Even before Anne Boleyn had been executed, eyes were starting to turn towards the future; predictions were being made about the next queen, and foreign princes were writing to their ambassadors about which eligible female relatives to offer. To those who stood near the court, however, it was clear that the next queen would be Mistress Jane Seymour, another courtier’s daughter, like Anne before her.
Jane and Henry were betrothed on the 20th May, just one day after arguably the most famous executions in English history, and were married ten days after that.
In the popular imagination, Jane is remembered as meek and mild, virtuous and kind, fecund and fertile. And yet, this isn’t how she appears in some contemporary descriptions.
Our earliest description of Jane comes from the letters of Chapuys, who took a surprising dim view of the lady. Although I usually take a very cynical view of Chapuys’ letters, his rather unflattering description of a lady whom he had every reason to think well of, given her role in displacing ‘the Concubine’ and her love of Princess Mary, suggests that this is a fairly accurate portrayal of how Jane was seen by her peers.
On the 18th May, Chapuys wrote:
‘As I hear that letters from England are opened at Calais, you will have more trouble in deciphering several things which but for this might be written clear. I have no news to add to what I write to His Majesty, except to tell you something of the quality of the King’s new lady, which the Emperor and Granvelle would perhaps like to hear. She is sister of one Edward Semel, of middle stature and no great beauty, so fair that one would call her rather pale than otherwise. She is over 25 years old. I leave you to judge whether, being English and having long frequented the Court, “si elle ne tiendroit pas a conscience de navoir pourveu et prevenu de savoir que cest de faire nopces” (?whether she would not already have the awareness and knowledge of what to do on her wedding night.) Perhaps this King will only be too glad to be so far relieved from trouble. Also, according to the account given of him by the Concubine, he has neither vigour nor virtue; and besides he may make a condition in the marriage that she be a virgin, and when he has a mind to divorce her he will find enough of witnesses. The said Semel is 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…’
We can likely dismiss the rumours about Jane’s promiscuity as arising from gossip about what sort of court her former mistress kept. But much of the rest of the description does seem to be reflected in later accounts. We do know that Jane was very kind and welcoming to Mary, although given that Mary did have to submit to her father’s will before she was allowed back at court, it is difficult to say how much influence Jane actually had there. Han Holbein’s portrait of Jane shows a fair, but unremarkable woman. An article that I wrote last year shows that she was a strict mistress who demanded very high standards of her ladies in both dress and deportment, which you can read more about here. Unfortunately, we remain as much in the dark about Jane’s ‘understanding’ as Chapuys, as little has survived that gives insight into the workings of her mind.
Though other letters and accounts glorify Jane, these were written either by courtiers eager to show their loyalty to the King and his new Queen, or were written in the wake of Jane’s triumphant birthing of a son and subsequent death. This description of Chapuys uniquely seems to paint a very realistic picture of a young woman, unflinchingly touching on both her flaws and virtues