The Death of Queen Jane

Henry VIII’s third Queen, Jane Seymour, died on the night of the 24/25 October 1537 as a result of complications from the birth of her son, Edward VI.

For the first ten days after Edward’s arrival, all seemed well with both mother and child. Then, on the afternoon of the 23rd, the Queen suffered from “an naturall laxe,” or heavy bleeding. Her physicians initially though she “seemed to amend”, but as the sun set so did their hopes for Jane. Her confessor was called on the morning of the 24th, and remained with her to comfort the dying queen and to minister the Sacrament of Unction. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, sent Thomas Cromwell a letter to warn him of the impending disaster and to urge him to come to Hampton Court to give succour to the king:

My good lord, I pray you to be here tomorrow early to comfort our good master, for as for our mistress there is no likelihood of her life, the more pity, and I fear she shall not be on lyve at the time ye shall read this.

Norfolk’s prediction was accurate. The queen bled to death later that night.

Although I dislike Jane Seymour, because of her willful manipulation of Henry and her role in the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn, her death can only be remembered with sadness. She was young and a new mother and her death was a painful and protracted one; it was in every way a tragedy.

She is often remembered as the Queen whom Henry called his “one true love”, but few people seem to be aware of how cavalierly he treated her illness and death. In fact, Henry behaved so oddly during Jane’s illness that historians are hard pressed to find a reasonable explanation for his behaviour. There is no record of him ever coming to visit her on her sickbed or as she lay dying, which is perhaps not surprising considering his hypochondria, but on the day of the queen’s death Henry declared that he would go Asher to hunt if she showed signs of getting better … or that even “if she amend not he was not in the mood to “tarry” by her side any longer. He was obviously more concerned with hunting than with Jane’s health.

In Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII, I cite his open callousness as an example of possible mental deterioration due to McLeod’s syndrome. When the king was younger he was quite sentimental, and if nothing else knew how to behave chivalrously for form’s sake. He wanted people to like him, and he would have at least known to pretend to care more about his queen than his sports. By the later half of the 1530s, though,  he was indifferent to any feelings but his own, and didn’t seem to be at all worried about what others thought of him.

In the aftermath of Jane’s death, I think Henry built up his near cult-like devotion to her memory for two reasons. First, because it was “romantic” and garnered him sympathy. Knights of the Round Table had great loves (frequently loves that had tragically died, to boot) and thus Henry wanted a great romance of his own. Secondly, his adulation of Jane allowed him to insist that she was his first ‘true’ wife. This way he could continue to beat his opponents over the head with the idea that his first marriages were invalid.

Henry’s idealisation of Jane’s memory was certainly bolstered in every way by Jane’s brothers, who benefited greatly from their positions as the king’s former brothers-in-law and maternal uncles to the Prince of Wales. Once Henry passed away as well, Jane’s brothers quickly dropped any mawkish interest in her life, preferring to schmooze up to her son.

Adding an extra layer of sadness to everything about Jane’s death is the fact her sacrifice (if it was a sacrifice) — marrying the king to promote her family and give him an heir — was in vain. Her son would die before he reached adulthood, but while he was king her brothers tore her family apart fighting over scraps of power. Jane’s eldest brother, Edward, would actually murder her next eldest brother, Thomas, in a dispute over the wardship of King Edward VI.  It was Anne Boleyn’s daughter, the woman Jane had supplanted before a full day had passed, who would solidify the Tudor legacy. It was Queen Elizabeth I would be the last of Henry’s direct descendants to rule England, and the one who would be most revered by history.

If Jane Seymour died to found a dynasty, she sadly died in vain.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine

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