Jane Seymour: Innocent ‘doormat’ or ambitious queen?

Since the reign of Henry VIII, people’s opinions of the Tudor court has been divided. This is remarkably true for the six wives of Henry VIII. Ask people today about their opinions of Anne Boleyn for example, and you are likely to receive a strong response. The same could be said about the other queens – the saintly Katherine of Aragon, the horse-like Anne of Cleves, and the spoilt, irresponsible teenager Katherine Howard. In his book, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, David Starkey writes that Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, was nothing more than a ‘doormat’ (Starkey).

But how far is this true?

bethanjane
A portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1536.

History has painted Jane Seymour as a compliant, dutiful wife, forever revered as the queen that finally gave Henry his long sought for heir. David Starkey describes Jane as a welcome relief following the tempestuous storm that was Anne Boleyn. Whereas Anne had been an “exciting mistress”, Starkey claims that Henry was entirely attracted to Jane for her “ordinariness”. Indeed, it does seem unusual that a woman of relatively little background, who was commonly described as quite plain and without any of the charm and wit that Henry’s other two wives had exuded, could rise through the ranks to become the Queen of England. Following in the footsteps of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn must have been tough, which is why I am not entirely convinced that Jane Seymour was as innocent and meek as would seem.

Jane Seymour was proclaimed as the new queen just days after the execution of her predecessor, Anne Boleyn. The reception of this new queen was by all accounts very joyous, with the public itching for their lives to return to the way it was before their king had been “bewitched” by the Boleyn woman (The History Geeks). Jane immediately began to patch up the Tudor family, inviting her step-daughter Mary (of whom she was fond) back to court. Yet, Jane seemed to have had an ulterior motive, consistently appearing at the King’s side and following his schedules. Her supporters would apparently relay her information about the King so that she could adopt his likes and dislikes, appearing to be a perfect, agreeable wife. Jane certainly seemed to have learnt from the example of Anne Boleyn, who was known for her outspokenness, instead choosing to remain quiet and agreeable in order to solidify her position as queen.

bethanjane2

Jane’s court matched her quiet persona. Her court was less spectacular than Katherine of Aragon’s had been, and hugely less glamorous than Anne Boleyn’s. Compared to the intrigue, music, art and gossip that had come with Anne Boleyn, Jane’s court was remarkably more docile and domestic. Whether this was intentional, or whether Jane genuinely preferred the quiet of her own court is unknown, but in my opinion it certainly seemed as though Jane did not want to put a foot wrong, and kept her head down to avoid any backlash.

However, even Jane could not escape the terrible outbursts of Henry VIII. When Jane had repeatedly attempted to allow Princess Mary back to court, Henry had told her cruelly that she should only concern herself with her own children. For Jane, this comment must have stung. She would not fall pregnant until the end of the year, and so this period must have been very uneasy for her, and the examples of Katherine and Anne must have been constantly in the back of her mind. Despite this, when Mary did eventually appear at court again, Jane made the perfect step-mother. She was generous, kind and motherly, bonding over their shared Catholic beliefs.

It was Jane’s relationship with her other step-daughter, Princess Elizabeth, the infant child of Anne Boleyn, that skews my opinion of Jane Seymour. During Jane’s tenure as Queen, Princess Elizabeth was constantly neglected, so much so that her governess repeatedly appealed to the Royal Family to buy the princess new clothes as the child had outgrown them all. When Elizabeth finally did appear at court, Jane had ordered for the child to be sat at a distant table, away from her family. Poor Elizabeth, only around five years old, must have been confused and terrified, her new mother-figure alienating her from her father and those of whom she would have been familiar with.

whitehallmural
The Whitehall Mural by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1537. This mural depicts Henry VIII and his parents, as well as Jane Seymour, the mother of his only legitimate male heir.

By the end of the year, Jane Seymour had finally fallen pregnant. Her coronation was put on hold due to the pregnancy, though one cannot help but wonder why this was. Anne Boleyn had been coronated when she was heavily pregnant in 1533 – so why couldn’t Jane? Jane’s pregnancy acted as a safety blanket. Knowing that her position as queen could not be disputed during this time, Jane bravely let her true religious motives appear as she fell to her knees in front of the King and the court and sought forgiveness for the rebels who had been killed during the Pilgrimage of Grace. Jane’s supporters probably expected the King to be touched by this show of piety, yet the King was not convinced. He snapped at Jane and told her firmly to remember the examples of her predecessors, and the women who had meddled in his affairs before. Henry did not want another Anne Boleyn.

Jane was delivered of a son in October 1537, fulfilling her duty as queen and succeeding where her predecessors had failed. However, the celebrations were short lived, and Jane died just days after the birth, possibly from septicemia. Jane Seymour was an interesting woman, despite outwardly appearing as a ‘doormat’. She had mighty shoes to fill and it must have been a terrifying prospect, especially with the knowledge that Henry could toss her aside as easily as he had done with the others. Her cunningness and ambition is often overlooked by historians, though in my opinion she was in exactly the same situation as Anne Boleyn had been.

This final quote by David Starkey sums it up well – “She, like Anne Boleyn, had lured the king away from his wife. But while Anne would be portrayed as a witch, Jane would be forever remembered as a saint” (Starkey).

What are your opinions of Jane Seymour?

 

Sources:

Starkey, D., Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (Vintage: 2004).

The History Geeks, Jane Seymour Proclaimed Queen (facebook.com).

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