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.
The way Amy Licence writes the story of the wives and the mistresses is so unique and beautiful and this is a must-read for everyone that hasn’t read about the wives yet. Amy starts with setting the stage by explaining about the different beliefs regarding sex, conception, and the many methods …used in each. Religion also played an important part in this period, so a lot of the book focuses on the religious aspect from Catholicism to the different sects of Protestantism that were taking over England. The book dedicates a huge chunk on Henry’s first wives and deconstructing these women from what is believed to what actually happened. There were many other things that I wasn’t completely aware of this period that blew my mind when I found out. And this is how Amy writes, she does it in such a way that she dispels all the myths regarding these elusive figures, namely the women who are still seen through a male objective lens. She starts by Katherine of Aragon, including all the important details regarding her education, her preparation for her future role as Princess then Queen of England to all the contributions she did when she finally became queen, from being a great patroness of artists and humanists, to being the first of Henry’s wives to become Regent and on top of that, enjoy a very amorous and passionate relationship with him. The image that we have of Katherine as prude and old is not very accurate. As she got older she did become more pious and secluded from the material world -though she still enjoyed many of his banquets and participated in the jousts, observing her husband ride like he was still the passionate youth from his younger days. But in her youth she was a highly pragmatic, energetic, passionate and attractive young woman who probably caught Henry’s attention since he led her down the aisle to marry his older brother, the crown heir, Arthur. But there was also another aspect to Katherine and that was that in her years of political limbo, when her father’s enmity with her older sister and her husband forced her to be stranded on England with little to no help from anybody, made her highly dependent on her lecherous priest Friar Diego which in turn, turned out to damage her reputation for a while.
This is not to say that Katherine wasn’t strong. She was but she was also human and very young at the time and with her mother gone, her father and sister far away and at war with each other, she had very few people she could trust, and there was also that cunning and ambitious element of her that is often neglected. Katherine did everything she could after her father came with a temporal solution to alleviate her status by making her his unofficial ambassador. She sought Henry out more, she ingratiated herself with his sister, made sure she was pleasing to both of them, especially the young boy who turned out to be more handsome and athletic than his late brother at his age. By all means, crowned jointly and enjoying equal status, Katherine believed her marriage would be successful but two things happened: Her new year baby died and she suffered a horde of miscarriages and as she did, she also lost her figure and as her looks faded Henry turned his attention to other women. And this is where the author provides evidence that defies the notion that Henry was a prude with only two official mistresses.
Henry wasn’t the libertine monarch that Francis was. He didn’t flaunt his mistresses in Katherine’s face or showed them off to everyone or gave them official status of mistresses as he did. Henry, always concerned with his image, was cautious and with a great network of servants who were willing to do anything to please their king, they helped him keep most of these affairs secret. But occasionally word got out and on two of these occasions it put a strain on his first marriage. Katherine was humble and loyal but she could not accept at first that there was another woman besides her sharing her husband’s bed, she didn’t believe his servant was sleeping with Anne Hastings and argued ferociously with Henry about it but she soon became pliant and docile but her anger turned up again after he had a son with Bessie Blount which he showed off to prove that the fault lay in Katherine not in him for his lack of legitimate sons. Katherine’s discomfort became well known when Henry ennobled him with titles and mansions and gave him almost equal status to that of her daughter.
The most opposition that Henry would face however would not come from his first wife but from Anne. Katherine despite failing to keep her anger and hatred over his affairs secret at times, was true to her motto of ‘Humble and Loyal’ and became beloved by the people for the charity work she did, her time as Regent defending the English borders from the Scots and emulating the virtues that were expected of women -especially royal consorts- at the time. Anne was very different in that respect. She was a cosmopolitan and highly energetic and like Katherine, highly educated woman who sported different religious ideas and whose path with him might not have been intentional as Amy Licence points out. After all, who could refuse the king of England? Nobody. Anne’s strong moral convictions and her refusal of Thomas Wyatt years before, as well as learning from experience after Wolsey had broken up her intended union with Percy, echoed those found in Vives’ books that women had to be on the look out for men’s attentions and refuse any sexual advances. Yet, the author also defies the notion that Henry abstained himself from sex the entire time and the proof of this once again lies in the contemporary sources listing the women present at the time who served or whose husband served Henry and whom he might have fathered illegitimate children with.
Anne’s tragic fall from grace lay in her failure to deliver (as her predecessor) a son. Shortly after her brother and alleged lovers and her own execution, Henry remarried. His third wife, Jane Seymour is more of a mystery and I wish there was at least one more chapter dedicated to her but this is possibly owed to the fact that her reign was very short. However she does dedicate a great deal of attention regarding the time of her son’s conception to Edward’s birth and her death and the possible causes for it. It is well known that Jane died of childbed fever but what led to it? At the time of the birth she was attended by male doctors who did not have the experience or knowledge that midwives did. It is at this point that women stories start to get omitted and women’s labor changes drastically because of it. Midwifery is start to be seen as superstitious whereas ‘learned’ men such as doctors are the new norm. Unfortunately theory is very different from practice and if they had just bothered to ask one of their female counterparts for directions like washing their hands, etc, Jane could have avoided her death.
Between the period of his mourning and courting for royal matches, Henry might have been spending time with other women and this is not such as a stretch as we have seen by the earlier examples. But as a king he needed to marry and unlike two of his wives, he needed a royal match to cement an alliance and the lucky bride was Anne of Cleves whom he later declared was unattractive and that she was not a virgin just by looking at her. The notion is so ridiculous as Amy notes, yet once Henry’s mind was made up, it was made up! And what could you do about it? Poor Anne of Cleves knew very little about the country she was about to get married in. She had been pre-contracted to the Duke of Lorraine and that was used as an excuse to annul her marriage. As a girl she had been trained to be the perfect duchess, not a queen. When she reached Calais her brother wrote to Wriothesley and other royal officials to teach her sister of the English ways and they did just that, but they failed in teaching her about the masques that her future husband loved to engage in. This one omission made a great difference. When Henry met her in disguise, Anne had no idea he was the king and turned away from him coldly exclaiming she didn’t find his attentions funny. This was the whole catalyst for his dislike of her. His next wife was the contrary. She was energetic, to his judgment she was a virgin, and like his third wife Jane Seymour she adopted a similar motto that was meant to express she would be the perfect docile wife. But her past soon caught up with her and when Henry was told of it in a letter he devastated. Katherine Howard would share the same gruesome fate as her first cousin, Anne Boleyn. But her relationship with Thomas Culpeper is also put into question. Was it sexual or just platonic? We will probably never know.
The last wife to take the center stage is the rich (twice) widowed, Katherine Parr. Like the first Katherine she inspired confidence and she was kind, humble and loyal. She was married to Henry for nearly four years, his second longest marriage. She encouraged him to see his children more and she was partly responsible for reinstating Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. And far from the ‘nurse’ stereotype that is attached to her figure, she was an educated, highly pragmatic and religious advocate whose work helped fast forward the Reform movement in England.
Like with all her books, Amy Licence lays out the facts for you but it is up to you to make the decision whether you believe them or not.
This book is a great addition to the Tudor shelves and to women’s histories which she tells in such a way that hasn’t been told before.