Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Tudors Fact Check: Good Queen Jane?

So, who was Jane Seymour? The Tudors paints a picture of a beautiful, young blonde woman who stole King Henry's heart and was a beacon of kindness, compassion, and selflessness. The king, his daughter, Mary, and the court mourned her sudden death after the safe, if difficult, delivery of King Henry's most longed-for son, Prince Edward.

But, is that really who she was?

In the series, Jane is discovered by Henry while he is visiting Wulfhall, the home of Sir John Seymour, a friend and former partner-at-arms of King Henry. During the visit, Jane sneaks a peek at the men eating dinner together. Henry notices her, and Sir John introduces her to him. He is immediately taken by her beauty, and he offers to have her installed as one of Queen Anne's ladies at court.

Henry begins to court Jane, who appears to be the paragon of maidenly female virtue. She is completely taken by the king's attentions, falling on her knees whenever he approaches her personally. Queen Anne is aware of Henry's interest in Jane, but she is unable to remove her from her service for fear of inciting Henry's increasingly unpredictable wrath. Anne is far less concerned when she becomes pregnant for the third time.

Henry, ever confident of his physical prowess, fights in a jousting tournament among his friends. Jane, newly arrived at court, is asked for her "favors" (generally a piece of ribbon or something like it) to give Henry luck when he faces his challenge. He tucks the piece of ribbon into the side of his chest plate, positioning it over his heart. Upon a charge, Henry is struck from his horse and thrown into unconsciousness. He awakens hours later, the whole court and his family frightened by the proposition of Henry's death. Henry later tells Jane that her image was before him in his subconscious state and that she represents all that is good and pure.

Anne and her family feel that Jane could be entirely ousted if Anne were to finally bear the son that Henry so dearly desires. Henry sends Jane a purse of coins and a letter, which Jane accepts. He also gives Jane a locket with his picture inside of it. Anne discovers this locket, demands to see it, and rips it from Jane's neck after she inspects the picture inside. Lady Margaret Sheldon (Madge) finds the locket later on the floor and gives it back to Jane.

The pivotal moment occurs when Henry summons Jane to see him. He sits on a chair at the head of a table, and he invites her to sit on his lap. He lures her into a kiss just as Queen Anne, several months pregnant, bursts into the room. She flies into a rage. Henry attempts to calm Anne down, hoping to save the life of their child, but, later that evening, Anne miscarries for the second time of what appears to be a deformed boy, about three or four months old.

Henry has had enough of his marriage to Anne, and he, working with Cromwell, mercilessly brings Anne down. Anne is charged with adultery, as are several others, including her brother. While Anne is in prison awaiting her fate, Henry is eager for the change that Jane presents him--her purity will mean his rebirth after years under the influence of the dishonest, power-hungry Anne and her family. Jane is pictured joyfully planning her wedding with Henry while Anne languishes in the Tower.

Henry marries Jane at the beginning of the third season of the program, and it is clear that this is quite soon after Anne's execution. Jane immediately demonstrates her mythical kindness by accepting Lady Rochford, the widow of Anne's brother, into her household given how bad circumstances have become for her since her husband's death. Jane also begins to campaign for the return of the Lady Mary Tudor to court and into the King's favor. Henry warns her that she is treading on dangerous ground by meddling in his affairs, and she immediately is quieted. Jane also learns that Lady Elizabeth Tudor is not given any money for new clothes, and she sends her one of her jewels to make up for the lack of funds.

Lady Mary Tudor is received at court again after signing a document declaring Henry the head of the Church of England and her parents' marriage to be unlawful. Jane encourages a more positive relationship between Henry and Mary by accompanying him to visit Mary and inviting Mary to court for Christmas as a surprise for Henry. She also invites Elizabeth, and she is received warmly by her father. In an intimate moment with Henry, she attempts to argue for the reinstatement of the monasteries in the north, but Henry again demands that she stay out of his affairs lest she end up like Anne.

Jane becomes pregnant, later than Henry would like, but it is still an occasion for joy. Jane demonstrates a craving for quails' eggs at dinner with Henry, and Henry realizes Jane's condition. He is convinced this is the son he has so longed for. Jane invites him into her rooms to let him feel the child move in her womb. Soon, Jane goes into labor, and it is hard and long. Physicians are sent in, believing that a Cesarean section may be necessary, but in the end, Jane, manages to deliver Edward safely. Henry is overjoyed. Within days, Jane falls ill--Henry recognizes her condition as "childbed fever," of which his mother previously died. He prays that Jane not be taken away from him; her kindness and goodness sustains him.

Jane dies, her body laid out in a chapel, Henry kneeling by it, whispering that he will lie with her soon, for all eternity.

What's the real story?

Very little is known about Jane Seymour, mostly because her origins are so obscure and because she was queen for such a short period of time.

Jane Seymour was probably born in 1508, and historians generally agree upon this year because, at her death, 29 ladies walked in mourning in her funeral procession, traditionally one for each year of her life. She was born at Wulfhall, which is in Wiltshire, and historians believe that she was in service to Queen Katherine of Aragon before working in Queen Anne's household. She may have been in Queen Katherine's service as early as 1527, but she may have been discharged when the Queen's household was reduced in 1533. However, she was probably already working for Queen Anne by the beginning of 1534--one year before Henry's "fatefull" visit to Wulfhall.

The story of Henry's visit to Wulfhall is certainly embellished after-the-fact. Henry AND Anne visited Wulfhall for a few days in 1535, and it is unclear whether Jane was present. Even if she was, this certainly couldn't have been when Henry first met Jane as Jane, even if she was first hired to work for Anne and never did for Katherine, would have been working in the queen's household for over a year by that time. This visit seems more significant for Edward, Jane's elder brother. Edward Seymour would be very significant later on. When Henry VIII died in 1547, he arranged for a council of regency to act for and guide the young King Edward VI. Edward Seymour, then Earl of Hertford, was elected by the council to act as Lord Protector of England and Governor of the King's Person. It's a position he would come to regret.

Henry was not knocked out by a blow in a joust, but, on January 24, 1536, his horse tumbled and he was unconscious for about two hours. Publicly, Anne claimed that news of this incident, brought to her by the Duke of Norfolk, was the main cause of her miscarriage five days later. However, Emperor Charles V's ambassador to the English court, Eustace Chapuys, makes mention in a letter sent at the beginning of February that Anne privately was worried about her potential inability to produce children and Henry's continued attentions to Jane Seymour. There is no evidence that the fetus was in any way deformed, and as Anne believed she was 15 weeks along, the sex of the child may have been unable to be determined with any certainty.

Henry did send Jane a letter and a bag of coins in March 1536, but in reality, she sent them back. This was probably a sign that Henry was summoning Jane to become his latest royal mistress, and Jane must have known what was in the letter if she sent it back, without opening it, and made the statement she did in response to its delivery. She kissed the letter, returned it to the sender with the coins, and claimed that nothing was more valuable to her than her virginity. If the king wished to send her money, she asked that it be done when she had contracted an advantageous marriage.

This was Anne Boleyn's trump card, played so many years earlier. Whether truly because she valued her virginity or because she valued the favors she and her family would enjoy if she held out from the king for a while, Anne did exactly the same thing. Anne won a king with this trick--so would Jane.

It is important to understand where Jane and her family stood regarding the reformation of the church, which was ongoing at the time. Anne and her family were reformists, and Henry had surrounded himself with people of like-minds while they enjoyed influence at court. However, there were many of considerable, long-standing noble origin who did not support the separation of England from the Catholic Church, and Jane's association with them cannot be ignored. In particular, this faction was interested in the restoration of the Lady Mary to the succession. Anne had also done quite a bit of damage on her own. She was well-known for her sharp tongue and hardened opinions, and this had resulted in the alienation of many who had been her supporters.

There is no written evidence of Jane's immediate association with Anne's enemies, but it is clear that she was Anne's foil in every possible way. She was quiet, humble, and submissive. She wasn't particularly well-educated, although she could read and write. Her motto was "Bound to obey and serve," and she embodied this to the letter. She was also not particularly attractive. Eustace Chapuys wrote to Charles V that "nobody thinks she has much beauty." Her portraits generally attest to that reality. What was she, then? Probably many things that made her attractive at the moment Anne was about to lose her life--she was a completely different personality, she was available, and the king had been paying her attentions and growing in ardor just at that time. Henry had given up his marriage to Katherine of Aragon once he had her successor secure. He seems to have sought companionship with women--not simply idle lust--and expected that he would be married, if not to one, throughout his entire life.

It is possible--even probable--that Jane was coached to be who she was with Henry. It won her a crown in the end.

Henry married Jane on May 30, 1536. She did argue for the Lady Mary's reinstatement, but she was quieted by Henry's demand that she stay out of his affairs. It seems that Henry was already softening to Mary's case once Anne was out of the picture. Cromwell obtained Henry's blessing for Mary to write to him on the same day. In June, the terms of their reconciliation were made clear to Mary--she would have to accept Henry as the head of the church and her mother's marriage as incestuous. On June 22, Mary yielded to most of these demands, finally later capitulating entirely. Henry and Jane visited her on July 6, and Mary was given funds. Mary returned to court after this, and Elizabeth would return as well. However, these were Henry's decisions and arrangements--not Jane's.

Jane's pregnancy was public by May 1537. Jane's main craving was for quails--not quails' eggs. The labor was extremely difficult for her, lasting several days. On Friday, October 12, she gave birth to Edward Tudor, Henry's only legitimate, living son. Jane made a good recovery initially, but she took a turn for the worse suddenly, and she died on October 24. How did Henry feel about this? Seemingly, not very touched. He had delayed a trip to Esher because of Jane's health, but it was reported that he was "determined" to be there on the 25th, regardless of her state by that time. However, it is also recorded that Henry assigned Norfolk the task of arranging for the funeral because he was "too broken" to do it himself. It is more likely that Henry's claims to be beside himself with grief were exaggerated niceties--kings didn't arrange for their wives' funerals customarily anyway. Everything was arranged as befit Jane's status. Her body lie in state until November 8, and she was buried four days later in a vault of St. George's Chapel. Court mourning lasted for three months following.

Henry did decide to be buried beside her upon his death nearly ten years later. Family portraits commissioned by Henry, regardless to whom he was married at the time, always featured Jane as his wife. This is generally considered a testament to the fact that Jane was the only wife who produced his longed-for male heir. Perhaps it is a commentary about how Henry perceived his wives' main roles to be. Whatever the reason, Jane, plain, quiet, and dull, was immortalized by Henry as his one true wife.


The Tudors gets an 7 for events, but a 3 for casting Jane's character. Most of the events surrounding Jane and Henry are true or only slightly adapted. However, there is no evidence that Jane was extremely kind. It is more likely that her "kindness," especially to Lady Mary, was motivated by the desires of her connections to an anti-Boleyn, Catholic court faction. Henry certainly did not have the same ardor for her that he previously had for Anne. The series casts Jane as the light in his life, whereas she was probably more of a dull, and therefore more attractive, alternative to Anne's spectacular wit and alluring appearance. It is also more likely that Jane was acutely aware of where Anne's actions landed her, and she was probably unwilling to directly affect the affairs of court and of Henry's family in order to keep herself in Henry's good graces. Henry generally distanced himself from things "unpleasant," including death in any form, so the bedside plea to God for Jane's preservation is almost completely out of the question. Had Jane lived longer, we may know more about her and her character today. However, the idea that she was all goodness and light--or that she was even pretty--is a little far-fetched, to say the least.


Annabell Wallis as Jane Seymour from The Tudors, Season Three

Anita Briem (Jane Seymour) and King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) from The Tudors, Season 2

Presentation of Jane Seymour to court after her marriage to King Henry VIII from The Tudors, Season 3

Annabell Wallis as Jane Seymour from The Tudors, Season Three

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein, 1536

Jane Seymour, miniature, by Lucas Horenbout

Jane Seymour by unknown painter from the Cast Shadow Workshop, 1536

Prince Edward by Hans Holbein, c. 1538

"The Tudor Dynasty," a copy smaller of a life-sized mural, now lost. The original was done by Hans Holbein. The copy was done by an unknown, less talented, artist.


Anonymous said...

Jane Seymour could only read and write her own name, no more no less.

Anonymous said...

Jane Seymour could only read and write her own name, no more no less.

pilgrimchick said...

Assessing someone's ability to read and write in this period is tricky because reading and writing were regarded as two different sets of skills. As a result, if someone could write his/her name, it didn't even always indicate that he/she could actually read. It is often the case, however, that if someone could write his/her name, that person could have been assumed to have some rudimentary reading ability. I admit, it would be so much easier if someone actually said he/she could read and write somewhere!