Jane Seymour: the queen Henry VIII loved most?

Jane Seymour was the third of Henry VIII's six wives, and the only one to bear him a son, the future Edward VI. She is the queen who 'died', passing away shortly after giving birth. Explore the story of how Jane Seymour came to Henry's attention, whether she really was meek and demure, and whether Henry really did love her most of all

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)

Often considered demure and passive, Jane possessed a strong vein of moral courage, though we’ll never know if Henry VIII would have eventually tired of her, too. Discover everything you need to know about Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife and mother of the son he desperately wanted with expert historians Elizabeth Norton, Tracy Borman and Alison Weir…

Advertisement

Jane Seymour: the story of her life

Written by Elizabeth Norton

Who was Jane Seymour?

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”.

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 Seymour facts: 6 things you need to know

When was Jane Seymour born? In around 1508

When did Jane Seymour die? 24 October 1537

When was Jane Seymour queen? from 1536 to 1537

Who were Jane Seymour’s parents? She was the daughter of Sir John Seymour of Wolfhall (‘the real Wolf Hall‘) in Wiltshire and his wife, Margery Wentworth

Who was Jane Seymour’s successor as queen? Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife

What is Jane Seymour remember for? Being the only wife to provide Henry with a son and male heir, the future Edward VI

Jane’s rise to prominence

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.

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 Seymour’s children and death

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 Palace 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.

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.

Elizabeth Norton is an author and historian. Her books include The Lives of Tudor Women (Head of Zeus, 2020)

This article was first published on History Extra in April 2014


Did Henry VIII love Jane Seymour most of all?

Jane Seymour is often described as Henry’s true love, the woman who tragically died after giving the king his longed-for son. Not so, Tudor expert Tracy Borman told BBC History Revealed. She suggests that Henry saw Jane as a traditional and meek woman, and a safe option:

“I think Jane’s role has been overplayed,” says Borman. “She was the opposite of feisty Anne Boleyn and that’s what Henry wanted. But within weeks of their marriage Henry was commenting that there were more attractive women at court he could have married. It was simply the fact that Jane gave Henry a son that set her above the other wives.”


Jane Seymour: the key questions answered

Was she the “meek young tool” of her ambitious family and an ardent king? Or was she a “scheming conniver” who plotted to bring down her predecessor, Anne Boleyn? Alison Weir, author of Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen offers her take on Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour

What do we know about Jane Seymour?

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.

Was Jane Seymour 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 Seymour was married to Henry VIII?

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 Seymour? 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.

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

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.

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.

What was Jane Seymour’s relationship with Henry VII like?

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.

What do you think of 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 Seymour’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 should we look back on Jane Seymour?

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.

A bestselling historian and historical novelist, Alison Weir specialises in England’s Tudor and medieval royalty. She is the author of Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, the third book in her Six Tudor Queens series

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


Advertisement

On the podcast: Bestselling author and historian Alison Weir discusses the life and tragic death of Jane Seymour