Jane Seymour: Third Time’s The Charm

Guest post by Natalie Lomako

Let’s talk about Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII. The one who supplanted Anne Boleyn in his affections and in his bed. The one who finally gave him a son. His one true love. Was she, though? Or did she die before she could have displeased Henry? Due to the lack of records voicing her opinions, it is not clear what they were and what she was like as a person. Everything that is assumed about her and attributed to her, is concluded from her actions or in some cases, inactions, and together those loose pieces of the jigsaw puzzle reveal a portrait of a plain young woman with no ambitions yet with a lot of dignity and the one was most probably harbouring right-wing tendencies.

In the roll call of Henry VIII’s Queens, Jane is often neglected, attracting very few fans. Recent examples of that is this very guest blog feature. Jane was literally the last Queen standing, like the last school girl in PE class, waiting to get picked. Second example is the Historical Royal Palaces talk, where the hosts asked the audience to vote for their favourite Queen. Jane got two votes out of the entire room packed full of Tudor fans. Also, her first solo biography was written in 21st century. One of the two biographies in total, comparing to the libraries of books written on Anne Boleyn. What does that say? Jane is not very popular in popular historical culture. I shall humbly try to fight her corner and redress the balance. She was Henry’s third wife, and the third time’s the charm, after all.

Despite not being much in the spotlight today, Jane was actually quite popular as a Queen. She did the job so well, in fact, that Henry, his court and the country were deep in mourning after her untimely death in 1537. Let’s not forget, she was the only one of Henry’s wives who got a state funeral, befitting the Queen of England, the first one since Elizabeth of York died in 1503. Not bad for Jane, a girl who grew up in rural Wiltshire in relative obscurity and never had a serious marriage offer until she was in her late-20’s. (Reminder – in those days if a girl is twenty and unmarried, she might be considered an old maid.) So how did Jane get from Wiltshire to the throne of England, with Henry calling her his one true love? Let’s rewind.

The first Seymours in England date back to the Norman Conquest, when a family called St. Maur accompanied William the Conqueror. We fast-forward to the end of the fifteenth century, when a direct descendant of Edward III – Margery Wentworth – marries one John Seymour. Through their parents’ marriage, the couple’s children are related to several prominent houses in the land, including the Boleyns and the Howards and of course, the Tudors.

We jump to the late 1520’s, when a nineteen-(or-so)-year-old Jane gets a position as a maid of honour with Catherine of Aragon. She hopes that a position at court would help her secure a good match, so she can marry, produce children and start running her own household. Jane and her new mistress become fond of each other, unlike the other maid of Catherine’s – one Anne Boleyn. Even though Catherine looks every inch like the Queen of England and it seems unfathomable that she would ever be legally supplanted, Jane (in the words of Elizabeth Norton) “could feel the winds change”.  Jane was devoted to her Queen, not least because they both were opposed to the reforms in religion. She watched her beloved Queen get ‘demoted’ by force and exiled to one unsuitable country house after another. All this time Jane was pro-Catherine and pro-Mary (Catherine and Henry’s only child), and anti-Anne and everything the latter represented. In 1533 She ceases to be Catherine’s maid after yet another ‘demotion’ move. Jane gets made redundant and goes back to Wolfhall.

Around 1534 Jane finally has a potential betrothal being arranged by her kinsman Francis Bryan, to a William Dormer, but his family considers Jane to be too low-born, so the idea is abandoned.

In 1535 Jane once again becomes a maid of honour to the Queen of England (though unlike Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn is very unpopular with English people, which remains so until way after her death).

This time around Henry notices Jane, and continues to notice her more and more as his relationship with Anne sours. Jane decides to adopt Anne’s pre-marital game and doesn’t give in to being Henry’s mistress, thus enhancing his feelings towards her. By the beginning of 1536, it is clear that, once again, that “the winds are changing” and by March 1536, Jane and Anne become “implacably opposed”.

Apart from the ‘withholding intimacy before marriage’ rule, Anne’s ways were always abhorrent to the traditionalist anti-reformer Jane. Even Anne’s French clothing style and the famous French hood is something Jane was very much against.

May 1536 – Anne Boleyn loses her position, her life and her head. Jane becomes Queen soon after. In my opinion, this is where Jane’s life gets to its full level of excitement.

Jane’s two predecessors – Catherine and Anne – though vastly different women, seem to have several common denominators – neither provided Henry with a living son and heir, both were disposed of in unprecedented and scandalously quick ways, and both are dead. These sad conclusions must be on Jane’s mind as she ponders what future she can have with an ageing husband who’s quickly losing his looks, his health and his temper.

One of the things that attracted Henry to Jane back in 1535, was the fact that she (at least on the surface) was the opposite to Anne Boleyn, who by then was already getting on his nerves with her meddling in politics and her fits of jealousy. Whether Jane in fact ‘was’ the opposite to Anne, or knew she just needs to appear thus, we’ll never know. My money is on the latter, judging by her refusal to give up her honour despite no other prospects being available, but only after it was clear that Anne was doomed, not before. The historian Elizabeth Norton notices a shift in Jane’s behaviour pattern – it was perfectly acceptable for her to sit on Henry’s lap when being his mistress was the highest she could aim for, before Anne’s fate was sealed. However, after it became clear that the wife position was opening up, Jane would not even open his letter wherein he was asking her to submit to him. These are exactly the kind of actions where we can see Jane’s voice emerging. Back to June 1536.

Jane the Queen definitely knows she needs to avoid Anne’s mistakes, which means that she needs to 1. bear him a son, 2. not interfere in politics and 3. not oppose him in any way. Anne’s mistakes lead one to the executioner’s block. Jane goes on to give Henry a son, she does in fact interfere in politics when her right-wing sympathies can’t be suppressed any longer, i.e. Jane pleads for those involved in Pilgrimage of Grace in late 1536, as well as for the soon-to-be suppressed abbeys, and she does oppose him by asking to reinstate The Lady Mary, his elder daughter in the line of succession and in the Royal Household. With the latter issue, Jane is successful, though not at first, and she does have to be rebuked by Henry and reminded of her predecessors. In my opinion, Jane’s rare actions against Henry speak volumes about the nature of her character, especially considering what was at stake.

According to the historian Elizabeth Norton, Jane spends most of the time of her marriage being afraid to be replaced, as she has seen first hand – twice! – that Henry can take his Queen’s maid and replace the Queen herself. In her time as Henry’s consort, she does her best to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself, and she chooses her maids carefully. As insecure as she might feel, she knows that as soon as she gives birth to Henry’s son, nothing can touch her; any qualms Henry might have about Jane’s wrongdoings, would go away forever when he’s a father to a healthy legitimate boy. That day finally arrives after a year and a half of marriage: Jane gives birth to baby Edward. She trumps both her predecessors, proving she is the perfect Queen and the perfect wife for Henry. Less than two weeks later she dies of post-natal complications.

In later years, Henry would call Jane his one true love; he would have her painted at his side next to their son in the Whitehall mural portrait, as his one ‘definitive’ wife, even though he was married to Catherine Parr at the time the painting was commissioned. He also made arrangements to be buried next to her. She was wife number three. He would go on to have three more by the time he died. Why Jane as his true love? The joke answer to that would be: everyone else was either Catherine or Anne.

My serious answer is this: Jane was meant to be his Happy Ending, until the tragedy struck. Also, this end to his marriage is the only one he didn’t have a say in. It was forced on him, thus leaving him and us guessing how it would have gone, had she lived. Why Jane as his true love?

She was obedient enough, she was submissive, she gave him a son. I believe, on some level, he loved her, as people tend to fall in love with the opposite of whatever their last disagreeable partner represents. If she had lived, theirs may very well have been the greatest Tudor love story, when the king found his ‘happily ever after’ following the disappointments of his previous relationships, i.e. the ageing married-to-his-brother bride and the tempestuous vixen unsuitable for Queenship. Jane and Henry’s could have been the love story for the ages. So, my question would be, why not Jane as his one true love? She never defied him in any major way; she never made him question his masculinity; she never committed treason or adultery; he was attracted to her; she gave him a son. It is one of the biggest examples of irony in the course of English history – the moment Jane reaches her zenith as Queen extending the Tudor line – disaster strikes and Henry is back to square one. Jane’s death spells out the existence of future marriage arrangements, not just because one living son is not enough – Henry himself is a living example of that – but because a royal court needs a Queen. Unfortunately, for a king whose three wives died within the previous two years, finding the next one might prove problematic. However, succession is a duty, and time is not on Henry’s side. This is a perfect situation for errors to creep in…

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Image by Mark Osborne (c) 2020

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