Written by Rebecca Larson
While this should not be considered an in-depth research of the time period (as that would take the time to write another book), this should be seen as a way to follow Jane Seymour’s rise as the other lady in Henry VIII’s life, just before the execution of Anne Boleyn. In this article I follow the trail of gossip through Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys as well as a letter from Henry to Jane, up to December 1536, when it is suspected that Jane Seymour was pregnant.
The first mention of Jane Seymour in Letters & Papers is in a letter from Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys to his master, Emperor Charles V. The letter is dated 1 April 1536, just over a month before Anne Boleyn would be executed. In the letter (from London), Chapuys says:
…that the King being lately in this town, and the young lady, Mrs. Semel, whom he serves, at Greenwich, he sent her a purse full of sovereigns, and with it a letter, and that the young lady, after kissing the letter, returned it unopened to the messenger, and throwing herself on her knees before him, begged the said messenger that he would pray the King on her part to consider that she was a gentlewoman of good and honorable parents, without reproach, and that she had no greater riches in the world than her honor, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths, and that if he wished to make her some present in money she begged it might be when God enabled her to make some honorable match.
The said Marchioness has sent to me to say that by this the King’s love and desire towards the said lady was wonderfully increased, and that he had said she had behaved most virtuously, and to show her that he only loved her honorably, he did not intend henceforth to speak with her except in presence of some of her kin; for which reason the King has caused Cromwell to remove from a chamber to which the King can go by certain galleries without being perceived, and has lodged there the eldest brother of the said lady with his wife, in order to bring thither the same young lady, who has been well taught for the most part by those intimate with the King, who hate the concubine, that she must by no means comply with the King’s wishes except by way of marriage; in which she is quite firm. She is also advised to tell the King boldly how his marriage is detested by the people, and none consider it lawful; and on the occasion when she shall bring forward the subject, there ought to be present none but titled persons, who will say the same if the King put them upon their oath of fealty. And the said Marchioness would like that I or some one else, on the part of your Majesty, should assist in the matter; and certainly it appears to me that if it succeed, it will be a great thing both for the security of the Princess and to remedy the heresies here, of which the Concubine is the cause and principal nurse, and also to pluck the King from such an abominable and more than incestuous marriage. The Princess would be very happy, even if she were excluded from her inheritance by male issue. I will consult with them again today, and on learning her opinion will consider the expedient to be taken, so that if no good be done, I may at least not do any harm.[i]
In The Lisle Letters, volume 3, there is evidence that Lord and Lady Lisle’s man, John Husee was also in the loop on what was happening at court. He made mention of talking to Lord Montague just before the 26th of March 1536. This man was Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montague and he was good friends with Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter. Exeter was first cousin to King Henry VIII through his mother, Catherine of York (sister of Elizabeth). By connecting the two letters we can see how gossip spread. Surely these two men (Montague and Exeter) spoke, and it is the wife of Exeter that Chapuys mentions in the letter from 29 January 1536. We can also see that in January there was talk of the King ridding himself of his second wife:
Some days ago I was informed from various quarters, which I did not think very good authorities, that notwithstanding the joy shown by the concubine at the news of the good Queen’s death (Katherine of Aragon on 7 January), for which she had given a handsome present to the messenger, she had frequently wept, fearing that they might do with her as with the good Queen. This morning I have heard from the lady mentioned in my letters of the 5th November, (Marchioness of Exeter) and from her husband, that they were informed by one of the principal persons at Court that this King had said to some one in great confidence, and as it were in confession, that he had made this marriage, seduced by witchcraft, and for this reason he considered it null; and that this was evident because God did not permit them to have any male issue, and that he believed that he might take another wife, which he gave to understand that he had some wish to do. The thing is very difficult for me to believe, although it comes from a good source.[ii]
In that letter from November 1535, Chapuys referenced the Marchioness of Exeter, so we can prove that they often spoke to one another:
The marchioness of Exeter has sent to inform me that the King has lately said to some of his most confidential councillors that he would no longer remain in the trouble, fear, and suspense he had so long endured on account of the Queen and Princess, and that they should see, at the coming Parliament, to get him released therefrom, swearing most obstinately that he would wait no longer. The Marchioness declares this is as true as the Gospel, and begs me to inform your Majesty and pray you to have pity upon the ladies, and for the honour of God and the bond of kin to find a, remedy.[iii]
It was on the 10th of February that we hear about Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage and another mention of Jane Semel, by Chapuys:
On the day of the interment the Concubine (Anne Boleyn) had an abortion which seemed to be a male child which she had not borne 3-months, at which the King has shown great distress. The said concubine wished to lay the blame on the duke of Norfolk, whom she hates, saying he frightened her by bringing the news of the fall the King had six days before. But it is well known that is not the cause, for it was told her in a way that she should not be alarmed or attach much importance to it. Some think it was owing to her own incapacity to bear children, others to a fear that the King would treat her like the late Queen, especially considering the treatment shown to a lady of the Court, named Mistress Semel, to whom, as many say, he has lately made great presents.[iv]
Another note mentioning Jane Seymour shows up in a letter from Chapuys to Granvelle on 29 April 1536:
He (Chapuys) continually counsels Mrs. Semel and other conspirators “pour luy faire une venue,” and only four days ago he and some persons of the chamber sent to tell the Princess to be of good cheer, for shortly the opposite party would put water in their wine, for the King was already as sick and tired of the concubine as could be; and the brother of lord Montague told me yesterday at dinner that the day before the bishop of London had been asked if the King could abandon the said concubine, and he would not give any opinion to anyone but the King himself, and before doing so he would like to know the King’s own inclination, meaning to intimate that the King might leave the said concubine, but that, knowing his fickleness, he would not put himself in danger. The said Bishop was the principal cause and instrument of the first divorce, of which he heartily repents, and would still more gladly promote this, the said concubine and all her race are such abominable Lutherans.[v]
The Scandal of Jane
In a letter written by Henry VIII to Jane Seymour during the week leading up to Anne Boleyn’s execution shows that there was a bit of unrest at Anne being in the Tower and that some of his subjects may not have agreed with the King’s choices:
My dear friend and mistress,
The bearer of these few lines from they entirely devoted servant will deliver into they fair hands a token of my true affection for thee, hoping you will keep it for ever in your sincere love for me.
Advertising you that there is a ballad made lately of a great derision against us, which if it go much abroad and is seen by you, I pray you to pay no manner of regard to it. I am not at present informed who is the setter forth of this malignant writing, but if he is found out he shall be straitly punished for it.
For the things ye lacked I have minded my lord to supply them to you as soon as he can buy them. Thus hoping shortly to receive you in these arms, I end for the present your own loving servant and sovereign.
Around the same time that Henry was writing Jane love letters, Anne was awaiting her fate in the Tower of London. Eustace Chapuys wrote to Antoine Perrenot and explained to him who the king’s new lady was – this was the day before Anne’s execution:
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, “qua este a sa mate,” 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.” 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 (un bel enigm, qu. engin?). It is said she inclines to be proud and haughty.[vii]
The day after Anne Boleyn’s execution (20 May), Chapuys to Granvelle:
Has just been informed, the bearer of this having already mounted, that Mrs. Semel came secretly by river this morning to the King’s lodging, and that the promise and betrothal (desponsacion) was made at 9 o’clock. The King means it to be kept secret till Whitsuntide; but everybody begins already to murmur by suspicion, and several affirm that long before the death of the other there was some arrangement which sounds ill in the ears of the people; who will certainly be displeased at what has been told me, if it be true, viz., that yesterday the King, immediately on receiving news of the decapitation of the “putain” entered his barge and went to the said Semel, whom he has lodged a mile from him, in a house by the river.[viii]
There was mention again of Jane, however not by name, in a letter from John Husee to Lord Lisle on the 24th of May, five days after Anne Boleyn’s execution:
News here (London) are none, but that it is presumed that there shall be by midsummer a new coronaton: this by conjecture, and not unlikely. The progress shall not this summer pass Windsor.
Then on the 30th of May, news was sent to Lord Lisle from William March:
My lord, as this day the King is known to be married unto one Mrs. Jane Semar, Sir John Semar’s daughter; [ix]
That Christmas, Lady Mary was welcomed to court to celebrate. The King and Queen, standing in the Chamber of presence by the fier, turned to the Lords and said, ‘Some of you weare desirous that I should have put thi jewell to death (referring to Mary)’, ‘That had been great pittie, to have lost your chefest jewell of England’, said Jane. The King replied by saying, ‘Nay, Edward, Edward’, and clapt his hand on the Queen’s belly.[x]
If there is something that we can take from this article it is that court gossip spread quickly – that there we always opposing sides. It seems evident here that Jane caught the King’s eye early, but how early we may never know for certain. It has been speculated that he may have shown interest as early as 1534, but there is evidence other than there was gossip of another woman. Then there was the Summer progress of 1535, and many believe the King stopped at Wolf Hall to see Jane…but there is no evidence that she went on that progress. It was with that in mind that I put together this article. I hope it taught you something you did not previously know.
[i] L & P. X 601: Chapuys to the Emperor, 1 April 1536
[ii] L & P X 199: Chapuys to the Emperor, 29 Jan 1536
[iii] L & P. IX 776: Chapuys to the Emperor, 6 Nov 1535
[iv] L & P. X 282: Chapuys to the Emperor, 10 Feb 1536
[v] L & P. X 752: Chapuys to Granvelle, 29 April 1536
[vi] Love in Letters of Statesman, Warriors, Men of Letters, and Others, with a Brief Note on Every Writer. Bretano’s (1893), p 30
[vii] L & P. X 901: Chapuys to Antoine Perrenot, 18 May 1536
[viii] L & P. X 926: Chapuys to Granvelle, 20 May 1536
[ix] The Lisle Letters, Vol 3, no 706
[x] The Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Rutland: Letters and papers, 1440-1797 (v.3 mainly correspondence of the fourth Duke of Rutland). v.4. Charters, cartularies, &c. Letters and papers, supplementary. Extracts from household accounts. H.M. Stationery Office, 1888, p 310