Jane Seymour (1509 – 1537)
Jane Seymour, the third consort of Henry VIII, was the eldest daughter of Sir John Seymour, or Wolf Hall, Wilts, and Margaret, daughter of Sir John Wentworth, of Nettlestead in Suffolk. The Seymours, a Norman family, came to England with William the Conqueror, and increased their wealth and influence by alliances with rich heiresses of noble blood. For several centuries they only took rank as second-rate gentry, and although some of the name served as high sheriffs for Wilts and other were knighted in the French wars, in no instance had a Seymour obtained historical celebrity, or been returned as Knight of the Shire.
Jane was born about the year 1504. Her career up to the period when she won Henry’s heart, is involved in obscurity. A full-length portrait of her by Holbein, in the royal collection at Versailles, entitled maid of honour to Mary of England, Queen to Louis the Twelfth, and placed by the side of that of Anne Boleyn, which bears the like designation, has given rise to the conjecture that she finished her education at the court of France, in the service of Queen Mary Tudor, and subsequently of Queen Claude, and renders it at least probable that she and Anne Boleyn proceeded together to France, lived there under the same roof, and returned to England at the same time.
Whether she ever entered the service of Katherine of Arragon, is problematical. Nor is it known when, or by whom she was placed as maid of honour to Anne Boleyn. Wyatt says she was introduced to court for the express purpose of stealing the King’s affections from his once idolized Queen, Anne; and many circumstances conspire to render this statement probable.
Her beauty and lack of moral rectitude rendered her a fit instrument for such a purpose. Her sister, Elizabeth, had married the son of the crafty, climbing secretary Cromwell; it was, therefore, to his special interest that she should share the throne of his sovereign. Her two brothers, both esquires of the King’s person, were ambitious men, eager in the pursuit of fortune, and willing to sacrifice their sister’s beauty to their own personal advantage; and there is too much reason to believe that she had powerful aid from the Duke of Norfolk and his party, who detested the Queen, and strenuously opposed the reformation.
But, however this may be, Henry had been the husband of Anne Boleyn only about two years, when real or pretended suspicions of her fidelity, induced him to slight her, and shortly afterwards to pay clandestine court to Jane Seymour. If tradition is to be accredited, Jane had been introduced to Court but a short time, when the Queen, seeing a splendid jewel suspended from her neck, expressed a wish to look at it. Jane blushed, and drew back; when the Queen, whose jealousy had already been aroused against her, violently snatched it from her neck; and, on examining it, found it to contain a miniature of the King, presented by himself to her fair rival. Whether Anne Boleyn tamely submitted to this breach of her husband’s conjugal vow, has not been recorded; she certainly was too hasty to bear her wrongs in silence; and when, a few days after the burial of Katherine of Arragon, she accidentally discovered Jane seated on the King’s knee, and receiving his caresses with complacency, she became mad with passion, and threatening Jane with the deepest revenge, ordered her instantly to depart from her presence, and to quit the court for ever.
Jane, being a woman of consummate art, and having already advanced to the very threshold of the throne, despised the threats, and disregarded the orders of her angry mistress. Aware that her star was in the ascendant, she scrupled not to obtain her elevation by the destruction of Anne and five unfortunate noblemen. Our historians laud her discretion, her modesty, and her virtue; but on what principles of morality it is difficult to conceive. She accepted the addresses of the husband of her mistress, knowing him to be such; and scrupled not to walk over the corpse of Anne to the throne. True, she retired to her maternal home, at Wolf Hall, whilst the tragedy which consummated the destruction of Anne was played out; but it was only to prepare the gay attire and the sumptuous banquet to celebrate her marriage with the ruthless King, whilst the blood was yet warm in the lifeless form of the ill-fated Anne.
On the morning of Anne’s execution, Henry attired for the chase, and attended by his huntsmen, waited in the neighbourhood of Epping or Richmond—tradition points to both these places—and immediately he heard the boom of the signal gun, which was to assure him that she breathed no more, exclaimed in exultation, “Uncouple the hounds, and away!” and paying no regard to the direction taken by the game, galloped off with his courtiers at full speed to Wolf Hall, which he reached at night-fall. Early the next morning, Saturday, May the twentieth, 1536, and attired in the gay robes of a bridegroom, he conducted Jane Seymour to the altar of Tottenham church, Wilts, and in the presence of Sir John Russell, and other members of his obsequious privy council, made her his bride. From Wolf Hall, the wedding party proceeded through Winchester, by an easy journey, to London; where on the twenty-ninth of May, a great court was held, at which Jane was introduced as Queen. Feasts, jousts, and other entertainments in honour of the royal nuptials followed; and Sir Edward Seymour was created Viscount Beauchamp, and Sir Walter Hungerford received the title of Lord Hungerford.
Henry pretended, for it was but a pretence, that Jane, through her mother Margaret, had descended from the royal blood of England; and Cranmer, having no desire to dispute the matter with him, on the very day that Anne Boleyn was beheaded, granted a dispensation for nearness of kin, between Jane and Henry, the latter of whom, be the relationship what it might, certainly obtained by this marriage a brother-in-law who bore the not very aristocratic name of Smith, and another (the son of Cromwell), whose grandfather was a blacksmith at Putney.
A few days afterwards, the King summoned a new parliament; and he there, in his speech, made a merit to his people that notwithstanding the misfortunes attending his two former marriages, he had been induced, for their good, to venture on a third. The speaker, the notorious Richard Rich, received this hypocritical profession with complacency; and he took thence occasion to load his oration with the most fulsome and false flattery of the King, comparing him for justice and prudence to Solomon, for strength and fortitude to Samson, and for beauty and comeliness to Absolom. The King replied by mouth of the Lord Chancellor Audley, that he disavowed these praises, since if he were really possessed of such endowment, they were the gift of Almighty God only. This obsequious parliament, being willing to go any length in encouraging the King’s vices, and in gratifying his most lawless passions, ratified his divorce from Anne Boleyn, attainted that Queen and her accomplices, declared the issue of both his former marriages illegitimate, made it treason to assert their legitimacy or throw any slander upon the present King, Queen, or their issue; settled the crown upon the King’s issue by Jane Seymour, or any subsequent wife, and in case he should die without children, empowered him by his will or letters patent, to dispose of the crown;—an enormous authority, especially when entrusted to so capricious, so self-willed a tyrant as Henry the Eighth.
Before her marriage, Jane Seymour was personally acquainted with the Princess Mary. Afterwards she remained on terms of friendship with her, and although Cromwell was the real agent, Jane was the ostensible mediatrix of the reconciliation between Henry and the Princess Mary. It is on account of this partial intercession for Henry’s ill-used daughter, and also out of malevolence to Anne Boleyn, that the Catholic writers have lavished such praise on Queen Jane, whilst Protestants, equally actuated by party motives, have extolled her, not from any real merit, on her part, but solely from complaisance to her son, Edward the Sixth, and to her brother, Somerset.
Jane whilst Queen, warned by the fate of Anne Boleyn, of the impropriety of a too great freedom of speech and manners, took to the opposite extreme, put a bridle on her tongue, and led such a passive existence, that until the birth of her son, we have nothing of importance to record of her. In June, 1536, she accompanied the King to see the procession of the city watch. In the sharply freezing January of 1537, she crossed the frozen Thames with him on horseback to Greenwich palace; and she went with him in the spring to Canterbury, his purpose being to see that the shrine of Thomas à Becket had been demolished, and that he was not cheated out of his share of the plunder.
Henry was particularly desirous that Jane Seymour should receive the honours of a coronation; but the prevalence of the plague at Westminster, and Jane’s advanced state of pregnancy, caused the ceremony to be put off till after her confinement, when her unexpected death prevented her from being crowned at all.
The Queen took to her chamber, at Hampton Court, on the sixteenth of September, 1537. She was taken in travail on the eleventh of October. Her sufferings were severe, and at length, on the following day, her physicians, through one of her female attendants, admonished Henry of her dangerous condition, and asked whether he would wish the mother or the child to be saved? “If you cannot save both, at least let the child live,” was Henry’s characteristic reply; “for other wives are easily found.”
A few hours afterwards, Jane was safely delivered of a Prince (afterwards King Edward the Sixth); and the appearance of the long-desired heir to the throne so intoxicated the King and the court, that, overlooking the very delicate state of the Queen, Henry ordered the christening, in which Jane, in conformity with established custom, was forced to take part, to be solemnized, with all conceivable pomp and magnificence, on the following Monday; and to that circumstance, more than to any other, must be attributed the demise of the Queen.
The baptism was performed at midnight. Sir John Russell, Sir Francis Brian, Sir Nicholas Carew, and Sir Anthony Brown bore the silver fount; one of the Queen’s brothers bore in his arms the Princess Elizabeth, who carried the chrism for the child of her, for whose sake her mother had been decapitated, and herself pronounced illegitimate; the Earl of Wiltshire (Thomas Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s father) and Lord Sturton bore the tapers. The child was carried in the arms of the Marchioness of Exeter, under a rich canopy of silk, wrought with gold, silver, and precious stones, and borne by the Duke of Suffolk, the Marquis of Exeter, the Earl of Arundel, and Lord William Howard. The sponsors were the Princess Mary, the Duke of Norfolk, and Archbishop Cranmer. After the child had been baptized Edward, with due solemnity, he was presented with a gold cup by the Princess Mary, with three bowls and two pots by Cranmer, and with a silver ewer and basin by Norfolk; the procession then returned, headed by trumpets and other musical instruments.
“When they reached the Queen’s chamber,” says an eye-witness, “the door was thrown open, and the nobles entered; but the trumpets and the horns remained outside, where they made such a loud and goodly noise that the like thereof I had never heard.”
The tedious ceremony occupied several hours. At its commencement, the Queen was forced to quit her bed, and take to her state pallet—a sort of huge sofa—where she remained till its conclusion, her heartless husband being seated by her side all the time. The consequence of all the noise and excitement was, that, on the following day, the Queen was indisposed; on the next day (Wednesday) she grew worse, and received the sacrament, according to the rites of the Roman Catholic church, and after lingering till the twenty-fourth of October, breathed her last about the hour of midnight.
The death of Jane, the first of Henry the Eighth’s Queens who had the good fortune not to outlive his love, “was felt by none in the realm more heavily than by the King’s majesty himself, who retired to Windsor, where he moaned and kept himself alone and secret a great while.” His grief, however, was of no long continuance, as will be shown in the memoirs of Anne of Cleves, and by his own acknowledgment, in a letter to the King of France, his joy for the birth of his long-desired heir far exceeded his grief for the death of the mother.