Review: Ordeal By Ambition by William Seymour

I wrote this review about a year ago, and was reminded about it after a conversation I had on twitter last night and picking up the book to try and answer a question on the author. This book is written by a direct descendant of Edward Seymour, and an absolutely fantastic read! I definitely recommend it to any one interested in the Seymour family

When I first picked this book up, I almost put it down again in sheer frustration. The first chapter, or the Prologue, describes how the Seymour’s came to power through Anne Boleyn’s fall. However, William Seymour made so many mistakes in describing Anne Boleyn’s fall that it was unreal, and I almost gave up. I will say only this, Seymour mentions that when Anne Boleyn was arrested and taken to the Tower of London she was taken through Traitor’s Gate. She was not. But I can forgive that, as for the longest time that was believed to be what actually happened and since this book was written we know a lot more now than we did back then.

Anyway, moving on. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It read very easily and there were times where I forgot that I was reading a history text. The stories of the three Seymour children were told wonderfully and colourfully and I now have a more profound respect for all three of them, even Jane Seymour who has never been my favourite Tudor Queen. However, over the past few months this family has become of great interest to me and reading their stories in greater depth has proven incredibly enlightening.

The main reason I read this book was to gain a greater understanding of Edward Seymour and his wife, Anne Stanhope. Yet again though, there is very little mention of Anne but what I did read made me hop around with excitement. She is often talked about as a haughty woman and a woman who had little love for her husband. However, how can a woman who went to the Tower with her husband be one who did not love him? Not only that she bore him 9 children. They really seem to have been a force to be reckoned with, after all, Anne was the one who refused to give Katherine Parr her rightful jewels back. What a woman. Yet, the stories are abounded in sadness. Both brothers ended their careers thanks to the axeman’s block, and it seems through Seymour’s writings that these careers were ended through very little evidence. Edward in particular lost his life through a charge of treason and felony and all on trumped up charges and lies brought against him. Thomas however, went down in history as a notorious womaniser who tried to bring about his brothers downfall.

The chapters on Jane Seymour took up only a very small proportion of the book whereas the huge careers of both Thomas and Edward took up a huge majority. After all, Jane’s career as Queen was very short lived whereas her brothers lived through two Tudor reigns. I found the stories evocative and thrilling and found out facts I never knew before. I read stories of the brothers participation in various wars (The Battle of Pinkie being one I had never known of before) and how through sheer hard work both climbed their way from humble beginnings at court to the heights they finally reached. For instance, Edward Seymour started out humbly as Master of the Horse to Henry VIII’s bastard son Henry Fitzroy before being employed as an Esquire of the Body in Henry VIII’s Privy Chamber and working his way up from there. Now that’s working your way up the ladder!!

There is a line at the end of the book where Seymour describes how his ancestor was buried in the chapel of St Peter Ad Vicula next to Anne Boleyn, and how this woman with her wonderful sense of humour would not have lost the irony of the situation. There, one of the main players in her downfall, lost his life the same way she did. He met the same fate as her, and like her, on trumped up charges. Towards the end, I was almost in tears reading the account of Edwards execution.

William Seymour shows his ancestors as loved by the people, who only fell because of the work of factions in court. Edward Seymour was known as the Good Duke, and a man beloved by his people. He even had to calm the people down who were there to watch his execution. In the end, this man only wanted to run the country to the best of his ability and hand over a peaceful country when his nephew came of age. But unfortunately this was never destined to come through.

I found I could not put this book down, it read so easily and was written very, very well. This book will forever stay on my shelf as my bible of the Seymour family. And despite the lack of Anne Stanhope mentions, there is enough in there to keep me going and will help hugely in the years to come

Inspirations from History: Edward Seymour

Edward Seymour Earl of Hertford and Duke of Somerset is a man who has interested me now for a very long time, especially the events leading up to his fall from grace and execution. Of course you all know of my love for his wife Anne Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset and I just have a huge fascination not only with her but of Edward’s reign as Protector, and how he fell from Grace. I’m not going to lie, the Showtime TV series The Tudors inspired me to start reading more on Edward Seymour despite the fact I knew quite a lot about him anyway. It helped that I adored the on screen relationship (or lack thereof!) between Edward Seymour and his wife.

So who was Edward Seymour?
  • He was born in around 1506 to Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth
  • In around 1527 he had his first marriage to Catherine Filliol annulled on the grounds of adultery.
  • He married Anne Stanhope before March 1534
  • 5th June 1536, he was made Viscount Beauchamp
  • 15th October 1537 he was made Earl of Hertford.
  • Edward became Lord Protector upon the death of Henry VIII and the ascension of the boy king Edward VI. Henry’s will did not include provision for a Protector, rather for the government to be looked after by a Regency Council however a few days after Henry’s death the council decided to give Seymour almost regal power and 13 of the 16 council members agreed for him to take the post of Protector.
  • Edward’s brother Thomas wanted a share of the power, and Edward tried buying him off but Thomas was hell bent on getting power, he began smuggling pocket money to the King. In 1549 after Thomas kept vying for power, and scheming to marry the Princess Elizabeth, the council had Thomas arrested. He was condemned by act of attainder due there being a lack of evidence for treason, and he was beheaded on 20th arch 1549.
  • Edward Seymour was an exceptionally skilled soldier, with a special interest in the war with Scotland. Due to his skill the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.
  • After April 1549 England was subject to social unrest, the best known of which being Kett’s rebellion, caused by encroachment of landlords on common grazing lands. Government placed the blame at Seymour’s door and was the start of Seymour’s downfall.
  • By 1st October 1549, Seymour knew he was in danger and withdrew to Windsor with the young King. On 11th October the Council had him arrested due to his failures in war, his vanity, his refusal to listen to any one other than his own mind and doing things his own way. By Feb 1550, John Dudley Earl of Warwick emerged as the next Protector.
  • Somerset had previously been released from the Tower but by 1551/2 he was back there, and executed for felony in January 1552, for conspiring to overthrow Warwick’s regime.
  • He is buried in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vicula at the Tower of London.
Despite his downfall, Seymour was known as The Good Duke and in all the books I have read about him seems to have been very popular with the people. In my opinion he wasn’t vain or power hungry at all, he was trying to keep England running well until Edward VI came of age. However as often happened at the court, factions struggled for power and often overthrew each other, as is what happened here in quite possibly one of the most famous coup d’etat’s of the late Tudor period.
If anyone is interested in reading more about Edward Seymour I recommend the following books:
Ordeal By Ambition: An English Family In The Shadow Of The Tudors – William Seymour (here at Amazon)
Edward VI The Young King: The Protectorship of the Duke of Somerset – W.K. Jordan (here at Amazon, but beware of prices as this is a pretty rare book nowadays, but very very good!)