In profile: Jane Seymour

Historian Elizabeth Norton tells you everything you need to know about Jane Seymour, queen of England from 1536 to 1537 as the third wife of Henry VIII

A portrait of Jane Seymour, queen of England from 1536 to 1537 as the third wife of Henry VIII. Jane is remembered for being the only wife to provide Henry with a son and male heir (the future Edward VI). Jane died on 24 October 1537, most likely from puerperal, or childbed, fever. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Born: In around 1508

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Died: 24 October 1537

Ruled: from 1536 to 1537

Family: the daughter of Sir John Seymour of Wolfhall (‘the real Wolf Hall’) in Wiltshire and his wife, Margery Wentworth

Successor: Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife

Remembered for: being the only wife to provide Henry with a son and male heir

Life: Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, was born in around 1508. Her kinsman, the courtier Sir Francis Bryan, secured a place for her in the service of Queen Catherine of Aragon. Jane later transferred into the household of Catherine’s successor, Anne Boleyn.

By 1535, Jane was in her late twenties, with few marriage prospects. One contemporary considered her to be “no great beauty, so fair that one would call her rather pale than otherwise”.

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)

She nonetheless attracted the king’s attention – perhaps when he visited Wolfhall in September 1535. Anne Boleyn blamed her miscarriage, in late January 1536, on the developing relationship, complaining to Henry that she had “caught that abandoned woman Jane sitting on your knees”. The queen and her maid had already come to blows.

Jane’s rise: Anne’s failure to bear a son was an opportunity for Jane. When Henry sent her a letter and a purse of gold, she refused them, declaring that “she had no greater riches in the world than her honour, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths”.

Henry was smitten with this show of virtue, henceforth insisting on meeting her only with a chaperone. During April they discussed marriage and, on 20 May 1536 – the day after Anne Boleyn’s execution – the couple were betrothed. They married shortly afterwards.

A portrait of Anne Boleyn. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Jane, who took as her motto “bound to obey and serve”, presented herself as meek and obedient. She was, however, instrumental in bringing Henry’s estranged daughter, princess Mary, back to court.

The new queen held conservative religious beliefs. This became apparent in October 1536 when she threw herself on her knees before the king at Windsor, begging him to restore the abbeys for fear that the rebellion, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, was God’s judgment against him. In response, Henry publicly reminded her of the fate of Anne Boleyn, “enough to frighten a woman who is not very secure”.

Jane’s fall: Without a son, Jane was vulnerable, and the postponement of her coronation was ominous. Finally, in March 1537, her pregnancy was announced. Henry was solicitous to his wife, resolving to stay close to her and ordering fat quails from Calais when she desired to eat them.

Jane endured a labour of two days and three nights before bearing a son, Edward, at Hampton Court on 12 October, to great rejoicing. She was well enough to appear at the christening on 15 October, lying in an antechamber, wrapped in furs.

A portrait of Edward VI. The young monarch’s support for a trade venture through the North-East Passage laid the foundations for the Elizabethan age of exploration. (Photo by GeorgiosArt/Getty Images)

However, she soon sickened, with her attendants blamed for suffering “her to take great cold and to eat things that her fantasy in sickness called for”. In reality, she was probably suffering from puerperal, or childbed, fever. She died on 24 October.

Jane Seymour, as the only one of Henry VIII’s wives to die as queen, received a royal funeral at Windsor. She was later joined there by the king, who requested burial beside the mother of his only surviving son. Her child succeeded as Edward VI, but died at the age of 15.

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This article was first published by History Extra in April 2014