Will The Real Jane Seymour Please Stand Up? In Defence of Henry VIII's Queen

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So Jane Seymour, third wife to Henry VIII. 

Who the heck was she? 

Jane Seymour, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

To Alison Weir, she was "studiedly humble and demure". Tracy Borman says that she lacked "the sparkling wit and intelligence of her royal mistress," adding that "she was barely literate." And David Starkey chooses not to mince his words when he describes Jane as "demure, quiet and without an idea in her head." Even further down the scale, author Angela Warwick in her fiction novel has Jane as a young, bored child sadistically picking off the legs of a beetle, while the servants of the house look on, with worry and concern. (1)

I think some historians - and novelists perhaps - have been a bit mean about Jane Seymour, and I definitely don't think she was unintelligent or empty headed. In fact I think, as she uttered her marriage vows in the late spring of 1536, that she fully expected to play the role of an active queen and influence politics, religion and family matters, as Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon had both done before her. There is some ruthlessness detectable in her character during the months before her marriage and everything points to her intelligently and wisely handling herself at court, especially in the presence of ambassadors and other officials. Jane was able to observe situations and then act on them appropriately, and in this, demonstrated an understanding of the fragility of Tudor court politics. She also had alliances and ambitions of her own. 

This is a woman very far from being witless and empty-headed.  

Author Elizabeth Norton got it right I think, when she wrote one of the few books detailing Jane's life, character and marriage, called Jane Seymour: Henry VIII's True Love. There isn't too much in the historical record relating to Jane's personal actions - and even less from her own hand, but Norton weaves what does remain into a number of very interesting points. 

Norton credits Jane with having ambitions and agendas of her own and suggests that perhaps Jane later felt some responsibility for the death of Anne Boleyn. Norton also reminds us that while Jane "could not have altered" the course of Anne's fall, she still actively stayed in Henry's sights, ensuring that his favour fell now on her (2)

The more I read about Jane, the more I can't accept that she was unintelligent and air-headed. Her timing - whether down to her or her supporters - was perfect. She rose at exactly the point that Henry's current queen was in decline. We can argue between us all day long whether Jane was simply a puppet to ambitious courtiers or whether she pursued Henry alone, with support. But we don't need any of this to add up the chronology: On 20 May 1536 Jane was preparing her wedding, picking out jewellery and dresses for her big day and getting officially engaged less than twenty four hours after her predecessor was beheaded. There is a sparkle of political ruthlessness in her actions.

Jane had been able to quietly observe the events at court. She'd seen the downfall of Katherine of Aragon - Henry's feisty, staunch first wife - while she was one of her ladies in waiting and then Anne Boleyn - his passionate and outspoken second wife - while serving her. Jane was absolutely in the perfect place - at the centre of the court - to observe and understand what made Henry tick, what he preferred and how to be at the right place at the right time. She knew that if Henry was looking for a new queen, it would be someone like neither of the two women who had gone before.   

If Jane had ambitions, then this ran in the family, too. Norton emphasises this significance with the rise of Jane's brothers under Henry. Edward received a knighthood in 1523 and quickly rose to Esquire of the Body in 1529. Thomas secured a role in the court in 1536. As for Jane, it seems that her primary motivation at this time was to secure a good marriage. At the time Henry became interested in her, she was twenty-seven years old. Her younger sister had already married and negotiations into her previous betrothal had collapsed in January 1535. (3) Norton is spot on when she says that after these events Jane must have felt the prospect of a good marriage start to dwindle. And it was indeed an 'honourable match' that she subtly requested from Henry while she was at Greenwich in 1536, returning his unopened letter with a kiss. (4)

There are suggestions that could reveal a bold, defiant side to Jane. One story, written in the seventeenth century, has Jane openly wearing a pendant with Henry's likeness, a gift from him, around her neck while serving in Anne Boleyn's household. (5) And there's Chapuys comment that Jane had told 'the king boldly how his marriage [to Anne Boleyn] is detested by the people', and made sure that 'none but titled persons' would be around to agree with her in front of the king. (6) OK, so the necklace story was written decades after Jane's death during an age generally sympathetic to Boleyn, but if true, wearing a love token from a husband while working for his wife - and then engineering staged conversations - does not speak of meekness and humility. 

If she was ambitious, thoughtful and cunning then at some point in the spring of 1536, Jane may have realised she'd bitten off more than she could chew. Suzannah Lipscomb argues that around the beginning of their relationship there would have been a change in Henry. A 'perfect storm' of circumstances combined to turn Henry from the 'most virtuous prince' to one that was increasingly paranoid, temperamental and didn't hesitate to condemn to death even those once close to him. (7) Henry would have needed very careful managing. Equally, perhaps Jane deserves more credit here because she clearly felt strong enough to take on this increasingly volatile Henry, despite the changes she would have seen in his character.

Which got me thinking. Did Jane intentionally carve her outward persona to fit Henry's preference? She dangled her virtue at a time when Anne Boleyn's was being questioned. She adopted the motto 'Bound to Obey and Serve', perhaps only topped in submissiveness by Catherine Howard's later 'No Other Will Than His.' (It's worth mentioning that Anne's motto, 'The Most Happy' focuses on herself rather than the king, another about-turn by Jane). Jane seems to have kept a low profile, with arguments and tension between them rare. She did seem to be the complete opposite in temperament to Henry's previous queens but doesn't this seem too convenient? We know that Jane had strong points of view - and voiced them - some even opposing Henry's.  

Henry can't have been easy to live with. Norton mentions a few of Jane's early attempts to assert authority or sway the king's point of view -  but they were met with harsh words and even humiliation from her bejewelled husband. She campaigned for the return to court of the princess Mary and opposed the dissolution of the monasteries. In her most public act against Henry, Norton says that she fell to her knees in front of him and his courtiers, saying that maybe the religiously fuelled Lincolnshire rebellions were permitted by God "for ruining so many churches." Henry responded that "he had often told her not to meddle with his affairs" and reminded her of his late, beheaded queen who had done the same. The mere fact that Henry refers to "often" reprimanding her indicates that she had tried repeatedly to play an active role as queen and advisor, up to that point. According to Norton, Jane never 'meddles' in Henry's affairs again. (8)

At her marriage, she was twenty-seven. Henry was forty-five. He had already divorced one wife, executed another, declared numerous people traitors and stripped his daughters of their royal titles. As Norton says, Jane must have calculated that she too could be cast off and replaced, and it would only take someone more alluring and beautiful to do it. The comments that Jane was uninteresting and quiet when she met with officials tell us nothing of her true nature. Someone aware of their fragile situation and at the very centre of the court's attention would naturally  be hesitant to speak more than needed, knowing her words could unintentionally offend the king or one day be twisted by her enemies. Her quietness around officials perhaps speaks more of her cleverness and awareness of her situation. After all, we call Anne of Cleves 'the clever one' because she gave in gracefully to Henry's demands for a divorce, and the removal of her title as queen. But we don't see her actions nowadays as submissive, do we? 

Jane's reign was not a long one - she tragically died after giving the king his only legitimate son, in October 1537. But I find it hard to accept claims that she was dull or unintelligent. If anything, her intelligence is underestimated. She acted cautiously and compassionately as peacekeeper in Henry's relationship with his daughter Mary. Far from being a meek, empty-headed wallflower, Jane had strong views on the dissolution of the monasteries and religious reform, but Henry stifled her from being the openly political figure she would have likely expected to have been at her marriage. Her early actions show that she was quietly ambitious, but she maintained a guarded and subdued persona to survive in the ever-changing tides of the Tudor court. Jane played the part perfectly and Henry - who requested to be buried alongside her and had her fondly painted into posthumous family portraits - had no idea. 

Jane was a woman of relatively low birth who pursued and won a king, escaped scandal, maintained the king's favour, mended his relationships and, at her death, was untouched by her enemies. All with 'not an idea in her head?'

You've got to be kidding. 

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1. Alison Weir: The Lady in the Tower - The Fall of Anne Boleyn, p.18. Tracy Borman: The Private Lives of the Tudors, p.160. David Starkey, The Reign of Henry VIII - Personalities and Politics, p88. Angela Warwick, Behind The Mask - The Story of Jane Seymour (novel). Kindle version, chapter one. 
2. Elizabeth Norton, Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's True Love, Kindle Edition chapt 7.  
3. Norton. Chapter 4. 
4. Norton, Chapter 6 
5.The history of the worthies of England, Thomas Fuller 1840. p320. Google Books. Accessed 23 November 2020. 
6. Norton Chapter 6
7. Suzannah Lipscomb, 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII, 2009.
8. Norton, Chapter 11