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.