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Re-Trying the Case for the 'Good Duke'

John Matusiak provides a post-revisionist perspective on Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.

Since the mid-1970s when the scholarly onslaught on his virtuous reputation first gathered pace, the Duke of Somerset's 'goodness' has been largely bereft of defenders. Where the Lord Protector was once lauded by A. F. Pollard as a man 'pursuing aims that were essentially noble' and later eulogised by W. K. Jordan as a 'very great man whose magnanimity was never to be forgotten', today he is persistently dismissed and derided as a materialistic and cynical egotist with no special concerns beyond the pursuit of personal gain and madcap military enterprises in Scotland. The late Jennifer Loach, for example, whose book Edward VI represents a major synthesis of current thinking, noted that the Duke of Somerset could be 'both cold and ruthless' in pursuit of material advantage and added that he was, amongst other shortcomings, 'autocratic by temperament'. To Penry Williams, he was 'not a liberal friend of the poor, but a man prepared to use stern measures against vagrants' and for M. L. Bush, one of the vanguard in the early demolition party, he was entirely conventional in outlook, pre-occupied with military matters while posing, in passing, as a friend of noble causes and common folk for sordid political advantage.

Excursions into the invisible world of human motives are by their very nature fraught with navigational complexities. However, given that the current consensus reflected in all the most widely read works on the period almost completely discards a substantial web of detail partially confirming the Lord Protector's magnanimous tendencies, it is surely timely to re-open the case on the 'good duke' and to examine the 'lost' evidence in what has come increasingly to resemble a trial by omission.

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