Who Was Jane Seymour and Why Was She Henry VIII’s Favourite Wife?

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On 24 October 1537, Henry VIII’s third and favourite wife – Jane Seymour – died shortly after giving birth. Having given Henry the son that he had craved for so long, she was the only one of his six wives to be given a full Queen’s funeral, and was later buried beside the King.

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Wolf Hall

Jane was born in 1508, the year before her future husband became King, into the ambitious Seymour family, based in Wolf Hall in Wiltshire. Her journey into the heart of the Tudor court began at a young age, coming into the service of Henry’s first two wives – Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Jane, who was a sober Catholic and great believer in the value of a woman’s chastity, was far more influenced by Catherine – an intelligent and demure Spanish princess.

While Jane – who was a devout Catholic – was at court she paid witness to some tumultuous times as Henry’s obsessive search for an heir lead to a split with the church of Rome and the divorce of his first wife, who had only been able to give Henry a daughter. Her successor was the attractive witty and alluring Anne, and the 25-year old Jane was once again in service to an English Queen.

For all of Anne’s charms, it became more and more clear that she was not the woman Henry needed as she suffered miscarriages after giving birth to only a solitary girl (the future Elizabeth I – ironically the daughters Henry rejected would both serve as English monarchs.) As this crisis deepened and Henry hit his mid-forties, his famously roving eye began to notice other women at court – particularly Jane.

Henry in 1537 – now middle-aged and overweight after being a famous athlete and warrior in his youth.

Gentle, sweet-natured Jane

Jane could not have been more different from her predecessor. For a start, she was not a beauty or a great wit. The Spanish ambassador dismissed her as “of middle stature and no great beauty,” and unlike Henry’s previous Queens she was barely educated – and was only able to read and write her own name.

However, she had many qualities that appealed to the ageing King, for she was gentle, sweet-natured and subservient. In addition, Henry was attracted by the fact that her mother had birthed six healthy sons. By 1536, sensing Anne’s influence at court waning, many courtiers who had never trusted her began to suggest Jane as an alternative. At the same time, Henry’s only formally recognised wife Catherine died, and Anne had another miscarriage.

All the cards were stacked in Jane’s favour, and she played it well – resisting Henry’s sexual advances whilst appearing to remain interested. When Henry offered her a gift of gold coins she refused claiming that it was beneath her – and the King was impressed.

Anne was arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of adultery, incest and even high treason. She was executed in May 1536, and the way was clear for the unrepentant Henry to formalise his courtship of Jane, who had little choice but to marry the King. Jane’s own thoughts on the matter after Henry’s record with previous wives would be interesting to know, though sadly they are not known.

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Queen Consort Jane

The start of Jane’s career as Queen was inauspicious – as her coronation in October 1536 was cancelled after a plague and a series of revolts in the north turned Henry’s eyes elsewhere. As a result, she was never crowned and remained Queen Consort until her death. This did not faze Jane, however, who used her new-found position to get her brothers Edward and Thomas into high positions at court, and tried to remove Anne’s famously flirtatious maids and revealing fashions from court life.

Attempts to influence the politics of the realm met with more mixed success. Jane did manage to convince Henry to reconcile with Mary – his daughter from his first marriage – after years of not speaking to her over her religious views, which she shared.

The new Queen’s enduring commitment to Catholicism made her popular amongst the common people, who hoped that she would turn Henry back in that direction after his sensational and unpopular dissolution of the monasteries and declaration of himself as head of the church. This, and the rebellions breaking out in the north, emboldened Jane to literally go down on her knees and beg her husband to restore the monasteries. Henry roared at Jane to get up and warned her starkly of the fate which awaited Queens who meddled in his affairs. Jane did not try to get involved in politics again.

It’s a boy!

In Henry’s eyes, she finally did her proper job as Queen when she conceived in January 1537. His earlier anger forgotten, he was overjoyed, particularly after his astronomers assured him that the child would be a boy. Jane was pampered to a ludicrous degree, and when she announced a craving for quails Henry had them shipped from the continent despite them being out of season.

He fretted and paced around the palace as she faced days of painful labour in October, but on 12 October all his wishes were granted when she gave birth to a baby boy. Jane was exhausted but at this stage appeared to be healthy enough and formally announced the birth of her son conceived through intercourse with the King, as was the custom.

However, like many mothers at the time poor sanitation and lack of knowledge of infection meant that Jane suddenly became very ill a few days after the birth of her son Edward. On 23 October, after all the doctor’s measures failed, Henry was summoned to her bedside where the last rites were administered. In the early hours of the next day she died peacefully in her sleep.

The King was so distraught that he locked himself in his room for days, and for the unhappy rest of his life would always claim that the eighteen months in which Jane had been Queen were the best of his life. When he was dying ten years later he gave orders to be buried with his third and most beloved wife. Jane’s son would rule as after Henry as Edward VI, though his reign would be cut short by illness.

The infant Edward in 1539. Like many boys at a time where childbirth was hazardous, he never knew his mother.

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