The Six Wives: Parr and Seymour

By Carol-Ann Johnston

I think this is an apt description of Henry VIII’s third and sixth wives: Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr, for years it has a struck me how many similarities there are between the two women.

Both women unexpectedly came to the throne, both died shortly after the birth of their first child, both were married to one of England’s most dangerous Kings (the same dangerous King), both women faced uncertainty and danger during their marriages, both sensibly conformed at the sign of that danger, only death ended their marriages and finally both were the only two women Henry acknowledged as his wives and Queens, they were even represented by banners and badges at his funeral.

However, each had their own differences: Jane was a traditional Catholic, Catherine a Protestant reformer, Jane had a large collection of brothers and sisters, Catherine had only one of each. Jane’s first and only marriage was to Henry VIII whereas Catherine had been married and twice widowed before. Both were caught up in the Pilgrimage of Grace: Jane as a loyal wife with private doubts and concerns whilst Catherine was physically held hostage by the rebels. Jane had a son, Catherine a daughter, both of their children died young, Edward when he was 15, Mary at an unknown date but possibly as young as 2. Both died at a time, in different circumstances, when they were both safe and secure: one could look forward to a secure future as a Queen of England who would never be set aside and perhaps more children, the other who had not produced children in her previous 3 marriages could look forward to expanding her family and continuing to support and promote the reformation in England during her stepson Edward VI’s reign, ironically the son of Jane Seymour who had been close to her during his father’s reign.

In a final twist of fate, posthumously for one of them, both would become family as sisters in law, Catherine Parr married her fourth and final husband Thomas Seymour in May 1547.

Would Jane and Catherine have gotten along if Jane had lived? 

It’s a reasonable assumption that Thomas would have married Catherine a lot sooner as it was the death of his sister and his royal brother in laws interest in Catherine that stopped any plans the pair had in 1543.

Jane was naturally a conciliatory person and a peacemaker so despite their differences in religion I don’t think there would have been major issues there. It’s interesting to speculate that she may have ended up ‘refereeing’ arguments between another sister-in-law and Catherine. Jane was close to Anne Stanhope, her brother Edward’s second wife, however Catherine did not have the same good relationship with her and whilst we can set aside sources claiming that they clashed over precedence at court as written long after the events supposedly occurred, there is surviving contemporary evidence of Catherine’s annoyance with Anne. In one letter written to Thomas she writes that she has been let down by the Protector (Edward Seymour):

“This is not his first promise I have received of [the Protector’s] coming, and yet unperformed. I think my lady hath taught him that lesson, for it is her custom to promise many comings to her friends and to perform none.”

Another disagreement was over the Queen’s Jewels with Edward apparently reserving them for Annes use in her position as the wife of the Lord Protector of England but she had no right to them whilst Catherine as the Dowager Queen did. The three also clashed over what appears to have been Edwards handling of her dower lands, in a letter to Thomas again she writes:

“This shall be to advertise you, that my lord, your brother, hath this afternoon a little made me warm. It was fortunate we were so much distant, for I suppose else I should have bitten him. What cause have they to fear having such a wife? It is requisite for them continually to pray for a short dispatch of that hell.”

If Jane had lived of course none of these incidents would have occurred and without them there may have been an easier relationship between the two, although it’s possible a new source of friction would have occurred once Catherine married Thomas and Anne may have had to ‘make room’ for Catherine in her and Jane’s friendship? She does appear to have been considered prickly by some.

Perhaps Catherine would not have come to court? Perhaps their relationship would have been civil and friendly but conducted through letters or the odd visit? Jane would have remained at the centre of court but the King and Queen often went on Progress, they may have visited the Queens brother and his wife and possibly stayed with them?

This is all speculation but what we know for sure is that Catherine was very much aware of Jane’s existence, and on some level, presence in her marriage.

Henry was devastated by Janes early death and as the years passed, he came to look back on their marriage and Jane herself as the perfect wife and queen. She had caused him no problems or controversy; she did not argue or contradict him (barring one plea in public) and she promoted reconciliation. She was a traditional ‘English rose’ with her pale skin, fair hair and blue eyes and though never described as a beauty seems to have been fair enough to catch Henrys eye.

She confirmed Henry’s belief that she was the woman for him by giving birth to his much longed for male heir and Janes only child Edward in October 1537. The country erupted into celebrations but joy soon turned to tragedy when Jane fell ill and died just 12 days after her son’s birth. Jane died giving Henry his greatest wish and he never forgot that.

Jane was included in both family and individual portraits long after her death, when Henry died it was discovered that only portraits of his third consort were recorded in his collection, he also kept some of her clothes and belongings. Clothes could be expensive and were often recycled or reused so for some of Janes to be kept aside and still in his keeping at the time of his death implies a more emotional connection than has often been credited to Henry.

In 1545 whilst Catherine was Queen a portrait was painted by an unknown artist that came to be known as the Family of Henry VIII. It depicted Henry with his Queen and all three of his children but the Queen depicted is not Catherine but Jane who had been dead 8 years by this point. What Catherine thought of this portrait isn’t known but it must have at least upset her, at most unsettled her. From Henry’s perspective Jane was the mother of the heir to the throne and the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty, there was no question of her not being depicted.

It is also worth mentioning the sadly lost Whitehall Mural although this painting was commissioned during Henry and Janes marriage. This painting depicted the founder of the Tudor dynasty Henry VII with his wife Elizabth of York standing either side of a large marble plinth, in the foreground were Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. Painted by Hans Holbein the Younger it was an extraordinary piece of work located at the Palace of Whitehall quite possibly in Henrys Privy Chamber where only family, close friends and trusted advisors would have seen it including Catherine. Luckily for us Charles II commissioned a copy of the Mural by Remigius van Leemput in 1667 before the original was destroyed in a fire that swept the Palace in 1698, this much smaller version can still be seen today at Hampton Court Palace where the exquisite detail Leemput was able to copy gives us an idea what the original looked like.

Half of the original cartoon (a full-sized drawing on paper with holes punched in it, through which the artist could trace the outline onto the wall) has survived and is housed in the National Portrait Gallery in London, the surviving half is of Henry VIII and his father and is 101 ½ inches by 54 so the original was more than likely 203 inches by 108, quite a daunting image.

That’s not to say Catherine didn’t have her own ways of claiming her due of course. In her book Catherine Parr: Henry VIII’s Last Love, Susan James has pointed out that there are quite a few portraits of Catherine as Queen, some commissioned by Catherine herself, was she reminding the world and Henry that she was his Queen, not the late and great Jane Seymour? As James writes:

‘’A multitude of portraits insisting on her rightful place at Henrys side was one way in which the living queen could tactfully and wordlessly combat the pervasive cult of Janeolotory outside the framework of Henrys own beliefs. Giving Henry a second, living son would have been the only way for Catherine to supplant Jane within that framework.’’

James also reveals that Catherine abandoned the Queens Apartments at Hampton Court Palace soon after her marriage. Jane had died in these rooms and even been embalmed there before she was carried in procession to the Palace Chapel to lie in state and it’s understandable that Catherine was reluctant to use them, I wonder if the thought ever occurred to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard? Annes tenure as Queen was incredibly short and she perhaps did not stay at Hampton Court during her queenship but we know Catherine Howard did and in fact left her own mark on the Palace.

Jane and Catherines lives and even deaths were intertwined both then and now, one knew it the other never did, and it’s fascinating to see their stories continue today. Did it every occur to Catherine the similarities and coincidences between herself and Jane? I guess we can only wonder.

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