Monarchy, monarchy, monarchy. Are we so addicted to it that we want to read the life of a boy who came to the throne at the age of nine and died six years later? Chris Skidmore seems to think so. His purpose, he says, is to rescue the ‘lost’ Edward VI from the obscurity to which negligent historians have consigned him and resurrect him as ‘a central figure in the Tudor age’.
Can it be done? Amid the contest between the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, and his rivals (first his younger brother, Edward Seymour, and then John Dudley, the Earl of Warwick) for control of the Council which governed England during his minority, was there a role of any significance for Edward to play? Skidmore makes a half-hearted stab at suggesting that there was. When Seymour was angling for the hand of Henry VIII’s widow, Katherine Parr, he would have us believe that Seymour looked to Edward for support, before acknowledging that Edward’s letter to Katherine, favouring the union, was dictated to him by Seymour. Something is also made of Seymour’s attempt to enlist Edward in his campaign to become the young king’s governor, but the decision was not Edward’s to make. It was his tutor, Sir John Cheke, who scotched the plan. When Somerset was tried, and deposed, by the Council, Edward spoke against him. As Skidmore allows, however, the words were written for him and the attempt to present him as a figure of political standing was a ‘charade’.
Can more be made of Edward’s influence on the course of religious reform, stalled in Henry VIII’s last years and threatened by Romanist resistance? Edward did express reformist sentiments. What else was he to do, surrounded as he was by reformist councillors such as Somerset and Dudley and taught by reformist tutors? Skidmore implies that Edward’s own mental efforts led him to independent conclusions about faith and religious practices: Dudley, in casting his lot with the reformers, is said to have been ‘following the course that Edward himself had chosen to take’. A few pages later, however, after teasing us with Edward’s reflections upon Archbishop Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer and the nature of the mass (which Cranmer had renamed Holy Com- munion), Skidmore draws back and warns us not to read too much into Edward’s foray into ‘the complexities of Reformation theology’. With like ambivalence he writes that in his last year, after the death of Somerset, Edward both came under the ‘complete dominance’ and ‘mesmeric sway’ of Dudley and showed signs of emerging into a real king.
The difficulty that Skidmore faced in writing the life of a boy, a difficulty not overcome, is demonstrated by the proportion of the book, far in excess of what is usually considered to be reasonable in a biography, given to background material. Edward’s brief reign was eventful: factional struggles at court, a furious Protestant assault on the Roman elements retained by the Henrician church, economic uncertainty and inflation, a battle over enclosures, popular disturbances and rebellion. They are the stuff of Skidmore’s book and, even though Edward played no part in their unfolding, might have saved it (though not the biography), were it not sunk by its language. Disregard for the subjunctive and the unsplit infinitive may be in line with current practice. Other errors, not forgivable, abound. Tenses are improperly aligned; subject and verb are in disagreement; pronouns lack antecedents. ‘How’ is repeatedly used instead of ‘that’ to introduce subordinate clauses that do not say how a thing happened but simply that it happened. Time after time sentences are drowned in participles, as often as not dangling. Things are different to, or different than, or are centred around. And the trouble is not merely grammatical. It is that the unconsidered, undistilled language of everyday conversation is taken to be suitable for scholarly publication. An example is Skidmore’s fondness for ‘all too’. Matters are ‘all too clear’ or ‘all too fresh’ in people’s minds; Henry VIII is an ‘all too absent’ parent; and Mary is ‘all too aware’ of the Council’s intention to forbid her household from hearing mass. Ought Mary to have been less aware?
It is disquieting that a graduate of Oxford who is reading for a D. Phil. should write prose so clogged and so graceless that it exhibits not just carelessness, but imperviousness to the beauty of language. History is literature. Writing, as Sir John Cheke instructed his royal pupil, requires words and sentences to be ‘digested and disposed in good order, and so made significant’.