The gruesome execution of Thomas Seymour

The year is 1549, and Thomas Seymour, formerly a trusted servant in the court of Henry VIII, is imprisoned at the Tower of London.

One of the most controversial figures of the Tudor age, Thomas Seymour’s relentless bid for power and famous feud with his brother, Lord Protector Somerset, condemned him to a traitor’s death in the reign of his nephew, Edward VI. His death elicited an outpouring of disbelief at the King and the Duke of Somerset’s cruelty, although his fate, in hindsight, appears inevitable – hastened by a series of reckless decisions made dangerously close to the throne.

Jane Seymour after Holbein

Thomas Seymour was born in 1508 at Wolf Hall, the Seymour family’s idyllic country seat where Henry VIII is apocryphally rumored to have wooed Thomas’s sister, Jane. A hasty royal romance did eventually blossom, and in May of 1536, mere days after Anne Boleyn’s execution, Jane and Henry were married. At a stroke, Jane’s marriage lifted the entire Seymour family to the zenith of the magnificent, volatile Tudor court.

Jane’s tenure as queen was short but largely successful. In October of 1537, she was delivered of the King’s long awaited male heir, making Thomas the uncle of England’s future sovereign, Edward VI. Tragically, Jane sickened in her childbed and died a little over a week later, although in her son, young Edward, the Seymour family legacy was secured. Jane was buried on 12 November 1537 in St George’s Chapel, and is remembered for being the King’s ‘true wife’.

Her son, Edward, who would mature into an intelligent and precocious prince, ascended to the throne in 1547 – at only nine years old. His father Henry VIII’s will had painstakingly stipulated that the new King’s council would be ruled by a majority, but in early 1547, the boy’s uncle, Edward Seymour, seized the reins of power. Appointed as Lord Protector and invested with near regal authority, Somerset’s smooth installation and efficient, if not autocratic, rule was largely acquiesced to by members of the Privy Council, though in his brother, Thomas, Somerset would find a formidable bastion of opposition.

The charming and charismatic Thomas Seymour had enjoyed a relatively prosperous career at court. Impulsive, suave, and deeply ambitious, Seymour had taken part in several expeditions against the French. He’d served in Henry VIII’s privy chamber since mid-1536, and his ample connections throughout court ensured near constant promotion.

In a calculated move to secure his would-be sixth wife, Katherine Parr, Henry VIII had orchestrated a strategic appointment for Seymour to a diplomatic post in Brussels, and later left in his will that directions that Seymour should be raised to the peerage.

In 1537, Seymour was created Baron Seymour, made a Knight of the Garter, appointed Lord Admiral, and was regarded as the “most eligible bachelor in England,” save for his young nephew, Edward.

The Melton Constable or Hastings portrait of Queen Katherine Parr.

He sent ripples throughout his nephew’s court when he took the late King’s widow, the learned and gracious Katharine Parr, as his wife, less than six months after Henry VIII’s death. His wife was, by then, the wealthiest woman in England, and could boast of both significant royal connections and a lavish catalogue of residences and estates bequeathed to her by her late husband.

Although Thomas would have undoubtedly had his pick of gratifying marital prospects, Katharine’s illustrious nexus of royal connections and status as Queen Dowager perhaps enhanced what may have already been a mild, lingering affection on Seymour’s part. At thirty-four, the ambitious and well-educated Katharine may have also expected to be granted a role in her stepson Edward’s regency, although, in a bitter clash for precedence with the Lord Protector, both Katharine and Thomas would later be unexpectedly sidelined from the machinations of Edward’s reign.

Somerset, who was reported to govern ‘everything absolutely,’ had attempted to slake his brother’s ambition with lands, titles, wardships, and even an appointment to the Privy Council, though his efforts were ultimately in vain. The impatient Thomas Seymour had his eyes set on sharing his brother’s power as Lord Protector and acquiring the title of Governor of the King’s Person. Frustrated, but never thwarted, Thomas ingratiated himself with the young King, and proposed marriage between Edward and his ward, Lady Jane Grey. Although it was his duty as High Admiral to suppress threats of invasion and buccaneering, Thomas fomented relations with pirates on the western coast in the hopes of garnering their support in a restless bid for power.

Portrait of an Unknown Man, possibly Thomas Seymour (c.1508-49)

Thomas’ downfall was to be swift. In 1548, a heavily pregnant Katharine Parr caught the Lady Elizabeth, her clever and attractive stepdaughter, in Seymour’s arms. Elizabeth was dismissed from Sudeley Castle, where Katherine died of puerperal fever months later. Thomas renewed his hunt for a rich, well-connected wife, and made his intentions to marry Princess Elizabeth clear. But in January 1549 the council had arrested Thomas on various charges of treason and condemned him to death.

Whilst publicly demanding governorship of the King’s person, Seymour had gone behind the Lord Protector’s back by smuggling money to their nephew, Edward, and attempting to convince the young King that the Lord Protector held his purse strings too tight, turning Edward into a ‘beggarly king.’ Thomas then urged him to release the shackles of his regency, and to throw off the Lord Protector in order to rule ‘as other kings do’. 

Lady Elizabeth in about 1549, by an unknown artist.

In a subsequent (and bizarre) attempt to kidnap his nephew, Thomas crept into Edward’s apartments at Hampton Court and shot one of Edward’s beloved spaniels. He was later apprehended and imprisoned at the Tower. His end, as everyone knew, was soon.

On March 20, Thomas was beheaded. He died a traitor’s death, and in the eyes of a young but discerning Elizabeth Tudor, ‘with much wit and very little judgment.’

Thomas had been judged guilty by a bill assented to by the King, his nephew, and signed by his brother, the Lord Protector, who would follow him to the block following a steep fall from power in January of 1552. Seymour’s dangerous and fleeting life ended after two gruesome swings of the axe. His death sent shock waves across both the court and the public. 

His only daughter, Mary, died in infancy, less than three years later.

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