I’ve been doing a lot of research into the reign of Edward VI recently and it’s made me think a bit about other Kings who came to the throne as children. The three main young Kings I can think of were Edward VI, Richard II and Henry III, but now I think of it, Mary Queen of Scots came to the throne when she was only six days old, so I ought to look at her too.
Edward VI reigned from age nine (1547) to age sixteen (1553) when he died and it’s been pretty interesting to see how much power a child ruler was able to have and how far the reign was taken over by the ambitions of powerful men. Because Edward died before he reached his majority, his reign has been seen as a failure as he was never able to assert himself as King, but there have been several other monarchs who reigned as children and as adults and their childhoods have often been forgotten. Also, Edward’s reign was marred by many other religious, social, economic and succession problems, which probably added to his reputation as a weak sickly young King. So is coming to the throne as a child really dangerous and likely to make the reign unsuccessful?
Woe to thee, O land, where the king is a child
(Ecclesiastes, 10.16) – quoted by Bishop Latimer at the coronation of Edward VI
Richard was born on the 6th January 1367, the son of Edward, the Black Prince, and Joan “The Fair Maid of Kent”. He wasn’t originally heir to the throne, but his elder brother Edward of Angoulême died in 1372 and his father died in 1376, leaving him as heir to his grandfather, Edward III. Richard then ascended to the throne at the age of 10, after the death of the King in 1377,
During his youth, the country was governed by a series of councils often dominated by his uncle, John of Gaunt. It is likely that the King had little power himself and it is interesting to consider whether or not this had an effect on the rest of his reign.
His reign is most famous for the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when at the age of fourteen, he is said to have diffused a tense dispute with a rebel army, by expressing his supremacy with the ambiguous announcement, ‘You shall have no captain but me!’ He did show immense bravery for his age and it was probably his surprising popularity with the rebels, (who strangely identified him with their cause even though their leaders were severely punished after the revolt), that made him suitable to confront them and win them over.
It has been argued that his success and popularity in his youth adversely affected the rest of his reign as it gave him an overconfidence in his own power and royal supremacy that made his reign in later years almost tyrannous. This led to a mounting unpopularity that ultimately resulted in his being unable to protect himself when John of Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, returned from exile to depose the King and become Henry VI.