Jane Seymour: The Meek and Mild One?
Posted By Claire on February 3, 2011
Jane Seymour has been rather neglected by authors and historians, apart from Elizabeth Norton who has written a biography on her, probably because her relationship with Henry was rather short, seeing as Jane died around 17 months after her marriage to Henry, and many see her as a rather boring character. However, she is an interesting character and like all of Henry’s wives she has been misrepresented and stereotyped.
Here are some of the labels, myths, opinions and stereotypes which surround Jane Seymour:-
- Jane was uneducated
- She was a ‘plain Jane’
- Jane was meek, mild and demure
- Jane the virtuous and kind
- Jane the Peacemaker
- That Jane and Henry were betrothed at Wolf Hall and got married there
- Jane was much younger than Anne Boleyn
- That Jane was worse than Anne, in that she really did set out to trap Henry
- That Jane danced on Anne Boleyn’s grave
- Jane came from a family of Catholic Conservatives
- Jane brought Henry’s family together
- Jane was Henry’s true love
- Jane died in childbirth
- Jane died as a result of an emergency caesarean and that Henry had to choose between her and the baby
- That Henry never planned to crown Jane
- Jane was pregnant when Henry married her and subsequently miscarried.
The Uneducated Wife?
Although Jane may not have received the same standard of education as her predecessors, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, she received a traditional Tudor girl’s education – needlework, music and other “traditional feminine accomplishments”1. She would also have learned the ‘art’ of hunting. Eustace Chapuys, an enemy of Jane’s predecessor, Anne Boleyn, described Jane as “not a woman of great wit, but she may have good understanding”, so she may not have had the sharp mind of Anne Boleyn but she was far from thick and seems to have been blessed with common sense and an even temperament.
Chapuys described Jane as “of middle stature and no great beauty, so fair that one would call her rather pale than otherwise”2 and Alison Weir points out that “it was not Jane’s face that had attracted the King so much as the fact that she was Anne Boleyn’s opposite in every way. Jane showed herself entirely subservient to Henry’s will; where Anne had, in the King’s view, been a wanton, Jane had shown herself to be inviolably chaste. And where Anne had been ruthless, he believed Jane to be naturally compassionate. He would in years to come remember her as the fairest, the most discreet, and the most meritorious of all his wives.”3 Perhaps she reminded him of his mother, Elizabeth of York?
Holbein’s portrait of Jane is far from flattering but we, today, have a very different idea about beauty, and it is possible that the fair haired, pale skinned Jane was much closer to the Tudor idea of beauty, the English Rose, than the sallow-skinned, dark haired Anne Boleyn. To us, Jane looks dumpy, plain and rather chinless, to Henry she may have been a goddess!
Bound to Obey and Serve – Jane the Meek and Mild?
It is clear from Jane’s motto that she wanted to be the submissive wife and queen, in contrast to the “Most Happy” Anne Boleyn who had a “sunshine and showers” relationship with Henry, one of passion and rages. Antonia Fraser describes her as “naturally sweet-natured” and writes of her main characteristics being “virtue and common good sense”4. Fraser goes on to say that “Jane was exactly the kind of female praised by the contemporary handbooks to correct conduct; just as Anne Boleyn had been the sort they warned against,”5. However, Alison Weir points out that “Beneath her outward show of humility, there was steel, even though it was confined to the domestic sphere only”6 – she may have been mild-mannered but she was capable of being strict with her household and also capable of standing up to her husband at times, although her common sense told her when to shut up, i.e. she listened to Henry when he threatened her, by reminding her of what had happened to wife number two, and learned to be submissive to her husband and master. Where Anne would have told Henry just what she thought, Jane curbed her tongue and accepted her place as the dutiful wife, but then she did have the benefit of knowing what Henry was capable of! Henry was bad-tempered and had mood swings and Jane was sensible enough to realise that he needed humouring and needed his ego massaging – where Anne could be impatient, Jane was soothing.
Jane the Virtuous and Kind
Although, when he first heard of Henry VIII’s relationship with Jane, Chapuys wondered if she could really have reached the age of 25 at the English Court and have remained a virgin, it does seem that Jane was a truly chaste and virtuous woman. She has managed to reach her mid 20s without any scandal being attached to her name and when she was queen she carefully controlled her ladies and made sure that her household was known for its virtue.
Jane also seems to have been a kind woman and a woman who brought Henry happiness. In June 1536, Sir John Russell wrote to Lord Lisle saying:-
“The King came in his great boat to Greenwich that day with his privy chamber, and the Queen and the ladies in the great barge. I assure you 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 matched with so gracious a woman as is reported.”7
Jane the Peacemaker
Although the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, had originally been rather scathing in regards to Henry’s new love, describing her as “proud and haughty” and “not a woman of great wit”, he soon changed his mind when he realised that she was sympathetic to the plight of the Lady Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII. He then described Jane as a “pacific”8, a peacemaker”, and also praised her for her good sense and the way that she would not be drawn into discussions on religion and politics.
Wolf Hall may have been the Seymour family home and Jane may have retreated there after Anne Boleyn’s execution9, but we know that Jane and Henry got betrothed at Hampton Court Palace and that their wedding took place in the Queen’s closet at Whitehall.
Jane’s exact birthdate is not known, but Elizabeth Norton points out that Jane had 29 ladies in her funeral procession in 1537, “a common way of marking the age of the deceased”10, so Norton concludes that Jane was most likely born between October 1507 and October 1508. Jane was therefore around 28 when she married Henry VIII, and Chapuys describes her as “over 25 years old”11. Obviously, there is controversy over Anne Boleyn’s date of birth, with some historians saying 1501 and others 1507, but even if we take the 1501 birthdate for Anne then Jane was only six or seven years younger, although her family were known for their fertility.
Jane the Plotter and Seductress
Here we have the belief that Jane was not who she was cracked up to be, that she was coached, by Nicholas Carewe12, in how to behave so that she attracted the King and kept his interest, that she was encouraged to poison the King’s mind against Anne Boleyn, while showing herself as an attractive alternative13, and that her behaviour was all a well choreographed act.
Antonia Fraser14 writes of how Jane refused to accept a gift of gold sovereigns from the king, flinging herself on her knees and begging the messenger to tell the king that she was “a gentlewoman of fair and honourable lineage without reproach” and that she had “nothing in the world but her honour, which for a thousand deaths she would not wound” and therefore she must return the gift and “If the King deigned to make her a present of money, she prayed that it might be when she made an honourable marriage.” This “blushing reticence” inflamed the King’s “ardour”, Henry loved the thrill of the chase. Was it part of a game, Jane’s plan to ensnare the King? Had she learned from what had happened with Anne Boleyn? After all, Anne’s rebuffing of the King had led to him pursuing her relentlessly and not taking no for an answer. Did Jane know what she was doing? Had she been coached on how to play the King by Carew and her brothers? Who knows, but Antonia Fraser does point out that it would have been characteristic for Jane to have acted in this way anyway:-
“It is not necessary to believe that the girl herself was playing a role – an uncharacteristic one – just because the results of her withdrawal were so successful. Jane Seymour was the perfect bait just because she represented without artifice that purity a sentimental older man – and Henry was certainly sentimental at the start of his love affairs – was likely to admire.”15
It is easy for Anne Boleyn fans to accuse Jane of acting, of copying what Anne did, knowing how it had worked on Henry, but Jane is described by her contempories as being a genuinely humble, virtuous and chaste young woman; to refuse Henry’s advances would have been natural for her to do. We cannot praise Anne for rebuffing Henry and challenge those who question Anne’s motivations when, at the same time, we villify Jane.
Did Jane Dance on Anne’s Grave?
As I have said, there are those who believe that Jane was took an active part in Anne’s downfall by poisoning Henry’s mind against his wife and historian Agnes Strickland saw Jane as someone who coldly and mercilessly stood by while her behaviour with Anne’s husband led to Anne’s miscarriage and ultimately Anne’s death. Some imagine Jane as delighting in planning her marriage to Henry while Anne was imprisoned in the Tower waiting for the hour of her death, but just as Anne had no choice in marrying Henry, and we can’t blame Anne for what happened to Catherine of Aragon, Jane had no choice in what happened either. Jane had loved and respected Catherine of Aragon and so probably did not have much respect for Anne Boleyn, but that does not mean that she took delight in what happened to Anne.
Jane the Catholic Queen
Although Jane’s brother’s, Edward and Thomas Seymour, later became staunch Protestants, and Edward as Lord Protector in the reign of Edward VI, Jane’s son, brought in many Protestant reforms, Jane was a conservative Catholic and Martin Luther described her as an “enemy of the gospel”16.
Jane the Reconciler
Chapuys reported to Charles V how Jane, putting her characteristic meekness to one side, once pleaded with Henry VIII to restore the Lady Mary to the succession:-
“I hear that, even before the arrest of the Concubine, The King, speaking with mistress Jane [Seymour] 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. She replied that in asking for the restoration of the Princess she conceived she was seeking the rest and tranquillity of the King, herself, her future children, and for the whole realm for without that, neither your Majesty nor his people would ever be content.”17.
It is clear from this exchange that Jane felt strongly about this issue as she continued pleading after Henry called her a fool. Alison Weir points out that however much Jane cared about reconciling Mary with her father, she showed no interest in Elizabeth, and that it was actually Mary’s intercession which made Henry invite the little Elizabeth for the Christmas season of 1536/1537. Fraser contradicts this, saying that Jane fulfilled the role of a benevolent mother to both girls, although she points out that Jane could not have reconciled the King with his daughters if Henry really did not want to be:-
“One can hardly believe that the new insecure Queen would have single-handedly secured a reversal of policy against her husband’s real wishes”, although her “quasi-maternal desire to reconcile father and daughter was obviously quite genuine.”18
Henry’s True Love
Henry VIII called Jane his true love and true wife, he chose Jane’s image to be portrayed as his wife and queen in the Whitehall Family Portrait, even though he was married to Catherine Parr at the time, and he chose to be laid to rest next to Jane, so it is hard to argue with that and say that she was not Henry’s true love. However, he was only involved with Jane for around 18 months, if that, so the relationship cannot be compared with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which lasted for nearly 24 years, and his relationship with Anne Boleyn, which lasted about 10 years. Henry did not have time to get tired of Jane and the fact that she died after giving him the precious gift of a son probably made Henry look back on their relationship with rather rose tinted spectacles! There is no doubt, however, that he loved and respected her and his behaviour after her death, locking himself away from the world, shows that he really was grief-stricken.
The Birth of Edward VI, Jane’s son
Jane Seymour went into labour on the 9th October 1537 and her labour lasted for three days and three nights. Alison Weir writes of how there were rumours that “her limbs were stretched to ease delivery”, that Henry was asked whether he wanted to save Jane or the baby and that he chose the child because he could easily find another wife and that a caesarean (C-section) was then performed. There is absolutely no evidence that any of that happened and there is no way that Jane would have survived the ordeal had she undergone a caesarean section.
The new prince was finally born at 2am on the 12th Oct 1537. Jane was well enough to receive the Christening guests in her apartments on the 15th October but suffered an attack of diarrhoea on the afternoon of the 16th and started to be sick that night. She rapidly went downhill and was given the last rites on the 17th. However, she then seemed to improve, so much so that Henry continued the christening celebrations. The puerperal fever was not gone though and on Friday 19th Jane became feverish once more and slipped into delirium. Contrary to popular opinion, Henry was very worried about his wife. Alison Weir writes that he had intended to return to Esher for the beginning of the hunting season but he put this off because he wanted to be near Jane. On the evening of the 23rd, Henry was summoned to Jane’s bedside as it was obvious that she was dying. Weir writes of how he remained with her that night and that she died in the early hours of the 24th October. Henry was devastated and hid himself away at Windsor, refusing to see anyone. He wallowed for 3 weeks and wore full mourning for 3 months after Jane’s death. His happiness at the birth of his much longed for son had been eclipsed by the death of his wife and queen. It was a few months before Henry could bring himself to do his duty and look for another wife.
Jane as Queen
Jane was only queen for a short time but she “had clearly defined ideas of what she hoped to achieve as queen”19:-
“First and foremost, she hoped to remain queen, and to this end she modelled her behaviour from the first upon Katherine of Aragon, whom she had greatly admired. Her other aims were threefold: to give the King a male heir, to work for the re-instatement of the Lady Mary, and to advance her family.”
And, according to Weir, Jane achieved pretty much everything that she had set out to do:-
- She provided the King with a son and heir
- She helped reconcile Mary and Henry and helped to restore the Lady Mary to the succession
- She advanced her family
- She provided the King with a stable family life
- She submitted to the King, obeyed him and did not meddle with things like religion and politics which did not concern her, after being reprimanded when she did speak to Henry about the monasteries.
Was Jane pregnant before her marriage to Henry?
Although in one fictional account of Anne Boleyn’s downfall (I think it was Jean Plaidy’s “Murder Most Royal”), Jane becomes pregnant and it is one of the reasons why Henry wanted to get rid of Anne so quickly, however, there is no evidence that this happened in real life. It seems that Jane was a virgin until her wedding night.
Jane’s Planned Coronation
Although Henry may have been once bitten and twice shy (or actually twice bitten!), as in he had forked out for two coronations already, he did plan to have Jane crowned queen and payments for preparations for her coronation are recorded in the royal accounts. Her coronation was originally planned for September/October 1536 and was only postponed due to an outbreak of the plague. In 1537, Jane became pregnant and I suspect that Henry then held off crowning her due to that, planning to go ahead with the ceremony after she had recovered from the birth.
Having researched Jane Seymour and having read contemporary accounts of her behaviour as Henry’s wife and queen, I have to take her at face value and believe that she really was the sweet, virtuous, kind woman that she made herself out to be, either that or she was an incredibly good actress! I do believe that she was coached by Carew and her brothers but I don’t think that she had to act, I think her behaviour was natural. As much as I’d love to believe that she had a dark side, I don’t believe she had one, she really was a virtuous woman through and through and cannot be held accountable for what happened to Anne Boleyn, just as Anne cannot be held accountable for what happened to Catherine of Aragon. Jane made Henry happy, she gave him the gift of a son, she was a peacemaker, she was popular with the people and she was a humble, kind woman, it’s just a shame that her time as queen was so short-lived.
What do you think of Jane Seymour?
Notes and Sources
- Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love, Elizabeth Norton, p12
- LP x.901
- The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Alison Weir
- The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Antonia Fraser, p290
- Alison Weir
- LP x.1047
- LP x.1069
- Fraser, p317
- Norton, p11
- LP x.901
- Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, 1888, pp. 104-118.
- The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p304
- Fraser, p295
- Ibid., p296
- Ibid., p334
- LP x.908
- Fraser, p331-332
- Alison Weir
Read more about Jane Seymour in “Jane Seymour: Redefining the Myth”.