A brief overview of Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s third Queen

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger.

On the 2nd of June 1533, Jane Seymour made her first appearance as royal Consort. While never crowned, she was Henry’s unofficial Queen and the mother of his son, making her his beloved wife and the woman he chose to be buried next to.

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“Could any female subject really give Henry a decisive refusal?” ~the Six Wives and the many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence

Henry VIII proposed to Jane Seymour right after Anne Boleyn had been executed. This was seen as tactless by many people, including some of Catherine of Aragon’s female relatives. Nevertheless, Henry VIII was King and Head of the Church which made him infallible in the eyes of the state. And Jane, much like Anne, had no friends in high place. While her mother was related to the Howard clan, she wasn’t closely related to them as Anne was, making her position less stable than her predecessors.

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Elly Condron as Jane Seymour in the documentary “Secrets of the Six Wives”.

In her documentary, the Secrets of the Six Wives (Six Wives in the UK) which aired on PBS 2016, Dr. Lucy Worsley is fair in her assessment of Jane, neither favoring nor faulting her for choosing to play along. She says: “if I were her, I would’ve probably done the same.”

She goes on add, “her motto says everything: Bound to obey and serve. She was the typical English rose and English roses aren’t too interesting … She chose to be passive … I would do the same thing if I was married to Henry VIII, to be meek and mild even if I wasn’t to stay alive. Jane was a peacemaker, she improved Henry’s relationship with his children … For a long time, he had been estranged from his daughter Mary … She persuaded Henry to meet Mary once again.”

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Jane Seymour and Henry VIII played by Jane Asher and Keith Michell respectively in the BBC film “Henry VIII and his Six Wives”.

The man Jane married was far less stable than the young boy who fancied Catherine of Aragon and thought himself as a knight rescuing his fair maiden princess from near penury, or the chivalrous lover who fancied himself in love with the most virtuous of his wife’s ladies. Now at mid-age, Henry was a moody and dangerous bedfellow who was congenial one moment and hostile the next.

As a result, Jane thread carefully. She watched everything she said and made sure that her words were subtle so she wouldn’t get in trouble, in case her family’s enemies, primarily the staunch Protestant faction or the pro-French Catholic one, were looking for ways to bring her down. Luckily for her, thanks to her brothers, Edward and Thomas Seymour, she didn’t have to worry about the former. Edward wasn’t as educated as her predecessor’s brother, but he had a keen eye for detail and was just as dedicated and hardworking as George Boleyn, and by the time his sister had become Henry’s wife, he had already shown a deep interest in Protestantism. It would be over a decade, after his royal brother-in-law died and Jane’s son was crowned King, that his sympathies would become more obvious and he’d try to reconcile every religious faction by making the Anglican Church more Protestant -yet not enough (for many of his initial supporters) so it wouldn’t anger the Catholics. Edward’s scheme would fail. Unlike his sister, he wasn’t keen on playing the nice guy, but neither was he eager to become everyone’s most hated man. Like Jane, he was eager to please but unfortunately, it didn’t work for him.

Jane however, being a woman and one whose position was highly dependent on Henry and who had previously served two queens, was observant enough to know what personae she had to play to appease Henry’s royal sensibilities.

Jane Seymour and Henry VIII The Tudors
Jane Seymour (Wallis) and Henry VIII (Meyers) in “The Tudors” s3.

Jane and Henry were married on the 30th of May 1536 in the Queen’s Closet at Whitehall Palace. The ceremony was officiated by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who had been Anne Boleyn’s chaplain. The wedding, according to biographer Antonia Fraser, was done “quickly and quietly” to avoid more controversy.

Jane quickly established herself in her new role. Although she wasn’t as vociferous as her predecessors, Jane did voice her opinion on several occasions. Biographers Elizabeth Norton and the late David Loades in their respective biographies of her and the latter’s biography on her family, noted that she was a good masker. They also inferred that if she lived, she would have taken on a more prominent role as mother of the future king.

Three days after Henry and Jane’s wedding, Jane made her debut at Greenwich, one of Henry VIII’s favorite residences and the place where he and his daughters were born.

According to Sir John Russell from a letter to Lord Lisle:
“The Queen sat abroad as queen, and was served with her own servants. And they were sworn that same day. And the King and Queen came in his great boat to Greenwich the same day, with his Privy Chamber and hers, and the ladies in the great barge. I do ensure you, my Lord, she is as a gentle lady as ever I knew, and as a fair queen as any Christendom. The king hath come out of hell into heaven, for the gentleness of this, and the cursedness and unhappiness in the other.”

Jane made a good impression, and began to assemble her household at once. She proved herself worthy of her new role, and as her predecessors, she was very strict with her ladies. While Chapuys remarked that she possessed little wit, he noted that she was very observant.

Two days later, on Whitsunday, the 4th of June, Jane was officially recognized as Henry VIII’s new queen in the same royal residence. A procession was held, with Jane at the front with her husband by her side and her ladies falling in line behind them. When they reached the palace of Placentia, the royal couple dined under a cloth of state.

Jane’s star was rising and so was her family. Her older brother, Edward Seymour, was created Viscount of Beauchamp. His wife and Jane were very close; the two women also had one common friend and that was the lady Mary, Henry VIII’s estranged daughter.

While Jane showed very little interest for her rival’s daughter, she showed a lot of sympathy for Mary whom she probably regarded as Henry’s true heir, at least until she bore him a son. However, Mary’s return to court not only depended on Jane but on her willingness to sign the Oath which labeled her a bastard born of incest and referred to her mother as the King’s mistress. When Mary finally signed the Oath, and she returned to court, Jane made no secret of her happiness at seeing the former princess again.
It is not known what her view of Mary’s half-sister was. Did she hate her or view her as a threat? Possibly not, and most certainly no. If anyone would have been a threat to her future offspring, it would have been Mary (who in the eyes of many was Henry’s trueborn daughter). But due to her faith and her attachment to her mother, Jane didn’t it see it that way. As for hating Elizabeth, Jane would have no reason to hate her except if she thought Elizabeth was somehow responsible for Mary’s humiliations when she was forced to serve her. In which case, the blame would lay with Anne and Henry than with their daughter.
Jane showed no hostility towards her youngest stepdaughter, nor did she try to prevent Mary from convincing her father to welcome her back, or use some of her new income to pay for Elizabeth’s new clothes and ensure that her sister was also being treated with the respect she deserved as the daughter of a king.

Jane’s first and only act of defiance against the King came during the Pilgrimage of Grace at the end of that year. Henry VIII reminded her to keep her opinions to herself by saying two simple words: Anne Boleyn. Jane became even more complacent after that, concerning herself with keeping her husband happy, being a good hostess, and praying for a son so she could get to keep her head and her family could keep on rising.

These last months were trying moments for Jane. Not only did she have to act more congenial so she would avoid another moment of awkwardness with Henry like when she tried to convince him to be merciful towards the rebels, she also had to face the sudden loss of her father, Sir John Seymour. He died on the 21st of December, he was buried on the Church of St. Mary in Great Bedwyn. Today visitors can see a memorial for Jane’s father who was 62 at the time of his death.

Jane didn’t have to mourn her father for long, or distress herself about what her future would be if she didn’t give Henry what he desired the most because the following year, she became pregnant. On the 27th of May 1537, her pregnancy became public.

“The 27th of May 1537, being Trinity Sunday, there was Te Deum sung for joy of the Queen’s quickening, my lord chancellor, lord of the privy seal, with diverse other lords and bishops being then present; all gave loud praise to God for joy of the same; the Bishop of Worcester made an oration before all the lords and commons after Te Deum was song, showing the cause of their assembly, which orations were marvelous to the spectators; also the same night diverse great bonfires were lit in London, and a hogshead of wine at every fire for poor people to drink as long as it would last. I pray Jesus that he sends us a Prince.” -The Wriothesley Chronicle

Jane Seymour death Lucy Worsley

She went into confinement months earlier, delivering a healthy baby boy on the 12th of October. Her labor was long and arduous, lasting over two days. Jane however, appeared to be in good health when three days later she and Henry saw their son again after the christening ceremony was over. But complications arose once again, and like her late mother-in-law, she became ill and died of puerperal fever (also known as childbed fever) on the 24th of October, twelve days after she had given birth to Edward.

Masses were conducted in her honor. She was buried on St. George’s Chapel in Windsor where her husband would join her less than ten years later.

In fiction, Jane is generally shown as a bland or insipid character. A lesser figure when compared to her mistresses, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. But there are notable exceptions, and not just in TV and film, but int historical fiction as well. Janet Wertman offers a sympathetic portrayal of Jane Seymour that doesn’t negate her flaws, or put her on a pedestal (as it is often done with many queens from this period);  Diane Haeger also offers a fair portrayal of Jane in her novel, and so did Frances Betty Clark with her novel that ties in with the 1972 movie Henry VIII and his Six Wives starring Keith Michell as Henry VIII and Jane Asher as Jane Seymour, and Lauren Gardnier with the novel “Plain Jane”. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies which have been on the mouths of everyone lately, also offer a generous portrayal of Jane, without overlooking her family’s ambitious or her own.

Sources:

  • Norton, Elizabeth. Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s true love. Amberley. 2009.
  • Loades, David. Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s Favourite Wife. Amberley. 2013.
  • Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. Penguin. 1993.
  • “Beheaded, Died.” Six Wives with Lucy Worsley, written by Chloe Moss, directed by Russell England, BBC, 2016.
  • Licence, Amy. The Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII. Amberly. 2014.
  • Seymour, William. Ordeal by Ambition: An English family in the shadow of the Tudors. Sidwig & Jackson. 1972.
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