"A mediocre, an average woman; not exceptionally able not yet exceptionally foolish; neither fire nor ice; devoid of any vigorous wish to do good and of the remotest inclination to do evil; the average woman of yesterday, today and tomorrow."
- Stefan Zweig (1881 - 1942)
Sunday, May 14th, 1536 was the second Sunday Anne Boleyn had spent as a prisoner and it was the twelfth day on which the Sacrament had not been brought to her chambers, as requested. She spent the day selecting an outfit to wear to her trial tomorrow and the final product was chosen with her usual meticulous care for sartorial matters. A lavish and bejewelled dress might very well have reminded the judges and observers of the imperial majesty of Anne's position, but it might also bestow upon the trial a dignity which the Queen did not feel it deserved, whilst something theatrically simple might call to mind images of the Penitent Magdalene, another association which the Queen needed to avoid. The French hood might remind people of Anne's long cultural and political association with France - an association which had seldom helped her popularity. On the other hand, the gable hood did not flatter thin, oval faces. In the end, a black afternoon dress with a hat was chosen - similar to something the Queen might have worn had she been calling on friends or going for an afternoon walk. The kirtle selected by the Queen was crimson, a colour which was to recur three times during Anne's imprisonment - her arrest, her trial and her execution. Upon hearing news that she was accused of adultery on May 2nd, the Queen had returned to her apartments to change into a dress of crimson and gold; she chose crimson to be worn for her kirtle on the trial date and again for her execution day.
Crimson was the 16th-century's equivalent of white. In 1587, Mary, ex-Queen of Scots, went to her death at Fotheringhay clothed entirely in the colour and Anne Boleyn's use of it in 1536 has often been over-looked. In medieval iconography, crimson was the colour associated with Christian martyrs and thus it was one linked with persecuted innocence in the early modern mindset. Anne Boleyn and Mary Stewart both knew this and deployed it cleverly during their respective downfalls.
On the same day as his wife was selecting her trial ensemble, Henry VIII left Hampton Court and moved back into his rooms at the Palace of Whitehall. In the early afternoon, Jane Seymour (above) and her retinue were greeted by the King's Master of the Horse, Sir Nicholas Carew, and the Comptroller of the Royal Household, Sir William Paulet, and shown around their new home at Chelsea. Having been kept seven miles from the Thames at Carew's home in Surrey since the charade of the Queen's prosecution had begun nearly two weeks earlier, the Seymours were now moving into a luxurious mansion only one mile from the Palace of Whitehall. Set in 27 acres of grounds, which included an orchard and boat-house, the mansion had once been the home of Sir Thomas More, executed the previous year on the King's orders, and it boasted a magnificent 70ft hall with views over the river, an opulently-appointed chapel and a well-stocked library. Taking up residence in the rooms and attended by dozens of the King's private servants were Jane Seymour, her parents Sir John and Lady Margaret, her widowed sister Lady Elizabeth Ughtred, her youngest sister, Dorothy, her pregnant sister-in-law, Lady Anne Seymour, and a few cousins and maids.
How on earth someone as 'ordinary' as Jane Seymour ever became queen-in-waiting of England remains a mystery which continues to vex some historians, who prefer history to be populated by "worthy titans" or "doomed exquisites" like Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. In 1972, Marie Louise Bruce described Jane as "one of the least remarkable women ever to play a part in history"; whilst David Starkey went even further and dismissed her in his epic Six Wives as "a woman of no family, no beauty, no talent and perhaps not much reputation". In the 19th century, Agnes Strickland went to town on the "regal ruffian's" third marriage and snobbishly remarked that marriage to Jane Seymour gave the King of England one in-law who had the name of Smith and another whose grandfather had been a blacksmith in Putney. It is true that in the long annals of British royalty, there has been no queen who was as 'lowly born' as Jane Seymour, although by most modern standards she certainly came from a privileged background.
In 1536, even the Seymours' new-found political allies, who were more than prepared to use Jane in their plots against Anne Boleyn, had a privately low opinion of her. The Spanish Ambassador, who shamelessly exploited Jane for his own ends and poured praise on her when they were together, remarked in private that "nobody think she has any beauty. Her complexion is so white that she might be called sickly pale... She is not a woman of any great intellect and it is said that in private she is rather proud and haughty." So, what on earth was there to attract a man who had been married to two women as extraordinary as Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn?
But therein lies the answer; Jane Seymour was totally unremarkable and that was the point. Her sheer ordinariness was the reason for her extraordinary success. In a movie based on King Henry’s life from the 1930s, the character of the King quips: “My first wife was clever; my second was ambitious. If you want to be happy, marry a stupid woman!” Jane Seymour may not exactly have been stupid, but the quote captures an important point: by the middle of 1536, Henry wanted domestic peace. Middle-age had made Henry even more impatient with disagreements disobedience than he ever had been before. As of 1536, only obedience – prompt, total, absolute and unconditional – would do. And the King knew that he could never have any of this with Anne Boleyn.
Born probably in Wiltshire sometime towards the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century, probably only eighteen months or so after Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour was the eldest daughter of Sir John Seymour, a loyal civil servant and member of the gentry, and his wife, Margaret Wentworth. She had three brothers – Edward, Thomas and Henry – as well as several younger sisters, including the family’s most gifted girl, Elizabeth. (The Holbein portrait mislabelled as Catherine Howard in 1910 is almost certainly a portrait of Elizabeth Seymour.)
Jane's father had briefly served in the wars against France in 1513 and after that had returned to a life of public service, punctuated by a rather sordid sexual life, which included a long-term affair with Katherine Fillol-Seymour, the wife of his eldest son, Edward. It was an affair so long-standing that the children of this marriage were almost certainly Sir John’s and not his son, Edward’s. With typical double-standards, Katherine Seymour was eventually incarcerated in a nunnery, the marriage to Edward annulled, their children disinherited and Sir John attempted to live down the scandal in the peace of his country residence - the tiny but very pretty Wolf Hall.
Perhaps this family scandal of epically sordid proportions explains why Jane was so seldom seen in London. She was briefly in tenure as a maid-of-honour to Queen Katherine of Aragon, but only during the final years of her queenship and following Katherine’s exile in 1531, Jane returned to her family’s home and did not follow Katherine to her new household at The More. An attempted marriage with Sir William Dormer a few years later was vetoed by the prospective mother-in-law, who allegedly refused to consider a girl of Jane’s background for her precious son. It is one of those moments of irony which history so loves.
In 1535, following a royal visit to the provinces and a brief stay at her family's home, Jane was invited back to court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne, who does not appear to have been particularly aware of her until the King’s sexual interest fell upon her so unexpectedly just before the Queen’s final, fatal miscarriage – a tragedy brought about, so Anne claimed, by the trauma of finding Jane and the King locked in a passionate embrace. The Boleyns were obviously amongst those who certainly didn’t buy Jane’s 'holier than thou' public image and the Queen blamed Jane, then and later, for her misfortunes.
However, in all fairness, it seems as unnecessary to blame Jane for Anne's unhappiness as it is to blame Anne for Katherine of Aragon's. The unifying factor, after all, is not Katherine, Anne or Jane, but Henry, whose persecution of his eldest daughter, Mary, actually got worse after Anne died and he married Jane, which suggests to me that the old Spanish-propagated chestnut that Anne was responsible for Mary Tudor's misery whilst Jane was responsible for her restoration is at best wishful thinking, at worst outright lies.
Jane Seymour was neither stupid nor particularly cruel. It is true that she was not a particularly colourful character and any attempt to portray her as such is part of a worryingly stupid malaise of historical understanding which seeks to impose some egalitarian interpretation on the six queens of Henry VIII. Simply because they are part of a collective does not mean that they were all of equal importance or interest. Jane Seymour, in short, did not have the stuff of greatness, but Anne's supporters do both Anne and Jane a disservice when they present her as a cunning, duplicitous self-obsessive. Equally, Katherine's sympathisers are guilty of imagining virtues which were not there or, if they were, we have no record of them - despite the romantic legends associted with her, there is no evidence that Jane Seymour was either particularly pious, Catholic, courageous, maternal or loyal to the memory of Katherine of Aragon. Certainly, there was an 'edge' to Jane, as shown by her almost sociopathically serene acceptance of Anne Boleyn's murder - at least Anne had apparently felt something for Katherine of Aragon and vice-versa, but despite that and her undoubtedly dour pedantry when it came to female fashions, there was nothing particularly hateful or vicious about Jane Seymour. Neither was there anything particularly heroic or virtuous.
Jane Seymour was, quite simply, a woman of her times who found herself unexpectedly hand-picked by the King of England to succeed his disgraced wife in a time of chaos and intrigue almost unprecedented in British history and, whatever one might think about her background or accomplishments, she was apparently the woman best-suited to become Henry VIII's third queen in the terrible summer of 1536. How happy she was to be in the days after she was waited on hand and foot in her Chelsea mansion, however, is another matter entirely.