Tudor enthusiasts, I've just read (or rather, listened to) a fabulous novel. Alison Weir's third installment in the 'Six Tudor Queens' series was just too tantalizing for me to resist, especially as I'm currently working on writing my first non-fiction book on Edward VI. A novel about his mother, Jane Seymour (about whom precious few novels have been written), greatly appealed to me as a way to view her story and the lead-up to Edward's birth through 'her' eyes. I have to say, I hung onto every single word and really, really enjoyed this book. I just have to share my thoughts with you!
The portion about Jane's childhood follows her happy home life, her exploration of religious life at the local priory, and ultimate decision not to pursue the sisterhood. We see her older brother Edward's first marriage to Catherine Fillol play out dramatically, as the bombshell of her infidelity (with none other than Jane and Edward's own father) is dropped. The trials that her family faces together weave a story of unconditional love and strong bonds - truthfully, a rarity in most stories about Tudor families. The Seymours were certainly ambitious and self-serving to some degree, but according to Weir, they also loved and valued each other deeply.
Jane's entrance into court life and the service of Queen Catherine of Aragon paints the character that we'll see evolve in Jane throughout the rest of the story. She's deeply loyal to Henry's first wife, and admires her devotion to the Catholic Church, her extreme piety, and her kindness. Much of the early portion of the book follows the king's 'Great Matter' and path to annulment from Catherine, and his subsequent courtship and marriage to Anne Boleyn - and Jane's convictions are made quite clear. She'll never see Anne as a true queen, and will support and mourn Catherine's lot in life as long as she lives. Wrested away from Catherine's service after the queen's banishment from court, Jane is begrudgingly entered into the new Queen Anne's service, and she's none too pleased about it.
Jane becomes 'the haunted queen', as the title suggests, because of her role in Anne's ultimate downfall. I won't spoil anything here, but she does play a part beyond the wallflower in the background that we might often envision. She had a vested interest in Anne's removal from court - but her fate of execution is certainly something that haunts Jane throughout the rest of the book, showing itself with dark shadows of (perhaps) Anne, lurking in the corners of Jane's bedchamber at night.
The rest of the story, naturally, follows Jane's time as Henry's third wife and queen, and takes up a relatively small portion of the book, given that she was only alive for another year and a half or so following their May 1536 wedding. Through this time, though, Weir makes a number of interesting claims in the novel - again, based on research. One thought-provoking example is the portrayal of Jane being pregnant at her wedding. We often think of Jane Seymour as struggling to conceive a child with Henry throughout their first several months as a married couple - until early 1537, when she finally conceived Edward. However, Weir points out evidence in the Author's Notes that speaks to some contemporary evidence for at least one earlier pregnancy that resulted in miscarriage. If Jane truly did experience pregnancies prior to Edward, they would have almost certainly ended in early miscarriage, because if she had progressed in pregnancy to a noticeable degree, it absolutely would not have been lost in the historical record. Think of how many miscarriages/stillbirths we know of for Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn - Jane's experience would be no different, if the court were aware of her pregnancies.
In the book, Jane goes on to have another miscarriage before successfully conceiving Edward and carrying him to term, giving birth in October 1537. The details of this birth were thoughtfully considered and handled by Weir - who opted not to entertain the myth of a C-section being performed, or Henry VIII's insistence that the son should be saved at the expense of the mother. Instead, Jane's birth is detailed as difficult and long, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. As Jane recovers, Weir dives into further theory and evidence to explain her ultimate end.
As Weir describes in the Author's Note, it has long been believed that Jane may have succumbed to Puerperal Fever (or 'childbed fever'), which took the lives of many a medieval and Tudor woman. The evidence for this, she explains, is the detail of Jane being 'cold' during her final days - which may be interpreted as feverish. However, she points out that Puerperal Fever was extremely common in these days, and would have been easily recognizable - not only by the ladies who were caring for Jane, but certainly by her medical team. The symptoms of Puerperal Fever were easily-enough spotted, so the fact that her fatal illness and cause of death has remained somewhat of a mystery is cause of make us scratch our heads, and determine that it likely wasn't the cause.
Weir also notes a difference in interpretation regarding the phrase 'natural lax' - which Jane's physician recorded as having occurred days after Prince Edward's birth. Many historians have interpreted this phrase 'lax' to mean heavy bleeding - which has caused fingers to point towards postpartum hemorrhage as the cause of death. However, Weir makes the argument that 'lax' in late medieval times referred to a loosening of the bowels - the term 'laxative' deriving from it sometime later. So instead of the common assertions that Jane perhaps died of heavy postpartum bleeding, Weir makes the case for a bad bout of food poisoning - causing diarrhea and severe dehydration, which was exacerbated by a pulmonary embolism (perhaps being dislodged during Jane's movements to and from her bed). Weir consulted modern-day physicians, presenting historical evidence and seeking their professional opinions - and thus came to these conclusions. Therefore, the portrayal of Jane's illness late in October 1537 and her ultimately excruciating death, are explained in this way.
Ultimately, I really like Jane Seymour. Considered to be one of Henry VIII's lesser-known brides, she was the only one of them to succeed in her royal duty as queen - becoming Henry's 'most beloved' queen and rightful wife, beside whom he chose to be buried when he died ten years later. For these reasons, I believe Jane deserves a second thought, and certainly more attention than she is often given. Perhaps not so much the meek, demure, complete innocent that we often think of, Jane may have had a more complex character - devout in her conservative religious views, courageous enough to challenge the king on his policies regarding the dissolution of the monasteries and the rebels of the 'Pilgrimage of Grace', I would argue that Jane is a much more interesting, active Tudor player than we've given her credit for. Alison Weir's depiction of her is absolutely fabulous, I think, and her story was truly believable. I was sucked into it, and transported to Tudor times while listening, and I'd recommend it to any Tudor enthusiast on the hunt for a good, thought-provoking Tudor novel, based heavily in impressive historical research.