Sunday, 7 July 2013

A third Queen Jane for England?

With less than a week to go until the royal baby is due, what about a look at some of the names of previous Queen Consorts that just really aren't going to make it.  OK, it's a risk.  In the next month there could well be a humble pie eating entry on why Jane or Berengaria or Adeliza was always going to be the name of a Cambridge princess but for now, they're definitely on the unlikely list.

Jane isn't the most auspicious name a queen of England has ever had.  It's a very English name which is probably why it's not been that common among queen consorts who were usually picked from European royalty.  But at some point that all changed when Henry VIII took a fancy to the second daughter of an extremely ambitious family.  Jane Seymour then became caught up in one of the most dramatic stories in royal history. 

Jane Seymour is a divisive figure among historians seen as either an obedient, gentle wife or a schemer who used mild manners to dispose of Anne Boleyn

There is nothing from her early life to suggest she sought or craved drama, power or the queen's crown.  And yet opinion on this third queen of the eighth Henry is as divided now as it was in her own time.  When Jane emerged as the king's favourite some commentators described her a plain, pale, almost insipid looking.  Others called her the prettiest of his wives.  All agreed that she wasn't particularly well educated or interested in books or learning, preferring the more stereotypically female pursuits of sewing and looking after the home.  But while some saw her as a gentle, genteel antidote to the ferociously determined and aggressively ambitious second queen that had turned Henry and his kingdom upside down, others perceived a ruthless manipulator who worked with her equally unscrupulous family to grab the throne at the first opportunity.

Savernake Forest - Jane Seymour grew up in Wulfhall, Savernake in Wiltshire
(photo Brian Robert Marshall)

Jane was born around 1508, the second daughter of John Seymour and Margery Wentworth.  She served at court and was a lady in waiting to Queen Catherine, most likely entering her service just before Henry VIII divorced her.  The fall of Anne Boleyn is so dramatic and still so poorly understood that it's not clear when Jane entered royal affections.  We do know that she was well in place in Henry's heart by the beginning of May 1536 when Anne was arrested.  In fact, even by Henry's standards his decision to become betrothed to Mistress Seymour within a day of Anne's execution was seen as shocking.  Jane became Queen Consort number three on May 30th 1536 after a quiet wedding at Whitehall Palace.

Another image of Jane Seymour - some contemporaries called her plain, others beyond beautiful but in the heavily political world of Henry VIII's court every description was laden with side taking and points scoring

Jane was never crowned queen of England, possibly because there was an outbreak of plague in London at the time of her marriage or possibly because it was only three years since Henry had spent a fortune on a massive and elaborate coronation for Anne Boleyn which proved unpopular and led to the king and his second queen being laughed at as they processed through the streets of the capital.  Instead, Jane confined herself to courtly and queenly duties.  Her main preoccupation seems to have been to restore the fortunes of Mary, the only child of Catherine of Aragon.  Henry's first queen had died at the beginning of 1536 and Jane argued for her daughter to be restored to the line of succession - behind any of her own children.  She failed in that but did bring Henry and his eldest daughter back together.

Mary Tudor, later Mary I, as a young girl.  She was18 when her mother died and had been excluded from the line of succession for three years.  Queen Jane Seymour argued loudly for her restoration and secured a reconciliation between Henry VIII and his eldest daughter

Her pregnancy in 1537 led to her withdrawal from public life and she gave birth to Henry's longed for son in October that year but died of complications less than two weeks after the delivery.  She was the only one of Henry's consorts to be given a queen's funeral and when the king died he asked to be buried next to her.  Their grave can still be seen in St George's Chapel, Windsor.

Queen Jane Seymour takes pole position in this portrait commissioned by Henry VIII showing the origins of the House of Tudor.  The king stands at the front with his third wife.  Behind them are his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York

So was Jane a saint or a schemer?  Her family was certainly ambitious even by Tudor standards.  While Henry VIII was still alive they kept their ambitions in check although the king clipped the wings of one brother, Thomas, by sending him overseas when he heard of a growing attraction between him and a certain Catherine Parr who became wife number six soon afterwards.  But following Henry's death and the accession of Edward VI, the Seymours ran out of control.  Thomas Seymour married Catherine Parr but soon made advances towards Henry's daughter, Elizabeth, which he increased when Catherine died in childbirth only 18 months after the king's death.  His plotting to gain more influence over Edward VI cost him his life.  His brother, Edward Seymour, gained enormous power on Henry's death and ruled for the boy king Edward VI for a while but he was executed in 1552 in another power struggle over the young king.

Edward VI, Jane's son.  He reigned for 6 years - and lost two of his maternal uncles to the executioner in that time
Whether Jane shared these ambitious or unwittingly found herself caught up in her family's determination to win power remains unknown.  She left no writings and her reign was so brief that there was little time for chroniclers to assess her personality or her influence over the king.  In 1536, soon after her marriage, the new queen asked her husband to parson some involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace but he refused and warned her not to interfere again with a subtle hint about what had happened to his previous wife who had meddled quite considerably in politics.  Jane was queen for just 17 months and provided the longed for male heir.  As far as the Tudor chroniclers were concerned, she was untouchable and her true character remains shrouded in mystery as a result.

Another famous portrait of Henry VIII and his family.  It's widely thought that the woman on his left hand side is Queen Jane Seymour, the wife who gave him the son he craved.

After the death of Jane Seymour, the name took a rather unfortunate turn as far as royal women were concerned.  In either 1536 or 1537 Henry VIII's niece, Lady Frances Grey, gave birth to a little girl.  Frances obviously had the sharp eye for politics that served the Tudors well because she named her daughter Jane, most likely after the queen.  Some chronicles state Lady Jane Grey was born on the same day as Edward VI but he exact date just isn't clear.  What is clear is that Jane was clever, precocious and loved to learn.  She enjoyed an amazing education for a girl at that time, with humanist teachings a mainstay of her upbringing.  As a result she was a staunch Protestant and her religion would cost her her life.

Lady Jane Grey was briefly proclaimed Queen Regnant of England.  As a ward of Thomas Seymour she was being lined up as a Queen Consort as he tried to arrange her marriage to Edward VI
Jane Grey became the ward of Jane Seymour's ultra ambitious and super suave brother, Thomas, just after the death of Henry VIII.  Within months he had married the king's widow and Jane now belonged to the household of the Queen Dowager, Catherine Parr, another staunch Protestant.  Princess Elizabeth came to live with them and while Seymour focussed his amorous intentions on the young princess, he tried to arrange a marriage between Jane and Edward VI.  Seymour was desperate for power but neither plan came to anything. Jane was questioned in the investigations into Seymour in 1549 that led to his execution for treason.  By then, Catherine was dead and Jane had been her main mourner.  The funeral was the first Protestant funeral for a public figure in English history.
Queen Catherine Parr, the last consort of Henry VIII, and a major influence on Lady Jane Grey
Jane's religion came to the fore again in 1553 when Edward VI lay dying.  He couldn't restore his Protestant sister, Elizabeth, to the succession without bringing back the older and Catholic Mary so he chose to leave his throne to Jane.  But Mary was hugely popular and within days had roused support and rode triumphantly to London where she deposed Queen Jane after nine days on the throne.
There's no doubt that Jane didn't want to be queen and was just a puppet of ambitious men who saw a chance to grab a throne that seemed in grave peril with no male heir to take it.  More plots followed and Jane was convicted of treason in November 1553 but it was thought her life would be spared.  However another revolt, again in her name but without her backing, in January 1554 sealed her fate and she was executed in February 1554 aged just 17.
So a queen who was either a murderous minx or a pawn and a tragic girl who just wanted to learn but who ended up losing her life because of the machinations of others.  I can't seen either of them inspiring the name for the first girl guaranteed to be Queen Regnant.

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