Jane Seymour, the eldest daughter of ten children of Sir John Seymour and Margery Wentworth, was probably born at Wolf Hall, Wiltshire, in around 1509. Her father had been knighted in 1497 by Henry VII after the Battle of Blackheath. In 1513 he accompanied Henry VIII in the French campaign. (1)
Through the Wentworths, Jane claimed royal blood through descent from Edward III. Nothing is known of Jane's early life and education, but she was probably taught by her father's chaplain. (2) Jane first appeared at court in about 1529 and served as a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon.
Several contemporaries commented on Jane's intelligence. Polydore Vergil described her as "a woman of the utmost charm both in appearance and character". Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported to King Charles V that she was "of middle stature and no great beauty, so fair that one would call her rather pale than otherwise". Hans Holbein gave her "a long nose, and firm mouth, with the lips slightly compressed, although her face has a pleasing oval shape with the high forehead then admired". Antonia Fraser has claimed that "the predominant impression given by her portrait - at the hands of a master of artistic realism - is of a woman of calm good sense." (3)
Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn on 25th January 1533. On 23 May 1533, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared Henry and Catherine's marriage null and void. Five days later, he declared Henry and Anne's marriage to be good and valid. Jane Seymour now became Anne's lady-in-waiting. Anne gave birth to Elizabeth on 7th September, 1533. Henry expected a son and selected the names of Edward and Henry. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of his first wife were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne. (4)
Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has pointed out: "As the king's only legitimate child, Elizabeth was, until the birth of a prince, his heir and was to be treated with all the respect that a female of her rank deserved. Regardless of her child's sex, the queen's safe delivery could still be used to argue that God had blessed the marriage. Everything that was proper was done to herald the infant's arrival." (5)
The 17-year old Mary was declared illegitimate, lost her rank and status as a princess and was exiled from Court. She was placed with Sir John Shelton and his wife, Lady Anne. It has been claimed that "Mary was bullied unmercifully by the Sheltons, humiliated, and was constantly afraid that she would be imprisoned or executed." (6) Alison Plowden has concluded that the treatment Mary received "turned a gentle, affectionate child into a bigoted, neurotic and bitterly unhappy woman." (7)
Henry VIII continued to try to produce a male heir, but Anne Boleyn had two miscarriages. On 13th October 1534 Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported to King Charles V that Henry was becoming romantically involved with an unnamed young lady. It is almost certain that this woman was Jane Seymour. Chapuys adds that the lady in question had recently sent a message to Princess Mary telling her to take good heart because her tribulations would end very soon. (8)
Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) has pointed out: "Jane Seymour was exactly the kind of female praised by the contemporary handbooks to correct conduct; just as Anne Boleyn had been the sort they warned against. There was certainly no threatening sexuality about her. Nor is it necessary to believe that her virtue was in some way hypocritically assumed, in order to intrigue the King. On the contrary, Jane Seymour was simply fulfilling the expectations for a female of her time and class; it was Anne Boleyn who was - or rather who had been - the fascinating outsider." (9)
Anne Boleyn was pregnant again when she discovered Jane Seymour sitting on her husband's lap. Anne "burst into furious denunciation; the rage brought on a premature labour and was delivered of a dead boy." (10) It has been claimed that the baby was born deformed and that the child was not Henry's. (11) In April 1536, a Flemish musician in Anne's service named Mark Smeaton was arrested. He initially denied being the Queen's lover but later confessed, perhaps tortured or promised freedom. Another courtier, Henry Norris, was arrested on 1st May. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King's Privy Chamber. Anne's brother, George Boleyn was also arrested and charged with incest. (12)
Anne was arrested and was taken to the Tower of London on 2nd May, 1536. Four of the accused men were tried in Westminster ten days later. Smeaton pleaded guilty but Weston, Brereton, and Norris maintained their innocence Three days later, Anne and George Boleyn were tried separately in the Tower of London. She was accused of enticing five men to have illicit relations with her. (13) Adultery committed by a queen was considered to be an act of high treason because it had implications for the succession to the throne. All were found guilty and condemned to death. The men were executed on 17th May, 1536. Anne went to the scaffold at Tower Green on 19th May.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer issued a dispensation from prohibitions of affinity for Jane Seymour to marry Henry the day of Anne's execution, because they were fifth cousins. The couple were betrothed the following day, and a private marriage took place on 30th May 1536. Coming as it did after the death of Catherine of Aragon and the execution of Anne Boleyn, there could be no doubt of the lawfulness of Henry's marriage to Jane. The new queen was introduced at court in June. "No coronation followed the wedding, and plans for an autumn coronation were laid aside because of an outbreak of plague at Westminster; Jane's pregnancy undoubtedly eliminated any possibility of a later coronation." (14)
Historians have claimed that Jane Seymour treated Henry's first daughter, Mary, with respect. "One of Jane's first requests of the King was that Mary be allowed to attend her, which Henry was pleased to allow. Mary was chosen to sit at the table opposite the King and Queen and to hand Jane her napkin at meals when she washed her hands. For one who had been banished to sit with the servants at Hatfield, this was an obvious sign of her restoration to the King's good graces. Jane was often seen walking hand-in-hand with Mary, making sure that they passed through the door together, a public acknowledgement that Mary was back in favour." (15) In August, 1536 Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reported to King Charles V that "the treatment of the princess Mary is every day improving. She never did enjoy such liberty as she does now." (16)
Jane Seymour gave birth to a boy on 12th October 1537 after a difficult labour that lasted two days and three nights. The child was named Edward, after his great-grandfather and because it was the eve of the Feast of St Edward. It was said that the King wept as he took the baby son in his arms. At the age of forty-six, he had achieved his dream. "God had spoken and blessed this marriage with an heir male, nearly thirty years after he had first embarked on matrimony." (17)
Edward was christened when he was three days old, and both his sisters played a part in this important occasion. In the great procession which took the baby from the mother's bed-chamber to the chapel, Elizabeth carried the chrisom, the cloth in which the child was received after his immersion in the font. As she was only four years old, she herself was carried by the Queen's brother, Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford. Jane was well enough to receive guests after the christening. Edward was proclaimed prince of Wales, duke of Cornwall, and earl of Carnarvon.
On 17th October 1537 Jane became very ill. Most historians have assumed that she developed puerperal fever, something for which there was no effective treatment, though at the time the queen's attendants were blamed for allowing her to eat unsuitable food and to take cold. An alternative medical opinion suggests that Jane died because of retention of parts of the placenta in her uterus. That condition could have led to a haemorrhage several days after delivery of the child. What is certain is that septicaemia developed, and she became delirious. Jane died just before midnight on 24th October, aged twenty-eight. (18)
It seems likely that the charm of her character considerably outweighed the charm of her appearance: Chapuys for example described her as "of middle stature and no great beauty". Her most distinctive aspect was her famously "pure white" complexion. Holbein gives her a long nose, and firm mouth, with the lips slightly compressed, although her face has a pleasing oval shape with the high forehead then admired (enhanced sometimes by discreet plucking of the hairline) and set off by the headdresses of the time. Altogether, if Anne Boleyn conveys the fascination of the new, there is a dignified but slightly stolid look to Jane Seymour, appropriately reminiscent of English mediaeval consorts.
But the predominant impression given by her portrait - at the hands of a master of artistic realism - is of a woman of calm good sense. And contemporaries all commented on Jane Seymour's intelligence: in this she was clearly more like her cautious brother Edward than her dashing brother Tom. She was also naturally sweet-natured (no angry words or tantrums here) and virtuous - her virtue was another topic on which there was general agreement. There was a story that she had been attached to the son of Sir Robert and Lady Dormer, a country neighbour, but was thought of too modest a rank to marry him (he then married a Sidney), even if true, the tale brought with it no slur on Jane's maidenly honour. It was told more as a Cinderella story, where the unfairly slighted girl would go on to be raised triumphantly to far greater heights. Her survival as a lady-in-waiting to two Queens at the Tudor court still with a spotless reputation may indeed be seen as a testament to both Jane Seymour's salient characteristics - virtue and common good sense. A Bessie Blount or Madge Shelton might fool around, Anne Boleyn might listen or even accede to the seductive wooings of Lord Percy: but Jane Seymour was unquestionably virginal.
In short, Jane Seymour was exactly the kind of female praised by the contemporary handbooks to correct conduct; just as Anne Boleyn had been the sort they warned against. There was certainly no threatening sexuality about her. Nor is it necessary to believe that her "virtue" was in some way hypocritically assumed, in order to intrigue the King (romantic advocates of Anne Boleyn have sometimes taken this line). On the contrary, Jane Seymour was simply fulfilling the expectations for a female of her time and class: it was Anne Boleyn who was - or rather who had been - the fascinating outsider.