Most Tudor women that are well-known have been defined in relation to the infamous Henry VIII. Inspired by the hit musical SIX, I want this blog to help rewrite history as her-story, and show there are so much more to these Tudor women than Henry VIII and his decisions about their lives. This is their story.
“Here lies Jane, a phoenix / Who died in giving another phoenix birth. / Let her be mourned, for birds like these / Are rare indeed” – Jane Seymour’s epitaph.
Jane Seymour is the ‘golden girl’ of Henry VIII’s wives, the favourite, all because she gave Henry his long awaited son and then died before he could get bored of her. Yet for all she is celebrated for finally giving Henry VIII a son, people know little else of her. Jane is remembered for being docile, gentle and perhaps a little boring. But I think the world should know more of who Jane really was and this blog will shed some light on this enigmatic queen.
Jane Seymour was born somewhere between 1507 and 1509 to Sir John Seymour and Marjorie Wentworth, and was the eldest of eight children. Jane was brought up as a typical noblewoman, learning things such as embroidery and household management. She later came to court as a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon and later, Anne Boleyn.
Jane first came to the attention of Henry VIII about three months before Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536. Henry at first thought that Jane could be another of his mistresses, but he underestimated her, and she refused his gifts and his advances. When Henry sent her a letter and a purse of gold, she refused them, declaring that “she had no greater riches in the world than her honour, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths”. Like with Anne, this only spurred Henry on and he started to pursue Jane in earnest with marriage in mind. But that is where Jane’s similarities with Anne end; it is largely believed that Henry VIII was attracted to Jane Seymour because she was the opposite of Anne Boleyn. Where Anne was fiery, opinionated and spirited, Jane was obedient, docile and soothing. Henry VIII was formally betrothed to Jane on 20th May 1536, just one day after Anne Boleyn’s execution. They were married on 30th May 1536 but Jane only reigned for a mere 17 months. Her greatest triumph was the birth of her son Edward VI on 12th October 1537, but her elation was short, as she passed away from childbirth complications just 10 days later. Her reign was short but sweet, but what else can we say about Jane Seymour?
The answer: quite a lot it seems.
Firstly, there is the whole question of how Jane became Queen. While some historians think that Jane was a pawn in her family’s bid for power, there is evidence that Jane was more powerful and involved than it may first appear. When Henry became interested in Jane, she refused to have sex with him because he was married and she valued her virtue. While it is possible that this was part of a game, similar to the one Anne had played, it is likely that Jane was quite genuine in valuing her virtue. Nevertheless, years of serving two of Henry VIII’s past wives, must have made an impact on Jane and shown her how best to behave around such a changeable king and what he desired in a woman. After Anne Boleyn’s fall, it became quite obvious that Henry would want his next wife to be unlike Anne. While I don’t believe Jane was putting on an act by being demure and chaste, I think she was illuminating personality traits she already had to make herself more desirable. Additionally, Jane is not totally blameless in the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Although this would have most likely have happened without Jane, she knew that Henry was going to leave Anne and had agreed to marry him afterwards. Jane was fully aware when Henry was moving against his wife and did nothing to stop him or stay away from him, even as he arrested Anne. Jane made her interest in Henry and acceptance of his plans for their future clear.
Jane also didn’t become Edward VI’s mother and Henry’s golden girl until over a year into their marriage, and she managed to survive to that point (not all of Henry’s marriages lasted that long!) With an increasingly volatile and unpredictable king, it was not always an easy feat for Jane to play the perfect wife. But Jane was smart and quickly realised just how far to push Henry VIII. While some people may say she lacked fire and ambition, I think she knew what to do to keep herself safe. Jane soon realised where the boundaries would be in her marriage: in October 1536 she threw herself on her knees before Henry VIII, begging him to restore the abbeys as she thought that the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion was God’s judgment against him. Henry sharply reminded her of what happened to the last one of his queens who thought interfering in his affairs was a good idea. To Jane’s credit, she took the warning. Jane was astute enough to understand that to keep her crown (and life!) she needed to listen to what Henry wanted. She also realised that if she avoided taking any political sides and never granted royal favors, she would never give her subjects reason to turn against her. It wasn’t a bad strategy as far as self-preservation went, but it did also meant that she had to watch her words and hide her feelings.
And although we see that Henry made sure to keep Jane in her place that didn’t stop Jane pursuing agendas that were close to her heart:
- One of the first acts that Jane did as Queen was to try and restore the court to how it had been under Catherine of Aragon, who Jane largely modelled herself on. She got rid of the French style instigated by Anne and to put back in place a traditional style of English dress.
- It was not just clothing that was an issue, Jane also reinstated a stricter and more virtuous court and tried to erase Anne’s influence. Her ladies-in-waiting and her maids were held to a strict code of behavior and Jane insisted that they “serve God and be virtuous”.
- Perhaps the biggest thing that Jane did was to reconcile Mary Tudor and her father Henry VIII, which was not an easy task! It also appears that she started this work before she even became queen!
- Spanish ambassador, Chapuys wrote:
‘I hear that, even before the arrest of the Concubine [Anne Boleyn] The King, speaking with mistress Jane of their future marriage, the latter suggested that the Princess should be replaced in her former position; and the King told her she was a fool, and ought to solicit the advancement of the children they would have between them, and not any others’
- Despite this, Jane continued to try and reconcile the father and daughter. After much pleading, Jane finally got Henry to agree to a deal. Mary had to sign a document declaring her father the Supreme Head of the Church of England and that her father and mother’s marriage was unlawful. Although this was a very painful thing for Mary to do, she agreed and was reconciled with her father.
- This is in turn led to Henry allowing his other daughter, Elizabeth back into his life. The young princess was invited back to court for Christmas in 1536.
- Bringing both the princesses back into Henry’s life within 6 months of being queen was quite an incredible feat.
- Although historians have often downplayed this act as Jane was not the only person seeking to reconcile the royal family, it was a brave thing to do, especially knowing Henry’s temper and volatile relationship with his children. There is no doubt that Jane’s input went a long way to bring the royal family back together.
In some ways, Jane Seymour was the most successful of all of Henry VIII’s wives. In Alison Weir’s opinion, Jane achieved everything she set out to do, in a mere year and a half:
- She provided the King with a son and heir
- She helped to reconcile the future Mary I with her father and helped to restore her to the succession
- She managed to advance her family
- She provided the King with a stable family life
While these may have not been the most ambitious of goals, Jane managed to achieve them before she passed away. With this in mind it is impossible to reduce Jane to a queen who only gave Henry VIII his long awaited son – she did have successes beyond this! While she may have been mild-mannered, she was capable of standing up for her values, fighting for things she believed in, being strict with her household and even standing up to her formidable husband at times. But Jane also had the common sense to listen to threats and not step beyond the boundaries her husband has decided – the memory of Anne Boleyn’s death still being very fresh. While Jane might not have been the most Catholic, sexiest, or most exotic of Henry’s wives, she had a successful reign and managed to do a lot of the things she wanted to do and most importantly, managed to keep her head! And who knows, if she had lived, perhaps there would have never been any more wives….
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