Tudor England possessed not one but two Lady Janes who were noted for their learning, whose parents aspired to marry them to the king, and who died tragically young. The first Lady Jane needs no introduction; the second probably will: Lady Jane Seymour.
Jane Seymour, niece to Henry VIII’s queen by the same name, was born in 1541 to Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford (later Duke of Somerset) and his wife, Anne Stanhope. She was the third of the couple’s six daughters.
Like their contemporary Jane Grey, Jane Seymour and her sisters received an excellent humanist education. In a letter that Mary Anne Everett Wood dates to 1548, seven-year-old Jane and her eight-year-old sister Margaret wrote to their cousin Edward VI, who would turn 11 in October 1548:
It cannot be expressed, O! king most serene, with what hope and joy that literary gift which we have received from your highness has overflowed our spirit, and what a sharp spur we find it to be, in order to embrace those things and to cleave with all labour and sedulousness to those studies wherein we know your highness to take so much delight, and to be so deeply learned; wherein we also, whom your serene highness wishes to see best instructed, hope to make some advancement. And these present tokens of your singular good-will, which no power of words can do justice to, show plainly how many thanks are due from us, more than many others to your majesty; should we attempt any act or expression of thanks, your deserts, always proceeding more and more in perpetual vicissitude, would not only seem to press upon us but would certainly oppress us: especially as we have nothing, nay, we ourselves are nothing, which we do not justly owe to your highness. Wherefore, while forced to fly to your clemency, we yet doubt not that a prince of such heavenly kindness, who has loaded us with so many and so great benefits, will also add this one, that he will not think that those things are bestowed upon ungrateful persons, which belong to a grateful spirit. Whereof these letters, which are wont to be substitutes for the absent, will be but a faint proof; while we pray for all happiness to your highness, with a long continuance thereof.
The most devoted servants to your majesty,
Jane’s parents encouraged the girls to correspond with religious reformers, as did the parents of Jane Grey. On June 12, 1549–a few months before her father, who had been named Protector for Edward VI, was imprisoned in the Tower for the first time–the eight-year-old Jane Seymour wrote this letter to Martin Bucer and Paul Faguis, who were living in exile in England and had taken up posts at Cambridge:
I have perused your letter, most reverend fathers, which has not only pleased, but highly delighted me. For I easily perceived therein your singular good-will towards me, a grace and eloquence equal to that of Cicero, together with a most abiding remembrance of me, which, as it is in most persons of very rare occurrence, I cannot sufficiently admire in you. But when I consider in what way I can recompense the sincerity of your friendship, I plainly perceive that this is quite out of my power; and that I can only offer you, as I shall do as long as I live, my warmest acknowledgments. I dare not presume to write to you how very acceptable were the books that you presented to my sister and myself, for fear lest my ineloquent commendation of them may appear impertinent. From your exceeding praise of the addresses of myself and my sister, which we might more truly be said to babble than to recite before you, I perceive your incomparable benevolence and friendship, abounding in such kind exaggeration respecting us. For neither my sister nor myself assume to ourselves a single atom of this commendation, nor have we any right to do so. My mother, thank God, is in good health: she desires her best respects to you both, and also thanks you for your salutations to her grace. Farewell, both of you, and may your life long be preserved! Dated at Sion, June 12, 1549.
Your attached well wisher,
Jane and her sisters were tutored by John Crane, as well as by Nicholas Denisot, a French humanist and poet. It was through the latter’s efforts that Jane and her older sisters, Anne and Margaret, became published authors in 1550. Their book, published in Paris, was The Hecatodistichon, a collection of 104 Latin distichs commemorating the recently deceased Marguerite de Navarre. The following year, another edition, Le Tombeau de Marguerite de Valois, was published with translations from the Latin into French, Greek, and Italian. It was not until the twentieth century that the sisters’ efforts were translated into English, first by Brenda Hosington and second by Patricia Demers. Demers’ translation of the first three distichs appears below:
1. Ann. This holy urn covers the ashes of the queen of Navarre, an urn covering a great body with mean earth.
2. Margaret. Here the queen, the nurturing Margaret, who excels any woman of either a greater name or piety, lies dead.
3. Jane. Nurturing Margaret lies dead, but in body only; neither was she dor- mant in mind earlier, while she lived, nor does she only lie dead now.
The sisters’ literary efforts attracted praise from the French poet Pierre de Ronsard, who wrote odes in the girls’ honor, and from Nicholas Grimald, who composed five poems in honor of the sisters. The verses addressed to Jane, edited by Steve Spanoudis, can be found here and read in part:
“The worthy feates that now so much set forth your noble name,
So have inure, they still increast, may more encrease your fame.”
Grimald also praised young Jane’s linguistic abilities, crediting her with knowledge of Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish.
The publication of The Hecatodistichon had coincided with an upswing in the Seymour family fortunes: the girls’ father, the Duke of Somerset, had been released from the Tower and restored to the king’s council, though not to his position as Protector. In October 1551, however, Jane Seymour’s life took a tragic turn. Her father was once again arrested and sent to the Tower; this time, Jane’s mother was imprisoned as well. Among the accusations against Somerset was that he was attempting to persuade Edward VI to marry his daughter Jane. Jehan Scheyfve, the Spanish ambassador, reported that Somerset had admitted as much: “This point he seems partly to have confessed, saying that history showed that the Kings of England had usually married in the country, and that he would have done nothing without the Council’s consent.”
Jane, however, was not destined to be a king’s consort but a felon’s daughter. On January 22, 1552, the Duke of Somerset, having been convicted of felony, was beheaded on Tower Hill. Because Jane’s mother remained a prisoner in the Tower, Jane and three of her sisters, Margaret, Mary, and Catherine, were sent to live with their aunt Elizabeth Cromwell, a widowed sister of Somerset. The king provided four hundred marks per year for the girls’ maintenance. (Elizabeth Cromwell was well situated to sympathize with her nieces’ plight; her husband, Gregory Cromwell, was the son of Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, whose own career had ended on the scaffold.)
Following Mary I’s successful fight for her throne, Jane’s mother was released from the Tower. Jane’s own fortunes improved: she went to court as one of the queen’s maids. There she became friendly with another teenage maid of honor: Katherine Grey, the younger sister of the executed Jane Grey. There was an obvious basis for friendship: not only were the young women close in age and well educated, they had both suffered through the executions of their fathers and the blighting of their own prospects.
One day at court, Jane Seymour fell ill and was sent to her mother at Hanworth to recover. Katherine Grey accompanied her. There, Katherine caught the eye of Jane’s brother Edward, Earl of Hertford (a title he had lost after his father’s execution but would regain in Elizabeth’s reign).
Jane then assumed the role that she is most famous for: that of go-between in the ill-fated romance of Hertford and Katherine. The couple carried their courtship from Mary’s court into Elizabeth’s. Although Katherine’s mother, Frances, Duchess of Suffolk, approved of the couple’s relationship and drafted a letter to Elizabeth pleading for her to allow them to marry, Frances died before the letter could be sent. As Hertford’s own mother was opposed to the match, Hertford and Katherine were left with Jane Seymour and her servant Glynne, who carried tokens and messages for the lovers, as their sole allies. Finally, in Jane’s presence, the couple agreed to marry the next time Elizabeth should go on an outing and leave the young women behind.
The three young people were taking an enormous risk. Katherine stood so close to the throne that her marriage was a matter of state. Youthful passion could explain Katherine and Hertford’s actions, but what motivated Jane–affection for her brother and her friend, a romantic nature, a love of intrigue, or something else–is unknown. Perhaps after a childhood spent as a model pupil, followed by the downfall and death of her father, she had become reckless.
In November or December 1560, the couple finally had their chance to marry when Elizabeth went on a hunting trip, leaving her maids behind. Jane and Katherine slipped off the next morning to Hertford’s house at Cannon Row, after which Jane hastened to find a priest to perform the marriage. Jane was the only witness to the marriage. Afterward, she gave ten pounds to the priest–the name of whom neither Hertford or Katherine knew–and dutifully offered the newlyweds “comfects and other banqueting meats.” The couple, however, preferred to consummate their marriage immediately, after which Katherine and Jane returned to court.
Over the next few months, Hertford and Katherine continued to meet secretly, sometimes with the help of Jane, who went with Katherine several times to Cannon Row. The inevitable soon occurred: Katherine became pregnant.
Jane could be of no help to her, for on March 19, 1561, at age nineteen, she died at court. It has been suggested that she had been ailing for some time, but her death at court, instead of at her mother’s home, suggests to me that her illness was a sudden one. Unaware of the intrigue in which her maid had been involved, Elizabeth gave Jane a grand funeral:
The sam day of Marche [March 25, 1461] at after-none at Westmynster [was brought] from the quen(‘s) armere my lade Jane Semer, with [all the quire] of the abbay, with ijC. of (the) quen(‘s) cowrt, the wyche she was [one] of the quen(‘s) mayd(s) and in grett faver, and a iiiixx morners of [men and] women, of lordes and lades, and gentylmen and gentyllwomen, all in blake, be-syd odur of the quen(‘s) preve chambur, and she [had] a grett baner of armes bornne, and master Clarenshux was the harold, and master Skameler the nuw byshope of Peterborow dyd pryche. [She was] bered in the sam chapell wher my lade of Suffoke [Frances, Katherine Grey’s mother] was.
Later, Hertford erected a memorial table to his loyal sister Jane at Westminster Abbey:
The Noble Lady Jane Seymour, Daughter to the renowned Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset, Earl of Hertford, Viscount Beauchamp, Baron Seymour, and to the Right Noble Lady Anne Dutchess of Somerset, his Wife, departed this Life in her Virginity at the age of nineteen Years, the nineteenth of March, Anno 1560 , in the second Year of the most happy reign of Queen Elizabeth, and was honourably buried in the floor of this Chappel: to whose Memory, Edward Earl of Hertford and Baron Beauchamp, her dear Brother, hath caused this Monument to be made.
Katherine at last revealed her secret marriage several months after Jane’s death. Both Katherine and Hertford were imprisoned in the Tower, where Katherine gave birth to the couple’s first son; afterward, the lieutenant allowed the couple to visit privately, resulting in the conception of a second son. Katherine died in 1568, having spent her last years in the custody of various individuals. Hertford was luckier: having likewise been entrusted to the keeping of various people, he was finally released in 1571 and eventually remarried.
Tragic as her death at age nineteen was, Jane Seymour at least was spared the disillusionment of seeing the marriage she had done so much to promote turn out so sadly. She also avoided the consequences of Elizabeth’s wrath, which surely would have fallen on her as go-between as well. Instead, she received one last poetic tribute, this one by Walter Haddon, a lawyer who also composed Latin verses. Translated by George Ballard, it reads:
On the Death of Lady Jane Somerset.
For genius fam’d, for beauty lov’d:
Jane bade the world admire:
Her voice harmonious Notes improv’d,
Her hand the tunefull Lyre.
Venus and Pallas claim’d this Maid,
Each as her right alone,
But Death superiour pow’r display’d
And seiz’d her as his own.
Her Virgin dust this mournfull Tomb,
In kindred Earth contains,
Her Soul which Fate can ne’er consume
In endless Glory reigns.
George Ballard, Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain Who Have Been Celebrated for Their Writings or Skill in the Learned Languages, Arts, and Sciences. Oxford: W. Jackson, 1752 (on Google Books).
Patricia Demers, “The Seymour Sisters: Elegizing Female Attachment.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Summer 1999.
Susan Doran, ‘Seymour, Edward, first earl of Hertford (1539?–1621)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25161, accessed 4 June 2011]
Susan Doran, ‘Seymour [Grey], Katherine, countess of Hertford (1540?–1568)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25157, accessed 4 June 2011]
Harleian MS 6286
John Gough Nichols, ed., The Diary of Henry Machyn, Citizen and Merchant-Taylor of London, from A.D. 1550 to A.D. 1563. London: The Camden Society, 1848.
Hastings Robinson, Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1846 and 1847.
Jane Stevenson, ‘Seymour, Lady Jane (1541–1561)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/68051, accessed 4 June 2011]
Mary Anne Everett Wood, ed. Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies. London: Henry Colburn, 1846.