Documentary Notes – ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ with David Starkey – Part 3, Jane Seymour & Anne of Cleves


These notes are from part 3 of ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ documentary with David Starkey. For part 1 on Katherine of Aragon, click here and part 2 on Anne Boleyn, click here.

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein c.1536.
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein c.1536.
  • The day after Anne Boleyn’s execution her lady-in-waiting was rowed up the Thames to the royal palace
  • Jane Seymour was to be Henry VIII’s new wife
  • Anne Boleyn’s body was barely cold, but Jane was getting betrothed to the king who banished one wife and beheaded another
  • There was a complete contrast between Anne and Jane
  • Anne Boleyn was a dramatic brunette with dark eyes with a spirit and temper to match, arousing Henry to rage
  • Jane was fair, almost pallid with pale blue eyes, a receding chin, and a doormat personality
  • She had helped to engineer Anne’s downfall
  • Could she really have been such a doormat to step over Anne’s body to the throne?
  • To marry Anne Boleyn Henry made himself Supreme Head of the Church
  • Traditional Catholics were appalled by Henry’s religious changes, including Jane
  • Jane had served Katherine of Aragon
  • As Henry flirted with Jane traditionalists wanted to take advantage
  • Thomas Cromwell would always fight Jane’s influence
  • Henry wasn’t taking Jane seriously at first, wanting her as a mistress
  • He sent her a letter and purse of money, but she rejected the money and returned the letter unopened
  • She flung herself on her knees, saying that she had no greater riches in the world than her honour – she would only accept a gift of money when she was married
  • “Masterpiece of seduction”
  • For Henry it was powerfully attractive
  • Jane was coached by Nicholas Carew to play up her demureness
  • Carew had chosen the right moment and the right woman
  • Henry’s behaviour transformed from seducer to suitor, only seeing her with a chaperone
  • Jane, her brother and her sister-in-law moved into an apartment beside the king
  • 10 days after Anne Boleyn’s execution Henry and Jane were married in private
  • She took as her motto ‘bound to obey and serve’
  • She kept her traditional Catholic faith
  • She put her own stamp on the court, with her ladies told to be demure and dress in the English style rather than the French
  • “We have come from a hell into heaven”
  • Religion was a key area where women had a certain freedom of action
  • Anne had pushed that freedom for reform, but Jane’s beliefs were the opposite
  • Would Jane be as persuasive as Anne had been?
  • The first test of Jane’s influence was in defence of the Princess Mary, a devout Catholic who refused to accept the illegality of her mother’s marriage
  • Nicholas Carew urged Jane to approach Henry directly
  • Jane made Mary’s cause her own – even to name Mary heir was treason
  • Jane’s position wasn’t secure, but she was prepared to risk everything out of conviction
  • Jane begged Henry to restore Mary to the succession, saying that their children would only be safe if Mary was restored
  • Jane was playing with fire as Henry still required Mary to surrender to his will
  • Mary’s friends were summoned before the council and questioned about their activities on her behalf
  • Mary confronted with a choice between her friends and her conscience gave in and submitted to the king’s will
  • Jane had hoped Mary’s restoration would signal a Catholic resurgence
  • This backfired, but she would try again whatever the risks
Henry VIII c.1537.
Henry VIII c.1537.
  • Autumn 1536 Catholics were in despair
  • Jane’s influence wasn’t as strong as Cromwell’s and monasteries were being destroyed, relics burned
  • Only direct action could halt the attack on the church
  • In the countryside men were bolder than those at court
  • The Pilgrimage of Grace started in Lincolnshire and spread across the north
  • Their leader was Robert Aske and the rebel forces were strong
  • Henry couldn’t trust the loyalty of his nobles
  • Jane’s sympathies were with the rebels, but her loyalty was to her husband
  • Jane questioned the king’s religious policies, saying that perhaps god allowed the rebellion because Henry had destroyed too many churches
  • Henry reminded her that Anne had died for meddling too much in state affairs
  • Jane accepted the warning and backed off but her real opinions were common knowledge
  • There was talking in Jane’s chamber during the revolt to get a nunnery exempted from the dissolution
  • Henry wasn’t strong enough to defeat the rebels and had to negotiate
  • Henry told the rebels he and Jane would travel north together, and Jane would be crowned at York Minster
  • At Christmas 1536 the rebel leaders were invited to court and Henry and Jane processed through the city, Jane triumphant
  • Jane also discovered she was pregnant
  • Even as he celebrated Jane’s pregnancy Henry betrayed her
  • Henry had used the people’s love for Jane to pacify them
  • Henry ordered the arrest of the rebel leaders and their heads were spiked on Tower Bridge
  • 9th October 1537 Jane’s labour pains began, continuing for 2 days
  • By 11th October there were real fears for Jane and the baby
  • At 2am on 12th October Jane delivered a son
  • For the first time in almost 30 years marriage to 3 wives, Henry had an heir
  • Jane was everything he could wish for and there was an outpouring of rejoicing
  • Jane was most triumphant of all, having given Henry a son and heir, making her completely secure – whatever she asked for Henry would grant
  • The christening was sumptuous with the Seymours prominent
  • The same day Jane suddenly fell ill
  • Jane became delirious and the physicians blamed her attendants for allowing her to catch a cold
  • It was puerperal fever and septicaemia set in
  • The court prayed, but in vain
  • On 24th October 1537 Jane died
  • Jane satisfied Henry best giving him a son and was submissive
  • Behind the submission were serious convictions and courage, but she understood the limitations
  • Jane’s is a story of promise unfulfilled
  • Jane and her supporters had hoped her marriage would restore Catholicism
  • Would things have been different had she lived? Doubtful
  • Henry was more wedded to the royal supremacy than to Jane
  • Jane had fought a battle for Catholicism and lost
  • Henry was grief-stricken and withdrew from the court with Cromwell taking over affairs of state, including looking for another wife for Henry
  • Cromwell wrote to the ambassadors of the birth of the prince and death of the queen, as well as the news that Henry needed a new wife
  • England had a new heir but no queen
  • For the first time Henry was alone and had no appetite for a new wife
  • One son wasn’t enough – Henry’s own elder brother had died
  • Henry accepted the pressure to find a new wife, looking all over Europe
  • Henry had disposed of 3 wives and was no longer an attractive prospect – princesses turned him down
  • Christina of Milan was alleged to have said that if she had 2 heads, she would marry the king
  • Marie de Guise was suggested but she said she only had a little neck
  • A bride from Cleves was suggested but the others in the frame dropped out
  • Cromwell had his own motives for a German bride
  • Henry needed to find her physically attractive and Hans Holbein was dispatched to paint a portrait
  • Henry’s ambassadors raved about her appearance and temperament
  • Anne couldn’t sing or dance or speak foreign languages but was a talented seamstress
  • Holbein had concentrated on Anne’s dress, leaving her face as dreamy
  • Henry projected his fantasies onto the portrait
  • The problem was how to get Anne to England safely without her being captured by the French or Spanish – sea or land
  • Henry had a special chart constructed to show the sea route
  • The Cleves ambassador objected that such a sea voyage in winter would damage Anne’s delicate complexion and she was taken over land
  • Anne was tall, beautiful, and notable virtues as reports flooded in
  • Anne tried to learn about Henry and was taught etiquette and card games
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539
Anne of Cleves by Hans Holbein 1539
  • Her new companions found her unusual
  • She arrived at Rochester on New Year’s Day 1540 where she watched a ceremonial bullfight in the courtyard below
  • A group of gentlemen enter and present her with a gift
  • The gentlemen then leave and return without their disguises
  • The king is the lead gentleman but seems unimpressed with the woman “I like her not”
  • Comedy of errors which got the relationship off to the worst possible start
  • It was the king’s love of disguisings, and Anne should have recognised the king from love at first sight
  • The violence of Henry’s initial reaction took everyone by surprise
  • Henry felt he had been lied to and that Cromwell had tricked him into the match for political reasons
  • Cromwell replied that they couldn’t just return her to Germany
  • There was no way out
  • While Henry raged in private, he behaved with politeness towards Anne in public and she had no idea what he thought of her
  • Henry claimed that she was nothing that had been described to him
  • Her German dress seemed heavy and lumpen and her complexion was dark with a full body
  • Cromwell was ordered to find a way out of the marriage
  • The first idea was to question whether she was legally free to marry – she had previously been contracted to the Duke of Lorraine
  • The ambassadors swore that the engagement had been broken years ago
  • Anne swore that she was legally free to marry
  • Henry submitted with the worst grace “I must needs against my will but my neck into the yoke”
  • Anne was preparing for the wedding, unaware of the activity going on around her
  • The formality of the court took some getting used to
  • She had no way of determining whether anything was wrong, and Henry was treating her with kindness and generosity
  • The marriage took place 3 days late
  • Henry told Cromwell that he wouldn’t marry her if it wasn’t to satisfy the realm
  • The wedding ceremony was only the first hurdle – they had to go to bed together
  • The pair were undressed, and the bed was blessed then the couple were left alone
  • Anne was unaware of Henry’s thoughts – he was miserable but determined to do his duty
  • Carved on the wooden bedhead were two obscene images – one a boy with an enormous erection and the other a heavily pregnant girl
  • The morning after Cromwell asked the king how he liked Anne
  • Henry responded that he liked her even worse – it had been a failure
  • Henry had been turned off and tried on different nights to consummate the marriage but failed
  • The blame was put on Anne as Henry had ‘wet’ dreams, showing that he was capable with any other woman, but not with her
  • Henry told Anne nothing of his feelings and their public life continued as normal
  • Anne was welcomed to London with a water pageant
  • Easter was celebrated together at Hampton Court
  • After 2 months of failure Henry unburdened himself to his principal gentleman – he claimed her found her body repulsive
  • Cromwell feared his triumph would turn against him – he was the architect of the match
  • As far as Anne was concerned everything was fine
  • She presided over the May Day festivities and talked about her coronation
  • Anne couldn’t see what was happening under her nose, but Londoners saw the truth
  • Henry’s boat had crossed the Thames late at night to visit Katherine Howard, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting
  • 10th June 1540 Cromwell was arrested and sent to the Tower
  • A few days later the Cleves ambassador, Harst, was summoned by Anne, who told him she had been ordered to leave the palace
  • Henry had decided to get rid of Anne and marry Katherine Howard
  • 29th June preparations began to try Anne’s marriage
  • The first possibility was the precontract between Anne and the Duke of Lorraine
  • The second was non-consummation, but this was difficult to prove
  • Only a handful of Henry’s intimates knew the truth at first
David Starkey
  • Evidence was gathered and Anne’s ladies-in-waiting questioned Anne, who didn’t believe herself to be pregnant
  • Anne was believed to have said that Henry said goodnight and good morning, but she thought that being kissed could get you pregnant
  • Was this conceivable, aged 25 and married?
  • Anne had been brought up in a puritanical and provincial court, so it is conceivable that she believed kisses were enough
  • 6th July 1540 the king’s men were sent to Anne to get her formal consent to try her marriage
  • Anne broke down at the news, the first that she had heard of a divorce
  • Anne’s resolution strengthened and she wouldn’t give way meekly to pressure
  • The ambassador comforted her
  • Anne showed a sharp legal brain and asked to see the documents about the Lorraine marriage
  • When her requests were ignored, she sent to Henry for the evidence
  • Henry replied that she should stop sending him messages
  • Without the evidence and with no legal representation Anne was helpless
  • On 7th July, the formal trial began and moved quickly
  • On midnight on 8th July Anne summoned the ambassador who finds her sobbing
  • She had been told that the court was minded to find the marriage invalid – she sends him a message that she still regards herself as his wife and only god can part them
  • Harst told her she had nothing to fear from Henry as she was a foreign princess
  • They were taking a gamble
  • The next day, 9th July, the court decreed that since the marriage was consummated it had never existed, so she wasn’t queen
  • Along with news of the divorce Anne was told she would be known as the king’s sister
  • It remained to work out the detail
  • On 14th July Henry offered terms – she would be known as the king’s sister and given precedence over everyone except the queen and the king’s children
  • She was also given Richmond and Bletchingley palaces, an income of £2600 a year and a great household
  • Anne responded with queries, like the number of servants and where Bletchingley was
  • Anne’s moment of hysteria was brief, and she was now level-headed, determined to make the best of a bad job
  • Katherine of Aragon had resisted and been discarded, Anne Boleyn beheaded – only Jane’s obedience was rewarded
  • Anne chose obedience as well and accepted the offer
  • Henry was reassured when he received a letter from Anne
  • Henry still feared that Anne would change her mind and make trouble for Henry abroad by complaining to her brother
  • Anne was too realistic to think that her brother would make trouble
  • Anne was required to write to her brother and follow the official version – all communications between her and her family would be monitored
  • Anne was entirely alone, exiled from court and her own country
  • Anne wouldn’t return to her country as a discarded wife
  • Her public face was accepting, and she wrote to Henry to return her wedding ring, asking him to crush it as a thing of no value
  • Henry didn’t reply
  • A month later there was a new queen
  • At New Year 1541 Anne returned to court as the king’s sister
  • Katherine Howard was the queen and had to be instructed how to behave
  • Anne curtsied to Katherine and spoke from bended knee
  • Henry, Katherine, and Anne dined together as a family
  • Henry and Anne’s marriage had lasted less than 6 months – she had survived and gotten a good deal from her ex-husband and lived well until Henry died
  • After Henry’s death her life became harder
  • One of the few letters remaining from Anne is to her brother, asking for money, as she could no longer afford to keep her household
  • “England is England, and we are strangers”

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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