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.
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.
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.
- 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