Books interview with Alison Weir: “Jane Seymour had the courage to stand up for what she cared about”

Alison Weir speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about her latest historical novel, which offers a new take on Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour

A c1536 portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger. "Jane's marriage to Henry VIII lasted less than 18 months, and yet she was witness to some of the most turbulent events of his reign," says Alison Weir. (Photo by PAINTING / Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Your new book recounts the life of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. What makes her such an interesting character study?

Jane is an enigma and I’ve always found enigmas fascinating. It’s very difficult to get a handle on her character and people have very polarised views about her. Was she the meek and compliant young tool of her ambitious family and an ardent king? Or was she a scheming little conniver who plotted to bring down her predecessor, Anne Boleyn?

I did a forensic analysis of the sources in order to try and decipher her character, and it’s that analysis that underpins the novel.

What did you uncover about Jane?

We can learn about Jane from many sources, notably the letters and papers of Henry VIII, and reports of foreign ambassadors. Then, of course, there are her actions themselves. From all of that, we can deduce quite a lot about her. We can infer that she was a person of some principle, who had the courage to stand up for the things she really cared about. This saw her challenge the king on two notable occasions.

Firstly, Jane helped reunite Henry with his eldest daughter, Mary, who had been declared a bastard when Henry divorced her mother, Catherine of Aragon. She had sided with her mother and the old Catholic order, and as the king was pushing through the Reformation, Mary was banished from court. Jane was staunchly Catholic and had served Catherine of Aragon, so she stood up for Mary and persuaded Henry to receive his daughter back into his affections. It’s clear from the sources that Jane’s influence was considerable in this matter.

Later on, Jane became aware that there was a groundswell of opinion – particularly in the Catholic north – against Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries. She herself was also grieved to see these ancient institutions closing down. So she went on her knees before the king and begged him to spare the monasteries. This time, however, she received a brutal rebuttal. Henry told her that his last wife had died because she meddled too much in politics and Jane never interfered again.

So Jane wasn’t just passive and demure, as is often believed?

As those two incidents show, she certainly had a great deal of moral courage. And she was definitely involved in the faction at court that plotted to bring down her predecessor and former mistress, Anne Boleyn. As a loyal supporter of Catherine of Aragon, Jane probably did not recognise Henry’s marriage to Anne as legitimate, and we know that she agreed to drip-feed criticism of Anne into the king’s ear. However, that doesn’t mean that she actually connived at Anne’s arrest and execution. Jane was probably hoping for Anne and Henry’s marriage to be annulled. I think that Anne’s horrible fate probably came as a surprise to her.

How turbulent was the period of English history in which Jane was married to Henry?

Jane’s marriage to Henry really wasn’t that long – less than 18 months, and yet she was witness to some of the most turbulent events of his reign. The couple married in 1536, which was a pivotal year in the Tudor period. As well as seeing Anne’s downfall and execution, it saw the beginning of the dissolution of the monasteries, and an outbreak of plague in London, which both Henry and Jane were horribly afraid of. Then in the autumn, the Pilgrimage of Grace – a major rebellion against the religious upheavals Henry had brought about – broke out in the Catholic north. This was very threatening to the king, who suppressed it with great ruthlessness. Jane lived through all this.

What motivated Jane? Was she interested in power, or pushed to the throne by forces beyond her control?

Given Jane’s background, I think she was probably swept along by it all. She was the daughter of a country knight, John Seymour of Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, and was a dutiful, obedient daughter. She had very ambitious brothers, who forged their own paths at court – two eventually ended up on the executioner’s block. Strangely, not much effort seems to have been made to find a husband for her, and by the time she caught the king’s eye, she was heading into her late 20s. I think that his interest in her must have come as something of a surprise, and she was probably overawed by him. Since Jane was known to be quiet and gentle, I think she would have felt she had no choice.

Once queen, she would have been very aware of the precariousness of her new position. If you became queen 11 days after the execution of your predecessor and your new husband had a reputation for beheading those who opposed him, I think you’d feel a little trepidation.

“If you became queen 11 days after the execution of your predecessor, I think you’d feel trepidation”

What was Henry VIII like at this time?

By 1536, the king had become a very frustrated, embittered man. He had been denied the one thing he really needed to ensure the security of his kingdom and continuance of his dynasty: a male heir. Aged 45, he had broken with Rome and pushed England to the brink of religious revolution. But ultimately, he had no heir to show for it.

Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and their son – the future Edward VI – sit at the centre of a family portrait
Henry, Jane and their son – the future Edward VI – sit at the centre of a family portrait painted in c1545, eight years after Jane’s death following childbirth. (Photo by SuperStock / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Henry that Jane married was irascible and bad tempered, yet oddly sentimental and increasingly sanctimonious. He was becoming the figure we all recognise from Holbein’s famous imposing portrait. This was a man who was very autocratic – his word was law. His marriage to Jane was the beginning of the decline. A once-great sportsman, he was now suffering from a lasting leg injury, and between 1536 and 1540 he gained 17 inches round the waist.

Can you tell us about Jane’s relationship with Henry?

Shortly after their marriage, Henry made a joke that he’d seen two other ladies he preferred, but all the other evidence suggests that he really did love Jane. He certainly pursued her. We have a letter from Henry written in the style of courtly love that was prevalent then, and he does seem to have thought highly of Jane and respected her. It doesn’t seem to have been a passionate, all-consuming love like he shared with Anne, but he was more secretive by this stage and their relationship developed over a much shorter time. In many ways, Jane was appealing to Henry precisely because she was the complete antithesis of Anne. She was a gentle influence and he could find some calm with her.

He was certainly consumed by great sorrow after Jane’s death. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell written shortly afterwards, the Duke of Norfolk describes the king as “in great heaviness” during his wife’s sickness. Henry had an almost pathological fear of illness and death, yet he stayed by Jane’s bedside in a desperate state. Afterwards, he shut himself away at Windsor and refused to see anyone, even his ministers. However, I should add that within a month he was “framing his mind” – reluctantly – to think about a fourth marriage.

You explore the controversial possibility that Jane may have been pregnant at the time of her marriage but had a miscarriage.

It’s a theory built on a multitude of fragments of evidence, which I’ve explored in the novel for dramatic purposes. Firstly, the king talked about a prince being “expected in due season”. There was also a long gap between Jane’s marriage and the time that she conceived Edward VI in 1537. A report from the imperial ambassador in Rome claims she was five months gone with child when she married and a slander reported in the English papers claimed that she was “made sure unto the king” [meaning they had slept together] six months before they wed. Whether or not this was true, Anne Boleyn was certainly very wary of Jane when she was queen. Lots of sources tell us that there were scratches and blows between the pair. It was a queen’s privilege to physically chastise her maids, and from what we know about both of their characters, I don’t think it was Jane doing the scratching.

You consulted medical experts over Jane’s cause of death – what conclusions did you come to?

It’s traditionally been believed that Jane died of puerperal fever following childbirth. She gave the king his son and died 12 days later. But there was something odd about the chronology of the sources, so I took a closer look. I found out that Jane bore Edward on the Friday, but she didn’t fall ill until the Tuesday. There is no mention of fever in the sources, only a “natural lax” – or severe diarrhoea. There was a report that suggested that those around her “suffered her to take great cold” and gave her unsuitable foods. That doesn’t sound like puerperal fever.

So I went on Facebook to ask whether anyone knew any doctors. I ran all the sources past a long-term critical care nurse, three doctors and a midwife. On the evidence we have, it sounds as if Jane died of a pulmonary embolism [the blockage of an artery in the lungs]. We considered all sorts of theories, and the consensus was that this was the likeliest scenario.

How do you think we should look back on Jane?

If Jane or her son, King Edward VI, had lived longer, I think her reputation would be greater and she may well have been hailed as a great Tudor matriarch. I think we should look back on her as not just a sly little minx, or a pasty-faced little yes girl, or the bitch that brought down Anne Boleyn. We need to see her as a more rounded personality, who was more proactive than she’s been made out.

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A bestselling historian and historical novelist, Alison Weir specialises in England’s Tudor and medieval royalty. She has sold more than 2.7 million fiction and non-fiction books worldwide, and is currently writing a series of six historical novels focusing on the wives of King Henry VIII. She is the author of Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (Headline, 544 pages, £18.99).