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Looking for Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour, was the third – and only one – of Henry VIII’s queens to share a grave with him, but the tomb itself is not what Henry originally intended. The King had planned an impressive monument which would have included a recumbent statue of Jane, a tomb that he would share with her in due course. As such, there is a feeling that even in death, the meek character that either she cultivated or was genuinely hers, continues even here – in death, she again is overshadowed as she would have been in life, by the King’s awesome legacy and presence. The memorial slab placed here on the orders of King William IV in 1837 records that Henry VIII rests here with his queen, Jane Seymour – not detailing that she was his third queen. There is absolutely no mention of the two wives that had preceded her in her exalted status as Henry’s queen; nor does one sense that the King was only half-way through his troubled marital career – although we must of course remember, that Henry VIII would hardly have known it himself, at the time that Queen Jane’s tomb was constructed. History is being deceptive here – it is a version which is being recorded as it was supposed to appear; one almost feels from the wording that Jane Seymour could have been his only queen. However, this is in itself in a way true to how Henry would have wished her to be recorded – it is Queen Jane after all, who is depicted in the great portrait, ‘The Family of Henry VIII’, today hanging at Hampton Court, as the mother of the continuing Tudor dynasty, long after her death and at a time when Henry VIII’s queen in fact was not Jane, but his sixth wife, Queen Catherine Parr.

SOA235443 Jane Seymour (1508/9-1537) c.1536 (oil on panel) by English School, (16th century) oil on panel 41.5x36 Society of Antiquaries, London, UK English, out of copyright

Cast Shadow Portrait of Jane Seymour, in the year that she became queen, Hans Holbein Workshop (By Hans Holbein Workshop [United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, Jane Seymour had occupied a very particular place in the heart of Henry VIII; she was referred to as “entirely beloved” and there is indeed something of the ‘favourite’ here, a feminine ideal that she had probably come to symbolize for the King because she gave him the son he so desperately desired and importantly, did so in the attempt – so her death was intrinsically linked with her achievement, which had taken two previous marriages to achieve. In some ways, Jane may have been like the paragon Queen Elizabeth of York – another English queen, who like Jane, died shortly after giving birth in 1503 at the Tower of London, as the result of a post-partum infection. Indeed, when Jane died, she was the first queen since Elizabeth of York’s death to be buried under “normal” circumstances according to state protocol. Her funeral could not have represented a greater contrast to the disgraced silence of the burial of her predecessor, Queen Anne Boleyn. When Jane died, Henry was genuinely grief-stricken. The event is coloured with the King’s immense relief and joy at the birth of his longed-for heir, made opaque by Jane’s sudden death, so soon after Edward’s christening, the moment of Jane’s greatest triumph. The fact that the euphoric baptism of Edward took place at Hampton Court Palace, where Edward was born, was followed by Queen Jane’s death at Hampton Court illustrates the strange emotional environment that must have reigned at Hampton Court at this time, mourning following so soon after the rejoicing of the Tudor court. There is a sense of sacrifice and cost in all this, a feeling of both genuine loss and gain. The fact that it had taken so long to achieve the birth of one healthy baby boy, meant that the celebrations were commensurate to this significance.

After the succession of the failed pregnancies of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn fell a victim to her own obstetric patterns; these two marriages resulted in two surviving daughters and a tragic series of dead – or miscarried – sons. After a protracted delivery, Queen Jane Seymour gave birth to a boy on 12 October 1537. The room in which Jane Seymour gave birth at Hampton Court still exists, although it is not open to the general public. On 15 October, the boy was christened Edward and proclaimed Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Carnarvon. The christening was celebrated with great splendour and magnificence, a recreation of the ceremony being staged at Hampton Court for a documentary, ‘A Night at Hampton Court’ in March 2016.

Jane died on 24 October 1537, probably as the result of puerperal fever, at the pinnacle of her greatest triumph. She lay in state in the chapel at Hampton Court until 12 November, whence her body was moved to Windsor for burial. The sad note this struck in the King’s heart is reflected in the genuine grief that he exhibited at her death. In the Whitehall Mural by Hans Holbein the Younger – a copy of which exists by George Vertue – Henry VIII is proclaimed as a yet greater king than his father, Henry VII, who stands behind him. Queen Jane Seymour symbolically stands in front of the figure of Henry’s mother, again underlining a possible similarity that Henry may have seen between Queen Jane and his mother, also of course, as the mother of his own heir. This was of course, further emphasised in the Hampton Court portrait as previously stated, painted in around 1545. Flanked by his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, it is, of course, Henry who is the undoubted centrepiece of the portrait, but it is Jane who is posthumously seated at his side, with Edward next to the King. So, it is Jane who is remembered as his queen for the continuance of the Tudor dynasty, not Queen Catherine of Aragon, for being the mother of the future Mary I, or of Queen Anne Boleyn as the mother of Elizabeth I, in future reigns to come.

Queen Jane Seymour’s grave is to be found in the choir area of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. She is overlooked by the so-called ‘Royal Closet’ – named after Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first queen, who watched Garter ceremonies from there and from which his last wife, Queen Catherine Parr watched the funeral of Henry VIII. Unlike Henry’s other five wives, who have the individuality of their own resting places at Peterborough Cathedral, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Sudeley Castle, Queen Jane’s grave itself could be easily overlooked, were it not for the English kings with whom she shares it. For Jane Seymour is not alone to share the vault with Henry VIII; the space also contains an infant child of Queen Anne and the coffin of Charles I, whose body was placed here after his execution in 1649. The latter was discovered as the result of a search conducted for it in 1813 and at the time that the remains of Charles I was identified, some relics of the executed king were removed, which were later replaced at the wish of the future Edward VII in 1888. At the time when the relics were returned, an engraving was made by Alfred Young Nutt which shows an artist’s impression of the vault under the choir, showing Queen Jane’s coffin to the right of that of King Henry VIII, although her remains were respectfully left undisturbed.

The coffin of King Henry VIII (centre) and his third wife, Queen Jane Seymour (right), as sketched by Alfred Nutt, 1888; that of King Charles I with an infant child of Queen Anne, lies to the left (By Alfred Young Nutt, Surveyor to the Dean and Canons of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle [United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

 The great tomb planned by Henry VIII did not happen. The monument had been planned to include the huge marble sarcophagus originally intended for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey, perhaps a morbid parallel to the King’s appropriation of Hampton Court Palace. This sarcophagus remained at Windsor until the reign of King George III when it was removed and bizarrely, ended up as the great marble block and base upon which the tomb of Lord Nelson now rests, in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Somehow, there is less of a sense of pilgrimage to this grave. Tourists and visitors to the Chapel alike tend to walk around the memorial slab, staring at it in silent contemplation, some unaware that it is there. The enormous historical legacy of Henry VIII and the way that he somehow straddles English history, means that the simple slab initially shocks. It does not for many, conjure up their idea of Henry VIII; could a King who cultivated such a deliberate magnificence really rest here? Nor do there appear to be any flowers left here, whilst floral tributes and pomegranates are regularly placed at the tomb of Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon at Peterborough Cathedral, as they are at the Royal peculiar of St. Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, for his second wife, Anne Boleyn. But there is a sense of simplicity and solemnity here, and it is one which Queen Jane Seymour shares – because it was Henry’s wish that she should do so.


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