Henry VIII became engaged to Jane Seymour on this date in 1536, one day after beheading his former queen Anne Boleyn.
On the morning of Anne’s death, he had a barge waiting for him in order to whisk him downriver to Jane as soon as the former queen’s head was off, and while his second wife’s body cooled he canoodled with his soon-to-be bride.
While this is universally acknowledged as grotesque behavior on the king’s part, too many people seem to give Jane Seymour a pass on her fair share of criticism. She is portrayed as a docile and meek sweetheart who had no choice but to marry the king regardless of his fearsome reputation. As for me, I call shenanigans on this depiction of Jane. Once the king made know his desire for her milky-white flesh, Jane played him like an angler reeling in a fat trout.
Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys recorded some of Jane’s planning and very public coyness:
“some days ago, the King being here in London, and, the young Miss Seymour, to whom he is paying court at Greenwich, he sent her a purse full of sovereigns, together with a letter, and that the young damsel, to whom he is paying court, after respectfully kissing the letter, returned it to the messenger without opening it, and then falling on her knees, begged the royal messenger to entreat the King in her name to consider that she was a well-born damsel, the daughter of good and honourable parents without blame or reproach of any kind; there was no treasure in this world that she valued as much as her honour, and on no account would she lose it, even if she were to die a thousand deaths. That if the King wished to make her a present of money, she requested him to reserve it for such a time as God would be pleased to send her some advantageous marriage … in consequence of this refusal the King’s love for the said damsel had marvelously increased, and that he had said to her that not only did he praise and commend her virtuous behaviour on the occasion, but that in order to prove the sincerity of his love, and the honesty of his views towards her, he had resolved not to converse with her in future, except in the presence of one of her relatives, and that for this reason the King had taken away from Master Cromwell’s apartments in the palace a room, to which he can, when he likes, have access through certain galleries without being seen, of which room the young lady’s elder brother and his wife have already taken possession for the express purpose of her repairing thither. But I hear that the young lady has been well tutored and warned by those among this King’s courtiers who hate the concubine, telling her not in any wise to give in to the King’s fancy unless he makes her his Queen, upon which the damsel is quite resolved. She has likewise been advised to tell the King frankly, and without reserve, how much his subjects abominate the marriage contracted with the concubine, and that not one considers it legitimate, and that this declaration ought to be made in the presence of witnesses of the titled nobility of this kingdom, who are to attest the truth of her statements should the King request them on their oath and fealty to do so.”
Jane knew full well she was trying to displace Anne. Contemporaries of these events were also aware that Jane as tying up Henry’s affections as his wife sat in the Tower awaiting death at the king’s command. Shortly before Anne’ execution, Chapuys wrote:
People speak variously about the King, and certainly the slander will not cease when they hear of what passed and is passing between him and his new mistress, Jane Seymour. Already it sounds badly in the ears of the public that the King, after such ignominy and discredit as the concubine has brought on his head, should manifest more joy and pleasure now, since her arrest and trial, than he has ever done on other occasions … for the day before Anne’s condemnation he sent the Grand Squire and many others in quest of Mistress Seymour, and made her come to within one mile of his own residence, where she is being splendidly entertained and served by cooks and officers of the royal household. And I have been told by one of her female relatives, who dined with her on the morning of the very day of Anne’s condemnation, that the King sent her a message to say, that at three, in the afternoon of that day, she would receive news of the sentence, and so it was, for he despatched Master Briant in all haste to give her the intelligence. So that to all appearances there cannot be the least doubt that the King will soon take the said Seymour to wife, some people believing, and even asserting, that the marriage settlements have already been drawn up …
In sum, when Jane’s manipulations bore fruit and she was going to get a crown, she didn’t appear to give the furry crack of a rat’s butt that Anne – who was now thought innocent by most of her once implacable foes — was going to die to make way for her.
One of my favorite Victorian historians, Agnes Strickland, put it best when she wrote:
“a sinking sensation of horror must pervade every right feeling mind, when the proceedings of the discreet Jane Seymour are considered. She received the addresses of her mistress’s husband, knowing him to be such. She passively beheld the mortal anguish of Anne Boleyn … yet she gave her hand to the regal ruffian before his wife’s corpse was cold … The wedding-cakes must have been baking, the wedding-dinner provided, the wedding-clothes preparing, while the life-blood was yet running warm in the veins of the victim, whose place was to be rendered vacant by a violent death.”
The queen was dead, and Jane would become queen in her place. Since she was the one who had the good luck to birth a boy before she died,
this chinless chit Jane was idealized and immortalized by her bereaved husband as his first “true” queen and his favorite brood mare wife.
I can see why Henry mythologized her as a precious snowflake, but why did historians pile on the malarkey of her near saintliness? I think it is because she never rocked the boat, never made men feel inadequate, never challenged the patriarchal status quo, and died young in the best tradition of lost loves. Jane is a perfect example how outward docility can spare a woman from slut shaming regardless of how skanky her romantic life actually was.