Ordeal by Ambition: An English Family in the Rise of the Tudors by William Seymour

An in depth look at the most prominent Seymour siblings whose rise to power is continued to be source of controversy and who are blamed from everything from Anne's death, to everything else that can be found. The author in spite of being a descendant of this family, does not excuses them and is in fact (unlike other authors with their subjects) very objective with the three Seymours pointing out their flaws, their pride, and also their attributes and accomplishments and how until we see them as we see their predecessors, we can see history with a clearer lens.
An in depth look at the most prominent Seymour siblings whose rise to power is continued to be source of controversy and who are blamed from everything from Anne’s death, to everything else that can be found. The author in spite of being a descendant of this family, does not excuses them and is in fact (unlike other authors with their subjects) very objective with the three Seymours pointing out their flaws, their pride, and also their attributes and accomplishments and how until we see them as we see their predecessors, we can see history with a clearer lens.

The Seymours have had a bad reputation thanks to the black and white portrayals of recent fiction and television dramas and I know what you are going to say: it’s only fair. How dare they step over poor Anne Boleyn’s shoes and cause her and her good brother’s death? First of all, nothing excuses what happened to Anne but this was a highly political game. The stakes were HIGH and the Seymours were no different from her family -or any other family from that matter- and they were going to do whatever it took to stay safe. If that meant stepping over a woman’s shoes, then so be it. Anne Boleyn learned that lesson early on when she stepped over Katherine. It can be argued that Katherine was alive when she became Queen, but Katherine’s undoing, much Henry’s doing as it was Anne’s and Katherine’s, was slower and more painful than Anne’s death. Katherine suffered a slow death with little comfort and as some people have told me, some things are worse than deaths and I believe that since I have seen many things worse than death myself.

Jane Seymour as played by Annabelle Wallis in the third and fourth seasons of "The Tudors" and the great contrast to the real Jane as shown in her Holbein painting who was plain, but as the author pointed out, anything but witless and while not as impressive as her predecessors, she was highly observant and constructed an image for herself that may or may not have been genuine, in order to survive a man who had cast one wife aside and killed another.
Jane Seymour as played by Annabelle Wallis in the third and fourth seasons of “The Tudors” and the great contrast to the real Jane as shown in her Holbein painting who was plain, but as the author pointed out, anything but witless and while not as impressive as her predecessors, she was highly observant and constructed an image for herself that may or may not have been genuine, in order to survive a man who had cast one wife aside and killed another.


Jane Seymour was no plain-spoken, outspoken, or alluring Anne Boleyn, she certainly did not posses the beauty of her first predecessor Katherine of Aragon or her powerful friends. If anything, Jane had even less to recommend her than Anne. But Jane had something valuable: her wit and it was a wit she used to her full advantage. Learning from her mistresses’ mistakes, she emulated every virtue accepted in female monarchs to become the type of woman that Henry could find attractive, that would remind him of his mother -a woman he admired and it as it has been argued by some historians, he tried to find in every wife he married- and one who would be safe. But to achieve this completely, she had to give him a son. And had she not died we would have no doubt seen Jane’s true colors. There were times where she showed specs of her personality. As her older brother (Edward Seymour), she was subtle in the way she handled things. She would voice her opinions with delicacy, but there wasn’t anything delicate when she voiced her opinions regarding the Pilgrimage of Grace. Her education was simple but her understanding of things was not and had she lived we would have no doubt seen more of her.

The next subjects on the author’s list are none other than her controversial brothers, Edward and Thomas Seymour. There are more misconceptions about Thomas and Edward than there about Jane and they have become so ingrained into our understanding of them, that it becomes harder and harder to distinguish what is real and what is not. William Seymour sets the record straight, pointing out that, that as ambitious as both men were, what really brought them down was not lust or their alleged crimes but in fact it was their impatience and arrogance.

Thomas Seymour, a contrast to his real self. Andrew McNair in the right who played him in "The Tudors".
Thomas Seymour, a contrast to his real self. Andrew McNair in the right who played him in “The Tudors”.


Thomas Seymour was in fact intelligent, accomplished, a great warrior who sought to emulate the fame his brother had amassed during the Italian Wars and his bloody -and cruel- campaigns in Scotland. He was also a consummate courtier and great diplomat who proved himself on more than one occasion. As his brother, he knew that coming from the rising gentry, he had work twice as hard as his noble counterparts. Ironically though, he ended up conspiring with them to depose his brother and while his actions regarding this conspiracy and many others cannot be excused, we must understand the reasons behind them. Thomas has been depicted as a child molester who took advantage or forced himself on an unsuspected Elizabeth; and if his intentions to marry her after his wife was dead were true or not, there must be a clear-up regarding these allegations. A great friend of the family, the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine Willoughby, and another firm Protestant who was actively against his older brother’s Protectorate, wed her late husband when she was a little younger than Elizabeth. She had been meant for his son with the Princess Mary Tudor (King Henry VIII’s youngest sister) but he ended up marrying her instead. This does not excuse Thomas, if his intentions with the Lady Elizabeth were true, or if he had some sort of attraction to her. But with different time and different social and moral standards; people saw things differently. A lot of what has come down to us was written posthumously by his enemies to discredit him so they must be taken with a grain of salt. What is true as Seymour points out, is that Thomas might have felt an attraction or rather, being a calculate courtier as his brother, felt that forming an attachment to her would bring him connections, which he needed to bring his brother down. Nonetheless when Katherine Parr banished her from their house, Thomas became more devoted to his wife and her loss was felt deeply. As was expected, Thomas became angrier with his brother and blamed him for everything. He became increasingly paranoid, suspecting everyone of hurting his baby daughter -he would not trust anyone with her. And he had reason to be angry with his brother. Edward Seymour had in fact barred Thomas’ daughter, Mary Seymour from her inheritance many months before Thomas’ arrest. It was something that Thomas could not forgive. Drowned in melancholy, self-pity, and hungry for blood he begun conspiring with his in-law William Parr, and the Greys and Dudleys. Unfortunately, Thomas Seymour as his brother would later show in his own downfall, was his own worst enemy and his blunt hatred for his brother brought him down. So ended the life of a savvy, bold and impatient, and overtly ambitious individual. A man whose sole mistake was letting himself be controlled by his emotions and who was too impatient unlike his allies.

Edward Seymour, a zealous individual but also hardworking who earned the popular acclaim and sobriquet of 'the Good Duke' for his sympathetic glance at the commons. Yet his pride and arrogance towards the elite doomed him. In "The Tudors" (right) he was played by Max Brown.
Edward Seymour, a zealous individual but also hardworking who earned the popular acclaim and sobriquet of ‘the Good Duke’ for his sympathetic glance at the commons. Yet his pride and arrogance towards the elite doomed him. In “The Tudors” (right) he was played by Max Brown.

Last but not least is Edward Seymour whom the author dedicates most of his book to. Though he does a great deal for Jane and Thomas, it is Ned Seymour who he does a lot for the most. Ned Seymour who has been portrayed in recent fiction and television dramas as an amoral, akin to the terminator from science fiction, cold and emotionless individual who will not stop until everyone who isn’t Seymour is dead or bowing down to him. The author shows the real Protector, how he lived, what he died, his troubled married life (in the case of his first wife, Catherine Fillol who may or may not have been unfaithful. The author lends credibility she may have) and finally his military and political career.
Edward was the first of his siblings to distinguish himself in the field, knighted when he was very young by the Duke of Suffolk during the first phase of the Italian Wars at France. He returned home a hero, immediately was recommended to Wolsey’s service and distinguished himself there too and quickly caught the attention of other nobles and the King. Edward bought many mansions, remodeled many homes and made them grand. However he was not blind to who he was and what he represented. The Tudor world was a world where new men could rise but also one where they could be unmade. Edward intended to secure for his family, wealth and position and he worked hard to get it. Nonetheless, in spite of his hard work, his later rise was owed to his sister after she became Queen and gave Henry what he desired the most: a son. As governor of Jersey and having more responsibilities, Ned became a strong workaholic and refused to rest, even for a day. He took care of all his finances, simple tasks that could have been handled by his secretaries were handled directly by him. In spite of this, he never neglected his second wife and their large brood of children. As Seymour points out, Ned Seymour, the Protector who was arrogant and could be mocking to nobles, while merciful and gentle with members of the lower classes; was caring husband and father to his children and looked to all their well-being.

*But* as history shows us, and this book further proves my point, if you wanted to keep your head or be on good terms with everybody on this period -and by everybody I mean the half that has the armies and money- then you had to be nice with the nobility and kiss their feet, or at least give them their “dues” or else face animosity. And *that* is exactly what happened to Edward Seymour. Good politician, check. Good Protector. Check. Famous with the commons. Check. But good friend of the rich and his brother: Err … no. You failed big time there Ned, and he paid dearly with his wife. As his last trump card, he kidnapped his nephew just as another uncle had done with his royal nephew a century before, and told him that there were people out there to kill him, and he had to go with Ned and Anne to protect him. However Dudley and the Greys got wind of this and forced Edward to surrender him and from that point on, when Ned became their prisoner, his fate was sealed. He died over two years later. His wife’s appeals falling on deaf ears. The commons believed he had been pardoned and celebrated on the day of his execution but when they learned he had not, they wailed and afterwards dipped piece of cloths in his blood and keeping them and worship them as relics.

It is a great book and one every Tudor aficionado must have. Even if you are not into the period but want to learn about the Seymours or the politics during this era, this is a must-have! My only criticism is the way that Anne Stanhope, second wife of the Protector was portrayed. The author lets the reader decide for his or herself, not telling them unlike other writers how they should think or view this period, he lays out the facts for you (and there are other few authors who do this who I have included in my book recommendations album) and that is it. However he does give one personal opinion regarding Anne, and he voices what the Spanish Ambassador said about her, and that is that her pride did not help Edward Seymour at all and quickened his fall. This is entirely false as Porter has pointed out in her biographies, and Conor Byrne (author of Katherine Howard: A New History) in his latest blog entry. Anne was a deeply devoted religious matron who was fairly tolerant for the era and who stuck by her husband, and did the impossible to keep him alive -and this included arranging betrothals between one of their daughters to one of Dudley’s sons. When he died she was sent to the Tower and wasn’t released until on her of old friends, Mary Tudor now Mary I of England, first Queen Regnant of her country, released her and restored some of her properties. Anne lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity, remarrying beneath her in the hope that it would keep her out of the royal radar.

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