Anyone with an interest in the sixteenth century will certainly have heard of Jane Seymour.
King Henry the eighth, to six wives he was wedded…
One died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded.
Even those who take no pleasure in British history will tell you she was one of the six Queens featured in the verse above. Jane was the one who gave Henry a son; Jane was the one who died. Jane was the love of her husband’s life — wasn’t she? At least, that’s what we have since been conditioned to believe.
Jane Seymour: Wife Number Three
Jane Seymour. Hers is a name that generally appears alongside five others. So important are these names to the Tudor era that we have ensured their longevity with a variety of catchy poems.
Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.
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This is just one of its kind. Several variations of the rhyme have been composed over the last few hundred years. We learn these words at school; they somehow ensure that the story they tell remains totally unforgettable to children and adults alike.
Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleeves were divorced. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were beheaded. Catherine Parr survived. It is Jane Seymour who is labeled simply as the one who died.
We all know that these six women all had one thing in common; they were all married to King Henry VIII of England, and their lives were either ended or severely changed through his command. Their individual stories have been retold, rewritten, and republished, over and over again, throughout the last five centuries. Of course, it is thanks to his many weddings, and many marital disasters, that Henry is now remembered as one of the most famous Kings in British history.
Henry and Jane Seymour were married for just seventeen months, between May 1536 and October 1537. By the time they had become romantically linked, Henry had already experienced two weddings and one divorce and was fast heading toward another.
Catherine of Aragon (wife number one), had been divorced in 1533. Anne Boleyn (wife number two), was soon to be beheaded in 1536. This event would make room for Jane Seymour; wife number three.
Henry and Jane spent nearly a year and a half in wedlock, but their union was brought to an untimely end when she succumbed to childbed fever just under two weeks after giving birth to her son, the future King Edward VI. Henry’s third marriage was over before it had properly begun, or at least, before anything potentially damaging had occurred to upset him. Perhaps it is for this reason that, although reputedly his personal favorite, Jane is often regarded as one of the least exciting of his Queens.
When it comes to modern representations of Henry’s many romances, it is Jane Seymour who usually receives the raw end of the deal. Despite the fact that she is generally regarded as the perfect example of a sixteenth-century wife, there is little evidence to suggest that her widespread popularity has carried into the twenty-first.
Jane has failed to inspire such enduring admiration as her cousin, Anne Boleyn. Neither has she inspired such devotion as her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon. She has not accumulated the suspicion and notoriety that now taints the memory of Catherine Howard.
More often than not, Jane is mentioned in the same breath as Anne of Cleeves and Catherine Parr; wives number four and six. These are the unfortunate ladies who do not seem to have achieved the same allure as their attractive, mysterious, and vivacious competitors. In some ways, Jane outshone her fellow Queens, but in others, she has been wholly eclipsed by them.
It may seem to any modern historian that the six Queens have each fallen into one of the following categories; Catholic or Protestant, loved or unloved, attractive or unattractive, wildly compelling or disappointingly lackluster.
In books and films alike, very little time is allocated for the retelling of Jane’s story. Generally speaking, the shortness of her time on the throne is not only mirrored but grossly exaggerated. While Anne Boleyn is granted a generous portion of time in each adaptation, Jane is wedded, bedded, has delivered a son, and is swiftly killed off within ten minutes of screentime. In many adaptations of her husband’s life, no sooner does Jane arrive at Court in a carriage than she leaves again in her coffin.
Jane’s timeline is commonly condensed into four main events; her arrival at Court, her marriage, her delivery of a Prince, and her death. But her life was so much more than just what she did for her husband. She was more than a sweet, mild young lady who’d been blessed with the gift of fertility.
What Do We Know About Jane Seymour?
What do we know about the early life of Jane Seymour? In short, disappointingly little. And her later life? Unfortunately, not as much as historians would like. What we do know is that, for whatever reason, she was particularly pleasing to her husband.
To understand Henry’s affection for his third wife, we must first attempt to understand the woman herself. To understand the woman herself, we must first venture back to the beginning of her life. In doing so, we may find ourselves imagining an idyllic residence located deep in the English countryside; a fine picture of a Tudor family home. This home was called Wulfhall, and it was here that Jane was likely to have spent her earliest years.
Although no record of the event survives, it appears that the birth of Jane Seymour occurred sometime between 1504 and 1509, probably during the late reign of Henry VII. She was the daughter of Sir John Seymour (Knight and Courtier), and his wife, Margery Wentworth.
Thanks to her father’s noble blood, Jane could trace her ancestry back to Royalty. Like many notable figures of her era, she was a descendant of King Edward III. It was due to this prestigious connection that the Seymour dynasty possessed a large number of properties and a healthy annual income.
Jane is likely to have enjoyed a comfortable and stress-free childhood as the seventh surviving child and eldest daughter of the household. However, there is a large, empty space between her birth and the day on which she arrived at Court. To this day, a large portion of her personal history remains blank.
Jane Seymour lacked the privilege of a good education. Jane was likely the least educated of all Henry’s wives. She received no instruction in languages, theology, or academic subjects, but instead was proficient in gardening, needlework, and general household management. Unlike Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, both of whom spoke eloquently in various languages, Jane Seymour spoke English alone. She read and wrote the bare minimum; probably only her own name.
Another mystery regarding the life of Jane Seymour is when exactly she arrived on the scene. It is assumed that she made her debut at the Court of Henry in her teens or early twenties, sometime between 1527 and 1532, when she was appointed as a Maid of Honor to Catherine of Aragon. When the first Royal marriage was annulled, Jane was conveniently transferred into the service of her cousin, Anne Boleyn. It was there, in the private chambers of Henry’s second Queen, that the story of his third truly began.
King Henry VIII And Jane Seymour: Their Courtship And Marriage
It was toward the end of his marriage to Anne Boleyn that Henry is thought to have developed an attraction to Jane Seymour. Anne was renowned for her intelligence and quick temper; Jane was renowned for her good looks and good nature.
Jane is typically thought to have been meek, kind, gentle, chaste, peaceful, and penitent. In short, Jane was everything that Anne was not. Their two personalities clashed; the Court buzzed with the rumor that, in the heat of jealousy, Anne had harshly ripped a locket from Jane’s neck. Jane’s characteristics may very well have seemed enchanting to a King who was quickly growing weary of his confident, out-spoken, and hot-headed wife.
The Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, described Jane as being pale and of middling stature. Polydore Vergil commented that she was a woman of the utmost charm in both character and appearance, and John Russel went a step further by claiming her to have been the fairest of all the King’s wives.
The most famous portraits of Jane Seymour echo these thoughts and ideas. Jane wears a traditional English hood, quite unlike the fashionable French hood of her predecessor. Reliably, Jane’s face appears pale, her hair fair, her gaze modestly turned away from the viewer. If these favorable descriptions and depictions are to be believed, it is little wonder that Henry singled her out among a crowd of Ladies In Waiting.
Although it is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment at which his infatuation began, we know that he was likely to have been pursuing her in September of 1535, for it was then that he visited her family at their residence of Wulfhall in Wiltshire. It was shortly after this visit that Henry and his Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell, devised a plan to remove Anne from the picture and install Jane in the vacant place.
While it had taken nearly a decade for Henry to pursue and marry Anne Boleyn, he achieved the same result with Jane Seymour within just a few short months. The courtship he shared with Jane was extremely swift in comparison with his long-lasting and hard-fought relationships of the past.
It was actually the day after the execution of Anne Boleyn that Henry and Jane were formally betrothed. They wasted little time; they were married by Bishop Gardiner, in the Queen’s Closet of Whitehall Palace, on the thirtieth day of May 1536. Historians often wonder to what extent the downfall of Anne Boleyn was furthered by the influence of Jane Seymour. That, perhaps, is another question for another day.
Jane Seymour: The Wife King Henry Loved Most?
It is no secret that Henry VIII adored women in general. He spent a large portion of his thirty-six-year reign accumulating a wide variety of partners. He appears to have had no particular preference when it came to his female companions but was easily captivated by all manner of ladies, whether they be rich or poor, dark or fair, quiet or self-assured, sixteen or thirty-five.
Of course, it wasn’t just their fellow Queens that each wife had to contend with, but a hoard of mistresses, too. Joan Dingley, Jane Popincourt, Elizabeth Blount, Mary Boleyn, Margaret Sheldon, and Anne Hastings are just a handful of the female Courtiers thought to have shared his bed.
But which of these women was his favorite? Despite the fact that hers was one of the shortest of his marriages, it is Jane Seymour who has, as if at random, been selected as the undisputed love of Henry’s life. Is there any truth in this popular belief? Did Henry ever declare her wifely superiority in his own words?
The fact that Jane was adored by her husband is undeniable. After all, he chose her for himself. There was no ulterior motive, for she was hardly the key to a great fortune or alliance. In marrying her, there was very little to be gained, either politically or financially.
One thing we can be certain of is that Henry wanted to fall in love with someone. Contrary to popular opinion, he was not a man who wandered aimlessly from woman to woman. He didn’t abandon one lady in favor of another, or spend his precious time seducing a woman for the sake of it.
Instead, Henry was driven by a genuine desire to find true love. He longed for a partner with whom he could sustain a perfect relationship. To keep his chosen lady as a mistress was not good enough for him; when he fell in love, he wanted to make that love his Queen. It was not enough to share his bed; he wanted also to share his life.
For one single year of his reign, this special position was occupied by Jane. It is possible that she might have held it for another decade to come, had she been luckier in the childbed. Although it will never be possible to establish the true identity of Henry’s true love, (we can hardly ask him), Jane Seymour certainly has some excellent material with which to argue her case. This material can be divided into sections, for there are four reliable pieces of evidence that point toward the fact that Jane was Henry’s favored Queen.
Jane Seymour: Four Reasons She was the Favorite
Firstly, a son. Jane Seymour gave Henry a Prince. This was what he had been waiting for since he inherited his father’s throne, eighteen years earlier. Our modern minds tend to underplay what a burden Henry’s desperate struggle for an heir would have been to him. The fact that he had no one to inherit his Crown would have plagued him both night and day.
Henry would have loved Jane for giving him what no other woman could; a healthy and legitimate son. Like most men of his era, Henry believed that any problem regarding conception and child-bearing lay with the woman. Henry might have seen Jane’s fertility as a blessing from God, or as a sign that the Heavens smiled on his marriage.
Many historians believe that Henry would not have married again, had Jane lived. It is likely that even had he grown tired of Jane’s company, he would not have sacrificed his heir for the sake of a woman. His desire for a legitimate son would surely have overridden his desire for another divorce?
Secondly, H&J. At the height of his romance with Anne Boleyn, Henry commissioned several intertwined letters to be carved into the wood of the Banqueting Hall of Hampton Court. The initials, H&A were scattered beautifully in hidden locations. Later, after his marriage to Jane, the carvings were reworked so that they appeared as H&J. He did no such thing for Anne, Catherine of Aragon, or Catherine Parr; the romantic gesture was not received by the wives that followed Jane.
Thirdly, artwork. Jane Seymour starred in one of the most significant portraits of the sixteenth century. This work, The Family Of King Henry VIII, was painted while he was married to his final wife, Catherine Parr. Nonetheless, in this depiction, it is Jane Seymour who sits neatly among the family; she can clearly be seen next to Henry, Prince Edward, and the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth. Although he possessed a living wife, he chose to represent his current family with a deceased wife at his side.
Lastly, time. Jane died before she had the chance to upset her husband, and before he had the chance to become bored with her. Jane died of natural causes at the very peak of her favor, and therefore Henry harbored no negative connections to her memory.
Jane And Henry: Their Final Resting Place
Henry’s choice of resting place is also significant. At his own command, and in accordance with his Royal will, Henry’s body was interred beside that of Jane Seymour. Advocates for Henry and Jane’s love usually use this fact as their main piece of evidence that their relationship was the superior of his reign.
By the time he died on the 28th of January, 1547, four of his six wives were already in their graves. However, due to the nature of their deaths, he really had very little choice when it came to selecting a partner with whom to spend eternity.
We can take for granted that he did not wish to lie beside the wives who he believed to have been disloyal to him; those who he had personally condemned to death not a decade earlier. This immediately discounts the disgraced Queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
For geographical convenience, Catherine of Aragon had been placed at Peterborough Cathedral; hardly a fitting resting place for a King of England. Whether Henry selected Jane to proclaim his undying love for her, or simply because she was the most obvious choice, is left for us to decide.
The Death and Legacy of Jane Seymour
Jane Seymour predeceased her husband by just under ten years. The disaster occurred in October 1537, bringing an untimely end to their seemingly blissful union. On the twelfth day of the month, a new Tudor Prince was born. Jane delivered her son at two o’clock in the morning, having endured a long and agonizing labor over three days. By doing so, Jane may very well have secured her place in Henry’s affections forever.
Up until this point in her life, everything had gone Jane’s way. She had done what no one else could have done; she had dutifully fulfilled her purpose and successfully proven her worth. Just twelve days after her greatest moment, she experienced her worst. She succumbed to what was then known as childbed fever.
We have proof that Jane Seymour was loved not only by her husband but also by the general public of England. During her final suffering, it was spoken at Saint Paul’s Cathedral that if good prayers can save her life, she is not like to die, for never was a lady so much lamented with every man, rich and poor.
But she did die, and we can hardly begin to imagine the emotion that Henry must have felt as a result. On the one hand, he had suddenly received everything he’d ever longed for. On the other, he had lost the woman he might have considered as a partner for what remained of his life.
Although harsh, it may be fair to state that the Prince that Henry had so longed for would have been something of a let-down to him. Edward died at the age of just 15, and history has since written him off as another of England’s insignificant Kings. Both Henry and Jane would have been devastated to see the passing of their only son, and so early in his life and reign.
Although he did not quite live up to the expectations of his father, Prince Edward was undoubtedly Jane Seymour’s greatest legacy. Jane’s two brothers, Thomas and Edward Seymour, were quite possibly equal to her in terms of fame. They too met unfortunate ends whilst vying for the affections of their nephew the King. Edward condemned both his uncles to death and execution; Thomas in 1549 and Edward in 1552.
Jane’s lesser-known legacy is that she was instrumental in reconciling her husband with his two estranged daughters, the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth. The fact that she genuinely desired to bring the daughters of her predecessors into her life, and to behave as a mother to them, is further proof of her sweet and charitable nature. It is for works such as these that Jane deserves to be honored as the kindest and most charitable of all Henry’s loves.
Although we can speculate, and although we can weigh every piece of evidence, we will never truly understand what was happening inside the mind of King. All six of Henry’s wives may very well have been his favorite, but in different respects. Catherine of Aragon might have been the wife he respected most. Anne Boleyn might have been the wife with whom he was most infatuated. Jane Seymour might have been the wife he treasured most. Anne of Cleeves might have been his most agreeable and obedient wife. Catherine Howard might have been the wife who brought happiness back into his life. Catherine Parr might have been the wife he trusted most to care for his children and his Kingdom. Perhaps the question of whether or not Jane Seymour truly was his favourite wife is of no consequence; she will always be remembered as the wife King Henry loved most.