Some of the best portrayals of Jane Seymour for are in the BBC’s “Six Wives of Henry VIII” and in “The Tudors” where she was played by two different actresses. The first shows her as someone who tries to make the best of a bad situation and as Amy Licence brilliantly pointed out in her book “the Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII” what women could truly say ‘no’ to Henry VIII?
We also forget that this was a different point in time, and women did not have the same freedom of choice as they today in free societies. Women were nonetheless assertive. In her biography on the Woodvilles, Susan Higginbotham, wittily ends her first chapter by loosely quoting Jane Austen, stating that a king -especially a new one- was in dire need of a wife to preserve his dynasty.
The Tudor Dynasty was still relatively new and Henry needed to secure it by any means necessary. He went to great lengths to marry Anne Boleyn and then to rid himself off her, marrying Jane Seymour over a month after her predecessor’s execution. Retha Warnicke decided to focus on this on her biography on the Queens of England when she addressed Jane Seymour, implying she walked all over her dead rival before her body was cold. Retha Warnicke’s influence continues to be felt among many Tudor fans and in pop culture that continues to borrow from her writings.
The Tudors did a good job showing a well-rounded Jane Seymour, who was neither hero or villain. Anita Briem showed her ambitious side, knowing that this was a dangerous game that she was being used as a pawn by her brother elevate her family, but one that she could also benefit from greatly if she went along with it. Anabelle Wallis showed her kinder side, without overlooking flaws.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII decades before that on the BBC was the first popular depiction to humanize her, tearing through the caricatures of the innocent plain Jane and the evil homewrecker that continue to abound in fiction.
Worth mentioning although it is not fictional is the portrayal from Lucy Worsley’s documentary series “Six Wives of Henry VIII” (“Secrets of the Six Wives” in PBS); it didn’t shy away from showing good and bad aspects of her character and of her situation.
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
Rejoice all around for a son has finally been born! This was the sentiment all around the country when they heard that Henry’s third queen, Jane Seymour, had given birth to a baby boy. Jane had gone into labor three days before, on the ninth and on the eleventh St Paul held solemn procession to pray for a safe delivery. Hours later, at two o’clock in the morning, on St. Edward’s day, a boy was born at Hampton Court Palace. He was named after his patron saint, and possibly after his Yorkist ancestor Edward IV, and his parents’ common ancestor, Edward III.
“Henry VIII would look back on Jane Seymour as the wife whom he had ben uniquely happy; forgetting perhaps those early years with Catherine of Aragon, the charming young Spanish Princess so eager to please.” (Fraser)
Indeed, Henry’s dreams of securing the Tudor dynasty via a son had been fulfilled (through Jane) but they came at a high cost and his wife would pay the price less than two weeks later when she lay on her deathbed. There is the apocryphal posthumous tale of Jane dying because Henry told her doctors to cut her open when he was forced to make a decision between his wife and son’s lives. In the Tudors they allude to this, but this tale is false. The Death of Queen Jane which is a collection of ballads done three hundred years after her death, take romantic license on this.
“He gave her rich caudle
But the death-sleep slept she
Then her right side was opened
And the babe was set free …”
Jane Seymour didn’t die because of a badly perform caesarean section. “Such procedures” historian Amy Licence explains, were uncommon in England at the time, and when they did come into practice, there were only for extreme cases when doctors had to remove “living fetuses from dead or dying mothers”. Furthermore, Henry was away at the time and he didn’t come until he heard she’d given birth to a healthy boy.
As soon as the news spread throughout the city, Te Deums were sung, church bells rang, and bonfires were lit. “Eager to impress”, Skidmore writes in his biography on Edward VI, “German merchants at Steel Yard distributed a hogshead of wine and two barrels of beer to the poor.” And they weren’t the only ones, the entire city was going crazy. At last, what Henry had torn his country apart for, was here. A son. A male heir to secure the Tudor dynasty. The guards at the Tower of London fired off over two thousand rounds of canon fire, and as soon as Jane recovered, she wrote to the country, announcing the birth of her son:
“Right trusty and well-beloved, we greet you well, and for as much as by the inestimable goodness and grace of Almighty God, we be delivered and brought in childbed of a prince, conceived in most lawful matrimony between my lord the King’s Majesty and us, doubting not but that for the love and affection which you bear unto us and to the commonwealth of this realm, the knowledge thereof should be joyous and glad tiding unto you, we have thought good to certify you of the same. To the intent you might not only render unto God condign thanks and prayers for so great a benefit but also continually pray for the long continuance and preservation of the same here in this life to the honor of God, joy and pleasure of my lord the King and us, and the universal wealth, quiet and tranquility of this whole realm.”
The tournament celebrating the Prince’s birth went on in full vigor, and the word ‘Prince’ unlike before with her predecessor, wasn’t altered, and Jane’s letter was copied and distributed throughout the country bearing her signature and the royal seal which had the arms of France and England next to hers.
The baby was christened right away three days later in which his eldest sisters participated, with Mary acting as one of his godparents. Jane, as custom dictated, wasn’t present for the christening and had to wait to see her son until it was over, carried over by the lady Mary. Three days after that, on the eighteenth, he was proclaimed Prince of Wales, created Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Carnarvon. The Seymour family was thoroughly rewarded, with his uncle and namesake, being elevated to an Earl and his younger brother, Thomas, was knighted.
It was all well in paradise for Jane’s family, or at least it would have been if Jane hadn’t died. We can’t say for sure what would have happened if she had lived, but it is safe to assume that she would have become very influential. In her biography on Jane Seymour, Elizabeth Norton makes the case point, that there were times where Jane exhibited traits of rebelliousness found in her predecessors, but she was a woman who knew how to play the game of politics really well (having served under them) so she stayed silent most of the times, because she knew that at this stage, Henry was not a man you wanted to cross. He was no longer the Sir Loyal Heart that her first mistress Katherine of Aragon had married, or the man who acted as a besotted teenager when chased Anne Boleyn. Henry wanted a son, he needed an heir to secure the Tudor Dynasty. Now more than ever since he’d broken away from Rome.
But in dying, she adds, her legacy had an “entirely unexpected” turn of events, becoming the model of the ideal woman, just as her late mother-in-law had been. Perhaps it is true what they say ‘It’s always the quiet ones’. Silence, can speak louder than words. For Jane it certainly did, and since the birth of her son, she’s become the object of ridicule, admiration, and speculation.
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love by Elizabeth Norton
Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family by Leanda de Lisle
Edward VI: The Lost King of England by Chris Skidmore
On the thirtieth of May 1536, Henry and Jane were married at Whitehall palace at the Queen’s Closet. The ceremony was officiated by none other than the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer who was Jane’s predecessor former chaplain. The wedding took place, according to Fraser “quickly and quietly”
Jane quickly established herself in her new role. Although she wasn’t vociferous like her predecessors, Jane did voice her opinion on several occasions. Her latest biographers Loades and Norton show that when she voiced them, she was very subtle. Had she lived, Norton believes Jane would have taken on “the political role that would have been open to her as the mother of the heir to the throne”. Jane Seymour appears as ‘boring’ or ‘conniving’ in popular culture, slammed for daring to take Anne’s position (which many view was rightfully hers). But history medieval and renaissance history is not about who was right or wrong. Laws could be changed or interpreted in many different ways. Ultimately who deserved the right to be called queen, or be revered, is to the reader.
Given Henry’s tastes it is hard to say whether he would have tired of Jane or not. She displayed herself as many other consorts before her had done, including Henry’s mother whom Henry revered and whom he seemed to judge his other wives on. Women were expected to take on certain roles, Consorts bore more responsibilities. They had to present themselves as the epitomes of virtue, and be prepared to rule in their husband’s absence or when their sons were too young to do so after they were crowned.
Would anyone be surprised if we were to find out that the “she wolves” Isabella of France and Marguerite of Anjou behaved like Jane Seymour before shit hit the fan? Thought so.
Isabella of France submitted herself to humiliation on the part of her husband and his favorites. During her coronation she saw her husband’s favorite’s arms displayed on the banquet instead of hers. She saw honors heaped on this man and then his replacement after he was executed by the Earl of Lancaster. Isabella said nothing, not a word while she lived. She obviously felt angry, but she never voiced her opinions. She did what Consorts did. She bore Edward II’s children, begged mercy for traitors, and appeared on state functions with her husband –including when they went to visit her father Philip IV “the Fair” of France. Isabella’s chance for revenge came when he sent her to France, to negotiate on his behalf with the new King of France, her brother Charles. There she met the exile Roger Mortimer and the two began a torrid love affair which ended with their alliance, their invasion to England in her son’s name, the deposition of her husband, and their regency for Edward III.
Marguerite of Anjou was less radical. She did not rebel against her husband, she stuck with him for better or for worse. Instead of replacing him with her son as Isabella had done, Marguerite decided to take the fight to Richard, Duke of York, the Earl of Salisbury, the Earls of March, Rutland, and Warwick. These were their number one enemies and when they forced her husband to sign a treaty where he acknowledged Richard’s right to be King, and made him his heir, passing over his son. Marguerite decided to take up arms against them again. Marguerite ended losing her war. Her son and husband died, ending the Lancastrian dynasty once and for all. There was only one last Lancastrian (although he descended from the Beauforts which were still considered by many illegitimate) and he ended up becoming King in 1485 after he defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field. He was Henry VII and his son Henry VIII was now Jane’s husband. Four days later, Sir John Russell wrote to Lord Lisle that in making Jane his wife, he had made a wise choice for “she is as gentle a lady as ever I knew, and as fair a queen as any in Christendom. The King hath come out of hell into heaven for the gentleness in this and the cursedness and the unhappiness in the other. You would do well to write to the king again that you rejoice he is so well match with so gracious a woman as is reported.”
Jane acted with tact, speaking when she felt was wise, and crossing the line only once when she voiced empathy for the pilgrimage of grace. Jane served two Queens, possibly three if the theory of her serving Princess Mary when she married Louis XII of France is correct; and under them she had seen many things, learned many things. The number one lesson she learned was not to get on Henry’s bad side, not just for her own safety but for her family.
Marriage was like a business contract and it was the goal for many highborn at the time. As with Anne, Jane would have viewed the opportunity of becoming Queen a golden one. As with her predecessor, she was walking a fine thread with no friends in high places like Henry VIII’s first Queen, Katherine of Aragon. Had she said ‘no’ to Henry and genuinely refused all his attentions, Henry would have found someone else to replace Anne and that woman would no doubt be the one slammed instead of Jane.
Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s true love by Elizabeth Norton
Jane Seymour by David Loades
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
The Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence.
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 excus…es 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 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 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.
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.
One of the many things that I hate is the double-standard that exists between Jane and Anne Boleyn. Whereas Anne Boleyn is finally given her due and seen as a woman who stood against the forces of Catholicism and her rival’s powerful friends, her successor is seen as a drab and unattractive and almost no one tries to say the contrary. I mean why should we? She was the bitch who got poor Anne Boleyn killed. It was Henry who permitted it, but if Jane, that drab and meek, passive fat and ugly bitch had never gotten in his way, then he would have never wavered from his loving wife.
This is all fun and romantic and the type of fairy tale I loved when I was a kid, before reality came crushing down on me and I realized that fairy tales were not only untrue, but a bunch of bull-shit designed to keep people content, regardless of what are the state of things.
Jane was not beautiful. She was not outspoken, or alluring, or exotic. But guess what? Neither was Anne Boleyn. The Anne Boleyn we are presented with today is drop-dead gorgeous. A vivacious, young and beautiful woman who is ahead of her times. Starkey wonders how a woman such as her could have ever enchanted Henry. Henry is reported to have said after he married Jane that he saw two beautiful courtiers and he looked at them with regret. Perhaps the King did regret his decision to marry Jane but it was too late to turn back time. Or, he looked at his next conquests as Licence theorizes in her latest book about the many mistresses and six wives of Henry VIII. We will never known and we cannot defend Anne Boleyn in all good conscience and say what fault did she have, when she was only doing what she could to survive, rejecting the King’s advances until she couldn’t because he was becoming too much of a stalker and so, she had to accept his suit and even though she said things that might seem appalling to us about Katherine of Aragon, she said them in haste and desperation after she had become frustrated that Katherine wasn’t being reasonable and accepting for all their sakes’ the course of action that Campeggio offered of becoming an Abbess. Of course Katherine of Aragon is defended in this point as well, historians and fictional authors alike stressing that she would not -and could not- abandon a position that she believed was meant for her or pre-ordained by God Himself. Whether or not this is what Katherine believed and whether or not Anne was pushed into that position, the fact of the matter is that we cannot claim we are giving these women justice when we are ready to be ‘mean girls’ to Jane Seymour, a woman who played the same game as Anne and who was also not attractive, just because of the way Anne died.
Anne did not deserve her death. Certainly, even her rivals such as the Savoyard and Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys admitted it when he related to the Emperor days after her death how brave she was in the face of her demise, and he expressed deep admiration for the woman he had once called ‘Concubine’. Anna Whitelock in her biography of Mary Tudor, England’s first Queen Regnant mentions that during Anne Boleyn’s last days she told Master Kingston and his wife how sorry she was for the ill treatment of the Lady Mary and told them to go and visit her to tell her she was sorry. As Whitelock puts it, it is not clear what Mary thought, we can assume based on her reluctance years earlier not to acknowledge her as her father’s true wife and stay loyal to her mother. But perhaps Mary did forgive her as she must have believed as many of her enemies did, that the accusations against her were false.
“We cannot possibly know what Jane may or may not have felt about Anne’s death -there are no accounts of their personal feelings- just as we do not truly know if Anne felt any sympathy for Katherine when she usurped her. Both women had ambitions and played their own personal games of seduction. As with Eustace, we must accept that there are nuanced shades of grey in between the black and white depictions of these two figures.” (Mackay)
The accusations were without a doubt false, but to lay the blame on the Seymours, a not-so-prominent family (as Anne’s maternal one, the Howards), a family of evil, who did not seem to mind installing their puppet as their Queen, their vessel to give the King his long-awaited heir is not only unfair but hypocritical. Could Anne have said no to the king, a stalker whom she tried to avoid for so many years until she saw no other choice but to accept his advances when she realized she could have no better prospects and that further refusal would have been political death for her family? Of course not. It is unfair to accuse Anne of being a temptress. Then why do we apply the same treatment to Jane? Is it because deep down we really want to extol one woman to near Christian status. Do some Christian values still exist deep within us, or some religious-like feeling (which scares me) where we want to see some people as messianic or heroic? Life would be easier if it all narrows down between good and evil but life is not that easy. If there were only two sides or “dos sopas” as we say in my native country, then voila! Let’s all choose the side of good and go with it!
But that’s not how things work. There are always more than two sides to every story.
Jane played by Anne’s same rules. Anne was a victim of Henry’s wooing and ambitions much as Jane was of his, and of course her family’s, but was Anne’s family not ambitious? Anne’s brother as Ridgway and Cherry point out was not this philandering fool that was depicted in “The Tudors” but a hardworking man who never missed parliament. Whose attendance was really spectacular.
Similarly, Edward Seymour was equally hardworking and before Jane became the object of the King’s desire, he was rising through the ranks and became the star of his family ever since he got knighted in the Italian Wars when he and other young men eager for fame, went to fight with the royal forces to France where a select few were knighted for their valor by the Duke of Suffolk and among these few was none other than Ned Seymour. Of course Ned in his new position was eager to promote the new religion as his predecessor George Boleyn and just as he, he was invested in looking the part of the courtier. He was not a poet, but he was a good solider and politician and like with George Boleyn he was not without his flaws. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (then Lord Lisle) was outspoken against Ned Seymour when he agreed with Henry VIII to go into Scotland and steal the toddler Queen of Scots from under her mother’s noses. The poor toddler had just lost her father and was not yet crowned, such a thing in John Dudley who was a dedicated family man as Ned Seymour, was barbaric and he successfully convinced most of the men in the privy council against such actions.
Ned would not be dissuaded however and the Scottish wars he invested on weighed greatly on the country. As a man however he was quite shy and not as blunt or someone who enjoyed cruelty as depicted in “The Tudors” and his second wife Anne Stanhope was in fact very loyal to him and she was the only who advocated for his release (when not even his remaining brother, Henry Seymour would) and the two loved each other dearly and had a plethora of children. Yet Ned Seymour’s true mistake was in being too popular and “too lenient” as William Seymour and Leanda de Lisle in their respective biographies of the Seymours and the Grey Sisters, demonstrate with the commons. While he showed great favor and clemency to the commons and wanted to show them great favor, he was alternatively arrogant with the nobles and this was a big no-no when you wanted to keep your head in an age where the nobles’ favor mattered more than the commons.
Of course this is the story no one wants to hear because it destroys the fantasy of Anne Boleyn, of the villain Jane Seymour, of the fairy tale we need so hard to believe because if we don’t what can we believe in? Who or for which woman can we root for?
The answer is simple. Let us root for ourselves, our friends, our communities and our loved ones. As humans we are capable of creating great things or screwing things up big time. We are all walking contradictions and the Tudors and the courtiers that lived alongside of them were no different.
So if we are going to defend Anne, we should try and put ourselves in Jane’s as well. Could anyone really say no to the King? And if they had, as we saw with Anne, that would have meant the political death of her family and when Henry was keen on getting what he wanted -what he viewed should have been his- you as a woman had no other choice. Women did not have it easy; Anne could not say no to Henry’s advances. She tried but Henry kept on going and Jane, whether or not she thought badly on Anne, could not have said no either. But perhaps it is the eternal struggle of pitting one woman against other that has become so appealing and prevented us from seeing the truth. Anne and Jane have been reduced to the roles of the heroine-martyr and the scheming woman.
Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the Writings of the Spanish Ambassador Estauce Chapuys by Lauren Mackay
Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen by Anna Whitelock
Six Wives of Henry VIII by David Starkey
Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives
Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A feminist reinterpretation of the six wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey
George Boleyn: Tudor, Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway
Anne Boleyn Collection by Claire Ridgway
Six Wives and the Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence
Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love by Elizabeth Norton