Jane Seymour: The Enigma

Jane Seymour was one of Katharine of Aragon's ladies in waiting. She may have been at court as early as 1527, witnessing Henry's efforts to rid himself of Katharine to marry Anne. She returned to court to serve Anne Boleyn, but there's little record of her until the king began to pursue her. Jane seems to come out of nowhere, emerging from the records after only a few mentions here and there, suddenly the subject of the king's rapt attentions.

Who was this girl, and why did she catch Henry's eye? Historians have been baffled for centuries. Her main attraction seems to have been that she was the complete antithesis of Anne Boleyn.

She was probably born around 1508, which means she was in her late twenties when Henry first noticed her in late 1535 or early 1536. (At her funeral, she had twenty-nine mourners, which was a tradition of the day: one for every year of the deceased's life.) She was the daughter of Sir John Seymour, knighted for his service at Blackheath, who became a groom of the bedchamber in 1532.

Pretty much all of the Tudor nobility was interrelated in some way. Jane was Anne Boleyn's half-second cousin, and fifth cousin to King Henry VIII. But Jane's family line wasn't particularly wealthy or distinguished, and she doesn't seem to have had the kind of personal charm that would negate that fact, which may explain why she was still unmarried in her late twenties.

Jane appears to have received the standard education of a Tudor noblewoman. She could read and write, but does not appear to have been prolific in either, nor was she engaged in intellectual or artistic pursuits. Ambassador Chapuys, who despised Anne Boleyn and was delighted to see her have competition for the king's affections, tried to be complimentary when he said of Jane that she was, "not a woman of great wit, but she may have good understanding."

Her chief talent was embroidery. Some of it survived as late as the seventeenth century and was said to be fine and beautiful work.

She was plain of face, with a long, slightly-crooked nose and a receding chin. She kept her small lips pursed primly, and favored the conservative gable hood. Chapuys wrote she was "of middle stature and no great beauty, so fair that one would call her rather pale than otherwise.” He said she was "proud and haughty" in her demeanor.

Her religious beliefs were also conservative, in comparison to Anne Boleyn's reformist zeal. She seems to have remained a quiet supporter of Katharine of Aragon, and her daughter, Princess Mary. She would later try to use her influence to get the monasteries restored. Chapuys wanted to grant her the title of "pacifier," or "peace-maker."

Jane came into prominence as Anne Boleyn's star was beginning to fall. Suddenly, she and her supporters were the ones who had the king's favor. It seemed to happen out of nowhere. She appears suddenly in the ambassadorial dispatches with no precedent, as though she were plucked out of thin air.

Historians have tended to see Jane as a passive figure in these events, like a log swept along in a river's current, but there are hints in Chapuys's letter that she was not as inactive as it may have appears.

Chapuys writes about visiting Cromwell one evening. Cromwell decided to drop some hints by saying in an exaggerated "cold" tone of voice that the king intended to live chastely in his marriage to Anne Boleyn. He then said if the king was to seek another wife, it wouldn't be from among the French.


He leaned against the window in which we were, putting his hand before his mouth to avoid smiling or to conceal it [...]

The explanation for this little smirk comes in the same letter, a few paragraphs down:


At this instant the Marchioness has sent to me to say what Mr. Gelyot (qu. Elyot?) had already told me, viz., that the King being lately in this town, and the young lady, Mrs. Semel, whom he serves, at Greenwich, he sent her a purse full of sovereigns, and with it a letter, and that the young lady, after kissing the letter, returned it unopened to the messenger, and throwing herself on her knees before him, begged the said messenger that he would pray the King on her part to consider that she was a gentlewoman of good and honorable parents, without reproach, and that she had no greater riches in the world than her honor, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths, and that if he wished to make her some present in money she begged it might be when God enabled her to make some honorable match.
The said Marchioness has sent to me to say that by this the King's love and desire towards the said lady was wonderfully increased, and that he had said she had behaved most virtuously, and to show her that he only loved her honorably, he did not intend henceforth to speak with her except in presence of some of her kin; for which reason the King has caused Cromwell to remove from a chamber to which the King can go by certain galleries without being perceived [...]

In one fell swoop, she primly defended her honor and reminded the king she might be given to another man at any moment. Jane was playing the same game everyone accused Anne Boleyn of playing, and it worked like a charm. 

Chapuys says that Jane had been "well taught" and coached by those who knew the king on what to do:

[T]he eldest brother of the said lady with his wife [has lodged there], in order to bring thither the same young lady, who has been well taught for the most part by those intimate with the King, who hate the concubine, that she must by no means comply with the King's wishes except by way of marriage; in which she is quite firm.
She is also advised to tell the King boldly how his marriage is detested by the people, and none consider it lawful; and on the occasion when she shall bring forward the subject, there ought to be present none but titled persons, who will say the same if the King put them upon their oath of fealty.
And the said Marchioness would like that I or some one else, on the part of your Majesty, should assist in the matter [...] I will consult with them again today, and on learning her opinion will consider the expedient to be taken, so that if no good be done, I may at least not do any harm.

Chief among these supporters working to accomplish Anne Boleyn's ruin was Nicholas Carew. As Chapuys wrote at the end of the month,

In fact, it will not be Carew's fault if the aforesaid concubine, though a cousin of his, is not overthrown (desarçonee) one of these days, for I hear that he is daily conspiring against her, and trying to persuade Miss Seymour and her friends to accomplish her ruin. Indeed, only four days ago the said Carew and certain gentlemen of the Kings chamber sent word to the Princess to take courage, for very shortly her rival would be dismissed,the King being so tired of the said concubine that he could not bear her any longer.

Anne Boleyn was not unaware of the favor her husband was suddenly showing to Jane. There are a few apocryphal stories of her having jealous outbursts. We have a story that Anne Boleyn spotted a necklace around Jane's neck that was an obvious gift from the king. She ripped it off the girl in a temper and the king chastised Anne for it. The tale first appears in Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England published in 1662, more than a hundred years after the events it describes.

According to The Life of Jane Dormer, an autobiography written by a woman who was the best friend and confidant of the Princess Mary, there was “scratching and by-blows” between Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. Dormer says Anne also encountered the king with Jane Seymour sitting on his knee, the shock of which she blamed for causing her final miscarriage.

Around the throne, a storm was brewing. Katharine of Aragon had recently died, making King Henry a free man in the eyes of the world which did not recognize his union to Anne. Around this time, Henry remarked to Chapuys that he considered his marriage to Anne to be invalid because he had been seduced and constrained into the union by sortilèges, the promises of soothsayers that she would give him a son.

Recently, Cromwell and Anne had quarreled over the money coming in from the dissolved monasteries. Anne wanted to found schools with it. Cromwell wanted it to go into the king's pocket and into the pockets of the nobles whose lands would absorb the nearby monastic holdings.

It's unsurprising Cromwell won that particular dispute, but it marked a turning point in his relations with Anne. Cromwell seems to have begun to view Anne as an enemy that would topple him if she could, so he needed to topple her first.

And lastly, Anne miscarried of a male fetus on the day of Katharine's funeral, which is the same day, coincidentally, that Chapuys first mentions the king giving fine presents to a Mistress Semel [Seymour]. It was a devastating blow. More than one historian has echoed the famous line that Anne "miscarried of her savior." 

Henry said grimly when he met with Anne that he could see God would not give him male children. Anne shot back that her miscarriage may have been caused by the pain she felt when she saw he "loved others." The king departed for Windsor, leaving Anne behind as he once abandoned Katharine, and said he'd speak to her once she was on her feet. But soon, the plans for Anne's fall had been put in place. In early May, the queen was arrested on charges of adultery and incest.

What did Jane think of all of this? We don't know. If she was troubled by what was to happen to her predecessor, Jane gave no indication.

We do know she was fully aware of what the outcome of the accusations against the queen was intended to be. Chapuys wrote that "even before the arrest of the concubine, the King had spoken with Mistress Seymour of their future marriage." She knew Anne was doomed to die even before the queen had been arrested. It's a chilling thought.


As Agnes Strickland wrote: 

The wedding-cakes must have been baking, the wedding-dinner providing, the wedding-clothes preparing, while the life-blood was yet running warm in the veins of the victim, whose place was to be rendered vacant by violent death.

While Anne was imprisoned in the Tower, semi-hysterical with fear, Henry was taking the barge every evening down the river to visit Jane, torches blazing and musicians playing loudly, a jolly scene, no doubt. Chapuys noted with heavy sarcasm that Henry was the most cheerful cuckold he had ever heard of.

The public was aghast. Anne had never been universally popular, but Henry's behavior was blatant. Chapuys noted that people were beginning to "murmur by suspicion," and that the arrangement "sounds ill to the ears of the people." Someone even wrote a satirical song about it, about which Henry wrote to Jane:

My dear friend and mistress,
The bearer of these few lines from thy entirely devoted servant will deliver into thy fair hands a token of my true affection for thee, hoping you will keep it for ever in your sincere love for me. Advertising you that there is a ballad made lately of great derision against us, which if it go abroad and is seen by you; I pray you to pay no manner of regard to it. I am not at present informed who is the setter forth of this malignant writing; but if he is found out, he shall be straightly punished for it.
For the things ye lacked, I have minded my lord to supply them to you as soon as he could buy them. Thus hoping, shortly to receive you in these arms, I end for the present,
Your own loving servant and sovereign,
H. R

Henry's concern for Jane's reputation led him to put out the rumor that he didn't want to marry again ... unless his people begged him to. His council obligingly requested he remarry a few days after Anne's death for the "good of the realm." Henry mentioned he happened to know a young woman who might suit - Jane Seymour - and they replied, "Let your Majesty do as you desire. We all consider her a worthy maiden, and we hope in God that your union will be fruitful and happy." 

Eleven days after the execution of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour became Henry VIII's third wife.

Like her predecessor, Jane was concerned for the appearance and reputation of her court, but her focus seems to have been on the dress of her servants. Lady Lisle, who had gifted Pourquoi to Queen Anne in an effort to get her daughters installed as ladies in waiting, finally had her wish granted when Jane consented to have one of her girls, Anne Basset, at court.

But, unfortunately, the pearl girdle [belt] the young lady wore was not sufficiently rich. They were required to have one hundred twenty pearls, and Anne Basset's girdle was not grand enough to admit her into the royal presence.

Jane also insisted her ladies eschew French fashions like Anne Boleyn's favored French hood, insisting nothing was as becoming as the English gable hood. Chroniclers noted that Jane was more richly dressed than her predecessors, and apparently, looked pretty good in it. Anne Boleyn, by contrast, had chosen simple garb, knowing the more elaborate her clothing, the worse it looked on her. It seems Jane was trying hard to draw these distinctions.

Jane never had a coronation; none of the rest of Henry's queens did, either. Immediately after Henry's marriage to Jane, the excuse was given that the coronation should be put off because there was plague in the city - as there was every summer. And afterward, it was decided to delay it because Jane was in a "hopeful condition," expecting the king's heir. One wonders if Jane remembered Anne was heavily pregnant at her own coronation.

Likely, the true reason was the expense. Despite the vast wealth pouring into the king's coffers from the plunder of the monasteries, the crown was low on funds. Henry had come to the throne as one of the richest monarchs in Europe, but now, he was nearly broke.

Jane's recorded actions as queen are few. Agnes Strickland was quite laudatory of Queen Jane, but she summed up her reign in this succinct paragraph:

[S]he passed eighteen months of regal life without uttering a sentence significant enough for preservation. Thus she avoided making enemies by sallies of wit and repartee, in which her incautious predecessor so often indulged: indeed, it was generally considered that queen Jane purposely steered her course of so that her manners appeared diametrically opposite to those of queen Anne. As for her actions, they were utterly passive, and dependent on the will of the king. The only act of Jane Seymour's queenly life of which a documentary record has been preserved, is an order to the park keeper at Havering-atte-Bower "to deliver to her well-beloved the gentlemen of her sovereign lord the king's chapel-royal, two bucks of high season." For this very trifling exercise of the power and privileges of a queen of England she names the king's warrant and seal as her authority, as if her own were insufficient.  The order is headed by her signature, and is supposed to be the only genuine autograph of Jane Seymour in existence. 



It's said she approached the king to ask about Princess Mary being restored to the succession, which Henry slapped down with the retort that Jane 


...ought to study the welfare and exaltation of her own children, if she had any by him, instead of looking out for the good of others.

She spoke up one other time to beg him on her knees to show mercy to the participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace, and to slow the pillage of the monasteries. On this occasion, Henry darkly reminded her of the fate of the last queen who had attempted to meddle in state affairs. Jane was wise enough to shut up afterwards.

Despite these bumps in the road, Henry pampered his new wife, paying special attention to her food cravings. It was considered dangerous by some physicians to deny a pregnant woman what she craved, because it was thought her body must need whatever it was she wanted. And what Jane wanted was quails. Fat quails. Henry wrote to Calais for them to send the birds, insisting these ones needed to be fatter than the last ones they had sent. At one sitting, Jane gobbled up twelve of them.

Jane chose Hampton Court for her lying-in, and presumably carefully followed the rules for royal child-bearing laid down by Henry's grandmother, Margaret Beaufort.


Jane went into labor on October 9, but something went wrong. She labored through the night, and the next day, and the next. A cruel legend has Henry being asked which to save, the queen or her child, and Henry callously replying to save the baby, because another wife could be easily found, but this is false. Finally, at two AM on October 12, the baby was delivered, and Henry had his longed-for prince.

The realm erupted in celebration, and the exhausted Jane must have breathed a sigh of relief. Her place as queen was secure. She had done her duty. She attended the christening of her son, Edward, brought in on a special couch to watch the ceremonies. She was thought to be recovering normally, but only a few days later, she was felled by fever.

It's thought Jane had puerperal fever or septicaemia, caused by unsanitary conditions during the birth. She rallied briefly on the 17th, but it was soon clear Jane wouldn't recover. On the 22nd, she was visited by a bishop, who performed the last rites. Henry was told the following morning that the queen was about to die.

Did he visit her? The records make no clear indication of it. Henry had a pathological fear of death and disease. One of his councilors wrote that


[T]he king was determined, as this day, to have removed to Esher, and, because the queen was very sick this night, and this day, he tarried; but tomorrow, God willing, he intendeth to be there. If she amends he will go and if she amend not, he told me, this day, he could not find it in his heart to tarry. 

There is no mention that he was with her at any point, nor of whether he was with her when she finally died on the night of the 24th.

The king immediately departed when he was told Jane had died, headed for the palace of Windsor, where he shut himself in his rooms to grieve. Though he did take a pragmatic moment to speak to his councilors about searching for a new wife.

Henry always honored Jane as his true wife, the most favored, for the son she had given him. When he had the Tudor dynasty immortalized in portrait, it was Jane who was painted at his side, though he was married to Kateryn Parr at the time.

When he died, he asked to be buried with Jane. His wishes were honored, in that respect, though they were never placed in the grand tomb he had planned. None of his children showed interest in erecting the grand, elaborate edifice.




No comments:

Post a Comment