Jane Seymour was the only one of Henry VIII’s queens to share a grave with him, but the tomb is not what Henry VIII originally intended. The King had planned an impressive monument, to include a recumbent statue of his most “entirely beloved” Queen Jane, a tomb which he would share with her in due course, overshadowing her to the last with all the straddling bravura of the Whitehall mural. In this, Jane much conforms to her own chosen motto of ‘Bound to obey and serve’ and is dominated in death as she would have been in life, by Henry’s sheer magnificence. She modestly occupies her own place in the burial vault, much as her supposedly ‘meek’ character was captured by Hans Holbein. She shares the vault at St George’s Chapel however with not one King but two. Royal history makes strange family gatherings.
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. As with so many memorials, these are truths which keep their secrets. There is no mention of the other five queens. One almost feels from the wording that she could have been his only queen. Certainly, she was the only one of his wives to share eternity with him by his order and also, the only of his queens who received a traditional royal burial according to her status, in his lifetime.
Certainly, Jane Seymour had occupied a very particular place in the heart of Henry VIII, not least because she gave him the son he so desperately desired. When Jane died, Henry was genuinely grief-stricken and mourned the woman who had died after giving birth to his longed-for son and heir, Edward. Her death may also have revived painful recollections of his mother, Queen Elizabeth of York, who died as the result of childbirth at the Tower of London.
The King’s immense relief at the birth of his heir must surely have been tinged with a sentimental acknowledgement that it was to Jane that he owed his gratitude for this birth, for she had died in the process. There is a weighty sense of sacrifice in all this, a feeling of both genuine loss and gain. After the troubled obstetric history of his two earlier queens, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn – two marriages which both resulted in daughters – Jane Seymour had finally managed to give the King the son that he craved.
After a protracted delivery, she gave birth to a boy on 12 October 1537. The fact that it had taken so long to achieve the birth of this one healthy baby boy, meant that the celebrations were commensurate to that significance. 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 all splendour and magnificence. Jane died on 24 October 1537, possibly as the result of puerperal fever, at the pinnacle of her greatest triumph. She lay in state in the chapel royal at Hampton Court until 12 November, when her body was moved to Windsor for burial. The genuine note this struck in the King’s heart is reflected in the 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. Behind Henry VIII stands the figure of Henry VII, whilst Queen Jane Seymour symbolically stands in front of the figure of Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, underlining the likely similarities that were stressed between these queens. We might recall the fact that Elizabeth of York had died in an attempt to give Henry VII another child.
It is also Queen Jane who appears on the great painting of the family of Henry VIII, painted in around 1545, flanked by his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, daughters of his two earlier wives. Henry sits as the centrepiece of the portrait. But it is his “entirely beloved” Jane who is posthumously seated at his side, with Edward next to the King, showing the order of succession through clear royal pose. At the time this picture was painted, it is the dead Queen Jane who is commemorated as the mother of the new Tudor dynasty, even though it was his sixth wife, Queen Catherine Parr who was his correct consort by this time and the only queen with whom he achieved a semblance of family life.
The memorial slab at St George’s Chapel is overlooked by the so-called ‘Queen’s Closet’, named for Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first queen and from which his last queen, Catherine Parr watched the King’s funeral. Unlike Henry’s other five wives, who all have the (posthumous) individuality of their own resting places, Jane’s grave could even be overlooked, were it not for the Tudor king with whom she shares it. For Jane Seymour is not alone to share the vault with Henry VIII. The vault also contains an infant child of Queen Anne and the coffin of King 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 were 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 and Jane’s casket is located to the right of Henry VIII, although her remains were left undisturbed.
The great tomb once planned by Henry did not happen. The monument had been planned to include the huge marble sarcophagus originally intended for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey. This remained at Windsor until the reign of George III when it was removed and ended up as the great marble block and base upon which the tomb of Admiral Lord Nelson now rests, in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Somehow, there is a sense of missing pilgrimage at this grave. Tourists and visitors alike to the Chapel tend to walk around the memorial slab, staring at it in silent contemplation, even shock. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to reconcile the magnificence of Henry VIII and his awesome build with the simplicity of this slab. The cult of majestas that Henry unquestionably epitomised means that the proportions of his legacy do not accord with this as a lasting memorial.
But there is a sense of solemnity and of awe here. And it is one which Jane Seymour shares because it was Henry VIII’s own wish that she should do so.