Wednesday, 26 October 2011

October 24th, 1537: The death of Jane Seymour, Queen of England

Of all the many ironies of Henry VIII's reign, perhaps the most glaring is that after everything he had subjected Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn to because of their 'failure' to produce a son, his third wife Jane Seymour lived less than two weeks to enjoy his favour after achieving the great biological triumph which had eluded her two predecessors.

Probably about twenty-nine years-old at the time, Jane Seymour had been queen of England for just under eighteen months when she died. She and Henry had been privately married at the Palace of Whitehall, eleven days after the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The royal pregnancy had been announced in April and by late May, the queen was appearing at public events wearing a sixteenth century form of maternity wear. Her weight quickly ballooned as she indulged her cravings for expensive delicacies like quails, which had to be shipped over specially for her from Calais. In one day alone, she ate two dozen. As she spent more and more time in her chambers, growing fatter and avoiding exerting herself at all costs, one courtier looked at her expanding belly and prayed, "God send her good delivery of a prince". Considering what had happened to her predecessors, it's likely Jane was silently saying the very same prayer each and every night.

On the afternoon of October 9th, labour began. But it was not destined to be an easy birth. Two days later, Jane was still in the full grip of childbirth and suffering enormously. A procession led by the Lord Mayor of London made its way from Saint Paul's Cathedral to Westminster Abbey to pray for the queen and the baby's safe delivery. As they prayed, Jane screamed and writhed in her magnificent bed at Hampton Court Palace. Rumours circulated later that Henry had been so eager to have his son that he gave permission for the doctors to perform a Caesarean, despite the fact that he knew such a procedure would almost certainly cause his wife's death. Sadly for the historical rumour mill, this story is definitely untrue. Although Henry VIII had directly caused the death of his second wife, he did not cause the death of his third. At two o'clock in the morning of Friday October 12th 1537, Jane's agony came to an end when the physicians announced that she had given birth to a fair, healthy and fat baby boy, who was christened Edward in honour of the king's grandfather. Henry immediately made him Duke of Cornwall and the other traditional titles of the heir to the throne - Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester - would follow.

The national mood was euphoric and celebrations continued for days. Getting rather carried away with himself, the bishop of Gloucester compared the new prince's birth to that of Saint John the Baptist, which falls under the category of faintly blasphemous hyperbole. In her chambers, Queen Jane, now sitting up and coiffed by her ladies, could begin receiving the visitors who had come to offer her congratulations. Three days later, her son was christened and Jane could relax, safe in the knowledge that her position as queen was now unassailable. However, the reception after the christening, where four hundred privileged guests were invited to join the King and Queen in celebrating the day, was destined to be Jane Seymour's last public appearance. The day after it, she suffered a terrible attack of diarrhoea and by the next morning, she had taken to her bed.

The reason for Jane Seymour's sudden decline is difficult to pinpoint. At the time, some blamed her attendants, who they said had indulged the queen's gastronomic cravings and given her everything she asked for, even after the birth, when they should have been watching what she ate. Even if Jane's diet had been too rich and too self-indulgent for a woman just recovering from the rigours of child-bed, it's difficult to see how that could have killed her. It's also impossible to see how the servants were expected to refuse her requests, without either losing their jobs or facing the queen's displeasure. Others attributed her death to puerperal fever, a catch-all term in the early modern period which basically covered all manner of post-natal complications. Today, Jane would almost certainly have been diagnosed with septicaemia and that during the three-day long labour she had suffered a tear in her perineum, which subsequently became infected. 

In a panic, Jane summoned the bishop of Carlisle, with the intention of asking him to administer the Last Rites. However, shortly before the bishop began, Jane began to feel better and the bishop postponed the rite. She kept to her bed, but Henry carried on with the celebrations for Edward's birth and ennobled Jane's eldest brother, Edward, making him the new earl of Hertford. On the day of her brother's triumph, however, the queen had a relapse and the king ordered the bishop of London to celebrate a Mass asking for her recovery at Saint Paul's. 

For three days, Jane lay in her bed in a sweat-soaked fever. Henry remained undecided about whether or not to go back to his house at Esher for the start of the hunting season, but eventually he decided his wife's condition was too serious for him to leave. In a rare moment of selflessness, he stayed at Hampton Court with her. On Monday October 22nd, the bishop of Carlisle visited the queen again and pronounced with certainty that she was going to die. The royal doctors, however, disagreed and said they were "in good hope" that Jane might make a full recovery. At eight o'clock on the following morning, they changed their minds and told the king he should prepare to say goodbye to his queen. 

In the early hours of the following morning, after a terrible final few days alive, Jane Seymour finally received the last rites from the bishop of Carlisle and passed away, shortly before dawn. Henry, who had a pathological fear of illness and death, immediately left Hampton Court and went to Windsor, where he locked himself away in his chambers to mourn his wife. Despite a vigorous romantic tradition which states that he was heartbroken at the death of his "true" love, Henry, although undeniably grieved at Jane's death, was pragmatic enough to meet with his ministers to discuss making enquiries into a fourth marriage - this time with a European princess.

Meanwhile, at Hampton Court, requiem masses were said day and night for the repose of Queen Jane's soul and her body lay in state, sumptuously dressed, bejewelled and embalmed, for over a week. Her eldest stepdaughter, Mary, who had enjoyed an affectionate relationship with Jane, stood as chief mourner and took charge of Jane's servants during the mourning period. The funeral itself, which took place at Windsor Castle, was a magnificent affair, with Jane being followed by twenty-nine young damsels from her household, each representing a year of her life, and two hundred poor men, carrying flaming torches as the coffin was taken into Saint George's chapel, where it still rests today. On the final day of the mourning period, the bells in all the churches in London were instructed to ring for six hours, followed by one last requiem mass for her at Saint Paul's. 


  1. Hi Gareth,

    I know this isn't related at all (!) but as I think I've told you before, in the future I want to write a biography of Katherine Howard -that is, an academic biography, of the sort written by Lacey Baldwin Smith, Eric Ives, Warnicke and Bernard; all academic historians who teach history at university.

    Arguably, it could be pointed out that Katherine was the subject of a further 'biography' in 2005, by Joanna Denny, however - I'm not sure you'll agree with me, given how little I actually know about Denny as a historian - it seems to be very much a popular work, written by a popular historian; the same for Alison Weir, who I have heard is releasing a book in 2015 on the fall of Katherine Howard.

    The problem I have is wanting to write a serious academic work, of the kind written by Baldwin Smith in 1961 and which, I don't think, has been followed up by an academic historian since - I'm discounting Denny, Weir in her numerous books, and possibly other popular historians. I am worried because the fifth queen has been covered so many times in popular works that my work may just seem another popular read and will not be taken seriously. Would you still recommend this?

    Thanks and good luck with your book continuing to enjoy success!

  2. Hi Conor,

    Thanks for the message. Okay, here's what I think of Catherine and academia. I obviously have no problem with the idea that she isn't 'academic' simply because she's been covered in so many 'popular' works. I just completed by MA thesis on Catherine's career and, in particular, her household. So, no, having spent about a year studying Catherine and her court in depth there's no reason to assume that she isn't worthy of academic study.

    However, the qualification for a 'popular' versus an 'academic' biography, unfortunately, has nothing to do with the tone of your work. In order to write what would be considered an academic biography of anyone, you have to have achieved at least a secondary-level university qualification in history (i.e. a master's) and, preferably, a Ph.D. That's why Smith, Bernard, Warnicke, Ives, etc., are considered to be 'academic' biographers, because they all have Ph.D.-level degrees and, even more helpfully, all served or serve as professors or doctors of history at universities like Princeton, Southampton, Arizona and Bristol. Secondly and most importantly, in order to qualify as an academic biography, your work cannot be based too much on secondary sources, it has to be based on rigorous analysis of the primary sources. A popular biography is usually held to be one which is primarily based on re-interpreting and relying on the work and independent research of academics. So, for instance, G.W. Bernard's book 'Anne Boleyn: fatal attractions' is an academic biography, whereas Linda Porter's 'Mary Tudor' is popular. Even though, I would say, Porter's writing style is often much more cautious and less inclined to the improbable. However, Bernard did bursary-funded research in the Vienna archives and read the L&Ps relevant to his period; Porter states herself that her desire in writing her book on Mary was to bring some of the academic scholarship about Mary's life and reign to a wider, 'popular' audience by making it more accessible. Independent research like that can take years of training and it's often exhausting and costly to do. Basically, a "serious" tone doesn't make something academic, but it can make it a really great work of "popular" history.

    Hope you're well and thanks very much for the well-wishes.

  3. Thanks very much for that information Gareth. I'm not criticising or undermining popular history, because I've enjoyed several works on Tudor history, namely by Alison Weir, and I'm sure I will continue to do so in the future. It just worries me because history seems to be becoming increasingly popularised in the mass media and is losing its academic nature; particularly because of the public demand for Tudor history; I have been fascinated with Katherine Howard for a while now and would love to further explore her life in an academic work, yet it just worried me when I heard that Weir was releasing a work on her fall in about 2015 because I thought this would mean people would regard my work as one of a succession of increasing works on the consorts of Henry VIII, in effect proving correct Starkey's claim that Tudor history is becoming more feminised or, better put, more personal as opposed to academic.

    I didn't apply to Oxford in the end, but hope all is going well and I can't wait to read your biography of Anne Boleyn, although I am considering reading Warnicke's 'The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn' having enjoyed both Bernard's and Ives' takes.

  4. Hi Conor,

    Warnicke's take on Anne's life is quite similar to Bernard's, in that it's not a proper biography by only focusing on key areas of Anne's life, rather than its entirety. It's also been very heavily criticised for a lack of evidence for its central thesis, much like Bernard's 'Fatal Attractions.' However, there are bits of it, certainly at the beginning, which I think are brilliant.

  5. Hi Gareth, sorry, you must be so sick of seeing my name!!

    I'm still intrigued by Katharine Howard's date of birth, as you are by Anne Boleyn's, and because of this I've been researching - or trying to - her family members to see if this can place a clue. I think Baldwin Smith is probably correct in saying her parents had married in 1514; as there is no other source it is probably best to assume a date of c.1514 is accurate. They were quite old for the Tudor period - Edward about 36 and Joyce about 34 although it was her second marriage.

    Joyce had at least 5 children, we know that; Denny states she had married in 1492 but this is at variance with genealogy tables which suggest 1496. Her oldest child with Ralph seems to have been Isabel, who was apparently born c1495-1497, but Wikipedia (I know - not a good source) specifies 1506, but I don't know where this is from; yet because Isabel's first child was born c1536, would she really have been married only at the age of 35 (in 1531) and been c40 at her first child's birth? I don't know where 1506 came from but it could be more accurate as she would then have been c25 at marriage and c30 at her child's birth, which was still 'old' by those standards.

    Also, a piece of evidence often used is Edmund Howard's letter, written in 1527, stating he had 10 children and referring to his wife. Now, I believe Joyce Culpeper had died at least before 1527 because Edmund had married his second wife Dorothy in that year, so she may well have died 1525-6 and Denny's conjecture that Joyce died in childbirth may not be far off the mark. However, this has got me thinking - assuming Joyce's last child by Ralph was born in the early 1500s, would Edmund have really referred to a c. 20 something year old as a 'child'? Is it plausible that he had 10 children by Joyce and was referring solely to them?

    Sorry for this essay but it's got me so intrigued now. Personally, it does seem hard to think that if Katherine was only the 4th or 5th child of her parents' union she would have been born c.10 years into it, but if she was the 9th or 10th of 10 children it may well explain it.


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