|The Journal of the Last Tudor King
copyright © 2005
in The Guardian
22 October 2005
The first English theorist of life-writing,
Roger North, coined a word which never made it into usage. In
a general essay composed at the beginning of the eighteenth
century (but not published in full until 1984) he used the word
idiography to cover both journals and memoirs. "Whoever
hath a mind either his family or the public should profit by
his example, and would be known to posterity truly as he was,
ought to keep a journal of all the incidents that may afford
useful remarks upon the course of his life
The practice might help a man see his errors
and avoid "exorbitancies" that might stain his reputation.
The pleasure of looking back on the past might compensate for
the daily effort involved, although North admits that there
are many who "had rather carry guts to the bears than write
a letter." He tells us there are many examples of this
kind of idiography, and that "The petit journal of Edward
VI, even a youth, may be a pattern for the greatest men."
As it happens, Edward VI's journal, his Chronicle
as he calls it, was published recently in a cheap and accessible
edition (England's Boy King, the Diary of Edward VI 1547-1553,
edited by Jonathan North, Ravenhall Books £14.99). The
manuscript, now in the British Library, runs to 68 pages, and
is clearly complete since the entries cease only as the king
enters his last illness.
Tudor prose is not always the most enticing
to read, so it is with mixed feelings that we discover from
the editor that "the language has been updated, the punctuation
modernised and, in some cases, sentences restructured in order
to assist the reader."
Still, here we are with the chronicle in hand,
annotated and legible. It begins: "In the Year of our Lord
1537 a prince was born to King Harry the Eighth by Jane Seymour,
then queen, who within a few days after the birth of her son
died and was buried at Windsor Castle." And the author
of these words is undoubtedly the prince himself who, in the
very next sentence, which recounts his christening, omits mention
of the fact that his godmother was his half-sister, the future
Queen Mary I.
Later we will see Edward or his Council persecuting
Mary for her faith. So on 18 March 1551, "The lady Mary,
my sister, came to me at Westminster where, after salutations,
she was called, along with my Council, into a chamber where
it was declared how long I had suffered her mass in hope of
her reconciliation but that now, there being no hope, which
I perceived from her letters, unless I saw some amendment, I
could not bear it. She answered that her soul was God's and
that she would not change her faith, nor hide her opinion through
Mary had her own resources, and the next day's
entry reads: "The Emperor's ambassador came with a short
message from his master threatening war if I would not allow
his cousin the princess to use her mass."
What we desire from a journal is a person's
sense of himself. Edward's self-consciousness is bound up with
ceremonial. He is always the centre of attention. A French ambassador
arrives, and "he came to see me being equipped and saw
my bedchamber and went hunting with hounds and saw me shoot
and saw all my guards shoot together. He dined with me, heard
me play on the lute, saw me ride, came to me in my study, supped
with me and so departed to Richmond."
Edward is interested in pageantry and sports:
"I went to Deptford
where before supper I saw certain
men stand upon the end of a boat, without holding anything,
and charging at one another until one was cast in the water."
After supper, a mock assault on a castle with "clods, squibs,
canes of fire, darts made for noise and bombards." On another
occasion he sees bears hunted in the Thames, and also "wild
fire cast out of boats." At the marriage of Amy Robsart
to Dudley, "certain gentlemen tried to see who could be
the first to take away a goose's head which was hanged alive
on two crossed posts."
The countryside is full of unrest: "There
was a privy search made through all Sussex for all vagabonds,
gypsies, conspirators, prophets, ill-players and such like."
In Essex, a conspiracy is detected to bring people to Chelmsford
and "spoil the rich men's houses if they could. Such woodcock!"
But this last kind of comment is rare. Of his uncle, the former
Protector, Edward writes: "The Duke of Somerset had his
head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o'clock
in the morning." But as to the young king's feelings, we
are left guessing.