Saturday, October 24, 2009

On This Day in Tudor History:

On October 24, 1537, Jane Seymour, third wife of King Henry VIII, died of puerperal (or childbed) fever. She was 29 years old and had just given Henry the one thing he wanted most in the world: a legitimate, living, male child, the future King Edward VI.

I find Jane Seymour to have been a fascinating creature -not in the same way I admire Anne Boleyn - but as one of the greatest contradictions in history.

She became a maid-of-honour in 1532 to Queen Katherine and then famously served Queen Anne Boleyn - putting her in the path of the king. The first report of Henry VIII's interest in Jane Seymour was in February 1536. Pale, blonde, quiet and malleable, Jane Seymour was everything that Anne was not.

She was not educated as highly as King Henry's previous wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. She could read and write a little but was much better at needlework and household management. Because of this, Jane expressed her opinions to Henry far less often and was not obstinate and argumentative like the ladies who came before her. However, when she did venture to talk to Henry about something, it was about his closing (and looting) of the religious houses and to request pardons for participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion. At this, Henry is said to have reminded her of the fate her predecessor met with when she "meddled in his affairs."

After her death at Hampton Court Palace, Henry wore black for the next three months and did not remarry for three years, although marriage negotiations were tentatively started soon after her death. She was Henry's favourite wife because, historians have speculated, she gave birth to a male heir. When he died in 1547, Henry was buried beside her in St. George's Chapel at Windsor.

The reason I find her such a contradiction is because she has successfully retained the image of wholesome, sweet, complaisant queen these 500 years despite doing EXACTLY what Anne Boleyn did, only better! But it's Anne who is called the conniving concubine, the whore. There has always been extensive writing and talk about the Boleyns being grasping social-climbers, but the Seymours were NO BETTER! BOTH of Jane's brothers were eventually executed for treason after using her memory to build fortunes and careers.

As for sweet Jane herself, when Henry first offered his affections, she certainly didn't discourage him out of deference to her queen or respect for marriage vows. She learned from Anne that she didn't have to be JUST a mistress and that a lady-in-waiting could usurp a queen and she did just that. There is every evidence that she knew exactly what her relationship with Henry was doing to his marriage. Besides the realization dawning on Henry that Anne, like Katherine, would not provide him with a living son, Anne's jealousy of Jane was causing many a row between them.

This is not to say that Henry wouldn't have found a way to be rid of Anne had he not fallen for Jane. But without a woman waiting in the wings, would Henry have chosen execution? After all, the debacle with Katherine was still fresh in his mind and he didn't want to have to wait to marry Jane and get a male heir while he argued and went to court with Anne. What could be faster and less hassle than beheading a woman one day and getting engaged the next!?

Jane's kindness to the Lady Mary (Katherine's daughter) and the Lady Elizabeth (Anne's daughter) is the one area in which I can never fault her. Unlike Anne, Jane was a loving, devoted step-mother no matter whose child. She made Henry settle into a somewhat normal family life and give his daughters the attention they deserved. In this way, Jane was as advertised.

But I despise the notion (and written history) that Jane was a witless simp who happened to be in the right place at the right time. She didn't need a formal education to know that she had the power - and she used it. This reputedly innocent woman and her family certainly had a part in the downfall and death of Anne, yet somehow escaped the accusing eye of history.

I took this photo, to the right, just outside the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace. The plaque combines Henry VIII's coat of arms with Jane Seymour's, held by angels under a crown with gold Tudor roses and Henry's motto across the bottom. Just above the motto and on either side of the shield are their initials "H" and "I" entwined in lovers' knots. Click on the photo to enlarge to see the initials. (The I is for Iana or Iohanna - Jane in Latin) There is also a plaque inside the chapel that claims Jane's heart was buried there.

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