Please to See the Queen

Jane Seymour still fascinates me. Her queenship is often dismissed, as in Karen Lindsay’s conclusion that she’s left an essential “lack of self” in the historical record.1 I really don’t see how you can argue that! While her time at the centre of court life was very short, she inspired controversy during her lifetime and afterward.

Jane was famously and, perhaps stereotypically for a woman, an intercessor. She helped to engineer Princess Mary’s reconciliation with her father after years of estrangement. She seems to have exhibited conservative religious leanings or sympathies for the same as in her attempted championing of the Pilgrimage of Grace, rather at odds with her own family’s growing interest in the evangelicals. Like so many women at the time and today, her appearance and behaviour have been subject to endless nitpicking, going back to at least May of 1536 when Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, described her as “not a woman of great wit, but she may have good understanding. It is said she inclines to be proud and haughty. She bears great love and reverence to the Princess. I know not if honors will make her change hereafter.”2

Only on her death did criticisms of Jane recede. She was widely celebrated, as in her extravagant epitaph which manages to be as much about her son (the future Edward VI) as it was about her:

Phoenix Jana iacet, nato Phoenice dolendum,
Secala Phoenices nulla tulisse duas.

Here, Jane the phoenix, who bore a phoenix. Grieve
That never the world knew two such phoenixes at once.

That she was mourned, at least somewhat, seems confirmed by Thomas Berthelet’s publication of A Comfortable Consolation Wherein the People May See How Far Greater Cause They Have to be Glad for the Joyful Birth of Prince Edward, Than Sorry for the Death of the Most Noble, Virtuous and Excellent Queen Jane. In this pamphlet, Richard Morison, a prolific author, fervent evangelist and client of Thomas Cromwell, evoked a popular distress at the queen’s death: “who can remember, with what vertues queen Jane was adourned, and see her grace and graces now taken from us, and not wasshe his cheekes with tears?”3

At Henry’s death in 1547, Jane was revived in public memory. She was represented, alongside Henry, on the first of the twelve “banners of descents” born at his funeral and immediately preceding the banners representing Henry and his current wife, Katherine Parr.4. More significantly, Henry had made provision in his will that he be buried alongside “the bones and body of our true and loving wyf Quene Jane”.5 Her vault in the chapel was opened in February of 1547 and the king’s coffin was there interred beside her. Plans were made to complete a grand tomb complete with effigies of both Henry and Jane but the work was never completed.6

Jane Seymour Society of Antiquaries This understudied portrait of Jane, belonging to the Society of Antiquaries, is an interesting image of the queen. Part of a portrait pair matched with Henry, it has been dated to the late 1530s or possibly the 1540s. Unlike the refined and familiar Holbein portrait, it is scant with details and finery. Her appearance confirms a dating in the 1530s or early 1540s: it appears to be a modified form of the traditional English gable headdress which Jane pointedly required of ladies in her court (as opposed to the French hood which Anne had popularized).6 Although not as evocative of a likeness as Holbein produced, this is a rich and relatively small portrait from a pair, suggesting that the two were meant to be enjoyed together. I like to think that the pair might have been painted for Edward, their son, whose only knowledge of the queen would have been through stories told him and such portrait images.

For a more leisurely consideration of Jane’s life and times, consider picking up Elizabeth Norton’s readable and well-balanced popular biography of Jane: Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love (Stroud: Amberley, 2009).

Notes:

  1. Karen Lindsey, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII (Reading, MA: Perseus, 1995), 118.

  2. Eustace Chapuys to Antoine Perrenot. 18 May, 1536. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, edited by J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner and R. H. Brodie. (London: Longman, 1871). Volume 10. No. 901.

  3. Richard Morison, A Comfortable Consolation Wherein the People May See How Far Greater Cause They Have to be Glad for the Joyful Birth of Prince Edward, Than Sorry for the Death of the Most Noble, Virtuous and Excellent Queen Jane. STC 18109.5 (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1537), Aiiv.

  4. John Strype, Ecclesiastical memorials; relating chiefly to religion, and the reformation of it, and the emergencies of the Church of England, under King Henry VIII. King Edward VI. and Queen Mary the First. … In three volumes. With a large appendix to each volume, … By John Strype, M.A. (London, 1721), Vol. 2. Appendix A (11).

  5. Will of Henry VIII, king of England, France, and Ireland. 1546.” The National Archives (TNA): E 23/4.

  6. Muriel St. Clare Byrne, ed., The Lisle Letters. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) Volume 4: 193-197.

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