Jane Seymour: A Well-Behaved Woman History Too Often Forgets

Annabelle Wallis as Jane Seymour in The Tudors (2007)

This is the part five in my series examining the lives of the women in Henry VIII’s life. Click here for previous essays from the series.

Jane Seymour was the third wife of Henry VIII and, in contrast to the dramatic lives led by her predecessors, is mostly remembered for her relative boringness. This is a compliment, really: having witnessed first-hand what happened to the stubborn Katherine of Aragon and the outspoken Anne Boleyn, Jane’s choice to remain mostly quiet and submissive can be seen as a canny move to ensure her survival. Like Anne, she died young, but of natural causes rather than execution.The tragedy of her life is the same thing that ensured her legacy; dying before she had a chance to displease Henry.

There is only one major biography written about her (noted at the bottom of this post), which speaks both to the relative lack of drama inherent in her life’s story, as well as on the limited amount of information we know about her. Like Anne Boleyn, she was born in the early 16th century to an aristocratic and distantly royal family, notable enough for her to be sent to live at Court, but not notable enough for her birth or childhood to have been recorded anywhere. In fact, much of her life is reminiscent of Anne’s, but in a mirror-image sort of way. Both were possibly ladies-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon at the same time, but it was the fiery Anne who captured Henry’s attention. Jane — possibly — moved on from serving Katherine to serving Anne, eventually supplanting her as Henry’s mistress, then wife. Both Anne and Jane were used as pawns by their families, pawns in an ongoing game to come out on top as the King’s favourites. How much say did either woman have in this? Basically none, as did the young women thrust forward by other families in hopes they would win the King’s heart.

Anne remained unmarried through most of her twenties because she was waiting for Henry to be freed up to wed her. Jane, roughly the same age, remained unmarried for no reason we know of. If Henry had been merely seeking a wife who would birth him a large number of children, he would have likely seeked out someone younger than Jane’s age (of approximately 27, we think). Something about her drew him in, perhaps the extent to which she came across as the exact opposite of Anne Boleyn. Jane was pale and blond next to Anne’s dark hair and eyes; Jane was quiet and passive to Anne’s extroversion and dramatic personality. Anne had perhaps helped win the King’s heart by holding true to her religious beliefs, not allowing him to bed her until marriage was on the table. It was during the middle of the messy dissolution of Henry and Anne’s relationship, in fall of 1535, when Jane is first recorded as having caught the King’s eye.

Jane Asher as Jane Seymour in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972)
Jane Asher as Jane Seymour in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972)

Following a royal visit to Wolf Hall, an estate belonging to Jane’s family, Henry began paying so much attention to Jane that courtiers began speculating she may become the King’s new mistress (as Anne was pregnant at this time, the question of Jane becoming the new Queen was not an option). As Anne had before her, Jane upheld her religious beliefs and refused the King’s advances; and just as this behaviour had only increased his commitment to pursuing Anne, it likewise caused Henry’s interest in Jane to increase. Both Anne and Jane have been criticized by their contemporaries and historians for actively breaking up the King’s marriages, but the bigger picture was that the court was a cesspool of ambitious families constantly trying to leverage themselves at the mercy of others. With Anne’s star on the fall, Jane’s family weren’t the only ones to begin scheming to supplant the Queen with one of their family’s young women.

The Boleyn family had numerous enemies both before and after Anne became Queen, many of whom were Catholics loyal to Henry’s first wife, Katherine, and his surviving daughter, Princess Mary. Jane, who happened to be a devoted Catholic, appealed to these factions as they felt she would be able to represent their interests to the King. In January 1536, Katherine died and Anne suffered a miscarriage, two events that made the impossible — Henry taking a new wife and Queen — suddenly plausible. Anne is said to have placed some of the blame of her miscarriage on having caught Jane carrying on with the King, but her reputation was already damaged enough that this did little to tarnish Jane’s reputation.

Jane sustained her pristine reputation when, upon receiving a gift of money from the King that March, she threw herself to the ground, kissed the King’s seal on the letter, proclaimed herself a virtutous woman who could only receive a gift of money from a gentleman upon promise of marriage, and had the messenger return the gift. Henry respected her stance, agreeing to only visit with her in the presence of a chaperone; though he also had the rooms switched around in the palace so that he could visit her through a private hallway that connected their bedrooms so make of that what you will.

Kate Phillips as Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall (2015)
Kate Phillips as Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall (2015)

Jane’s thoughts over the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn are not recorded, not are her thoughts about mostly anything, because she wasn’t big into writing. She was skilled at needlepoint and running a household, but was either less trained or less interested in academics as Katherine and Anne had been. She was formally betrothed to Henry the day after Anne’s execution, and the couple were married shortly after, on May 29th. Jane’s household was sworn in on June 2nd, and she was proclaimed Queen on June 4th.

Early on in her tenure as Queen, Jane is recorded as pressing her husband to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Princess Mary. She was able to convince both Henry and Mary to compromise a little, with Mary ultimately agreeing to publicly agree that her own parents’ marriage had been invalid. Despite of, or perhaps because of their closeness in age (Jane being about eight years older than her stepdaughter), the two women are said to have gotten along very well. Mary was still removed from the line of succession (Jane’s own children would now take priority), but the family was on its way to being mended.

During the autumn of 1536, a riots broke out as rebels protested Henry’s conversion of the country from Catholicism to Protestantism, particularly his strategy of disbanding monateries and convents. Jane, whose cousin Robert Aske was among the rebel leaders, suggested that the riots were God’s punishment for Henry’s actions and that he should restore the monasteries. Henry apparently spoke angrily to her, reminding her of what happened to his other wives who had meddled in his affairs. Jane is not recorded as having offered her political opinion again. However, once the riots were quashed, Henry founded two new monasteries in her honour.

Annabelle Wallis as Jane Seymour on The Tudors (2007)
Annabelle Wallis as Jane Seymour on The Tudors (2007)

Jane had still yet to have an official coronation. The first date, in July, was postponed due to an outbreak of plague. A second, planned for October, was postponed due to the religious riots. However, she was accepted as Queen and took her role seriously — her influence taking over in the type of fashion worn, the types of festivities held, and the overall mood of court. Where Anne had brought with her an influx of French fashion and customs, Jane brought back a return to Katherine’s more conservative manners, going to far as to specifically ban anyone to wear French-inspired fashion. The difference between the two Queens is perhaps best shown in the contrast between the motto each chose: Anne selected the joyous phrase The Most Happy, while Jane selected the conservative Bound To Obey And Serve.

Of course, Jane’s primary job as Queen was to birth sons who would become Henry’s heirs. She became pregnant in early 1537, and was said to have craved quails, which Henry sought out for her from France. She spent that summer quietly attended to by royal physicians and midwives in the palace, removing herself from the public eye and focusing entirely on ensuring the success of her pregnancy. When she went into the standard confinement in mid-September, the country celebrated the impending birth with bonfires and services of thanksgiving. Following a treacherous labour lasting two nights and three days, she delivered a son, Prince Edward, on October 9th. When the new heir was christened on October 15th, both Mary and Jane’s other stepdaughter, Elizabeth, helped carry the infant’s train. As was customary, Jane did not attend the christening, but did greet courtiers following the ceremony. It was apparent even at this time that her health was failing her.

She received last rites on October 17th, but her health briefly rallied afterwards. However, she finally succumbed to birth-related side effects (likely a ruptured placenta and/or bacterial infection contracted during labour), passing away on October 24th. Mary again took a place of honour, being appointed chief mourner at Jane’s funeral, followed by 29 other mourners, each representing one year of the Queen’s short life. Unlike Katherine and Anne, Jane was given a Queen’s funeral; none of the three wives who would follow her would receive this same honour. Inscribed above her grave was the poem:

Here lieth a Phoenix, by whose death
Another Phoenix life gave breath:
It is to be lamented much
The world at once ne’er knew two such.

Annabelle Wallis as Jane Seymour on The Tudors (2015)
Annabelle Wallis as Jane Seymour on The Tudors (2015)

Her marriage to Henry lasted just 18 months, and the King would thereafter speak of her as his most-loved wife. He wore black for three months after her passing, and did not marry again for three years. It was during these years that he put on so much weight that he developed diabetes and gout. Eight years after her death, despite Henry being married then to another woman, he had her painted into an official family portrait by his side. When the King died, he was buried beside her, at his request, at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. He was clearly devoted to her, and it’s that same inoffensive nature that leaves us without much written to know about who she really was.

One chronicler of the time noted that Jane was the most beautiful of all Henry’s wives, noting that when she donned her Queenly regalia no woman was more beautiful; while others note her as pale and unattractive. All agreed, however, that her peaceful and calming presence was a balm to all who encountered her. Whether it was her looks, her behaviour, or her affect that drew Henry to her, her personality stands entirely outside of that of any of Henry’s other wives. She did not cause any controversy or seemingly offend anyone, which perversely means that there was little written about her. It’s that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich thing where well behaved women seldom make history, and Jane is the poster child for this sort of behaviour. She had seen both Katherine and Anne destroyed by their stubborn and dramatic personalities, and through some combination of her own good nature and her canny survivor’s instincts, Jane is remembered much as she lived — as a kind-hearted, well-intentioned, well-behaved woman.

By contrast, her brothers Thomas and Edward would continue to hold powerful roles at court based on their connection to her, and both would flame out spectacularly (but we’ll get to that later on). I mention this because it makes Jane’s quiet power all the more notable; surrounded by scheming family members, ambitious rivals, and a mercurial King/husband who had already put one wife to death, she continued to live on her own terms, prioritizing harmony, peacefulness, and kindness even in the midst of the viper’s nest that was English court. Perhaps it’s for these attributes that Henry loved her best, or perhaps it’s because she died so soon after delivering his much-wanted son. But even though putting this essay together, I’ve found a new admiration for Jane; she is often omitted from discourse of women of this period for the same reasons that allowed her to thrive as much as she was able to: she was a calm amid a chaotic storm of religious wars and ambitious courtiers, who never wavered in her commitment to her faith or her morals.

Kate Phillips as Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall (2015)
Kate Phillips as Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall (2015)

Suggested reading/viewing:

As noted above, there are way less written works and film versions of Jane’s story because there’s less recorded about her, and perhaps, a perceived lack of drama in her story. Recently, two similarly titled biographies have come about her: Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love by Elizabeth Norton, and Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s Favourite Wife by David Loades. In terms of fiction, she plays a sizable role in Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (the sequel to Wolf Hall, in which Jane plays a smaller role), and the romance-tinged novels Plain Jane: A Novel of Jane Seymour by Laurien Gardner, The Favored Queen: A Novel of Henry VIII’s Third Wife by Carolly Erickson, I, Jane: In the Court of Henry VIII by Diane Haeger, and Jane Seymour, The Haunted Quee by Alison Weir. There aren’t any films just about her story, as her character most often pops up in the background of the various Anne Boleyn films. However, she plays a notable role for several episodes of The Tudors, and appeared in TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, which included the plot line of Bring Up The Bodies as well.

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4 Comments

  1. Hiya! I really enjoyed this essay, it was so good to hear about a woman who I’ve really not heard about much before in other history books and to learn more about her, so thank you! I can’t wait to read the rest about the other wives!

    Like

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