It happened today - January 28, 2016

On this day in history, Jan. 28, 1547, Edward VI became king of England. And died.

Not right away, to be sure. He lingered for six years before perishing. Henry VIII’s only son, or at least only legitimate one, even by the lax standards by which he legitimized and delegitimized his daughters. All those wives and just for this.

Tradition holds that Edward VI was a sickly lad whose early death was not unexpected. This view has been challenged, suggesting he was generally quite vigorous until contracting some sort of terminal illness in very early 1553 that killed him on July 6 of that year aged just 15.

As a result, he had very little impact on history, at least by his own hand. He never governed in his own right. But his death precipitated the ascension first of the hapless pawn Lady Jane Grey (at nine days, her reign-like object was so short she is omitted from many lists of English monarchs) and then Henry VIII’s fiercely Catholic daughter Mary, also known as “Bloody Mary” and not for her taste in beverages, followed by the austere, beloved Elizabeth. None of which would have happened if Ed hadn’t croaked, don’t you see.

As for what would have happened, well, as Aslan says, no one is ever told that. But historians have to try to guess, because if we cannot say what would have happened if it means we have no grasp of causation at all. To say something happened because of some other thing is to assert implicitly that if that other thing had not occurred neither would the first. So let’s parse Edward VI briefly.

The obvious issue is religion. Henry VIII, after all, broke with the Catholic Church after being named “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope. But Henry just wanted to wed and bed Anne Boleyn, and grab scads of church property for his cronies while he was at it. He actually had very little disagreement with church doctrine. (Which surely makes his actions worse not better.)

His son was evidently cut from rather different if smaller cloth. Edward was very staunchly Protestant; by age 11 he had written a treatise on the Pope as Antichrist. Had he lived to maturity, he might have proved a Protestant mirror image of “Bloody Mary” whose vigorous, sometimes violent efforts to restore Roman Catholicism in England, including marrying Philip II of Spain, earned her that epithet from her victorious Protestant foes.

Instead his half-sister Elizabeth succeeded Mary when she died of what seems to have been a fairly severe flu on top of what may have been uterine cancer. And Elizabeth, a wise ruler who was moderate as a matter of policy if not necessarily of temperament, imposed a moderate Protestant settlement that rather sharply limited the rights of Catholics without persecuting them to the point of provoking civil war. Partly as a result, for better or worse, Protestantism became a core element of Anglosphere self-understanding second only to liberty, in ways that lingered until quite recently.

Not always good ways, to be sure. Even on political grounds, Protestant-Catholic divisions in the UK, in the US and in Canada have been harmful if not generally disastrous. But if Edward had lived, and really tried to persecute the English who, until Henry’s sudden lust-, greed- and politics-driven religious revolution had all been Catholic and had not known it was even controversial, the result might have been to provoke a backlash, the installation of a Catholic monarch and reconciliation with Rome.

The odd thing is that English Catholicism had always been different, like everything in England. The pope’s periodic efforts to exert political control in England had been met with derision and defiance, to the point that a very specific writ with severe consequences, Praemunire was created expressly for use against those who argued that the Pope had authority over the king and Parliament. So perhaps Edward’s death didn’t matter very much.

Or perhaps it did, because if he had lived, and not been a maniac, the Bloody Mary episode wouldn’t have happened. But then, neither would Elizabeth’s long and glorious reign.

One hates to consign a man to the rubbish heap of history casually. But Edward VI probably did little harm and little good by slipping quietly away in 1553. He was just a quiet interlude between exciting events.