Gervaise Smith and the once-and-future King Edward VI

20 September 2023

Who is the youngest Magdalen student on record? That distinction belongs to Gervaise Smith of Lincolnshire, who enrolled here as a demy in 1548 at the tender age of nine. Precocity was in fashion. The then-incumbent of the English throne was King Edward VI (1547–1553), crowned the previous year, also at just nine years old. Magdalen’s archives show that the young Gervaise Smith shared the Tudor boy-king’s staunch Protestantism. Archives elsewhere reveal that Smith’s imagination remained gripped for decades by King Edward’s reforming potential, which was thwarted by his untimely death at fifteen in 1553. This blog will examine these various archival traces, reconstructing the colourful life-story of one of Magdalen’s little-known 16th-century alumni.

Fig. 1 King Edward VI of England, c.1546

Emboldened by the Protestant reforms of the new Edwardian government, a group of Magdalen’s most fervently Protestant fellows staged a performative campaign in the college chapel in the Easter of 1548, the year Gervaise Smith arrived here as an impressionable boy from Lincolnshire. Thomas Bickley, Henry Bull, Thomas Bentham and Thomas Willyams violated the sacrament and snatched a censer and a Latin gospel out of the hands of the priest during divine service. The religious tide turned dramatically five years later: King Edward died, and, following the brief reign of Lady Jane Grey, was succeeded by his Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor (1553–1558). Queen Mary took swift steps to reverse Edward’s ecclesiastical reforms, and her anti-Protestant heresy laws forced many Magdalen fellows into exile.

Fig. 2 The entry for Gervaise Smith in Joseph Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses

Mary’s Counter-Reformation was reversed after her death in 1558. Her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I (1558–1603), succeeded her to the throne, repealing the anti-Protestant heresy laws and instituting a Reformed Book of Common Prayer. Those Magdalen fellows who had been crypto-Protestants under Mary then took revenge for five years of oppression. Gervaise Smith was in that number, having been made a fellow on 26 July 1557. One anti-Catholic stunt from this period saw several fellows, including Smith, shave their heads in mockery of the monastic tonsure. According to our Vice-Presidents’ Register (VP1/A1/1), the perpetrators were hauled before President Thomas Coveney and the Dean of Arts on 15 July 1559. They were ordered to wear nightcaps (‘pileis nocturnis’) until their hair grew back, and deprived of commons (meals in Hall) for a week.

Fig. 3 The entry for Gervaise Smith in William Dunn Macray’s biographical Register of Magdalen College fellows

Gervaise Smith resigned his fellowship at Magdalen in 1563. After a series of brief ecclesiastical appointments in Essex and London, in 1571 he became parson of Polstead in Suffolk, where he would remain for at least the next 35 years.

In 1606, another of Smith’s anti-Catholic stunts attracted the scrutiny of a far more forbidding authority than Magdalen’s President and Dean of Arts: namely, the Privy Council of King James I (1603–1625). Smith’s punishment in 1559 had been to wear a nightcap and miss meals for a week. This time, his suspected crime was treason, and, if tried and found guilty, he could face the death penalty.

Fig. 4 Record of Gervaise Smith’s swearing-in, aged 15, on 23 July 1554, MS 727(a), fol. 24v

Smith was brought in for questioning by the Privy Council in October 1606, following a report that he had recited a prophecy to this effect: that King James would soon be overthrown by Edward VI, risen from the dead to fulfil his aborted destiny as the scourge of English Catholics. The records of Smith’s examinations by the Privy Council are preserved among the papers of Robert Cecil, the Jacobean Secretary of State, at Hatfield House (available online here: subscription required).

Fig. 5 Record of Gervaise Smith’s admission as a fellow of Magdalen, 26 July 1557, MS 727(a), fol. 30r

The prophecy Smith recited had allegedly included a claim that Richard Bancroft, archbishop of Canterbury, would prove ‘the ruin of the King and State’. Smith admitted repeating a prophecy ‘that a bishop who was no gentleman … should rule the Crown for a time’, but denied identifying Bancroft as that bishop. In fact, the line about ‘a bishop who was no gentleman’ belonged to a political prophecy that had first found fame in the reign of Queen Mary, when Smith was still at Magdalen. Attributed to ‘Robert Blake’ in surviving manuscripts from the 1550s, the prophecy includes the claim that Edward VI will return from the dead as a Protestant hero, to comfort and avenge those English Protestants persecuted by the Marian regime.

Another line in Smith’s prophecy stated that ‘E’ would be succeeded by ‘J’, who would be followed by ‘M’, who would be succeeded by ‘E’. According to Smith’s interpretation, the letters in this sequence were the initials of a series of English monarchs beginning with Elizabeth I (‘E’). Her successor was James, the current king (‘J’), who would shortly be deposed by ‘M’, name unknown, a ‘bloody persecutor of the Protestants’. Her reign would be brief, cut short by Edward VI (‘E’), who would return from the grave to stamp out Catholicism in England forever. This, again, was a prophecy dateable to the 1550s. The initials ‘E.J.M.E.’ originally denoted Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. To ballast his contention that Catholics were ‘serpents in the bosom of the land’, who should be violently extirpated, Smith put new glosses on old prophecies. These included also the 15th-century ‘Cock in the North’ prophecy, which first circulated during the Percy rebellion of 1403.

Fig. 6 Record of the punishment of Dr Smith and accomplices on 15 July 1559, for shaving their heads in mockery of the monastic tonsure, VP1/A1/1, fol. 23v

The past, in particular the events of the 1550s, seemingly held great sway over Gervaise Smith’s imagination. His nostalgia for the Tudor boy-king found expression in prophecies that Edward VI would return to complete the Protestant reforms abruptly curtailed by his death and the accession of his Catholic half-sister. A previous generation of aggrieved English subjects had similarly found comfort in prophecies of the resurrection of King Arthur. No record survives of whether Smith was brought to trial and punished for his activities in 1606. Although the archival trail eventually goes cold, the extant evidence is sufficient to show that Smith’s Protestantism burned as hotly in the early 17th century as it did when he was a demy and fellow at Magdalen a half-century earlier.

Written by Dr Emily Jennings, Assistant Archivist and Records Manager