Of all Henry VIII’s six wives, Jane Seymour is perhaps the least known, and certainly the least written about…
Most of us know her as a rather shy, shadowy young woman, manipulated by her powerful and ambitious family into marriage with the king, and then summarily dispatched to posterity when she died shortly after giving birth to Prince Edward, the longed-for Tudor male heir.
In the third book of her epic Six Tudor Queens novels series, which has featured Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen and Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, historian and author Alison Weir sweeps away those conventional perceptions of Jane Seymour to bring us a stunning and enthralling new portrait.
If you had the enigmatic Jane down as the mousey and compliant wife simply doing her powerful husband’s bidding, think again… Weir blends fact and informed fiction into a flesh-and-blood queen, a woman far more complex, intelligent, principled and resourceful than neglectful history would have us believe.
This is Jane’s world rewritten by a consummate historian whose novels have been fashioned by detailed knowledge of the Tudor court, extensive research, and a remarkable ability to breathe new and palpably real life into the leading players of 15th and 16th century royal history.
From an early age, Jane Seymour has observed that ‘marriage seemed to be as big a gamble as the games of chance they played on winter evenings.’ Devout and obedient, she is more than happy to settle for a cloistered life as a nun.
But the ambitious and distinguished Seymour family of Wulfhall in Wiltshire have other plans for her and, after a brief spell at a nearby convent, Jane returns home ready to admit that the world is beckoning and that she does, after all, want ‘to experience every good thing it has to offer.’
Despite a warning from her brother that she will be ‘a lamb among wolves,’ Jane takes up a place at King Henry’s court at Greenwich Palace to serve as a maid-of-honour to Queen Katherine of Aragon.
The mirror of propriety, Katherine shows kindness to all her ladies, making rumours of Henry’s lustful pursuit of lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn all the more shocking.
For Jane, the betrayal triggers memories of a painful family incident that shaped her beliefs about marriage and she is outraged that Anne could willingly cause such injury to the devout and devoted Queen Katherine.
Soon, Jane’s family have plucked her away from the estranged queen’s isolated court and placed her into the more advantageous role of serving the up-and-coming Anne Boleyn.
Jane is horrified but only too aware that ‘those who criticise Mistress Anne rapidly fall from favour.’
With Katherine cast aside, Henry alters the religious landscape of England and finally secures his new queen.
But scheming Queen Anne’s own vaulting ambitions turn to dust when she fails to produce a male heir and Henry sets his sights on another woman… the demure and virtuous Jane Seymour.
Urged to return the king’s affection and win advancement for her family, Jane is drawn into a dangerous political game that pits her conscience against her desires.
Can she expose a gentler side to the brutal king and give him his long-sought-after son, or will she meet a fate similar to the women who came before her?
Weir is such an exciting historical novelist and this new chapter in her ambitious Six Tudor Queens series sees a writer at her brilliant best, transforming the pivotal but underestimated Jane Seymour into a devout young woman, gentle and thoughtful, haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn but also proud, loyal, and quietly determined.
Jane’s interaction and circumspect dealings with the capricious Henry is one of the most intriguing and compelling components of a reimagining that is rich in real history and evokes the tensions, uncertainties and menace of a court in thrall to the whims of an increasingly tyrannical king.
Gauche and inexperienced but only too well aware of the risks involved in a relationship with Henry, this Jane is controlled by her ambitious family but her relationship with her volatile husband blossoms into genuine affection and she discovers inner reserves of strength and conviction she had not dreamed she possessed.
As Jane Seymour left nothing in the way of letters or her personal thoughts, there is plenty of artistic licence in this magnificent novel but this is a story grounded in fact, a thrilling window on to King Henry’s turbulent court, and a memorable portrait of a young woman who was perhaps more capable and more daring than we could ever have imagined.
(Headline Review, hardback, £18.99)