Jane Seymour (1509-1537) was the third wife of King Henry VIII of England. She is remembered as being a good, quiet and conservative wife. More importantly to Henry, she gave birth to his first male heir, the future King Edward VI.
Jane Seymour, the daughter of Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth, was twenty-five in 1535 when Henry VIII began to show an interest in her. He was visiting her family's home, Wolf Hall, in Wiltshire. Hers was a country family of the higher classes, descended from Edward III. She was intelligent, but quiet and the very example of purity. She was known equally for her porcelain skin-despite her love of gardening and the outdoors-and her kind heart.
Jane served as a lady-in-waiting to both of her predecessors, Catherine of Aragon, beginning in 1529, and then Anne Boleyn. As Francis Hackett wrote in Henry the VIII: The Personal History of a Dynast and His Wives, "Jane was the very reverse of her former mistress: where Anne was sparkling, she was still; where Anne was challenging, she was meek. She was maidenly, sentimental, and fortunately inarticulate."
It was not just Jane's beauty and innocence that attracted Henry, however. She also came with a handsome dowry: 104 manors in 19 counties, five castles and several chases and forests. The Seymour family stood to gain as well. Her brother Edward had served as a page in the household of Mary Tudor, and soon after Henry noticed Jane, Edward was named Gentleman of the Privy Chamber (a member of the King's advisory council). Both Edward, and the youngest of the Seymour brothers, Thomas, stood to gain great standing with the court as a result of the King's affection for their sister. At one brief and awkward point, there were three women in Henry's life, but it soon became clear, that Jane Seymour would soon be the one true queen.
Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, died at the age of 50 on January 7, 1536 of what one report called "cardiac dropsy." The only abnormality found by the embalmer was that her heart had turned completely black and had a round black growth protruding from it. Some suggested she may have been poisoned. One author, modern day biographer of the Royals of Britain, Antonia Fraser, suggested in The Wives of Henry VIII it might have been "a broken heart." Henry was unrepentant for any wrong he may have done Catherine to contribute to her demise. He is said to have dressed entirely in yellow, with a huge white plume in his hat, the day after her passing. Anne Boleyn dressed likewise.
The fall of Anne Boleyn came soon after Catherine's death. In late January, upon hearing that Henry was knocked unconscious after falling off his horse, Anne gave birth to a stillborn boy. Henry and Anne already had a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1533. She would later serve as Queen Elizabeth I. The unfortunate death of their son was the end for Anne.
The first divorce had been damaging to the public view of the throne, so a second divorce was not to be risked. Henry had broken away from the Catholic Church and created the Church of England to be with Anne, and these changes had led to turbulence throughout England. These changes colored private as well as public affairs for the royal family. For instance, a coronation was postponed for Jane, on the one hand, because of the plague in London and, equally, on the other, because of public outrage at Henry VIII's quick succession of wives.
On May 19, 1536, Anne was beheaded after a farce of a trial in which the verdict had been decided from the outset. She was accused of many crimes that were false, including adultery, incest, witchcraft, and attempting to poison Henry. Thomas Cromwell, the Henry's chief minister, is thought to have engineered the plan to get rid of Anne.
Henry and Jane were betrothed at Hampton Court in a secret ceremony on May 20. They wed less than two weeks after Anne's execution-May 30, 1536. The wedding took place in "the Queen's Closet" at York Place-the same place Henry had married Anne Boleyn only a few years prior, in January 1533.
Jane's portrait was painted by Hans Holbein a few months later. (It now hangs in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna.) The King showed off his new bride at the Whitsun festivities that June, as well. Henry and Jane followed a procession of barges, his lords sailing ahead, and it is reported that shots were fired in honor and celebration as they passed. That summer, "the Queen's badge" that was hung in several windows of the royal suite were changed from those of Anne Boleyn to those of Jane Seymour. Jane's badge featured a panther, conveniently placed over Anne's leopard, along with a phoenix rising from a castle. This latter symbol indeed foreshadowed Henry's return to favor with his public.
Catherine's motto had been "humble and loyal, " and Anne's had been "the most happ[y], " both of them true enough, and at the same time bitterly ironic in the end. Jane's motto, however, had a little more gravity and far less irony about it: "bound to obey and serve."
Jane's brothers greatly benefited from their sister's marriage to Henry. Edward was given the title Viscount Beauchamp, put on the Privy Council the following year, and the next year was named the Earl of Hertford. Edward was thus in position to serve as a leader if something should happen to the King. Thomas succeeded to the Privy Chamber after Edward. Following the announcement that his sister was with child, he was given the stewardship of Chirk Castle and other border castles on Wales. The following year, he was given the manor of Holt in Cheshire. (Thomas's connections to royalty continued over the years in other ways as well. In May 1547, he secretly wed Henry's widow, Catherine Parr.)
One gift Henry gave Jane was a gold cup, weighing 65.5 ounces, twice engraved with her motto, designed by Holbein. Henry also gave her several medallions, with her own arms and the "crown imperial." Another gift from Henry designed for her by Holbein was an emerald and pearl pendant.
Jane was very traditional and she used this trait to her advantage. For example, Fraser noted that she asked her ladies to wear "suitable gowns of black satin and velvet, " with high necklines. Some have surmised that this dress code had been designed to keep Henry's eyes on her. On another level, the things she did dare to challenge Henry about were matters of tradition. First, she wanted to make sure that Catherine's daughter Mary was reinstated in the court. Second, she asked the King to return England's monasteries. She was successful on the first account, but not the latter.
Mary was convinced to write a letter to the King that June, denouncing her mother as well as her right to the throne. This, she had been told, was the only was to win the King's favor, and avoid possible execution if his wrath were incited. Jane and Henry visited Mary shortly thereafter. Jane presented Mary with a diamond ring and the Henry gave her a 1, 000 crowns. Jane and Mary continued to exchange gifts and became close confidantes. On the subject of the monasteries however, Jane was warned to keep her opinions to herself. Henry issued a threatening reminder to her to be mindful of the fate of her predecessor.
Happier occasions were to come, however. In January 1937, it was announced that Jane was pregnant. The celebration of the "quickening" of the unborn child was held on May 27th-"Trinity Sunday."
Most important to Henry, and perhaps to the kingdom as well, Jane gave birth to a son, the long-awaited male heir. Jane went into labor on October 9, and Prince Edward was born on the twelfth of October 1537. The baby was named Edward both to honor his great-grandfather, Edward III, and because he entered the world on the eve of the Feast of St. Edward. Three days later, the tiny prince was christened, with Mary serving as Edward's godmother.
Two thousand guns were shot from the Tower in celebration, and the whole day long bells sounded from all the churches. The happiness of the kingdom was short-lived, however, as the beloved Jane died shortly thereafter, on the 24th of October, from complications. She was only 28 years old, and had served as Henry's queen for less than eighteen months. She was buried in St. George's Chapel, Windsor.
"Everything points to the fact that Henry VIII mourned Jane Seymour with a genuine sense of loss, " wrote Fraser, "the 'entirely beloved' wife who has presented him with his heart's desire at the cost of her own life." And some historians believe Henry VIII paid Jane Seymour the highest honor upon his own death. As Fraser noted in The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, "When ten years later he was called to his Maker he [Henry VIII] ordered that his coffin should be laid beside hers, for Jane had given him, after twenty-eight years of ruling, the Prince he had wanted, Edward, Prince of Wales."
Further Reading on Jane Seymour
Fraser, Antonia, The Wives of Henry VIII, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Fraser, Antonia, ed. The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England, University of California Press, 1995.
Hackett, Francis, Henry the VIII: The Personal History of A Dynast and His Wives, Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1945.
Starkey, David, ed. The Lives and Letters of the Great Tudor Dynasties: Rivals in Power, Toucan Books Ltd., 1990.
Jane Seymour-The Six Wives of Henry VIII, (videocassette series) BBC TV, New York: Time-Life Media, 1976.