King Edward VI (1537-1553), the only son of King Henry VIII, by his third Queen, Jane Seymour, succeeded to the throne on the death of his father in 1547, when only nine years old. At the outset of his reign he was under the guidance of a Council of Regency which appointed his uncle, Edward, 1st Earl of Hertford, later Duke of Somerset, Governor and Protector of the Realm during the King's minority. Somerset remained the dominant figure at Court until he was eclipsed by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, whose influence over the young King remained unchallenged from the execution of Somerset in 1551 until Edward VI's death in 1553. Although King Edward VI's reign was short, and despite the fact that he was only fifteen when he died of consumption, he displayed a deep interest in religious policy and his reign is most notable for the continuation and consolidation of the English Reformation, for which he was praised by European protestants and which his sister Mary, who succeeded him as Queen of England, was unable to reverse.
As the male heir to the throne - for whom his father had longed in order to secure the Tudor dynasty - Edward's childhood is well documented in terms of portraiture when compared to that of other Tudor Royal children. The earliest portrait type of the young prince was developed by Hans Holbein (1497/8-1543), who had painted celebrated portraits of both King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, and who made a drawing of Edward VI in circa 1539-40, when Edward was two years old (The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle). This shows the young heir to the throne in a frontal and already authoritative princely pose, which Holbein later developed into a celebrated painted portrait of which the prime version is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
After the death of Holbein in 1543, Henry VIII's Court required a new portrait painter capable of translating the Tudor vision of the monarchy into portraiture. The most important court painter of these years was the Netherlander Guillim Scrots, who became King's Painter at the enormous salary of £62.10s per annum. The present portrait is one of five known versions of a full-length portrait type, which emerged when Edward VI was aged about thirteen, that have traditionally been associated with Scrots. The other versions of this type are in The Royal Collection, Hampton Court; The Louvre, Paris; The Musée Joseph Déchelette, Roanne; and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (see MacLeod, op. cit.). This portrait type deliberately echoes Holbein's earlier portrait of King Henry VIII for the great life-size wall painting of the Tudor dynasty, executed for the Privy Chamber in Whitehall Palace in 1537 (destroyed in the Whitehall Palace fire of 1698), which is known through the surviving left-hand section of Holbein's cartoon for the composition (London, National Portrait Gallery), and Remigius Leemput's later copy of the whole composition (The Royal Collection, Hampton Court). The five known full-length versions of this type divide into two basic groups; those that show the King dressed in black and gold costume with black hose, and those that show him in brown and gold dress. Catharine MacLeod (op. cit.) considered the prime version of the latter type (to which the present picture belongs) to be the version now in the Louvre, and the present picture and the LACMA version, which are of very similar format to each other, as workshop versions, possibly painted by one hand. The present picture and the Los Angeles picture vary from each other in one significant respect, in that the latter has an inscription on the base of the pillar, in Latin, Greek and English, which is absent in this picture, suggesting that it may have been sent abroad, where Latin and Greek translations would have been understood by those that could not understand English.
Dendrochronological analysis of the support of the present portrait, which is comprised of four Baltic oak boards from three different trees, provides an earliest date for the panel of circa 1539 and suggests a likely usage dated for the panel between 1539 and circa 1571. Interestingly the back of the panel displays three merchant or cargo marks which are thought to be marks put on packets of boards during shipment to indicate their destination, origin or ownership.
The portrait is first recorded in the collection of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and is later included in the Catalogue of Pictures in Blenheim Palace compiled in 1861 (op. cit.). It was later sold by George, 8th Duke of Marlborough (1844-1892) in the celebrated sale of pictures held at Blenheim in 1886. It was afterwards in two other notable collections: firstly that of Oliver Vernon Watney of Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire, and then in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Donald Davies at Charleville, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.