What Anne Boleyn Did That Jane Seymour Didn’t

On Friday I posted an article about Jane Seymour’s nefarious behavior regarding the death of Anne Boleyn, and (understandably) not everyone agreed with my assessment. This is unsurprising, considering that historians and history-buffs alike have strong opinions about facts and persons and those opinions aren’t universal. Nevertheless, there tends to be enough commonality that two “camps” will spring up regarding an event. In this case, the differences can be spilt into the overly-simplified concept of  Pro-Jane and Anti-Jane factions. Both these factions vociferously  defend or lambast Henry VIII’s third queen according to their interpretation of the historical narrative. Two of the most oft-repeated defenses for Jane Seymour’s behavior toward Anne Boleyn is that 1) it was nothing that Anne Boleyn had not done to Katherina of Aragon just a few years before and 2) she had no choice.  

Anne catches Henry VIII wooing Jane

The trouble with these arguments is that they don’t fit the known historical facts. Jane Seymour accepted the gifts of man who was so married his wife was pregnant at the time, was coached on how to win him, affected coyness in order to make herself more appealing, accepted rich gifts but returned money so she could have her cake yet pretend she wasn’t eating it, and allowed herself to be moved into a convenient room near his bedchamber … just in case she could convince Henry to leave Anne Boleyn and marry her instead. This is the polar opposite of what Anne Boleyn did.  As I wrote in The Jezebel Effect:

“When Henry first began pursuing Anne she did everything she could do to politely tell the king that she was uninterested in a liaison … She never boldly told him, “Swive off, varlet!” because that would have meant the political and economic destruction of her and her entire family. When her polite rebuffs didn’t seem to be working on her would-be swain, Anne packed her bags and fled to Hever in the summer of 1526 (Starkey, 2009). She refused to return to court, even with her mother there to act as chaperone, no matter how much Henry whinged about it … 

The king definitely whinged about it. He wrote to her, in the disbelieving shock of a man who had never been told no in his life, that he had “been told that the opinion in which I left you is totally changed, and that you would not come to court either with your mother, if you could, or in any other manner; which report, if true, I cannot sufficiently marvel at” …  I find in astounding that anyone can accuse Anne of being “come-hither” when her letters to the king can be so clearly inferred to have said “go away” …

Henry’s belief in his own appeal would not allow him to comprehend her rejection. He wrote to Anne, moaning that: “On turning over in my mind the contents of your last letters, I have put myself into great agony, not knowing how to interpret them, whether to my disadvantage, as you show in some places, or to my advantage, as I understand them in some others, beseeching you earnestly to let me know expressly your whole mind as to the love between us two. It is absolutely necessary for me to obtain this answer, having been for above a year stricken with the dart of love, and not yet sure whether I shall fail of finding a place in your heart and affection, which last point has prevented me for some time past from calling you my mistress”… Henry plaintively wrote to her again. In that letter he told her that although “it is not fitting for a gentleman to take his lady in the place of a servant, yet, complying with your desire, I willingly grant it you, if thereby you can find yourself less uncomfortable in the place chosen by yourself, than you have been in that which I gave you”. Anne’s response to this promise is not known for certain, since her letters to him weren’t kept, but based on Henry’s reply she must have written to him that she was the king’s loyal servant only and uncomfortable being called his mistress. How much clearer could she have been?

Henry complained in one of his missives that Anne didn’t write him back … Her lack of response to his letter is the early renaissance equivalent to not returning a phone call. It is so blatantly a brush off that it is hard to understand why Henry didn’t see it that way. It is also hard to understand how or why any historian has been able to interpret the lack of response as the ploy of a woman playing hard to get. If she had played any harder to get she would have had to beat Henry over the head with a stick …

There are historians who are as convinced of the king’s irresistibly as Henry was himself, and just cannot believe Anne was really saying no. Victorian writer Paul Friedmann explained that “Anne kept her royal adorer at an even greater distance than the rest of her admirers. She had good reason to do so, for the position which Henry offered her had nothing very tempting to an ambitions and clever girl … it cannot be considered an act of great virtue that Anne showed no eagerness to become the king’s mistress” (1884). Alison Weir claims that Anne “often failed to reply to the King’s letters, probably deliberately, for everything she did, or omitted to do, in relation to Henry was calculated to increase his ardour (2007). David Starkey writes that Anne’s coolness toward Henry was because she had “guessed” she was “beyond Henry’ power to give up” (2009). What was it, exactly, that was Anne supposed to do in order to prove that she sincerely did not want to be involved with Henry? Apparently just saying no, running away, and refusing to have sex with the king is somehow not convincing … 

[Nor did Anne plot to destroy the king’s marriage.] Henry had already been making plans to divorce Katherina and marry another noblewoman for the political alliance and potential heirs before he began harassing Anne Boleyn. He stopped having sex with Katherina altogether in 1524, and there is evidence he and Wolsey were plotting the dissolution of the marriage in 1525. The news of Henry’s intent to divorce Katherina didn’t become public until later in 1527, but it had been in the works prior to the first indication of the king’s obsession with Anne. Even in the spring of 1527, Wolsey thought of Henry’s divorce as a way to get the king to marry a French princess. No one suspected that Henry wanted to make Anne anything but his chatelaine …

When the king started talking marriage it was no doubt clear to Anne that Henry was never going to let her go. No one, no matter how much he loved her, would agree to marry her as long as Henry wanted her. She was either going to wed the king or stay single for the rest of her life. The universal condemnation for an unmarried woman who wasn’t a nun made the choice of spinsterhood a very bitter pill to swallow. If she wanted security and a family and a place in society, she was going to have to marry her stalker. 

Anne sent Henry a customary gift on New Year’s Day, probably in 1527, that was of great import. It was a pendant of a ship with a diamond being “tossed about”, and there was a small figure of a woman on board. Henry, no stranger to leaping to conclusions that best suited himself and familiar with romantic symbology, easily understood the gift to mean that Anne was seeking his protection. She had finally, after a long chase, given in. To this day her pragmatic bow to the reality of her situation has been taken as a sign she wanted Henry all along.

Jane’s behavior could not have been more different than Anne’s sincere attempts to discourage Henry’s interest in her.

Henry VIII courting a new love

The idea that Jane had no choice but to indulge Henry is also taradiddle. Anne said no to him for YEARS. Anne fled the court and there was nothing stopping Jane from doing likewise. If Jane’s family were pressuring her, she could have still resisted – just like Anne did. I don’t think Jane’s compliance can be construed as forced one little bit. She was either flatter and eager to be queen or she was too spineless to resist coercion. Neither of those options is flattering and both of them look exceedingly lame when contrasted to Anne’s fierce resolve not to be Henry’s new mistress.  

Showtime's highly-acclaimed dramatic series "The Tudors" gets third season pickup and is set to premiere in 2009.   Season 3 continues with palace intrigue and royal drama as King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) takes wife #3 Jane Seymour (Anita Briem). Production is slated to begin on June 16th in Dublin, Ireland.  Photo:  Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Sweet little Jane was either a home wrecker or a doormat, and neither of those things are admirable.


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9 thoughts on “What Anne Boleyn Did That Jane Seymour Didn’t

  1. I think it is oversimplification to say Jane was either a home wrecker or a doormat and that Anne was innocent in the affair. To vilify Jane as the reason Henry wanted Anne dead is overreaching. Henry most likely wanted Jane as a mistress only, not the reason to break another marriage. Henry appeared to be devoted to his marriage (ie. the encounter he engineered with Chapuys) just two weeks before Anne was arrested so he wasn’t looking to destroy Anne for Jane’s sake! But when Cromwell “presented” (or manufactured evidence, whichever you believe) of Anne’s adultery (which we all know is false) then and only then does it seem that Henry wanted Anne gone. Jane was just the newest shiny toy he latched on to at that moment. I believe if it had been another woman, the end result would have been the same.

    Also to say Anne flatly rejected the king for all those years does not take into consideration that Anne herself received and accepted gifts from Henry during the years he pursued her. One example was on Suzannah Lipscomb’s documentary, a gold pendant of some sort. The same documentary showed books of hours that had love notes back and forth between Anne and Henry. These are not the actions of a woman spurning a man.

    As to the fact it took years, they were trying to obtain a divorce from the Pope. They waited years for that and during that time, Anne introduced Henry to the idea that as King, he is not subject to the Pope. If she was trying to escape his clutches, why advise him of this? Anne was no innocent. She was fierce and intelligent and ruthless and smarter than probably all the men in the court, including the king. This is what makes her the most celebrated of Henry’s wives. But that doesn’t mean Jane should be vilified. I think it’s oversimplification to say Jane was small and meek – she was just different from Anne. That doesn’t mean she was worse than Anne. Anne paved the way for other women to pull the same sort of tricks she did to gain the king so it’s hardly fair to lay all that on Jane but absolve Anne of any of it at all!

    1. We cannot really know everything about motivation. Anne did discourage Henry for a long time. She may still have been upset about Percy. Doubtless she did not want what her sister got-an affair and an impaired reputation. Her inclination to Percy shows she wanted a good marriage. Her attitude to the King changed when he offered her that. She may have seen his marriage to Katherine as invalid, or as something that was inevitably over before she came along. We don’t know.
      These ladies were part of a dog eat dog world. They were not innocent children. Each knew what she was about. Each Queen acted for her own
      reasons. Both Anne and Jane saw a Queen unable to provide the King with an heir. Each Queen took the afforded opportunity. And took the chance that went with it. No saints here. Just people.

  2. Are you kidding that Anne didn’t plot the end of Henry’s marriage?! She totally had her eyes on the prize and did everything she could to get what she wanted, Jane at least did not recognise Henry’s union to Anne as legitimate. So therefore, she was not doing anything wrong and considering Anne’s treatment of Katherine and Mary.

    1. Just out of curiosity — since you are unconvinced by Anne’s refusal to sleep with Henry, or allow him to court her, and told him she would only be his servant, and actually ran away to Hever castle and wouldn’t come back even after Henry promised to let her mother chaperone them at all times, and didn’t agree to be his fiancee until after it was known Henry was divorcing Katherina one way or another — if all this does not convince you she didn’t want Henry or set out to destroy his marriage, what evidence could possibly be offered that would change your mind? If she had joined a nunnery or killed herself rather than submit? And if she were the source of the hardships Henry’s first wife and daughter endured, why did Mary’s torment increase after Anne’s death until Henry utterly broke her spirit?

      1. Anne Boleyn rejected Henry because she didn’t want to become his MISTRESS only to be discarded as her sister had been. Once she realized she could become QUEEN she did what she could to oust his first wife. And yes, Henry was the source of Catherine and Mary’s mistreatment but Anne made her own contributions.

        And keep in mind that the situations Anne and Jane found themselves in were very different for three reasons:

        #1 For Jane the stakes were much higher. She saw a chance to influence Henry’s religious policies and keep England away from what she regarded as heresy. Her dislike of Anne wasn’t based solely on any personal loyalty to Catherine & Mary. She also opposed Anne’s reformist religious views. Ousting Anne and becoming Henry’s wife would give Jane and her supporters the chance to stem the tide of the religious reforms and perhaps steer Henry – free from Anne’s influence – back to the old religion. Yes, Henry was the ultimate source of the reforms but he couldn’t be toppled while Anne could. And who knows what influence Jane would have wielded had she survived, secure in the knowledge that she was the mother of Henry’s son and heir?

        #2 Marriage wasn’t an option for Anne, at least initially. But by the time Jane arrived on the scene the rules had changed. Anne had demonstrated quite clearly that one wife could be replaced with another. So of course Jane jumped at the chance when Henry looked in her direction while Anne resisted. She beat Anne at her own game and she did it in a matter of months, not years.

        #3 Anne replaced Catherine of Aragon, a royal princess whose nephew was the Emperor. Henry couldn’t simply execute her as he could Anne whose family and supporters were his subjects. And once Henry decided to rid himself of Anne her death was a given. After everything Henry had done to marry her he couldn’t simply set her aside as he did Catherine. She would have been a living symbol of his mistake, a rallying point for her supporters, and the legitimacy of any children born from his marriage to Jane would have been questioned, including any long-awaited sons. So Jane’s reputation suffers because of her predecessor’s gruesome death. But keep in mind that just as Henry was the ultimate source of Catherine & Mary’s mistreatment and the religious reforms, he was also the ultimate source of Anne’s downfall and death.

  3. This fascinates me because Anne is such a polarizing figure. It’s impossible to know her actual motives, but her actions, from what I have read (and I am not an academic) indicate that, while there was a flirtation and she gained the notice of the king (to the benefit of all her kindred), she seemed to “opt out” and back off from him, while the king continued relentless pursuit. In all the debates about her morals and values, I find it interesting that no one wondered why the everlasting hell there was a married man chasing some young girl when he was supposed to be, oh, idk, running an EMPIRE!

    1. Because it was all the young girl’s fault for being desirable, of course. If she hadn’t been a hottie, none of his shenanigans would have happened. *bitter sarcasm*

  4. I have researched the contemporary opinions regarding Henry VIII’s health issues & disease which is very interesting. Setting those opinions aside, Henry was a King with a very large ego who would have his way. Divorcing his wife Katherina, pursuing Anne, then Jane & others is definitely something we know he did. We’ll never know all the true historical details, particularly how Anne & Jane were manipulated by their families or even if they were. However, history has taught us that women had few rights & were expected to obey regardless of how they felt about it. Both Anne & Jane were in unfortunate situations. No one crossed the King & lived to tell about it. It was either die if you do or die if you don’t. Anne had a stronger personality & was quite intelligent. Jane appears to be more compliant. Perhaps Jane was also frightened as to what her future held but felt she had little choice in the matter. Who knows? Most women today marvel at how his last four wives in particular could have wanted to marry him in the first place. Especially Catherine Parr his last wife. They could lose their heads! But those were different times & we can’t relate. Criticizing Jane is tenuous at best. We either accept all historical accounts of both women or we don’t. All I can say is I’m glad it wasn’t me.

  5. I believe that Anne started out innocent in the regards that she wasn’t willing to merely be Henry’s mistress. As she knew first hand how that would turn out. So yes at first she most definitely tried to get away from him. But then she finds out that he intends to seek a divorce. And clearly she saw the effect her refusal had on Henry….It just made him want her MORE. So at this point I firmly believe is when Anne used her brains and charm to get exactly what she wanted…To become Queen. Even if Henry was planning on the divorce, Anne never showed any remorse towards Katherine. In fact was very verbal on how badly she wanted not only she wanted Katherine gone, but Mary as well. And as for the fall of Anne, you cannot blame Cromwell or Jane. Only Henry! Because if he didn’t want her gone, there would be nothing or nobody who could have made that happen! Personally I think that Henry loved her traits BEFORE the marriage, of being independent and free willed. Mainly because he wanted her so badly. And it probably wasn’t even love for him as I don’t think he even knew what that was. It was a case of wanting something he was told he couldn’t have. Once they wed, I think he grew to depise her traits. He wanted her to be obedient, not challenge him! He was tired of his new toy, especially when she wasn’t giving him the”promised male heir”. Remember Anne was older when they married and was starting to get out of her child bearing years soon. So of course Henry jumped at the chance with Jane! I’m sure that Jane took plays out of Anne’s playbook but again we must remember for both women that they had little to no rights. A good marriage ( which most were not for love but best possible contract) was the best a woman could hope for! So I firmly believe that once Henry decided to marry Jane that he ordered Cromwell to figure out a way to get rid of Anne once and for all. So the only true “bad guy” is Henry and the times they lived in. Yes Henry did do unspeakable things. BUT you must also consider his situation, new & unstable claim to the throne. As there were several others with a stronger claim. As Henry VII won the crown by conquest and a weak claim by blood. So the pressure to produce a male heir was tremendous. It was so important that it could end the Tudor line. So remember that these are very different times. And we may not hear about other kings as much as Henry VII, but others were brutal too. This doesn’t justify his actions, but puts it in perspective. Henry’s obsession with producing a male heir, out weighed any “love” he had for any of his wives. If Katherine had given him a son that survived, Henry never would have gotten the divorce, Anne or no Anne, Henry would not have broke from the Catholic Church.
    This is my opinion 😉

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