There is a systemic symmetry in the selection and succession of Henry VIII’s wives. Coincidently there were six queens of England during Henry Tudor’s reign, an even number. His last wife, Katherine Parr was named after Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Katherine Parr was a zealous reformer, while Catherine of Aragon held on to the Catholic faith until her death. Henry’s fourth and fifth wives triggered polar opposite emotions and feelings within the tempestuous king. The reserved and inexperienced Anne of Cleves did not generate any sexual sparks for Henry, while the young and appealing Katherine Howard was full of life and lust, renewing Henry’s thirst for companionship and sexual desire.
Henry’s second and third wives are commonly recognized for their marked differences. Anne Boleyn reportedly had a dark complexion with brown-black hair and a fiery temper. Jane Seymour was pale skinned with blonde hair and was renowned for her meek and submissive behavior. Anne supported and advanced the Reformation in England while Jane looked to reinstate Henry’s first born daughter, Mary, who was a devout Catholic and notably strongly opposed to the new religion.
Tudor Historian David Starkey said, “There was a complete contrast between Henry’s second and third wives. They were night and day; heaven and hell.” The two women however, did share one important characteristic that eventually led them to the throne. Both Anne and Jane refused to become Henry’s mistress, only settling for queen and wife. Both ladies succeeded in their ploys, replacing their predecessors.
I began to wonder, was it Jane Seymour that Henry was in head over heels in love with? Or was Henry forever in love with change. He appears to have detested one wife, only to replace her with a contemporary contrast. I will briefly give an overview of Jane Seymour’s life and her role as queen of England to determine whether it was Jane or just the ‘opposite of Anne’ that Henry deemed as his “true wife.”
Background of the ‘modest’ Jane Seymour
As with many females born during the Sixteenth Century, the circumstances of Jane Seymour’s birth and childhood is widely unknown. According to numerous historical accounts, Jane was one of the oldest of the Seymour children. The Seymours owned Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, where they resided for many years as an old and noble English family. Like many families of similar rank and status, the Seymours could trace their ancestry to Norman origin and were distant relatives to Edward III. A number of scholars speculate Jane’s year of birth to between 1507 and 1509.
Jane’s father, Sir John Seymour, was a Knight of the Body and gentleman of the King’s bedchamber. Through these connections and their eventual influence, Sir John was able to place his children at the royal court. Jane was a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon, and then again to Anne Boleyn. Henry appeared not to notice Jane while she was a lady to Catherine of Aragon. It was not until a trip to the Seymour family home that Henry became captivated by her. Already tiring of his hot tempered second wife, Henry was immediately drawn to Jane’s submissive and meek demeanor. He whole-heartedly felt these were the qualities that were required in a queen and wife, not someone who would question his authority and challenge his role as sovereign. Jane was “the perfect Tudor wife” in Henry’s eyes (David Starkey). As she began to fulfill this role as a meek woman, Henry could have grown to love her more as she resembled the qualities of his late mother.
Ten days after Anne’s execution on trumped up charges, Jane ascended to the throne as Queen of England. Immediately she looked to re-instate the Lady Mary as heir to the throne and banished the sexy French fashions made popular by her predecessor, replacing them with a more traditional English style, including the gable hood. Jane adopted as her motto, “bound to obey and serve.” Again, this contributed to her image as Henry’s ideal wife and queen.
As Henry’s personal life outwardly appeared to improve with Jane as his wife, he still longed for the one thing his two prior queens were not able to deliver to him, a male heir. While Jane’s shy and sweet demeanor initially hooked Henry, a son would secure her position and prevent her from meeting the same fate as Anne. On October 12, 1537 Jane delivered of a seemingly healthy son, Edward, England’s heir and Henry’s eventual successor.
Jane’s triumph was short lived. She died on October 24, 1537 at Hampton Court due to a suspected infection after giving birth to Edward. She was buried at Windsor Castle on November 12, 1537. Henry was devastated at the loss of his beloved wife and mother to a much longed for son. Her short reign as queen and the deliverance of a baby boy solidified Henry’s image of Jane as the perfect wife. However, if Jane had not died, would Henry tire of her as well? Based on his history and subsequent choices after Jane’s death it appears so. Henry appeared outwardly pleased with his third queen, but he could have easily grown tired of her as he did with all others.
Henry’s Love: Change or Jane Seymour?
Henry’s wives succeeding Jane were all opposites of either their immediate predecessors or the queens who came before these women. While Katherine Parr is arguably looked upon as Catherine of Aragon’s opposite, she also differed greatly from her predecessor, Katherine Howard. Katherine Howard was ‘spirited young girl,’ barely literate and with no real experience in dealing with, let alone raising, children. Katherine Parr was a wealthy, mature, and well-educated widow who had experience with two step-children from her prior marriage. Katherine Parr did not give Henry any children to further the line of succession during her time as his queen, but rather persuaded him to include Mary and Elizabeth as heirs to the English crown.
Jane Seymour was able to successfully deliver Henry what none of his other five wives were able to give him, a son and heir apparent. As mentioned above, Henry may have been compulsively attracted to change instead of enthralled with his third wife. While Jane Seymour’s traits were what Henry looked for in a queen consort, he may have tired of them after time if it were not for Edward’s birth and consequently Jane’s early death. Perhaps what led to Jane’s ‘martyr-like’ reputation as Henry’s most beloved and true wife was not Jane herself, but the change Henry longed for and the delivery of Edward, England’s future king. We will never know if Henry would have kept Jane around if she did not provide him with a male heir or if she had not died young. The only conclusion one can come to is that Henry loved Jane for her modesty and “saint-like” character. Her early demise could have been a blessing for she may have met an unfortunate fate like her predecessors and eventual successors. What is clear is while Jane and Anne may have been “heaven and hell,” they played a very similar strategy to achieve marriage with a king, though, led both women to untimely deaths, including them in Henry VIII’s succession of unfortunate wives.