From Hearsay to History: The Fate of Edward VI’s Body

On August 16, 1553, John Burcher, a cloth merchant living in Strasburgh, wrote to Heinrich Bullinger of the recent events in England, which of course included the recent death of Edward VI, the brief reign of Jane Grey, and the triumph of Mary I. Burcher wrote:

That monster of a man, the duke of Northumberland, has been committing a horrible and portentous crime. A writer worthy of credit informs me, that our excellent king has been most shamefully taken off by poison. His nails and hair fell off before his death, so that, handsome as he was, he entirely lost all his good looks. The perpetrators of the murder were ashamed of allowing the body of the deceased king to lie in state, and be seen by the public, as is usual: wherefore they buried him privately in a paddock adjoining the palace, and substituted in his place, to be seen by the people, a youth not very unlike him whom they had murdered. One of the sons of the duke of Northumberland acknowledged this fact.

The rumor that King Edward had been poisoned was by no means unique to John Burcher; almost every contemporary source mentions it. His tale of body-switching, however, appears in no other source.

Leaving aside the claim of poisoning, which few modern historians believe (though it’s likely that some of the remedies administered to the king did more harm than good), it is extremely improbable that Northumberland, or anyone acting under his orders, substituted another body for Edward’s. Edward VI died in the evening of July 6, 1553, and had not yet been buried by the time Jane’s government imploded on July 19, 1553. There was nothing sinister about this initial delay. Royal funerals took time to arrange under the best of circumstances: Henry VIII had died on January 28, 1547, and was not buried until February 16, 1547.  Mary I would die on November 17, 1558, and was not buried until December 14, 1558. In the case of Edward VI, the government was acting under the worst of circumstances: by July 10, 1553, when Jane’s council learned that Mary intended to fight for the crown, the government was focused on its own survival, not on arranging a funeral for the unfortunate Edward.

Mary, of course, gained a bloodless victory over her opponents, and on July 23, 1553, Northumberland was arrested. The next day, Mary informed the imperial ambassadors that she wanted Edward buried with Catholic rites. In the discussion that ensued, faithfully recorded by the ambassadors, no one expressed any concern that Edward’s body, still resting at Greenwich where the young king had died, might be that of someone else; all the discussion centered around what form the religious rites should take. Since almost all of Northumberland’s colleagues were scrambling to ingratiate themselves with Queen Mary at the moment, there would have been no shortage of people to inform the queen if they had indeed suspected a substitution of one body for another. Moreover, as Edward was not buried until August 8, 1553, there was plenty of time for Mary’s government to ascertain the identity of Edward’s corpse for itself if there were any doubts about the matter. If anyone did have such concerns, no source except for Burcher in far-off Strasburgh mentions the fact.

Hastings Robertson, who edited Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, the compilation of letters in which the extract above appears, scoffed at Burcher’s tale, finding him “far too credulous” on this matter. Even Agnes Strickland in her Lives of the Bachelor Kings of England sniffed at the story as “utterly devoid of truth.”

All that changed, though, when Hester Chapman  published her popular biography Lady Jane Grey in 1962. Chapman states, “No one knew exactly what Northumberland arranged. A few weeks later one of his sons said that the Duke, not daring to let Edward lie in state, had ‘buried him privately in a paddock adjoining the Palace, and substituted in his place, to be seen by the people, a young man not very unlike him, whom they had murdered.'” Chapman thus gives the impression to her readers that she is quoting a direct statement made by one of Northumberland’s sons, rather than quoting Burcher’s recollection of what his anonymous informant had told him that the son said.

Alison Weir, writing in The Children of Henry VIII in 1996, goes even further than Chapman. She writes, “We do not know for certain what happened to Edward VI’s corpse. A letter written a few days later by one of Northumberland’s sons states that the Duke had not dared to let the late King lie in state but had ‘buried him privately in a paddock adjoining the palace, and substituted in his place, to be seen by the people, a young man not very unlike him, whom they had murdered.'” Weir, whose book contains no citations to sources, thereby allows the reader to think that she is quoting an extant letter by one of Northumberland’s sons, when she of course is simply quoting the hearsay statement repeated by Burcher.

Weir makes matters even worse in her novel Innocent Traitor,  which features Northumberland calling in a pair of ruffians to find and murder a royal lookalike in order to accomplish the body-switching. As a novelist, Weir is certainly entitled to take liberties, but in her author’s note, she writes, “[M]y account of the fate of Edward VI’s body is not as incredible as it sounds, for what happened to that body is described in a letter written by the Earl of Warwick, Northumberland’s son.” Thus, the nonexistent letter is now given a specific author, and many readers, relying on the author’s note to be accurate, will close the novel under the firm conviction that Northumberland poisoned Edward VI and substituted another boy’s body for the king’s.

Thus, through Chapman and Weir’s cavalier handling of an original source, hearsay has been transformed into history. As these authors’ books continue to be widely read and to be used as a research source by many novelists and popular historians, it’s likely that Burcher’s tale of body-switching, unlikely as it might be, will live on, centuries after the king’s own death.

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18 Responses to From Hearsay to History: The Fate of Edward VI’s Body

  1. Christine says:

    Incredible! I had heard of Burcher’s letter, and I recall that Chapman wrote something on this line in her Jane book, and very likely also in her book on Edward VI (1958). In her Jane book, Northumberland is almost a lovely scoundrel compared to her Edward book, where he is nothing short of Satanic, clearly modelled on Iago (Being “Edward’s evil spirit”, he even manages to be the cause of the king’s decline; not through poison, but through mental overstrain and overwork!). In the Edward book her sources are mostly Godwin and all that 17th century nonsense, so we get all the poisoned shirts and what not.

    It’s remarkable that Agnes Strickland didn’t buy that nonsense, while in our days this stuff seems to be on the growth. I’ve sometimes wondered why people still mention all this body-switch and poisoning nonsense today (in comments on websites, for example), now I do know … if it’s in Alison Weir … Sooo many people read only works of this sort; it’s really sad, many more “academic” books are a much better read, so I don’t think it’s really because people wouldn’t enjoy or understand, for example, Loades, Loach, Ives, Hoak, MacCulloch, Alford (the same goes for any period of course).

    Thank you so much for all your work of enlightenment!

  2. Anerje says:

    This is a well-known myth. I agree about some of the remedies given to Edward might have done more harm than good, but that was typical of the times. Northumberland had the problem of easing the king’s pain and keeping him alive long enough to carry out his plans. Another version I read says that Edward died months before and that was the reason for the body swap. I’m sure Edward would have been interred as was proper, and Mary may even have viewed his body as he lay in state. All that marks Edward’s grave in Westminster Abbey is a simple stone.

  3. Christine says:

    Yes, I wonder where this very persistent myth comes from that Northumberland used arsenic to “lengthen” Edward’s life exactly to his schedule (which he obviously didn’t even have, he only began assembling troops after Mary’s letter to the council days after Edward’s death, for example). The film “Lady Jane” is probably a chief culprit here. There is of course no source that mention this substance. The Imperial ambassador mentions “restoratives” but also what are clearly opiates, which is seldom quoted by authors.

    What strikes me is that so many believe even today it would have been possible to lengthen a patient’s life; this is absolute nonsense of course. The natural consequences of a basically untreated illness were certainly terrible, even without Renaissance medicines. But the emphasis is very often as if Edward wouldn’t have suffered from a bona fide treatment, or that he wouldn’t have been treated at all if the wicked Northumberland wouldn’t have had any plans (which were of course the king’s anyway, even if the minister had suggested practical solutions to his majesty, that’s his job).

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Commendone claims that a “gentlewoman” was treating him with “astringents.” Would arsenic be considered an astringent?

      • Christine says:

        No idea. Acccording to wikipedia, arsenic trioxide has been used to treat cancer for centuries (apparently it was or even is of some use that way). In the article on History of poisoning there is quoted an anti-Borgia poem which actually uses the word arsenic (in translation, so no idea what it would have been in Italian). Of course it is quite possible that Edward was given something like arsenic, if that was Renaissance medicine. What I find so strange is that today so many authors (I mean non-fiction) think that in Edward’s case this treatment would have been special, applied only to “lengthen” his life. Contemporaries believed — or claimed they believed — he had been poisoned and didn’t make that disctinction: tuberculosis yes, poisoned with arsenic to lengthen life; it seems so pre-modern and silly in non-fiction books. I apologize for harping on this, but it’s very much around as I noticed in a “web-conversation” only recently, it’s very much in people’s head.
        Thanks again for digging up this non-existent letter in the postscript of “Innocent Traitor”; it’s simply incredible, and in reality no letter from this young man has survived (only a letter to him from Mom & Dad)!

        • Christine says:

          Today, arsenic would not be considered an astringent; the effects are very different it seems. To use astringents seems logical in a tuberculosis or lung patient: they are used internally to stop bleeding and “mucous secretions” (WP).

          • Christine says:

            Please pardon my spamming, but I’ve just seen in your post that Commendone writes that a gentlewoman treated him with astringents: now here we seem to have the origin of the story of the quack or witch who was called to treat Edward. Astringents are mostly plant-based substances; this would be in keeping with such a “wise woman”, who typically used substances extracted from herbs (e.g., in German they are called “Kräuterweiblein”, meaning “herb woman”). I seem to recall that in much later accounts this woman becomes the arsenic poisoner!

            And that a letter from Strasbourg is converted into one from a son of the Duke of Northumberland, in such a widely read book as “Children of England” … so sad …

  4. boswellbaxter says:

    Christine, I love comments, so don’t think of them as spamming! It is very sad that the source has been distorted as it has. Indeed, a brand-new novel about the Grey sisters I read a couple of weeks ago repeats the body-switching story; the author doesn’t give a list of sources, but it seems that she must have relied heavily on Chapman and Weir.

    • Christine says:

      Thanks, boswellbaxter, these ladies do have much influence … This morning it suddenly occurred to me, who is the culprit I was looking for: It’s ambassador de Scheyfye, of course, on 11 June 1553: ‟some folk believe him to possess certain knowledge as to when the King is to expire, and that he has been guilty of harming his Majesty’s person. Ever since he got rid of the Duke of Somerset – or even before that – he has been seeking to devise means of removing the King and aspiring to the Crown, for he knows that if the King were to come of age matters might change …“

  5. Anerje says:

    I read a novel called ‘Conflict for a Crown’ when I was a child, and it was published in the 70s, I think. This novel has Edward’s old nurse, Sybil Penn, administering Northumberland’s ‘poisons’.

  6. Philippa says:

    If Edward Vi was suffering from TB then it is very likely that arsenic was administered to him as a medical treatment. If Plan A was for Edward to marry Lady Jane Grey then it was in Northumberland’s interests to prolong his life until the Tudor heir was at least conceived.

    • boswellbaxter says:

      I recall reading somewhere that there were hopes that Edward could be kept alive long enough for Parliament to approve his change to the succession. I don’t think there were ever plans on Edward’s side to marry Lady Jane, although Thomas Seymour and Jane’s parents had hoped for such a match early in Edward’s reign. I believe that at the time Edward fell ill, there were plans to marry him to a French princess.

  7. Patricia Panek says:

    I think rumors of poisoning were common anytime you had a young ruler or heir to the throne getting sick and dying. When James I’s son and heir Henry took ill in his youth there were persistent rumors of poisoning, with some rumors going so far as to accuse James of poisoning his own son.

    Another issue about the display of the body–although it was still custom to display the body of a deceased ruler, there is also a custom of using a carved effigy instead (I have a book on the royal effigies stored at Westminster Abbey–the oldest is of Edward III). I imagine that use of an effigy would depend upon the condition of the real body and where the government felt they should display the effigy to prove that the ruler was dead. There was an ancient superstition that a dead body would bleed again if it were in the presence of its murderer, so if there were rumors of murder of the heir/ruler, the rumors would probably also focus on the “real” body not being displayed so the murderer could get away with their scheme.

  8. Linda M. Hart says:

    I consider myself fortunate that at last I have found historical websites that have true facts about “my” people. Thank you.

  9. Linda M. Hart says:

    Thank you for the truth at last. I am so fortunate to have found your website(s).

  10. boswellbaxter says:

    Linda, thank you!

    Patricia, good point about the rumors. In Edward VI’s case, there were even rumors that he had not died at all.

    I think effigies had become standard for royal funerals by this time. Mary I’s funeral featured one, for instance. I think it had something to do with the notion of the “king’s two bodies,” as Christine can possibly elaborate upon.

    • Christine says:

      Interesting link! It was standard for monarchs to have such a wax effigy at the funeral (and some weeks before); there was certainly one for Henrys VII and VIII, and even for Protector Oliver I in 1658!

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