Today in 1536 Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. It was the third wedding ceremony in which he stood as bridegroom, and yet if you had asked him he would have told you she was his first true wife. His first two wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, had been false – Katherine, the widow of his brother who lied about her virginity and Anne, an adulterous traitor who might also have been a witch. Thus it was that at the age of 45 Henry was finally legally wed in a “true” union.
But who was this woman? Jane has always been overshadowed by the drama of her predecessors and the swift rise and fall of her successors. She was not an illustrious foreign match; she died of natural causes; and she lacked the learning, style or intrigue that marked some of Henry’s other wives. Arguably, she was the most dull – at least, the information that we have on her is relatively dull. Her relationship with Henry was tame compared to his with Anne Boleyn and what was most riveting about her time on the throne was less driven by her and more by the destruction of the monasteries by Henry and his leading adviser at the time, Thomas Cromwell.
Jane was born in 1507/8, the eldest daughter of her parents, Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth. They were middling courtiers, landowners, respectable, but hardly rising stars. She was known to have come to court in 1532 as maid of honor to Katherine of Aragon, but given her age, it’s likelier that she came earlier, in 1527, and thus had a front row seat to the King’s Great Matter. That is, she worked alongside Anne Boleyn when she, herself, was a lady-in-waiting. She watched that woman prompt the King to fall in love with her, refuse his sexual advances, accept his promises of fidelity and marriage and essentially step over the body of the woman they had grown up with as queen. It was a scandal of epic proportions and, given how much has been gleaned from outside the Palace walls, one can only imagine what scenes to which Jane was privy on the front lines.
We don’t know exactly what Jane thought. She has been positioned posthumously as Anne’s foe, and certainly towards the end of Anne’s marriage to Henry, she was a detested rival, but Jane’s own point of view is missing. She is usually portrayed as sympathetic to Katherine and Princess Mary – that once she had replaced Anne as wife, she went out of her way to correct the wrongs of Anne. But that’s a bit unfair – or rather, that is perhaps giving Jane too much credit. The only thing we know for certain is that Jane followed Anne’s template of how to catch and keep the King. The rest of it stems more from our own conclusions of human nature – how could Jane watch what happened and not feel sympathy for the discarded wife and daughter?
But make no mistake, this woman also became betrothed to the King the day after Anne was beheaded on trumped up charges of treason, adultery and incest. Anne and Princess Elizabeth were yet another pair of a discarded wife and daughter and while a sympathetic reading of Jane could grant that she had no way of knowing that Anne would be meted out a more violent end than Katherine had, it’s too great a leap to declare Jane “good” where Anne was “bad.”
In 1533 Katherine and Henry’s marriage was officially declare null and void by Thomas Cranmer, the new Archbishop of Canterbury of the Church of England. Anne and Henry were married and several of Katherine’s former ladies were transferred to the new queen’s household, Jane among them. There’s little indication of favor from Anne in the first two years of her queenship – no sign of a particular friendship or significant anecdotes that seem telling in hindsight.
The first reference of Jane comes in the winter of the fateful 1536 when Anne miscarried her last child. Henry had likely emotionally checked out of the marriage long before, but certainly had Anne successfully delivered him a son it would have been a game-changer. She didn’t, and she made the mistake of laying the blame at Henry’s feet – that he had upset her during her pregnancy by falling for another. The “other” was identified by the Spanish ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, as Mistress Seymour. When Jane first caught Henry’s eye is anyone’s guess, but likely it was sooner than that winter, perhaps as early as the autumn of 1535.
Their relationship carried on through the spring of 1536, but the game that Jane played, though similar to Anne’s, was carried out in vastly different circumstances. Anne had no example to follow. Her task had been to unseat an infanta of Spain whose nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor and whose marriage had been sanctioned by Rome. Anne was made by Henry and he had every power, as king and head of the church, to destroy her as quickly as he had built her. For that, he had no real need to beg Jane to be his mistress. She could protest to be a virgin and declare herself to be waiting for marriage, but she had no need to wait seven years for heaven and earth to be moved. Henry put the gears in motion to rid himself of his second wife, fully confident it wouldn’t be difficult to get himself a third.
Anne’s execution on May 19, 1536 was followed by Jane’s betrothal the next day and a wedding 10 days after that. Suddenly, a woman who came out of nowhere, unknown to the world, had been crowned queen of England. And who was she? She was reportedly fairly plain – not ugly, but average. She had no remarkable wit, but she seemed kind. She was wholly ordinary where Anne had been extraordinary. She boasted no particular style or grace, though she was described in one letter as rather haughty. She was respectful of Princess Mary, or Lady Mary as she was at the outset of Jane’s marriage, and perhaps this stemmed from maternal instinct or warmth, but perhaps it came simply from having grown up knowing her place. She was only eight or nine years older than her stepdaughter and, if she was cunning beneath her mediocrity, then she would have known the best thing she could do was the opposite of what Anne did – show grace to the first daughter. Grace or…a lack of drama. By not stamping her foot about hierarchy and respect, mind you, she was not only making Mary’s life easier, but Henry’s and as Henry had just shown the world, he was her maker.
But there is yet another factor worth considering, another that differentiates Jane from Anne. Anne had been close to self-made, at least so far as a woman could in the Tudor court. She benefited, at first, from the connection to her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, or her father’s success as an ambassador to Henry. But she seduced and kept interested the changeable king of England on her own, playing a game that no one, including Henry’s top ministers thought possible – indeed, many still blame her for the fall of Cardinal Wolsey.
Jane, on the other hand, had support. She had two ambitious brothers, Edward and Thomas. She had the quick support of Cromwell, once he sensed which way the tide was turning. She had, as well, the men of whom Anne had made enemies, which were many. She had vocal supporters and her actions during her courtship with Henry – kissing a letter from him and returning jewels – could very well have been of her own instincts, but could also very well have been the result of expert coaching. A woman of limited wit? A woman with little to no reputation or prior relationships? This doesn’t paint a portrait of a woman who knew how to parlay the King’s attention into marriage.
Her championship of Mary, for that matter, not only had familial consequences, but political. Anne, who had grown up in France, had always favored French alliances. Mary, through her Spanish mother, represented ties to the Hapsburgs and Spain. It was not only a Catholic faction that favored the inclusion of Henry’s first daughter, but those that favored an alliance with the Empire over King Francis. These are not factors which Jane was well-programmed to grasp – so are we then to imagine it was a happy accident her actions mirrored the ambitions of her supporters? That she was the horse leading the cart?
Later on, after Jane’s death, Henry would refer to her as his favorite wife. This is wishful thinking and a better indication of his complete lack of self-awareness or honesty than his true feelings towards her. Jane was a balm for the wound that was Anne. Weeks after their wedding he met two beautiful young women at his court and stated he wished he had met them before his marriage. When the plague hit London that autumn there were murmurs it was God’s displeasure Jane had yet to conceive – they had been married four or five months at most. When Jane begged for mercy for rebels a few months later Henry repulsed her and reminded her that she was not meant to meddle in politics. This was not the way Henry had treated Anne in the throes of his passion for her – indeed, he had no passion for Jane. Arguably she was only a woman to him so much as she had the ability to produce a child
Luckily for her (well, debatably given how it turned out), Jane was pregnant by January 1537 and Henry was pacified. On Friday, October 12, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. He was christened Edward three days later in honor of the saint on the eve of whose feast day he was born – notably not Henry as the King’s earlier short-lived sons had been called. By the 24th, Jane was dead. It’s unclear whether Henry was present.
Much has been made of Henry’s grief after her death – and perhaps he did feel grief. Certainly the two years that followed were the only period of his adult life during which he was unmarried. Equally as likely is that he was mentally and emotionally exhausted – and, to be clear, within that two year timeframe matches with foreign princesses were considered, discarded or rejected. What he most certainly did do was build Jane into something she was not – a Tudor matriarch, the mother of his son, a woman akin to that of his revered mother, Elizabeth of York.
The idea, however, that this favoritism would have meant a happy domestic life is far-fetched. I’ll buy that Henry might not have discarded Jane because she had given him a son. I guarantee you that had she lived Henry would have had a series of mistresses. And I would wager there is a fair chance that, had he decided himself in love once more, he might very well have found a way to push Jane into a convent or create a legal annulment that didn’t undermine Edward’s legitimacy. It sounds questionable and, indeed, it is only a hypothetical, but so too is any declaration that Jane was truly special to her husband in any way other than a rebound from the great love of his life.