Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII of England
Lifetime: c. 1508/9 - 24 October 1537
Reigned: May 1536 - October 1537 (1 year, 5 months)
Edward VI of England: 12 October 1537 - 6 July 1553
In this new six-part series, I will be reexamining the lives and personalities of Henry VIII's six wives, seeking to portray their lives realistically in a process that discards prevailing stereotypes. Much scholarly work has been done on Henry's reign in recent decades, affording fresh insights into the politics and achievements of the period. Understandably, widespread interest in Henry's marital affairs remains unabated. Yet stereotypes continue to bedevil our knowledge of the wives of this most enigmatic king.
Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, became Queen of England upon her predecessor's execution for treason in May 1536. An unassuming woman in her late twenties, Jane is perhaps the most elusive of Henry's queens. Scarcely any evidence survives for her true personality. She was Henry's wife for merely seventeen months; yet her period as queen was tumultuous, in that it witnessed the restoration of Mary Tudor to favour, the unrest of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and the long-awaited birth of a healthy son to the king. Jane has attracted few biographers because of the shortage of evidence concerning her. In many ways, though, the mystery of Jane Seymour makes her as fascinating a person of study as Henry's other wives. Whether Henry VIII truly did love Jane, his 'entirely beloved' third wife, as legend has it, is an issue that has provoked considerable debate. In actuality, the tantalising evidence we have suggests that the story is more complex. Jane's queenship was passive and her famously meek, subdued character may have owed far more to the control of her domineering husband than is usually considered.
Above: Hampton Court Palace, where Jane Seymour died merely twelve days after the birth of her son.
Jane was the fifth child and eldest daughter of Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth. Twenty-nine ladies walked at her funeral procession in 1537 to mark her age: whether that means she had reached her twenty-ninth birthday, or whether she was in her twenty-ninth year, is uncertain, but it indicates that she was born either in 1508 or 1509. As with Anne Boleyn, Jane's father was much favoured by Henry VIII. Sir John Seymour, a 'gentle, courteous man', had been knighted by Henry VII at the battle of Blackheath in 1497 and later accompanied Henry VIII on the French campaign in 1513. By 1532 he had become a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, and had acted as Sheriff of Wiltshire and Dorset. Sometime in the late 1520s, Jane arrived at court to serve Queen Katherine of Aragon. It is often assumed, with little supporting evidence, that Jane was loyal to Katherine and modelled herself on her. Aside from Jane's preference for gable hoods, which Katherine also liked, and Jane's later friendship with Katherine's daughter Mary, there is barely anything to suggest that Jane particularly admired Katherine or empthasised with her during the annulment proceedings.
Although she is rarely termed stupid, Jane is often regarded as being poorly educated. Indeed, there is no evidence that she had an aptitude for languages, and unlike Anne Boleyn she was not selected to participate in court masques, which suggests that her dancing and musical ability were unexceptional. Yet she was renowned for her talent in needlework and embroidery, with some of her work surviving well into the following century. Her contemporaries were also not especially enthusiastic about her appearance. Polydore Vergil described her flatteringly as 'a woman of the utmost charm both in appearance and character', but the Spanish ambassador was of the opinion that she was 'of middle stature and no great beauty', with a 'pure white' complexion. He also reported rumours that she was both 'haughty' and 'proud'.
Indeed, it is the very absence of evidence which makes it so difficult to grasp Jane's true personality. Most historians often refer to her piety and virtue, but aside from Luther's belief that she was 'an enemy of the gospel' - in other words, she was a devout adherent of the Catholic faith - there is barely anything to suggest that she was especially pious. In contrast to Anne Boleyn, who assisted religious reformers, or Katherine Parr, who wrote evangelical works of devotion, Jane was entirely conventional in her religious devotions and may not have been interested in taking an active role in religious politics. The absence of her involvement in court masques and dances, or poetry celebrating her talents, can tentatively be interpreted to mean that she was not talented musically or artistically.
For whatever reason, by early 1536 Jane Seymour remained unwed. At the age of twenty-six, it was certainly strange that her father had not arranged an advantageous marriage alliance for her, and even more unusual given that she was the eldest daughter. Her younger sister, Elizabeth, had married in 1531 and later remarried, to the son of Thomas Cromwell. Why no marriage had been arranged for Jane remains a mystery. We can only wonder how she herself felt about this: did she passively accept her fate as God's will, something to be accepted with resignation? Did she rebel, passionately hoping for an excellent marriage one day? We can only guess. Jane's fortunes, however, took a dramatically unexpected turn in the spring of 1536. Devastated by his wife's miscarriage, and uncertain whether his second marriage had won him divine favour, Henry VIII was susceptible to a new flirtation. For reasons that have puzzled historians for centuries, the object of his affections was Jane Seymour, the unassuming and apparently unremarkable attendant of the queen.
Historians have generally suggested that Henry VIII was attracted to Jane because she 'was unquestionably virginal' and because 'there was certainly no threatening sexuality about her'. In short, it was her virtue, her piety and her goodness that charmed the ageing king. By extension, these same historians seem to imply that these were qualities decidedly lacking in Anne Boleyn, thus conveniently ignoring the considerable evidence of Anne's piety and the importance she placed on her virtue. While Henry may have been captivated by Jane's demeanour, there may be a darker story at place here.
As queen, Jane selected the motto 'Bound to Obey and Serve', thus confirming her submission to Henry VIII's will both as her husband and as her king. How far the king himself directed his new wife in this, however, should be considered. Henry VIII had been dangerously obsessed by Anne Boleyn, an assertive, educated and independent young woman who had refused to become involved with him because it offended her piety and endangered her virtue. Anne's inability to provide the much-desired male heir had gradually reduced Henry VIII's burning love to burning hatred, leaving him with a strong desire to destroy her and rejoicing in her execution, to the surprise even of Ambassador Chapuys. With Jane, he had no wish to be denied and no wish to be told 'no'. Jane's motto confirmed her husband's control of her and signalled to the world that passivity and submission, rather than the proactiveness of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, would characterise Jane's rule.
Above: Edward VI of England was born on 12 October 1537, only child of Jane Seymour.
Just as it is problematic to view Anne Boleyn as directly responsible for Katherine of Aragon's rustication from court and ill-treatment, so it is erroneous to view Jane as responsible for Anne's brutal end, as Victorian historians often did. In questioning her morals and condemning her actions, as Agnes Strickland did, these historians failed to understand the position Jane was in and the character of the man she married. Like Anne, she simply could not say no. With the passing of time, Henry had become increasingly autocratic and, on the single occasion that Jane did dare to voice her true opinion, she was brutally put in her place by her irascible husband, who warned her to consider her predecessor's fate before involving herself in affairs of state. There is scarcely any evidence for Jane's supposed love and admiration of Queen Katherine, and there is next to no evidence that she was hostile to Anne or resented her rise to queenship. While she did offer friendship to Mary Tudor once she had married Henry, this is understandable given their closeness in age and their shared devotion to the Catholic faith. In 1536, perhaps Jane, mindful of Henry's rejection of Anne and indifference to his second daughter, wisely judged it best not to antagonise her husband by showing marked favour to her stepdaughter Elizabeth.
The absence of evidence for her inner feelings means that we cannot suggest that Jane was hostile to Anne Boleyn or deliberately sought to bring her down because of her aversion to the reformed faith favoured by Anne or because of her supposed loyalty to Katherine. In rejecting Henry's advances, in refusing to accept presents of money from him, in behaving 'modestly' rather than flirtatiously, perhaps Jane intended to signal a lack of interest that may well have been genuine. Her true feelings for Henry are usually ignored in the rush to condemn her supposedly callous behaviour. Jane Seymour's personality and motivations are swathed in mystery and remain largely inscrutable. She may have been ambitious, but equally she may have felt that she had no choice, as Katherine Parr did when presented with an unwanted marriage proposal by the king in 1543. Perhaps Jane resented Anne, but equally she may have accepted her as her mistress and wished to show her no ill-will. What does seem likely, however, is that Jane was coached by her ambitious relatives to attract the besotted king. Certainly they profited handsomely from her rise: her brother Edward became Viscount Beauchamp and her brother Thomas was knighted. It is uncertain whether Jane was a willing participant in the schemes of 1536 or whether she was manipulated by her family to serve their own ends.
Jane was never crowned as queen and her reign was entirely passive, as Pamela Gross noted in her academic study of Jane. She has usually been credited with restoring Mary Tudor to favour, but it is more likely that it was Henry himself who approved and brought about his daughter's return to court only after she had grovelled to him for her disobedience: 'I beseech your Majesty to countervail my transgressions with my repentance for the same'. Jane may have been sympathetic to Mary but she was not responsible for the latter's return to favour. Even if she had wished to enjoy Mary's company, Jane would not have forgotten for a second that her primary duty as queen was to provide a male heir, and would have acknowledged that Mary's position as the bastard of an unlawful union was a foreboding reminder of her own perilous position. As Henry himself warned Jane ominously: 'She 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'.
Despite the oft-repeated legend that Jane Seymour was Henry VIII's most beloved wife, there is, in fact, surprisingly little evidence of his love for her dating from her own lifetime. As noted earlier, when she had voiced sympathy for Mary her husband had bluntly advised her to concern herself with producing an heir herself. If the story of her plea for the abbeys to be saved from dissolution is true, then Henry's response, in brutally reminding her of Anne's fate, is indicative of a bullying husband seeking to control a wife and prevent her from becoming unruly. Within days of his marriage to Jane, Henry VIII reportedly was acquainted with two beautiful women and voiced regret that he had not met them before he had remarried. The Second Act of Succession, which was passed in the summer of 1536, vested the succession either in Jane Seymour's offspring or in the offspring the king might have with any future wife. How Jane viewed this Act cannot be known, but as the months passed without a pregnancy, she must have lived in considerable anxiety, if not fear.
Described by Cromwell as 'a most virtuous lady', Jane conformed entirely to Henry's wishes. If she had ambition, she suppressed it. If she held opinions, she chose not to voice them. If she disagreed with her husband's policies, she did not inform him. How far Jane willingly assented to her marginalisation, how wholeheartedly she embraced her motto 'Bound to Obey and Serve', are questions that simply cannot be answered. Yet she had witnessed Katherine of Aragon's determined refusal to obey Henry's wishes, and she had heard of the ill-treatment inflicted on the proud queen in consequence. Jane's own marriage had been made in blood: her former mistress had been imprisoned, tried and executed in less than three weeks mainly because she had failed to give her husband a son.
Jane's queenship is characterised by most historians as passive, but they have not usually considered whether she was willing in the circumscribing of her queenly authority. In concerning herself solely with domestic affairs, Jane sought to please her husband, but his threatening behaviour on several occasions towards her was a chilling reminder of the danger she faced if she displeased him. By giving birth to her son Edward on 12 October 1537 at Hampton Court Palace, Jane earned Henry's undying love and appreciation, but during her own lifetime he never demonstrated the constant passion he felt for Anne Boleyn, or the unswerving devotion he experienced for Katherine Howard. In her own lifetime, Jane was a cipher. During her brief tenure as queen, she walked on a knife edge. Her two predecessors had been rusticated and had died, alone and shamed, for their failures to give birth to a son. This thought must have constantly been in Jane's mind, and her overriding emotion at providing the male heir in the autumn of 1537 may well have been relief.
Philippa Gregory's new novel The Taming of the Queen, which describes the life of Katherine Parr as queen, focuses on the circumscribing of the queen's authority, the restriction of her power and the utter submission of the queen to her husband. This portrayal could, with some fairness, apply to Jane Seymour. Her reign has been viewed as unremarkable and devoid of achievements, with the exception of Prince Edward's birth. Historians have appreciated that, outside of her immediate household, the queen was little more than a cipher, never exercising the militant authority of Katherine of Aragon or seeking to influence religious policies, as did Anne Boleyn. But they have, tellingly, failed to consider how willing Jane was in the restrictions she faced. Perhaps she willingly accepted them, perhaps she accepted her submission as the price of her queenship. Or perhaps she resented the limits imposed on her and bridled when faced with her husband's suffocating presence.
There is no evidence to suggest that Jane was unquestionably hostile to Anne Boleyn and sought her destruction, nor is there evidence that she admired and revered Katherine of Aragon. There is scarcely any evidence for Henry's supposed love for her. It was only after her death that Jane became 'entirely beloved' and her memory revered. Only in 1544 was she celebrated in Holbein's painting as Henry's one true wife, rather than Katherine Parr, his queen at the time. Jane Seymour's queenship was circumscribed, 'tamed'. She remains a mystery because she was a cipher at court. What emerges from the sources is the strong likelihood that it was Henry VIII who was responsible for holding her in submission and curtailing her authority to ensure that she pleased him and conformed to his will.