Jane was one of the three surviving daughters of Sir John and Margery, Lady Seymour. Her birth date is not recorded but was probably 1507-1508. The Seymours, although of ancient lineage, were not important in national affairs, concentrating on solid service to the Crown in their home county of Wiltshire, where Sir John, as well as serving as Sheriff was also the hereditary Warden of Savernake Forest.
Jane’s mother was a descendant of Edward III, half-cousin to Elizabeth Tilney, Countess of Surrey, and noted beauty at the court of Henry VII.
Like her siblings, Jane was probably born at the family home of Wolf Hall, Wiltshire. Nothing definite is known of Jane’s education. She could read and write, and probably spoke some French – still widely used amongst the upper classes, but she does not appear to have received the modern, humanist education that her predecessors as Henry’s wives did.
What Jane would have learnt were the skills required of a gentlewoman who would expect to marry a man of her own class and run a country estate, supervising a large household of indoor staff and the senior estate workers, such as the steward or bailiff. This type of education included accounting, some law, fine cookery, management of a dairy, needlework of all kinds, the use of herbs for medicinal purposes, and the tenets of her religion. Hunting and hawking, dancing and playing of musical instruments would also have featured.
When Jane was about seven, her eldest surviving brother, Edward, began his career at court, first with a position in the household of Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VII, who was married in 1514 to Louis XII of France. Edward went in her retinue to France and remained there until the widowed Mary’s return, the following year.
Edward was knighted in 1523, following military service, and then entered the grand household that Henry VIII set up for his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond.
Jane passed the usual age for marriage for gentlewoman, of late teens to early twenties. There is no evidence of any match being sought. This is surprising, as even if Jane herself were no great beauty, personal attraction was hardly ever the basis of marriage – it was an economic and political matter, arranged by the couple’s parents or guardians. Perhaps Jane did not have sufficient dowry to attract an eligible match.
It is usually stated by Jane’s biographers that she entered the household of Katharine of Aragon, but there is no direct evidence for this. Her mother, although never a regular lady-in-waiting, attended the Queen on important state occasions, and may have introduced her daughter to Katharine’s notice. Similarly, other relatives may have requested a place for her. In particular, Sir Francis Bryan, her half-second cousin. Sir Francis certainly supported Jane’s career later.
Although there is no proof that Jane served Katharine, her attitude to Katharine, and her daughter, Princess Mary, later, suggest that she did indeed have a position with the Queen during the late 1520s, when Henry had already sought an annulment, and Jane’s fellow maid-of-honour, Anne Boleyn, was the focus of the King’s passion. Anne was also a second cousin of Jane’s.
In 1531, Katharine was exiled. It is unknown whether Jane accompanied her mistress to The More, the house in Hertfordshire to which she was sent. Elizabeth Norton, Jane’s most recent biographer, believes that Jane did form part of the Queen’s (as she still was) entourage, whilst Alison Weir suggests that Jane joined Anne’s increasing retinue. At any rate, there is no definite information on Jane’s whereabouts.
On 1st January, 1534, Henry VIII gave his customary New Year presents. One of the recipients was Mistress Seymour. Weir argues that this was Jane, whilst Norton thinks the lady may have been Jane’s sister-in-law, Anne Stanhope, wife of Edward. However, as Edward had been knighted, it is less likely (although not impossible) that his wife was referred to as ‘Mistress’ rather than Lady – also, it is not certain that Edward married Anne as early as 1533.
The Life of Jane Dormer, written in the latter half of the sixteenth century by Jane Dormer, Countess of Feria, once a maid-of-honour to Queen Mary I, recounts that, in 1534, Sir Robert Dormer was approached by Sir Francis Bryan, to suggest a match between Sir Robert’s son, William, and Jane. According to this record, Sir Robert’s wife rejected the idea out-of-hand, and quickly arranged for William to marry elsewhere.
The Life of Jane Dormer is not the most accurate of memoires, and there is no other evidence of a suggested match, but it is certainly possible that the story was true.
We therefore cannot say with certainty anything at all about Jane Seymour from her birth until September 1535 when she was definitely in the retinue of Anne Boleyn. During that month Henry VIII and Queen Anne visited Wolf Hall, as part of their summer progress. Whilst it is possible that Henry had first noticed Jane in early 1535, it is only from the autumn of the year that there is evidence that he was pursuing her.
The court returned to London, and Henry’s attentions to Jane became so marked that many observers, including the Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, thought that Jane might eclipse Anne in the King’s favour. As Anne fell pregnant during that autumn, and Katharine was still alive, there was no thought of Jane replacing Anne as queen, however, the role of King’s mistress was now vacant.
Jane, whether from natural inclination, or ambition, or family instruction, coyly declined Henry’s advances. Just as rejection had increased Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn, so it enhanced his interest in Jane. The court was watching, as Jane was believed to be a firm supporter of Katharine and Princess Mary, and was thus a natural focus for Anne Boleyn’s legion of enemies.
The Life of Jane Dormer records that Anne’s jealousy took the form of ‘scratching and bye blows between the Queen and her maid’, and another chronicler of the 17th century recorded that Anne ripped a necklace that Henry had given Jane from her rival’s neck, but it is hard to imagine the two physically coming to blow, although Anne was undoubtedly given to sudden outbursts of temper.
In January 1536, Katharine of Aragon died, and Anne’s position, far from being strengthened, was now weaker. Whilst Katharine lived, Henry could not feasibly reject his second wife, but, if Anne did not keep what Henry perceived to be her side of the bargain, and deliver a son, he would take steps to be rid of her.
On 29th January of that year, Anne miscarried, and, in her grief, alleged that part of the cause of the miscarriage was the shock of seeing Jane sitting on Henry’s lap. Her enemies immediately scented blood, and saw the promotion of Jane as an excellent means of unseating her.
Although there is very little direct information about Jane’s character, it is hard to believe that she was merely a passive instrument of her family and friends – she must have willingly played the part of the reluctant maiden. She did not know, of course, that Henry’s method of divesting himself of Anne would be so extreme. So far as Jane was concerned, Anne was an interloper who had displaced the true queen and ill-treated the Princess Mary.
Towards the end of March, Henry sent Jane a present of money – by no means unusual at the Tudor court. Jane threw herself to her knees, took the King’s letter, kissed the seal and returned it to the messenger, begging him to tell the King that she was a virtuous woman, and that she could only receive a present of money on her marriage to an honourable gentleman.
Henry, always deeply conservative in his ideas about how virtuous women should behave (even whilst trying to seduce them) was thrilled with this response. He decided that he would only see Jane if she were chaperoned by her family, and arranged with Cromwell that the minister should change apartments with Edward Seymour, so that the King could visit her regularly, by means of a private corridor.
Over the spring of 1536, Jane drew support from a wide array of people, as a potential queen. Whether this stemmed from admiration of her as an individual or was a just an opportunist movement to displace Anne is unknowable.
Descriptions of Jane do not give an especially favourable opinion of her appearance – she was fashionably fair-haired, but very pale, without the blushing cheeks that were admired. One observer thought that Jane was enhanced by elaborate royal dress and jewels, and that when in full regalia she outshone both her predecessors.
Whilst Chapuys did not think she was witty, he thought she probably had ‘a good understanding'. Henry might well have been tired of wit, after ten years of Anne’s witty tongue, and Katharine’s ability to drive a point home. Chapuys is often quoted as saying of Jane that he hoped a scorpion did not hide beneath the honey, but, if his letter is read as a whole, it is apparent that the phrase does not apply to Jane at all, but to his hope that Cromwell was not buttering him up about a renewal of the Imperial alliance.
Jane was referred to as ‘gentle’ and ‘kind’ in private letters, and she was certainly willing to use her influence with Henry to promote the cause of the Princess Mary – even to the extent of Henry rebuking her for not concentrating on her own off-spring.
By April, plans were afoot for Anne’s downfall. The Tudor legal system was not based on the notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Instead, there was a general presumption that if a person were tried, he was likely to be guilty, or the King’s officers would not have pursued the case. Similarly, whilst some commentators recorded that the case against Anne appeared to be based on very shaky foundations, many courtiers may well have been prepared to believe that Henry would not have had her tried if she were not guilty.
Jane’s state of mind in May 1536 is, of course, a matter of conjecture. Having been part of Anne’s household, she should have been aware that the charges were most probably false, yet she may have thought Anne deserved death for her treatment of Katharine, and for the religious changes that she had enabled, which Jane seems to have disliked. She is highly likely to have wanted to be queen, and she may even have felt genuine affection for Henry. He had enormous charm, and Jane would not have been the first woman to think her lover’s wife did not understand him.
Jane made her first formal appearance as Queen on 2nd June, and her household was sworn in that day. Two days later, she was proclaimed queen at Greenwich and dined under a cloth-of-estate.
Throughout the summer, Henry and Jane behaved as a honeymoon couple, with feasts and festivals. On 15th June, she rode beside Henry to Westminster Abbey, as part of the ceremonial surrounding the opening of Parliament. Her train was carried by the King’s own niece, Lady Margaret Douglas. She also received the customary visits from ambassadors, including the Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys.
During the early months of her tenure as Queen, Jane tried to persuade Henry to reconcile himself to his eldest daughter, Princess Mary. Her pleas were not sufficient to allow Mary back into favour without the princess first accepting that her parents’ marriage had been invalid. Once Mary had swallowed this bitter pill, she was welcomed back to her father’s favour and Jane and her new-stepdaughter were soon on excellent terms.
In 1536, a new Act of Succession was passed, naming Jane’s children (or those of any subsequent wife Henry might have) as his heirs. Whilst Jane was gratified by this, it also underlined her prime function – to bear a son.
During the autumn of 1536, the rebellion, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, broke out. This was a serious insurrection, and Henry could easily have been toppled from his throne, had the rebels not been placated with false promises. One of the grievances of the commons was the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Jane herself tried to intervene for at least one convent, and, during her pregnancy, which began at around the time the rebellion and its off-shoots were finally quashed, Henry founded two monastic houses, to pray for Jane. It is tempting to believe that, had she lived longer, many of the monasteries that had not been dissolved by 1537 would have remained.
A coronation for Jane had originally been planned, first for July, then for October 1537. The first postponement was probably due to plague in London, and the second because of the rebellion. Nevertheless, Jane received an excellent jointure as Queen, and there was much rivalry for places in her household. She was always determined to be a queen more in the mould of Katharine, than of Anne, with a more restrained and aloof manner towards her courtiers.
In spring 1537, Jane finally fell pregnant. Her pregnancy progressed normally, although she expressed a strong craving for quails, rapidly supplied by Lady Lisle, who was keen to curry favour in order to place one of her daughters in Jane’s entourage.
As the news of the impending birth spread around the country, there was wide-spread rejoicing, with bonfires, and thanksgiving services. On 16th September, Jane entered her period of confinement at Hampton Court. She went into labour less than a month later, on 9th October.
Following a smooth pregnancy, the labour was problematic – for three agonising days, she struggled, before finally delivering the longed-for son, on 12th October. Henry and everyone up and down the country, was jubilant.
In accordance with custom, Jane remained in bed, signing the letters announcing the birth to foreign courts. On 15th October, she was wrapped in furs and carried to a daybed to receive her courtiers after the christening (parents did not attend christenings). Shortly after, she began a fever, and two days later, received the Last Rites. After a brief rally, she again deteriorated. One courtier wrote:
‘If good prayers can save her she is not like to die for never lady was so much plained (pleaded for) with everyman, rich and poor.’
Prayer was ineffectual and Jane died on 24th October 1537. She was buried the following month with all of the ceremony that Henry’s court was capable of, at St George’s Chapel Windsor. Henry mourned her sincerely, and he always referred to her as his most-loved wife. She was painted beside him, even after her death, in the family portrait he commissioned in 1545. He also chose to be buried beside her.