Jane Seymour: The Death of the Phoenix and the Beginning of Myth

Jane Seymour tomb and depictions

On the 24th of October 1537, twelve days after she’d given birth to Prince Edward, Jane Seymour died of puerperal fever at Hampton Court Palace. She was buried on St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on the 12th of the following month with Henry joining her ten years later. Despite the lack of monumental greatness that Henry had planned for the two of them, their tombs is marked by a simple slab on the floor telling indicating their resting place.

In popular fiction, Jane has gone down as ‘other woman’ or the ‘submissive’ antithesis of Anne Boleyn –Anne being a shrew and Katherine, being old and overtly pious. But the truth behind the myth of Jane Seymour lie in her actions and the few occasions where she displayed acts of rebelliousness that had characterized her predecessors. Although recent studies have rehabilitated her predecessors, there has been very little to rehabilitate Jane, and this is largely because Jane is perceived as the boring one, the tool, the young Ophelia with no thought or will of her own –who was manipulated by her family- and in some occasions, as the woman who stepped over Anne and –as a consequence- had her hands stained with her blood. Agnes Strickland’s biography on the Queens of England, spends a large portion talking about Anne’s death while at the same time telling what clothes Jane must be picking the day her predecessor was going to her death.

In reality, as one women’s historian put it in her biography on the six wives, Jane had no more freedom than Anne. Could any woman, she asks, have said no to Henry? The answer is of course no. In his biography on Katherine Howard (whose motto of ‘No Other Will but His’ resembles Jane’s ‘Bound to Obey and Serve’) Conor Byrne highlights the sexual and honor politics that are central when it comes to studying this period. It was in the interest of every woman to find a good husband, not just because it was acceptable but also because of what it could bring to their families.

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

A marriage of that caliber that was proposed to Jane by the King was too good of an offer to refuse. As her predecessor, she would have recognized the benefits that this would mean for her family. And she wasn’t wrong. As soon as she married the King, her eldest brother (who had already distinguished himself since his early career fighting in the first phase of the Italian Wars in the 1520s and being knighted by the Duke of Suffolk around the time, as well as earning and buying important governmental positions) was created Viscount of Beauchamp and Hache, and not only that but Jane stood as godmother for his son. Three days after Prince Edward’s christening, he was elevated to Earl of Hertford and it was around this time that Jane started to feel very ill.

Given how dangerous childbirth was, and that many women had gone through similar ordeals, the fact that she was growing tired, wasn’t that much of a red flag to anybody as she soon recovered. But on the twenty third she suffered her last relapse and this time it became clear to everybody that she wasn’t going to make it. Suffering from child-bed fever, her chamberlain Lord Rutland reported that she was going to be better thanks to “a natural laxe” but this didn’t last.

“The doctors told Henry that if she survived the vital crisis hours that day she would definitely recover. Henry remained with her to the end” William Seymour writes, while Antonia Fraser adds in her biography on the six wives, that Henry had planned a hunting trip to Esher that day but put it off after hearing the news of his wife’s illness. John Russell wrote to Cromwell later on saying that “if she amend not, he told me this day, he could not find it in his heart to tarry.”

But despite the comfort of having her husbaand stay, it didn’t stop the inevitable. Her confessor arrived early on the twenty fourth to prepare the sacrament, and Jane exhaling her last breath, died a little before midnight that same day.

Masses were held to pray for “the soul of our most gracious Queen”. After her death, most of her possessions were bequeathed to her ladies and stepdaughters (the main beneficiary being Mary) and some other jewels went to her younger brothers, Thomas and Henry.

“Could any female subject really give Henry a decisive refusal?” ~Amy Licence, Six Wives and the many Mistresses of Henry VIII p.211

And while it has been previously stated that Jane’s true self can be seen by some of her actions, some might still choose not to believe this, opting instead for the image of the dull, conniving, or innocent traitor. But the truth is that Jane was a woman of her times, one that didn’t have the connections that her first predecessor (Katherine of Aragon) had. If she said ‘no’ to the King, then she wouldn’t have become Queen which would mean that her family would have never benefited, which means that Henry would have looked elsewhere to replace Anne (and that woman would now be in Jane’s position, falling under harsh scrutiny, and likely blamed for her predecessor’s downfall). More importantly what characterizes Jane is not the image that Henry wanted everybody to remember, but rather the image she crafted for herself. As her mother-in-law, she was everything that a consort was ought to be, and everything she knew she had to be in order to survive. If Jane failed to please the King, or worse yet, to give him a male heir, who would defend her? Which faction would come to her rescue? Which powerful nephew would be there to demand Henry not to annul her marriage? The answer is pretty clear. No one.
Jane, like so many ambitious courtiers, played her cards, and so did her family who saw the benefits of such a union, and had she not died, she would have reaped off the benefits of being the mother of the future King of England.

Unfortunately, history is not a matter of what-ifs, and what would have been, we will never know but what we do know is that by giving Henry a male heir, she became immortalized as the ideal wife, mother and consort. And the “Death of Queen Jane”, written many years after, has Jane asking Henry to cut her open so the child could live. In reality, no such thing happened as Henry was away at the time of the birth, and the first C-section wasn’t practice on England until the late 1500s. But it is symbolic of the narrative that was created around Jane.

Henry would go on to marry three more times, but none of these marriages produced any issue. Jane’s son succeeded his father in 1547, but he died young at the age of 15. He was the last Tudor King and first Protestant monarch in England.

Sources:

  • Edward VI: The Lost Tudor King of England by Chris Skidmore
  • Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love by Elizabeth Norton
  • The Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
  • The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
  • Ordeal by Ambition by William Seymour
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Fire and Blood: Daenerys Targaryen & Henry Tudor -The Princes that Were Promised

Daenerys and Henry Tudor 2

As we are nearing the conclusion of the television series; and if the rumors are true that Martin is going to release the penultimate book in the series of Ice and Fire, we could be seeing as he has put it a “bittersweet ending” where winner takes all, and at the same time loses something important in the process. In the Wars of the Roses (of which the War of the Five Kings is partly based on), every House lost something and someone important.

Edward IV and Robert Baratheon

Edward IV’s death left a huge power vacuum (just as Robert’s did). The throne was up for grabs, unlike Cersei Lannister who was by her son’s side when Ned Stark forged alliances with many lords to depose her son, Elizabeth Woodville was far away and her son in Wales in the care of her brother, his uncle, Anthony Woodville (Earl Rivers). In this scenario, history’s Ned Stark (Richard, D. of Gloucester) was quick to action and intercepted the young king-to-be and his entourage. He imprisoned Lord Rivers and later executed him and other Edwardian Yorkists. Bess Woodville was forced into sanctuary and she refused to let go of her youngest son, the Duke of York when Richard ordered her to send him to him, so he could join his older brother Edward in the Tower of London. The two became known as the Princes in the Tower. They were never seen or heard from again after the summer of 1483, not long before Richard III and his Queen and son traveled to the North where the latter was invested as Prince of Wales. Rumors circulated throughout the country, even foreign contemporaries spoke about it. Edward V, the boy who would have been King, had his doctor see him before his disappearance. Doctor Argentine said that the boy looked so gaunt, almost as if he knew what was going to befall him. He never saw him again.

The rest as they say is history. But here is where it gets interesting. One boy. One boy whose father had died before he was born, and whose mother was married to a Yorkist to ensure both their survival was exiled across the Narrow Sea. He was a boy with no lands or fortune but with a great ancestry that many would have died to take advantage of, to suit their own means. That boy was born at one of the worst times in the wars of the roses, and nobody expected him to amount to anything. And yet that boy survived and thrived and was now a man and now commanded the loyalty of many disaffected Edwardian Loyalists and Lancastrians. And he was now seen as a more attractive alternative to Richard III’s rule.

Does this tale sound familiar to another exiled royal who has a great ancestry and born in an uncertain period, an orphan with no chances of ever doing anything great, and yet her banner of the three red headed dragon (similar to Henry’s banner of the red dragon) continues to stand; and who sees herself as the true heir Westeros? It should. George R. R. Martin took a lot of inspiration from mythology, science fiction (believe it or not, he’s said it) and most of all, history. Specifically late medieval and renaissance history.

Daenerys Targaryen is another archetype of Henry Tudor. A female white haired Henry Tudor. Both of them have beaten the odds. Who would have thought these two penniless orphans (in Dany’s case, both her parents are dead) would have survived to become huge contenders for the throne? After all as Tyrion says, Stannis (when he lived) would have NEVER recognized Dany’s claim, even if she had agreed to a compromise.

Tyrion discusses the politics of the realm she wants to conquer and how it will be very hard to convince everyone she is the rightful ruler, especially Stannis who was still living at the time: “His claim rests on the illegitimacy of yours.” (Tyrion 5x08).
Tyrion discusses the politics of the realm she wants to conquer and how it will be very hard to convince everyone she is the rightful ruler, especially Stannis who was still living at the time:
“His claim rests on the illegitimacy of yours.” (Tyrion 5×08).

Same with Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond and the Plantagenets from the House of York. His Lancastrians relatives had disinherited his Beaufort ancestors from the throne. Richard II legitimized the union between his uncle and one time protector, John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford. But the children never got the surname of Plantagenet. They had been born before their parents’ marriage and their last name comes from one of Gaunt’s properties abroad. When Richard II was deposed and Gaunt’s firstborn legitimate son took the crown; he added a new clause which maintained his half-siblings’ legitimacy, but added that they were excluded from the line of succession.

“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain. The most significant of these popular myths concerned the wizard Merlin, King Arthur, and the life of the last British King, Cadwaladr, from whom the House of York claimed descent through the Mortimers … Henry reversed this so that he was Draco Rubius and Richard III the outsider –a narrative already proving popular in Wales, where they still spoke a ‘British’ tongue. Wales was the one place where the Tudor name had popular resonance … the Tudors maintained their contacts with the Welsh bards who were now churning out prophecies of Henry’s eventual triumph, full of references to the myths of Cadwaladr and the Red Dragon. Jasper had a red dragon as his badge and Henry now took as his principal standard the ‘Red Dragon Dreadful’.” (Lisle)
“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth century History of the Kings of Britain. The most significant of these popular myths concerned the wizard Merlin, King Arthur, and the life of the last British King, Cadwaladr, from whom the House of York claimed descent through the Mortimers … Henry reversed this so that he was Draco Rubius and Richard III the outsider –a narrative already proving popular in Wales, where they still spoke a ‘British’ tongue. Wales was the one place where the Tudor name had popular resonance … the Tudors maintained their contacts with the Welsh bards who were now churning out prophecies of Henry’s eventual triumph, full of references to the myths of Cadwaladr and the Red Dragon. Jasper had a red dragon as his badge and Henry now took as his principal standard the ‘Red Dragon Dreadful’.” (Lisle)

In the World of Ice and Fire that was released last year, we find out about an illegitimate branch of the Targaryens with a surname similar to the Beauforts. They are the Blackfyres, and instead of a three red headed dragon on a black background, we get the opposite. Yet, this hasn’t been mentioned in the series, and although there are hints that there may be one secret Blackfyre in the books; he doesn’t resemble Henry Tudor at all. It is clear that Daenerys is the Henry Tudor of the world of Ice and Fire. But Daenerys isn’t illegitimate. No, she is not, but with so many theories and hints being pointed out, we can never be sure what surprises Martin will throw at us. But one thing is certain. In the eyes of the Westeros current nobility, she is illegitimate and her claim must be seen that way, otherwise the current Kings’ power could be under threat.

But rules are made to be broken. Henry Tudor knew this. When he landed on Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, Wales, on the 7th of August 1485, he “kissed the ground meekly and reverently made the sign of the cross upon him”. Then he sent his men forward in the name of God, England and St. George. He proudly let his standard of the red dragon on a green and white field be seen. Fifteen days later his forces confronted Richard’s. Although he had amassed a great number of mercenaries and men previously loyal to Edward IV and to the Lancastrian cause (of the latter, the Earl of Oxford as Dany’s Ser Barristan, proved invaluable since he was one of the BEST military commanders England had ever seen); victory was still uncertain. In Wales, since his birth, the bards sang songs about him. The Tudors had been very loved, and thanks to his uncle Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, Henry earned a lot of support from that Region. But his forces were outnumbered by Richard’s.

Dany is currently outnumbered by the many people she intends to take on in Westeros. After all, the Lannisters have taken out most of their enemies, just as Richard III and his brother before him, dealt with their enemies. What guarantee does she have (at all!) that the people will rise for her? What guarantee did Henry Tudor have that people would support him? True, he had Wales thanks to his uncle, but even so, a few would not make a difference against the many.

And yet, these two are proof that “if you want something you can get it” as Marguerite of Anjou said in the period drama “The White Queen”. But do not take this to mean that everything is possible. Even though Henry’s goals were achieved, and Dany’s might yet be; they were all thanks in part to their ancestry. If they did not possess the lineage they did, nobody would have backed them up. As Tyrion says, with a great name comes great risks and advantages.

Henry Tudor WQ

Henry’s victory was ensured thanks to the great risk he and his supporters took, as well as his stepfather, Thomas Stanley, rushing to his rescue once he saw his standard-bearer (William Brandon) fall. This last action, ensured his victory. Likewise, Daenerys’ victory will be thanks to her ancestry and her dragons. The fact that they are the first dragons that have been seen in over a century will be regarded as a miracle by many and as a part of a prophecy by others (just like Henry was prophesized to be the prince that was promised by many of his Welsh supporters).

In the end, a song of ice and fire and the wars of the roses and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty, are tales of great human drama, of men and women who were caught in the crossfire who were forced to grow up, who were forced to do things that they probably would not have done otherwise, and ultimately of ruin and death and of a bittersweet ending.

Sources:

  • Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
  • Henry VII by SB Chrimes
  • Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • Passion. Manipulation. Murder by Leanda de Lisle
  • World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr and Linda Antonsson
  • A Song of Ice and Fire 1-5 by George R.R. Martin
  • Jasper Tudor by Terry Breverton