Queen Jane Seymour: Bound To Obey And Serve (Part 1)
“Among us, when a wife dies, some decent interval is allowed for before her successor is spoken of,” wrote J.A. Froude in his 1891 The Divorce Of Catherine Of Aragon, before going on to assure the reader that despite the undue haste of her wedding, Jane Seymour was “modest, quiet, with a strong understanding and rectitude of principle.” Novelists would prove hard to persuade on these points. In the realm of fiction, Anne’s rival and successor Jane Seymour is second only to the unfortunate Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford in the sheer amount of venom she attracts; rare is the Jane who isn’t stupid, cowering, hateful, malicious, sheeplike, hypocritical, gormless, or all of the above. This week I’ll be examining how early and more recent history books have portrayed her, and her progress from Protestant saint to dim-witted, ugly vamp. And next week, we’ll see how fiction has treated her in roughly the same way.
There are, of course, real grounds for casting Jane as an unsympathetic character (from Anne’s point of view, at least). Unlike Lady Rochford, Jane and her family profited on an almost unprecedented scale because of Anne’s death, and she and her brothers had done their part in the preceding months to turn the king’s attraction to Jane into something more long-term and lucrative. From Jane’s first named appearance in Chapuys’ correspondence as “Mrs Semel” in February 1536 to her rejection of Henry’s gift of money to her installation in Cromwell’s old apartments to her engagement to the king (they were betrothed the day after Anne Boleyn’s death, thanks to the ever-obliging Cranmer) her rise from unremarkable maid of honour to queen was accomplished in just under four months. Even more remarkably, to this day nobody can decide just how much she herself had to do with this coup, and Jane herself has left almost no traces behind which might give us some ideas. Several biographers have struggled heroically to wrest a book-length life story out of her, but the biographies I’ve read (by David Loades and Pamela Gross) never really manage it; while Loades’s book especially is a valuable collation of what few facts exist, both books are subject to over-speculation and over-analysis of the very skimpy facts available. What Jane thought about her own rise, how much influence she had in deciding Anne’s fate, how much of her behavior was self-directed and how much dictated by others — none of this is possible to know now. The combination of her much-praised modest behavior (well-encapsulated by her motto “Bound To Obey And Serve”) and the brevity of her time in the limelight — twenty months from Chapuys’ first mention to her death in childbirth — has ensured that.
This isn’t to say that we know absolutely nothing about her, but her voice — except for a few unrevealing official letters — is largely absent from her own story. Direct conversational quotes from her seem to be virtually nonexistent. Her early life is a blank; she was born around 1509, educated to some degree (probably at home — according to her biographers Loades and Gross, there are no records at all pertaining to this), and first appeared at court in 1529, around the age of twenty. Seven years later she was still there, still single, and entirely unobtrusive until Chapuys mentioned in February of 1536 that she was now “the lady whom [the king] serves”, meaning (according to Ives’s interpretation) the lady with whom he was carrying on an enjoyable but not necessarily serious game of courtly love. Chapuys also said that she was “not very intelligent, and is said to be rather haughty,” but either further acquaintance or political necessity (she was a partisan of Princess Mary) softened his opinion, until by June 1536 he was describing “Jane the Quene” as “the pacific,” and hoping that under her influence, the king would backtrack on his recent religious changes. This signally failed to happen, although Jane does indeed seem to have been a traditionalist — not only requesting Mary’s return to favour (though only after Mary submitted to her father as head of the church), but also pleading for mercy for the participants in the Pilgrimage of Grace — to no effect — and being described by Luther as “an enemy of the Gospel.” According to Loades’s biography, a chantry was even established after her death to pray for her soul — it didn’t last long, of course, but the fact that Henry set it up in the first place is a strong hint as to Jane’s religious inclinations. Otherwise we’re left with what’s essentially trivia: she liked to eat quails when she was pregnant, she was a skilled embroiderer, and thanks to the Lisle letters we know that she didn’t like her maids of honour to wear “French apparel” — probably because it was a little too reminiscent of the fashions favoured by her predecessor. Her death on October 24 1537 ensured that her nothing of her own political and religious inclinations could be passed down to her two-week-old son. She was not forgotten by him, however; years later, Edward VI’s inventory would include a few possessions inherited from his mother, including some gilded unicorn horns and a few “small tools of sorcery” (Loades, Jane Seymour 132). Frustratingly, no historian seems interested in expanding on what exactly these might have signified, and no novel as of yet has depicted Jane instead of Anne in the role of unlikely practitioner of witchcraft.
Although Jane Seymour is most commonly seen now as the secondary female villain (and often as a satellite of the major female villain, Lady Rochford), her evolution has been considerably more complex. The denunciations of Lady Rochford began in the late sixteenth century, and continued steadily afterwards. She was also an acceptable target in a number of ways; she had been executed for treason, she had no surviving children to be redeemed in the next generation, and her family would later turn out to have a strong recusant strain. Jane Seymour, however, was the mother of Edward VI, who spent most of his brief reign making sure that Cranmer’s brand of Protestantism became the religious law of the land. Historians who admired Anne Boleyn as a putative Protestant heroine thus had to cope with the fact that the woman who married Anne’s husband eleven days after he had Anne executed was also the mother of the equally laudably Protestant Edward.
In the early days, they seem to have dealt with it largely by praising both Jane’s and Anne’s qualities and discarding any inconvenient speculation about a Seymour supporting role in Anne’s downfall. Peter Heylin’s 1660 Ecclesia Restaurata describes Jane as a modest, humble beauty who was an ideal combination of her two predecessors, “having in her all the attractions of Queen Ann, but regulated by the reservedness of Queen Katherine also.” He says nothing about Jane’s political or religious opinions except that she didn’t exert much influence except in purely personal matters. Bishop Burnet, writing twenty years later, goes a bit further. While he’s clearer than Heylin on the fate that awaited Anne (Heylin makes vague references to Henry’s having hastened her “lamentable death” but doesn’t get into details like method, number of fellow victims, etc) he lays no blame on Jane. In fact, like many a future Tudor enthusiast, he speculates that she was lucky to die when she did.
But nothing did more evidently discover the secret cause of this queen’s ruin, than the king’s marrying Jane Seimour [sic] the day after her execution. She, of all king Henry’s wives, gained most on his esteem and affection: but she was happy in one thing, that she did not outlive his love: otherwise she might have fallen as signally as her predecessor had done. (The History Of The Reformation Of The Church of England, V1 p 416)
Burnet’s reason for handling Jane carefully while denouncing the vaguely-defined Catholic faction for Anne’s death becomes apparently when shortly afterwards he tells us that “Queen Jane had been their [Cromwell’s and Cranmer’s] friend, though she came in Anne Boleyn’s room, that had supported them most.” In other words, she wasn’t quite as Protestant as Anne, but she still had her heart in the right place, and her death was a setback for the reformers. One hundred and forty years later, Katharine Thomson (along with many others) remained convinced that Jane Seymour “favoured the Protestant cause.”
Inevitably, someone came along to upset the apple cart. Just as inevitably, that someone was Agnes Strickland, who stated her case in her usual overwrought but nonetheless sharp-eyed style:
Scripture points out as an especial odium the circumstance of a handmaid taking the place of her mistress. Odious enough was the case when Anne Boleyn supplanted the right royal Katharine of Arragon, but a sensation of horror must pervade every mind when the conduct of Jane Seymour is considered. Her wedding preparations proceeded simultaneously with the heart-rending events of Anne Boleyn’s last agonized hours … The Catholic historians have mentioned queen Jane with complacency, on account of her friendliness to Henry’s ill-treated daughter; the Protestants regard her with veneration as the mother of Edward VI and the sister of Somerset; and thus, with little personal merit, accident has made her the subject of unlimited party praise. (Lives Of The Queens Of England, v.2 p. 216)
Strickland also adds to Jane’s history by speculating that she was sent to France to finish her education (not supported elsewhere) and describes as “the cause of the whole tragedy,” namely, the real reason for Anne’s downfall and death. This is taking it pretty far, especially when we consider the world Jane was living in. No queen of England had ever been executed, and certainly not on such bizarre grounds; queens had been put away more than once, imprisoned even, but not executed. Strickland’s cinema-worthy imagery of Jane preparing her wedding breakfast while Anne’s blood trickles off the scaffold is vivid but it puts far too much blame on her. Even if she did her best to ensnare the king in the same way Anne had, what earthly reason would she have for thinking that his second marriage would end in the way it did? Other historians pushed back, but as Anne Boleyn’s image as a Protestant heroine faded, so did Jane’s — and the latter had very little to fall back on.
Twentieth-century historians had little time for her, and what attention they did spare her was largely dismissive; she was a dupe, the tool of her brothers, or if she wasn’t, then she was a cold-hearted usurper who hadn’t batted an eye during Anne’s arrest and execution and went on to marry Henry anyway. (How exactly she was supposed to politely break the engagement isn’t clear). David Starkey dislikes her intensely, and makes it clear, and even Eric Ives, usually quite even-handed, can’t resist making some jabs at Jane’s “servile” choice of motto, as well as her appearance; after quoting John Russell on Jane Seymour’s “rich apparel”, he comments that “Anyone familiar with Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour might be forgiven for feeling that she needed all the help she could get.” (316) He also makes it clear that in his opinion Jane’s “modesty” was entirely a ploy to bring in the highest bidder. Alison Weir, in The Lady In The Tower, admits that it’s impossible to know just how involved Jane was in the coup that brought Anne down, but nonetheless makes sure to inform the reader that Jane was “plump and insipid”, that where “Anne was witty and feisty, Jane was studiedly humble and demure; and where Anne was flirtatious by nature, Jane made a great show of her meekness and virtue.” (14)
Although Antonia Fraser makes a reasonable argument in The Wives Of Henry VIII that Jane was not necessarily any of those things, but may simply have been expressing her own genuine feelings and opinions, the last century in general has not been kind to Jane; she’s become an odd, contradictory mixture of stupidity and cunning, powerlessness and hypnotic ability to make the king of England do something unprecedented in history. While Jane could not have been the plaster angel of her early portrayals, recent ones do, I think, go too far in the other direction, assuming a mindset and a degree of power which she simply would not have possessed. Incidentally, a side-effect is that it’s only recently that her appearance has really begun to be used against her. Chapuys described her as not being a beauty, a judgement which several earlier historians quoted, but they did so dispassionately; after all, her Protestant ideals were what mattered, not her hair-colour. Lately, there’s been much more of a tendency to snipe at the supposedly heart-stopping ugliness revealed by the Holbein portrait (a tendency which has spilled over into fiction, as we’ll see next week). I hope this trend dies soon. I cannot say it strikes me as a sign of real progress when twenty-first century historians have a harder time looking below the surface than Henry VIII.