Thursday 3 February 2011

Defending Jane Seymour

Well... those are three words I never thought I'd type.

Part III in her series of challenging the stereotypes surrounding Henry VIII's queens sees Claire Ridgway rising to the challenge of defending wife number three - Jane Seymour (seen above in Series 2 of The Tudors, as played by Icelandic actress Anita Briem along with the Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyer as Henry VIII.) Jane and Henry were married on May 30th, 1536 - eleven days after the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. They remained married for eighteen months until Queen Jane died as a result of post-natal complications, following the birth of her son, the future King Edward VI.

Personally, I don't agree with Claire's assessment that Jane was a pro-actively virtuous and morally upstanding woman and I definitely don't believe that there's any evidence regarding the old myth that she loved and revered Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon. I tend to think the image of Jane as a virtuous "matriarch in the making" (to quote Alison Weir) comes from the fact that simply because she didn't do anything bad or controversial, she must therefore have been good. A lack of malice does not necessarily correlate to being pro-actively virtuous. When I think of Jane, I can't help but remember Stefan Zweig who, writing about another royal woman in the 1930s, said she was "devoid of any vigorous wish to do good, devoid of any inclination towards evil." (I may be paraphrasing slightly!) Even the idea that it was she who rehabilitated Henry with his eldest daughter Mary seems to me to be rubbish, since Jane neither wrote to Mary nor did anything to alleviate her suffering when her father and Lord Cromwell were psychologically torturing her into submitting to the Act of Supremacy in 1536. Her gift of a diamond ring to Mary after the submission was touching, yes, but it was all part of the aristocratic feminine culture of gift-giving. It was standard, not a sign of deeper emotion and above all else, Jane had passively beheld Mary's anguish in the months beforehand. Jane may have liked Mary, but she certainly wasn't her champion! Anyway, I digress! To me, Jane Seymour was quite simply average - neither exceptionally virtuous, nor exceptionally duplicitous. 

However, as always, Claire writes very well and it's always great to hear somebody else's opinions on Henry's marital misadventures - when they're well-informed, as hers are. Despite my own personal opinion that Jane was basically a bland personality, Claire raises some brilliant points and I firmly agree that it's wrong to see Jane as dancing across Anne Boleyn's grave. To quote: -

"...there are those who believe that Jane was took an active part in Anne’s downfall by poisoning Henry’s mind against his wife and historian Agnes Strickland saw Jane as someone who coldly and mercilessly stood by while her behaviour with Anne’s husband led to Anne’s miscarriage and ultimately Anne’s death. Some imagine Jane as delighting in planning her marriage to Henry while Anne was imprisoned in the Tower waiting for the hour of her death, but just as Anne had no choice in marrying Henry, and we can’t blame Anne for what happened to Catherine of Aragon, Jane had no choice in what happened either. Jane had loved and respected Catherine of Aragon and so probably did not have much respect for Anne Boleyn, but that does not mean that she took delight in what happened to Anne... Having researched Jane Seymour and having read contemporary accounts of her behaviour as Henry’s wife and queen, I have to take her at face value and believe that she really was the sweet, virtuous, kind woman that she made herself out to be, either that or she was an incredibly good actress! I do believe that she was coached by Carew and her brothers but I don’t think that she had to act, I think her behaviour was natural. As much as I’d love to believe that she had a dark side, I don’t believe she had one, she really was a virtuous woman through and through and cannot be held accountable for what happened to Anne Boleyn, just as Anne cannot be held accountable for what happened to Catherine of Aragon. Jane made Henry happy, she gave him the gift of a son, she was a peacemaker, she was popular with the people and she was a humble, kind woman, it’s just a shame that her time as queen was so short-lived."
To read Claire's full article at The Anne Boleyn Files, click here.

For this blog's discussion on Jane's early rise to power, click here
(An author's note on this post: I now accept that I was probably wrong in suggesting that the selection of the crimson by Anne Boleyn for her trial carried some kind of colour-coded significance. It has been pointed out to me by a friend and colleague that it's equally likely that she just happened to like the colour and by now had limited clothing options left open to her. A fair point which I find convincing and now that I think about, I don't think someone like Anne would have made the mistake of confusing persecuted innocence with martyrdom. Simply because one was innocent of a secular crime did not make you a martyr.)


  1. It's interesting how the two actresses who played Jane Seymour in "The Tudors" created very different impressions of her character. Anita Briem's portrayal suggested a cold, quietly conniving and ruthless woman whereas Annabelle Wallis made Jane seem much warmer and more sincere and sympathetic.

  2. Hi Gareth,
    Thanks for your comments on my article on Jane Seymour. I tried to take a step back from my own personal feelings on Jane, because I actually find her rather boring and she is my least favourite wife, and look at her through the primary sources and through the eyes of historians I respect. To me, she was a rather bland person, particularly after the dynamic and passionate Anne Boleyn who is my favourite of Henry's wives, but I don't believe the criticisms that are aimed at her from the Team Anne followers are fair and I think there are many myths out there about her.
    You point out the whole Lady Mary thing and I'm with Antonia Fraser on this. I think she did support Mary and did talk to Henry about her BUT that she cannot be held solely responsible for the reconciliation because that was up to Henry and only happened because his daughter obeyed him. I can't see her as a complete peacemaker and bringer together of the family when she seemed to blatantly ignore the little girl who'd just lost her mother.
    Anyway, I do think she was virtuous and that she did not have any type of hidden agenda and I don't think what happened to Anne was her fault or that she delighted in it. I don't think Henry's wives had much choice in what happened to them.

  3. Hi Claire, I thought the article was brilliant - just to be clear. And it definitely did balance the opinions on Jane fairly, which is a good thing! As always, the AB Files articles are interesting and make you think. Plus, as you say, there's no point in going "Team Anne" and bashing Jane because of it. It's just as unjustified as when "Team Katherine" napalms Anne! :)

    Matterhorn, that's actually something I noticed too. Maybe it's the different actresses' interpretations of her. Annabelle Wallis described Jane as "a quiet storm," but I don't think Anita Briem was such a fun. On the other hand, it may have been down to the fact that Anita played her in Series 2, when the show was covering the downfall of Anne Boleyn and Series 3, when Annabelle was in the role, was when Jane was safe and secure as queen (although, was there ever such a thing?)

  4. "(although, was there ever such a thing?)"--with Henry VIII, not hardly! That's just a brilliant throw away line.

  5. I had to blink twice when my eyes fell upon the title to this post. I thought I must be seeing things. Thank you, Gareth, for alerting me to Claire's excellent posts, which are made additionally interesting by your commentary!

  6. I must say I have a rather different opinion of plain Jane. She had so have some boldness to wear that necklace in Anne's presence, knowing Anne was queen and had a slight temper. Then there's Cromwell, who moved her into his apartments adjoining the king while looking for ways to destroy Anne and his son did also marry Jane's sister. Jane was not a woman who stood out in a crowd, she had to be brought to Henry's attention. She shows very little emotion in my opinion, certainly not compassion. Not towards Anne, Elizabeth or Mary. Submissive is not the same as sweet and ignoring other's pain is quite of the opposite of kindness. I don't think she's evil incarnate but I do believe she is far from virtuous, kind and loving and more towards the haughty, smug queen some members of court had described. And why not be smug? She did win the king from the famous Anne Boleyn whom everyone surely thought infallible at one time when it came to Henry. She was not a young innocent, unaware of what she was doing when she was moved into Cromwells quarters either. She knew she was in those apartments so the king could court her. Her mistress was pregnant and married to the king but that did not seem to pose any moral issues with her as she did wear the necklace and did spend time with the king inspite of it. Anne had a better chance of claiming youthful ignorance than Jane as Jane witnessed what happened with Katharine.. I personally love Claire's site but on this post I will have to say I disagree


Related Posts with Thumbnails