing guided by his tutors.
Were the sentiments expressed Edward's own, or was he simply repeating what he had heard from men such as John Cheke? Skidmore is confident that the passages dealing with secular matters in a discourse on abuses "are entirely written in Edward's own voice", though he does not offer reasons, while noting that the religious sections have been seen as owing much to the exiled reformer Martin Bucer. Skidmore tells the tale of how Edward, on hearing Bishop Ridley preach that the rich should be charitable, offered to make over the royal palace of Bridewell to the City of London to house the poor. But, as he goes on to note, the future of Bridewell was already being discussed, while nothing much happened as a result of Edward's apparent gift.
Skidmore endorses the view of Edward as a "godly imp", and sees him as a significant force behind the radical religious reforms undertaken during his reign. That Edward, once in his teens, was a committed Protestant seems fair enough, but that does not necessarily mean that it was Edward who instigated such policies, rather than growing into adolescence with them.
Indeed, the more that the religious policies of the early years of the reign are seen as radical - and the Prayer Book of 1549 that provoked rebellion in the Southwest was visually and orally a great break with the past - the less plausible the claims for Edward's role become, since he was then only 11. And Skidmore, with scholarly honesty, notes that there is no surviving evidence that Edward was involved in the making of the second Prayer Book of the reign in 1552. Edward's most striking interventions in religious matters were over discipline: insisting that Bishop Hooper wore episcopal robes at court, angrily demanding that his half-sister Mary abandoned the Mass. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, remains a much more plausible author of the religious reformation of the reign than the young king.
Skidmore is on firmer ground when he suggests that the attempt to divert the crown from Mary to Lady Jane Grey was the young Edward's notion, rather than that of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. "Written and corrected in his own hand, the 'Devise' reads very much as of Edward's own making." And the boldness, indeed the recklessness, of Edward's Devise, and its disregard of legal and constitutional niceties, are just what might be expected of a 15-year-old. Yet to go on to claim that Edward's detailed revisions show that he "had thought very deeply over the nature of the English succession" risks over-egging the pudding.
The imperatives of the narrative, however, prevent Skidmore from addressing such points at any length. Here, as elsewhere in the book, the need to give an account of events makes it hard for him to offer sustained analysis and sometimes lures him into apparent contradiction. Despite usually presenting Edward as involved and independent, at one place Skidmore writes that "Northumberland's dominance of Edward was complete. Northumberland seems to have held an incredible, almost mesmeric sway over Edward."
At the very beginning of the book Skidmore tells us that Henry VIII's "failing judgment" had led him into costly wars with Scotland and France, "subsuming the country's wealth and leaving it teetering upon the point of bankruptcy"; two pages later he confidently asserts that "Henry had left Edward with a golden inheritance; the prince stood on the cusp of becoming the greatest and most powerful English monarch history had witnessed".
Such colourful passages and the narrative approach show that this book is aimed at the general reader who is thought to want a chronological account of events, plainly told, rather than argument and analysis that try to make sense of the complexities and difficulties in the surviving sources. The immediate success of the book, as shown by its high ranking on Amazon, might suggest that publisher and author have taken the measure of the market. But is it so certain that a more analytical approach would have deterred the general reader? Is there not scope for books that can bridge the divide between scholarly and popular history by being both rigorous and readable?
George Bernard is professor of early modern history, Southampton University and editor of the English Historical Review .
Edward VI - The Lost King of England: The Struggle for the Soul of England after the Death of Henry VIII
Author - Chris Skidmore
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 346
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 297 84649 9