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Portrait of Edward VI

Britain's youngest-ascending monarchs

Most of us will understandably associate British monarchs being more senior members of society, but in centuries gone past, it wasn't unusual for a new kings to be barely out of short trousers.

Image: Edward VI became king aged nine in 1547 | Public Domain

Since the Norman Conquest, there have been a handful of kings who were just children when they ascended to the throne of England. Some, such as Henry III, ruled for many years. Others, however, such as the ill-fated Edward V, didn’t last long. Here we take a look at England’s boy kings.

1. Henry VI - 9 months old

Ascending to the throne at the tender age of nine months following the death of his mighty father, Henry V, young Henry VI’s early years as king were dominated by a regency of powerful nobles, led first by Henry’s uncle, John, Duke of Bedford, and then by his great-uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. During this period, England continued to see success abroad in the Hundred Years War and relative domestic stability. However, by the time Henry was deemed fit to rule in 1437, the situation in England had changed and he took over a country that was riven with economic, military and diplomatic problems. Unfortunately, he was not the man to steady the ship.

As the situation in England and France worsened, an increasingly unfit Henry was incapable of keeping the country together. Opposition to the king centred around Henry’s cousin, Richard of York. This led to the civil war known as the Wars of the Roses, the death of Richard and the capture and imprisonment of Henry not once, but twice. Richard’s son, Edward, became king and Henry, now an insane shadow of his former self, was most likely murdered in 1471 at the age of 49.

2. Henry III - 9 years old

Henry III became king in 1216 at the age of nine after the death of his father, King John. The early years of the king’s reign were marred by the First Barons’ War, sparked by John’s refusal to abide by the terms of the Magna Carta. The war came to an end a year after Henry ascended to the throne, and the kingdom was ruled in the king’s name by powerful nobles, in particular William Marshal, Henry’s regent and guardian.

Henry eventually took control in 1227, and he set about consolidating power around the throne while curtailing the power of the barons. While popular to begin with, Henry’s disastrous foreign wars and poor fiscal management alienated him from nobles and commoners alike. A rebellion led by Simon De Montford saw the king imprisoned and later rescued by his son, Edward. Henry continued to rule for another five years after his rescue, dying unloved by his people at the age of 65 in 1272. He did, however, leave one lasting legacy - the construction of Westminster Abbey, which he ordered in 1245.

3. Edward VI - 9 years old

Edward became king aged nine in 1547 following the death of his formidable father, Henry VIII. The child of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, the country had high expectations for Edward considering his father had thrown England into a period of religious turmoil in his quest for a male heir. Sadly, those expectations came to nothing.

For the entirety of his reign, Edward’s kingdom was ruled by a regency council headed first by his uncle, Edward Seymour, and then by John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland. It was a period of further upheaval, unrest and rebellion as the council oversaw the conversion of the country and the church to Protestantism.

Edward didn’t live long enough to see the result of his council’s reforms, however. In 1553, aged just 15, he fell ill and died. He had named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor in the hope that the Protestant faith would be protected. Grey was deposed by Edward’s Catholic sister Mary just nine days later. Mary reversed all of her brother’s reforms and set about gruesomely punishing those who practised the new religion, earning her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.

4. Richard II - 10 years old

Richard II inherited the throne from his grandfather, Edward III, at the age of 10. The early years of Richard’s reign were marred by struggles between various nobles vying for power and influence over the young monarch. A court of powerful regents ruled the land, but as he got older, Richard began to assert his authority and eventually took over the reins of government. He set about reforming the country, much as his grandfather had done. For a time, he was considered an intelligent ruler with a lot of potential, and his court became a centre for the arts.

Sadly, it was not to last. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was initially met with sympathy by the young king. However, he quickly changed his mind and had the leaders of the revolt hunted down and executed. Paranoia took hold of Richard’s mind, and his rule became increasingly authoritarian and unpopular. Things finally came to a head in 1399 when a disgruntled nobleman by the name of Henry Bolingbroke seized the throne and deposed Richard, becoming Henry IV. Richard was imprisoned and most likely murdered the following year. He was just 33 years old.

5. Edward V - 13 years old

One half of the infamous ‘Princes in the Tower’, Edward V was the son of Edward IV. When his father died in 1483, Edward became king, but it was a title he did not hold for long. Edward IV’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was the old king’s right-hand man and a formidable warrior. Entrusted by Edward with the wardship of his sons, it was expected that the Duke would take over the reins of government whilst his nephew was in his minority and then hand over the crown when Edward came of age. This was not to be.

Suspicions were immediately raised when Richard had several of Edward’s maternal relatives arrested, including his powerful uncle, Earl Rivers. After taking the king and his brother from their mother and placing them under his protection, Richard forced parliament to pass an act that declared the boys illegitimate, paving the way for Richard to claim the throne. Edward and his brother were last seen in the garden of the Tower of London and then never seen again. It is strongly suspected that they were murdered on the orders of their uncle. Edward’s reign lasted for a mere 86 days. He was just 13 years old.

6. Edward III - 14 years old

After his father, Edward II, was deposed by his mother, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, Edward III inherited the crown at the age of 14. Mortimer became the effective ruler of England, but by the age of 17, Edward had grown weary of his and his mother’s controlling ways. He and a trusted group of friends took Mortimer by surprise at Nottingham Castle and executed him, bringing an end to the regency.

Edward was keen to assert his authority both at home and abroad, initiating reforms in England and a military campaign in France that fired the starting gun on the Hundred Years War. At home, his reforms saw a centralisation of power around the throne, but also the emergence of the House of Commons as a legislative body.

In later life, Edward’s reign was troubled by the burden placed on his kingdom’s finances by the war with France, and the ravages of the Black Death. His health deteriorated and he died in 1377 at the age of 64. Despite the troubles he faced in later life, his reign is considered a successful one that brought much-needed stability to the country, as well as setting the stage for future developments in the way England would be governed.