Wednesday 31 December 2014

Happy New Year

I just wanted to wish you all a happy New Year!

Tying up news of my books over the year, there have been a few nice mentions of my work.

BBC History magazine have included my quiz on the queens of England as one of their top 10 quizzes of 2014. You can read more here. My friend, Lauren Mackay's quiz on the six wives of Henry VIII is also included and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Boleyn Women was included as one of Anne Boleyn: From Queen to History's top 10 history books of the year: 'A wonderful, captivating and thoroughly enjoyable book'. You can read more here.

Finally, the History of Royal Women blog published a nice review of Elfrida just before Christmas: 'this book is very well researched and finally shows us Elfrida as the queen she really was'. You can read the full review here.

Otherwise, I think that's it for 2014 - five minutes left until 2015 here in the UK!

Tudor Times - A new Tudor and Stuart website

The excellent Tudor Times website went live earlier this month. It's a fantastic site, full of well researched and reliable information on the period. The first person of the month is Catherine Parr, who I have previously written a biography on. I am also currently researching her later life for my new book, The Seymour Scandal, which will be published by Head of Zeus in the UK and Pegasus in the US. Alison Weir very kindly referred to my book in her guest article on the scandal (here).

You can also read my guest article on Tudor Church Monuments (here). Church monuments are central to my academic research into the Blount family, with the monuments, and other material culture, used as a source.

There are some fascinating articles coming up over at Tudor Times and I recommend that you have a look!

Tuesday 2 December 2014

150 Essential Hints and Tips

To mark the 150th issue of the fantastic Your Family Tree magazine, I wrote a cover feature on 150 Essential Hints and Tips. If you are just starting out in your family history research or are looking to go back further, take a look at this article. There are suggestions for sources going right back to the pre-Conquest period.

Richard III's DNA

The team at Leicester University have released some very interesting findings regarding Richard III's DNA. Although the maternal line is unbroken up to the present day, the male line of descent from Edward III has a major issue. Both Richard III and the current day Somerset family should share the same Y chromosome, since they are believed to have been direct male line descendants of Edward III (with the Y Chromosome passed down intact from father and son). However, they don't. This means that either in Richard III's immediate ancestry or in the Beaufort (who became the Somersets) family, someone was the not the son of their purported father - someone was illegitimate.

It's unclear who this was and impossible to speculate. It also doesn't affect the current royal family or the Tudor dynasty. For it to affect the Tudors, John of Gaunt or his immediate Beaufort descendants would have needed to be illegitimate. Even if this was the case, Henry VII claimed through conquest and marriage and his wife, Elizabeth of York, was a descendant of Edward III (unless the illegitimacy lay in the Yorkist line). Her daughter, Margaret Tudor, who is the ancestress of the current royal family therefore carried her descent.

You can read more about it in an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph in which I am quoted.

Thursday 13 November 2014

The History of the Boleyn Family

I gave a talk last night to the Isle of Wight branch of the Historical Association, looking at the history of the Boleyn family. It was a fantastic evening, with the talk starting with the family's peasant origins at Salle in Norfolk and and ending with the marriage of Anne Boleyn. It was great to meet members of the society, including a descendant of the man who built Blickling Hall after his family purchased it from the Boleyns.

The talk was based on my book, The Boleyn Women, which came out in paperback last month.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Elfrida, The First Crowned Queen of England - Out in Paperback

Elfrida, The First Crowned Queen of England, was released in paperback today. It's the first biography of one of England's most remarkable queens. Elfrida (or Aelfthryth as she is more correctly called) was a tenth century noblewoman who became the third wife of King Edgar. An important advocate of monastic reform, her life has been overshadowed by the murder of her stepson, King Edward the Martyr. But was Elfrida really guilty?

Saturday 1 November 2014

Using Your Local Archives

I wrote the cover feature for the new issue of Your Family Tree magazine, on using your local archives. Although the internet is great, there's nothing like a visit to your local archives to take your research back further. They are free to use and a fantastic resource for family historians.

Who Do You Think You Are? magazine - 10 Simple Steps to Track Down Wills

I wrote the cover feature for this month's Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. It's called 10 Simple Steps to Track Down a Will. Follow the steps to locate your ancestors' wills - many are online, although others will require a visit to your ancestor's local record office.

There is nothing quite like reading their will to learn about your ancestor's life!

BBC Who Do You Are? magazine podcast

Have you ever wanted to find your ancestors' wills, but didn't know where to look? You can learn more about where to find wills and how to interpret them in this month's BBC Who Do You Think You Are? magazine podcast (here). I'm featured, talking wills and probate!

Saturday 25 October 2014

Whilst Poor Queen Jane's Body Lay Cold Under Earth

Yesterday the countdown to Jane Seymour's death came to an end. Her death on 24 October 1537 is almost the end of the story. All that remained was to bury her like the queen she was.

The day after Jane's death, Henry VIII left Hampton Court for Westminster, unwilling to remain near his wife's body. It is a mark of his sincerity that he shut himself away for a time, although the search for a new bride had begun before the end of the year. England now had a Prince of Wales, but it needed a Duke of York to secure the succession further.

The Duke of Norfolk was directed by the king to arrange Jane's funeral. She was the last woman to die as queen in more than thirty years and the peer therefore looked back to the burial of Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York, who had also died in childbirth. When it was noted that Elizabeth's funeral had been attended by seven marquises and earls, sixteen barons, sixty knights and forty squires, it was ruled that Jane should have the same. It was the least that Henry could do for the mother of his longed-for son.

Soon after her death, Jane was embalmed and carried to the presence chamber at Hampton Court, where she lay in state, dressed in a gold and jewelled robe. Once in the presence chamber, Jane's ladies took off their rich clothes and, instead, wore 'mourning habit and white kerchers hanging over their heads and shoulders'. Mass was heard and the women stayed with Jane day and night, with tapers burning around her. On All Saint's Day, Jane was carried through the black hung galleries of the palace and taken to the chapel.

By convention, the king was absent from the funeral and it was his eldest daughter, Mary, who had loved her stepmother, who took the role of chief mourner. She was, however, too grief-stricken to attend the ceremonies on 1 November, with her place instead taken by her friend, the Marchioness of Exeter. The following day, further religious services were held, this time with Mary in attendance. During this period the princess, who had received some of Jane's jewels after her death, made offerings for her stepmother, as well as arranging pensions for members of the deceased queen's household.

Early in the morning of 12 November 1537 Jane was finally moved from the chapel at Hampton Court to a chariot drawn by six horses. With her banners carried behind her and a great procession, the corpse made its stately way to Windsor, where it was intended that she buried. She was finally interred on the morning of 13 November, nearly three weeks after her death.

Today, Jane's grave in the chapel at Windsor Castle is marked by a simple slab, which also bears inscriptions to her husband and later royals who share the grave. She was queen for less than eighteen months, but cemented herself in the Tudor dynasty by bearing her husband a son. She was the only one of Henry VIII's six wives to die a queen.

This is the end of Jane Seymour's story. I've enjoyed following the last few weeks of her life in these posts and hope that you've enjoyed reading them. Look out for other countdowns in recent months, I think it is an effective way of looking at a moment in history. If there is anything that you would particularly like to cover then please do comment below, it's always great to hear from anyone who has enjoyed these posts!

Friday 24 October 2014

The Death of Queen Jane

Following her sickness in the night, Jane Seymour’s confessor came to her in the morning of 24 October 1537. By 8am he was preparing to administer the sacrament of extreme unction, which involved anointing with oil and was given to those who were in grave peril of their lives. In his nursery only a short walk away in Hampton Court Palace, little Prince Edward – who was only twelve days old – was about to lose his mother.

The ceremony evidently gave Jane some comfort. Later that day, Sir John Russell was able to report that she was ‘somewhat amended, and if she ‘scape this night, the physicians be in good hope that she be past danger’. Jane’s sickness had already gone on for such a long time that those around her could not see how she could remain in that condition – she had to either improve or die.

Any hopes of her recovery were vain, however. At 8pm, twelve hours after she received extreme unction, the Duke of Norfolk sat down in his chamber at Hampton Court to write to Thomas Cromwell, stating ‘I pray you to be here tomorrow early to comfort our good master, for as for our mistress there is no likelihood of her life, the more pity, and I fear she shall not be alive at the time ye shall read this’. Norfolk was right and the queen slipped quietly away in the night.

The death of Jane Seymour had been expected for more than a week but, as she lingered, those around her continued to hope that she might recover. Henry VIII, who was close by at Hampton Court, also grieved for his wife, although he took some consolation in the survival of his son. In a letter, written to Francis of France in response to congratulations on Edward’s birth, he commented that ‘Divine Providence has mingled my joy with the bitterness of the death of her who brought me this happiness’.

In dying at the moment that Henry loved her the most, Jane retained a special place in his heart. He gave her a royal funeral at Windsor and, in time, asked to be buried with her himself. The couple lie together today. Although it is a romantic gesture, it should be pointed out that there was no other wife that Henry could have asked to be buried with. He denied that he had ever been married to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves, while Catherine Howard lay buried as an executed traitor in the Tower. Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, was, of course, still alive.

The relationship of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour was no great love affair but, with hindsight, it came to take on more significance for the king as he continued to suffer matrimonial disappointments. Jane, as the mother of his son, came to be looked upon as his true queen – the woman with whom he chose to be depicted in the great painting of his family which can be seen at Hampton Court where Jane died.

Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, was cut off at the moment of her greatest triumph, dying on 24 October 1537 before she had even reached her thirtieth birthday.

Jane Seymour from a later engraving. The cause of her death - her baby - is depicted beneath the picture.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Jane's Last Night

By 23 October 1537, Jane Seymour was very weak. She had, by then, been gravely ill for nearly a week, with little sign of improvement in her condition. On the afternoon of 23 October, she finally gave her physicians some cause for hope, having ‘a natural lax’ (i.e. a bowel movement), which caused her condition to improve until nightfall. As those around her hoped and prayed, it soon became apparent that the queen was far from better. All that night, she was very sick, so that her condition seemed worse than ever. No hope remained at all for her life by the following morning.

There is no evidence that Henry visited her, although he remained at Hampton Court. Husbands could certainly be present in their wife’s sick rooms – Thomas Seymour, for example, lay down on the bed beside Catherine Parr in an attempt to calm her as she lay dying of puerperal fever. Perhaps Henry was there for Jane, although throughout his life he had a horror of sickness.

There is some evidence that he was present at the end for Jane by accident rather than by policy: on 24 October Sir John Russell wrote to Cromwell to state that ‘the king was determined, as this day, to have removed to Esher, and, because the queen was very sick this night, and this day, he tarried; but to-morrow, God willing, he intendeth to be there. If she amends he will go and if she amend not, he told me, this day, he could not find it in his heart to tarry’. Henry was evidently fond of Jane and wanted to support her, but he was not prepared to stay close to her in her sickness indefinitely.

For the most part, Jane was attended by the women of her household in her sickness. As queen, she had maintained a close watch on the women, whom Henry always insisted should be fair. Anne Boleyn had popularised the daring and flattering French hood in England, so Jane made a point of wearing the more demure and severe English gable hood. She insisted that those around her did the same, carefully scrutinising their appearances.

When Jane engaged a new maid, Anne Bassett, she insisted that the French-educated girl exchange her French hoods for gable hoods, perhaps because the new headwear ‘became her nothing so well as the French hood’. Jane knew that she, like her predecessor, had risen to become the king’s wife from the queen’s household, something that accounts for her concern over just how appealing the maids appeared. For the most part, however, she seems to have been well-liked by her women. After her death, her maids kept a solemn vigil beside her corpse, while her stepdaughter, Princess Mary, was particularly grief-stricken.

As she lay very sick on the night of 23 October Jane had only a few hours left to live.
Jane's signature as queen

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Who Was Jane Seymour?

On 22 October 1537, the English court continued to wait to see if the queen would ‘amend’. The woman at the centre of the vigil was, by that stage, oblivious to what was going on around her. Just who was the dying woman, who was the lowest-born woman ever to be queen of England?

Jane Seymour had none of the links to the nobility that her predecessor as queen, Anne Boleyn had. Anne was the granddaughter of the Duke of Norfolk and the great-granddaughter of the Earl of Ormond. Similarly, Henry’s other English wives, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, had family connections to the nobility (Catherine Howard was, in fact, Anne's first cousin). Jane had none of this: her recent ancestors had all been members of the gentry.

Jane Seymour was the eldest daughter of Sir John Seymour of Wolf Hall in Wiltshire and his wife, Margery Wentworth. The Seymours claimed to have first come to England with William the Conqueror, before arriving at Wolf Hall late in the fourteenth century. They were locally prominent, with family members serving as sheriffs of Wiltshire and sometimes representing the county in parliament, but they had no national standing. Jane’s father was a soldier rather than a courtier, serving in some of the campaigns of the Tudor kings. His wife, Margery, had good connections, since she was the niece of Elizabeth Tylney, Countess of Surrey, who was her mother’s half-sister. Elizabeth Tylney was the maternal grandmother of Anne Boleyn, making Jane and her predecessor second cousins once removed.

Jane’s parents married in 1494 and quickly produced a family. Their first four children were sons: John, Edward, Henry and Thomas, while their fifth was a girl, Jane, who was born in around 1508. She was followed by sisters Elizabeth, Dorothy and Margery and a brother, Anthony. Jane, like her siblings, would have been born at Wolf Hall, which unfortunately does not survive. They worshipped in Great Bedwyn parish church, which contains a number of memorials, including those to Jane’s father and eldest brother. Jane would not have remembered her eldest brother, John, who died in 1510. It was her second brother, Edward, who would dominate her life.

Edward Seymour was a courtier as well as a soldier. It is likely his career, combined with the patronage of Sir Francis Bryan, who was another grandson of Elizabeth Tylney, brought Jane to court as a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon. She later transferred to Anne Boleyn’s household, a move that, of course, led to her coming to Henry VIII’s notice.

Jane was no great match. When Francis Bryan attempted to arrange her marriage to William Dormer, the eldest son of a prosperous Buckinghamshire family, she was refused. It was therefore a surprise to everyone when, late the following year, in 1535, she began to attract the attention of the king. Just how she did so was as mystifying to her contemporaries as it appears to us. Jane was pale, past the first flush of youth and far from a beauty according to contemporary reports. She was, however, virtuous, and this seems to have pleased the king.

When he attempted to persuade her to become his mistress, with a letter and a purse of coins, Jane refused them, praying that the king would ‘consider that she was a gentlewoman of good and honourable parents, without reproach, and that she had no greater riches in the world than her honour, which she would not injure for a thousand deaths’. According to Eustace Chapuys, when Henry heard of this response his ‘love and desire towards the said lady was wonderfully increased, and that he had said that she had behaved most virtuously and to show her that he only loved her honourably, he did not intend henceforth to speak with her except in the presence of some of her kin’. Jane’s unavailability only made Henry want her more, as it had been with Anne Boleyn. By late April 1536 he had decided to end his marriage, in order to wed his new love: Jane Seymour.

Jane Seymour can never have imagined that she would one day be queen of England. She was, however, only able to enjoy the position for eighteen brief months. She was as good as dead on 22 October 1537. The following day, on which the crisis again came, was to be her last full day alive.
The tomb of Jane's father in Great Bedwyn church

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Jane Seymour's Health

By 21 October 1537, few of the men and women assembled at Hampton Court can have had hopes of Jane Seymour’s life. As she lay in the room that she had given birth in, only nine days before, everyone knew that it was only a matter of time until the end came.

The queen had been so careful of her health during her pregnancy. The summer of 1537 had seen the sweating sickness return to London, with a member of Thomas Cromwell’s household coming down with the disease in July. Henry was, of course, informed of this turn of events at once, before personally telling his pregnant wife. Jane’s reaction was such that Sir John Russell, who was present, was concerned, ‘whereupon, considering that her Grace is with child; and the case that she is in, I went again to the king and said I perceived the queen was afraid, His Majesty answered that the queen is somewhat afraid’. Henry himself felt that there was no danger in Cromwell continuing to attend court, but in order to calm Jane, he insisted that his chief minister stayed away.

There was little practical that Jane could actually do to avoid the plague, apart from shutting herself away. That same month, she insisted that Lady Rutland be quarantined at Enfield when a member of her household went down with the sickness, with the Calais-based Lady Lisle, who ensured that she stayed on top of all the court gossip, being informed that she would ‘not believe how fearful the queen’s grace is of the sickness’. Jane had a particular reason to fear the sweating sickness, since the outbreak of the disease in 1528 is likely to have caused the deaths of her two youngest siblings, Margery and Anthony.

In the summer of 1537 Jane knew well that any failure to bear the king his expected son would be blamed squarely on her and this accounts for her fear to some extent. However, it is also clear that she wanted to live and be a queen. She spent much of the summer of 1537 closeted at Windsor with a greatly reduced household. It was also agreed that, while she awaited the birth of her child at Hampton Court in September, Henry would stay nearby at Esher in order to reduce the numbers of people near the queen.

Jane’s time as queen had been filled with anxiety, in part at least due to the constant reminders of what had happened to Anne Boleyn. She had taken a worryingly long time to fall pregnant after her marriage and was considered at court in late 1536 to be ‘a woman who is not very secure’. With the birth of her son, she was unassailably queen of England on 21 October 1537. Unfortunately, she only had three days left to enjoy it.

Jane's initials entwined with Henry's outside the chapel at Hampton Court. Jane knew that, should she fall, her initials could be removed as easily as Anne Boleyn's had been before her.

Monday 20 October 2014

Bound to Obey and Serve

Jane Seymour continued to linger on 20 October 1537, three days after she had been given the last rites. The fact that she survived so long while gravely ill hints at her strength of character and will. Death usually came more swiftly for women who contracted an infection in childbed.

We know very little of Jane Seymour’s character. Unlike her predecessor, Anne Boleyn, she did not excite the indignation of the Imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, who provided many of the surviving accounts of Anne’s spoken words and behaviour. Admittedly, Chapuys recorded none of the good that Anne did, but his accounts do at least give us an idea of her spirit.

Chapuys does not seem to have had a particularly high opinion of Jane. Before her marriage, he commented that she ‘is not a woman of great wit, but she may have good understanding’. He also doubted her virginity at the time of her marriage to Henry (considering it unlikely that any woman could have been at court as long as Jane without taking a lover) and criticised her appearance. It appears that Jane looked better when dressed to impress – Henry VIII’s seventeenth century biographer, Edward Herbert, claimed that Sir John Russell, who had observed Jane believed that ‘the richer Queen Jane was in clothes, the fairer she appeared, but that the other [Anne], the richer she was apparelled, the worse she looked’.

Chapuys believed that Jane had ‘been well taught for the most part by those intimate with the king, who hate the Concubine [Anne], that she must by no means comply with the king’s wishes except by way of marriage; in which she is quite firm’. It appears that she was coached in how to behave with Henry during the last months of his marriage to Anne. She played the role beautifully, showing herself as an honest and demure young woman and adopting the submissive motto 'Bound to Obey and Serve'. She was a great success, just as she was successful in persuading Henry to bring his eldest daughter, Mary, back to court.

Jane also had strong religious views. In the summer of 1536 she showed her support for monasticism when she offered the king 2000 marks if the nunnery at Catesby could be saved. There is also some evidence that she was involved in attempts to save Clementhorpe nunnery in Yorkshire. She certainly attempted to intercede with Henry on behalf of the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace, which was a popular uprising in favour of traditional religion in late 1536. Martin Luther considered her to be ‘an enemy of the Gospel’, something which could have made the reign of her son, Edward VI, very different in character had she lived.

The surviving evidence, such as it is, suggests that Jane was not as meek and demure as her public image implied. She was a woman who was able to attract the king and hold his interest, becoming politically involved in a conspiracy that ended in the death of her predecessor. She also attempted to involve herself in the politics of the reign, although, with the threat of Anne Boleyn’s fate hanging over her, she ensured that she trod carefully.

If Jane had lived, it is probable that she would have ruled as regent for her nine year old son in 1547. If this had been the case, we might well remember Henry VIII’s third wife very differently. As it was, however, on 20 October 1537, only eight days after her child’s birth, Jane Seymour was dying.
Princess Mary, Jane's stepdaughter. Jane played a role in her reconciliation with her father.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Childbed Fever

By 19 October 1537, Jane Seymour had been gravely ill for three days. The very fact that she continued to live, even after the last rites had been given, encouraged some slight hopes of recovery. There was nothing anyone could do but wait and see.

Since it is clear that Jane did not die due to a caesarean section, the question must be asked, what killed her? She had, after all, initially seemed to recover well from her long labour. Cromwell believed that the neglect of her attendants, in allowing her to catch cold and providing her with unsuitable food, caused her decline. While this could, perhaps, have hastened her end, this was not, in itself, enough to kill the queen.

It has been suggested by Dr Loach, in her study of Jane’s son, that the queen was killed by an infection caused by the retention of part of the placenta in her womb. This is entirely possible since, in the event that part of the placenta had remained, it would have been very difficult for her physicians to remove it without causing further injury.

More likely, however, the cause of her death was probably puerperal, or childbed, fever. This was a terrifying prospect for pregnant women before the advent of antibiotics and carried off a good proportion of mothers. Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr, died of this condition in 1548, with the birth of her first child, while his mother, Elizabeth of York died bearing a short-lived daughter in 1503. Early in the fifteenth century, another queen, Richard II’s widow, Isabella of Valois, died bearing her second husband a child. Before that, Mary de Bohun, the first wife of Henry IV died bearing her daughter, Philippa, in 1394.

Queens were very far from immune in an age where nobody understood the need to wash hands or sterilise implements. It was simply good luck for women who survived childbirth unscathed. Since Jane’s child was her first, she was at greater risk. Labours for a first child tend to be longer, as Jane’s indeed was. This would have increased the need for medical intervention and left her vulnerable to the infection that killed her.

As the fever set in, Jane would have experienced agonising pains and delirium, something which accounts for Cromwell’s comment about her eating unsuitable foods ‘that her fantasy in sickness called for’. She may well also have had lucid periods. Catherine Parr, who was both her successor as Henry’s wife and her future sister-in-law, was able to dictate a short testament when she became aware that she was suffering from childbed fever, proclaiming to those assembled ‘that she, then lying on her death-bed, sick of body, but of good mind, and perfect memory and discretion, being persuaded, and perceiving the extremity of death to approach her’. She later became delirious, spending her last few days raving about the bad conduct of her husband. Jane too, is likely to have been confused and largely unaware of her surroundings by 19 October.

As puerperal fever set in, Jane must have been aware of the bitterness of circumstances. In giving the king a son, she was safe from repudiation or execution: he would never to anything to call Edward’s legitimacy into question. However, in the manner of her death, Jane became just as much a victim in Henry VIII’s quest for a male heir as Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. She was supremely unlucky.
Jane's future sister-in-law and successor as queen, Catherine Parr, also died in childbirth.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Not of Woman Born?

Jane Seymour had unexpectedly rallied on 17 October, but on the following day she was still gravely ill. Her little son was six days old – cared for by his nursery staff close by – the christening was almost certainly the last time that his mother saw him. Just what was killing his mother in her fine apartments at Hampton Court?
By 1537 Henry VIII had a poor reputation and many people could believe anything of him. When he began looking for a fourth wife, shortly after Jane’s death, he was hampered by rumours that his first wife had been poisoned, his second wife was executed (which was, of course, true) and that his third wife died after being poorly attended following Edward’s birth. It is therefore no surprise that some contemporaries and near-contemporaries began to assign him an active role in Jane’s death.  

The near contemporary Chronicle of Henry VIII recorded that ‘it was said that the mother had to be sacrificed for the child’. The later sixteenth century writers Nicholas Harpsfield and Nicholas Sander also stated that Jane’s child was cut from her with Sander going so far as to claim that Henry was asked which life should be spared and replied ‘the boy’s, because he could easily provide himself with other wives’. None of these sources are particularly reliable, however. The Chronicle would later reverse the order of Henry’s fourth and fifth marriage, as well as assigning the deceased Thomas Cromwell an active role in the fall of Catherine Howard. Harpsfield and Sander, who opposed the Reformation and Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, had their own agenda.

The idea that Jane had a caesarean, did however enter popular currency and is still believed by some today. The popular ballad, the Death of Queen Jane, for example, refers to a caesarean:

'Queen Jane was in labour full six weeks and more,
And the women were weary, and fain would give oer:
‘O women, O women, as women ye be,
Rip open my two sides, and save my baby!’
‘O royal Queen Jane, that thing may not be;
We’ll send for King Henry to come unto thee.’
King Henry came to her, and sate on her bed:
'What ails my dear lady, her eyes look so red?'
‘O royal King Henry, do one thing for me:
Rip open my two sides, and save my baby!’
‘O royal Queen Jane, that thing will not do;
If I lose your fair body, I’ll lose your baby too.’
She wept and she waild, and she wrung her hands sore;
O the flower of England must flurish no more!
She wept and she waild till she fell in a swoond,
They opend her two sides, and the baby was found.
The baby was christened with joy and much mirth,
Whilst poor Queen Jane’s body lay cold under earth:
There was ringing and singing and mourning all day,
The princess Elizabeth went weeping away.
The trumpets in mourning so sadly did sound,
And the pikes and the muskets did trail on the ground’.

I did quite a bit of research into caesareans for my book, Bessie Blount. Caesareans were rare in the sixteenth century, although they did occur. Children born in this manner would be referred to by the contemporaries by such terms as ‘not of woman born’, ‘the fortunate’ and ‘the unborn’. The operation was considered to have a spiritual nature and was performed only on deceased mothers when the midwives believed that the baby was still living and, thus, could be baptised before their death. Such children were not expected to survive and rarely did so, leading to a special religious significance in their offspring. As one historian has commented ‘no other medical procedure was so directly linked to spiritual salvation or damnation’. The operation, although rare, was well known in Jane’s time, with the later sixteenth century physician, Francois Rousset, writing a treatise in 1581 advocating the operation’s performance on living women, whom he believed could survive the procedure – I suspect that he received few willing volunteers! You can read more about caesareans in the really excellent Not of Woman Born by R. Blumenfeld-Kosinski (Ithaca, 1990).

The idea that Jane had a caesarean is impossible. Henry VIII was many things, but he was not a man who would order his wife cut open (something which would certainly kill her), just to save a baby. Caesareans were only performed at the point of death and, since Jane was able to attend the christening celebrations and, according to Cromwell, command her maids to bring herself unsuitable foods in the days following the birth, she had clearly not endured a caesarean.

So, what was killing Jane in October 1537?

You can read more about caesareans, and deaths in childbirth, in Bessie Blount.

Friday 17 October 2014

Jane Seymour: Crisis Point

Jane Seymour rapidly deteriorated following her son’s christening, reaching a crisis point on 17 October 1537. That day, she received the last rites, with her doctors losing all hope of her life. It is not recorded whether Henry visited his dying wife. He had a horror of sickness all his life, but he remained at Hampton Court during this time, postponing a hunting trip to remain close to Jane. The queen was, in any event, delirious by this stage and probably unaware of anything that was going on around her.

Remarkably, after seeming close to death on 17 October, Jane began to show signs of recovery. Everyone at court held their breath, waiting to see if the queen would survive, but it was not to be and she quickly sickened again.

Although she was well attended, there was little that Jane’s doctors could do. She lived in an age where one doctor, who was frequented by a number of court ladies, carried around a notebook that could confidently declare that a cure for fleas, which involved anointing ‘a staff with the grease of a deer, fox, bear or badger or hedgehog: make a hole in the frame of a great hour glass in the top and bottom, put in a great stick, anoint it with turpentine the fleas will stick fast about it’, was ‘proved’. Without antibiotics, all everyone was able to do was pray and wait and see.

Just what caused Jane’s sickness? There are three main theories which I will set out over the next few days.

Stained glass originally from the Seymours' home of Wolf Hall - the images show Jane's phoenix badge, Tudor roses and the Prince of Wales' feather badge. They were presumably commissioned between 1537 and 1547, while Edward was Prince of Wales.

Thursday 16 October 2014

'Suffered to Take Great Cold'

With the christening over, Jane returned to her bed to rest. She was not expected to emerge from her confinement until she had been churched, a ceremony which was held in order to purify her after giving birth. John Husee, the London agent to the Calais resident Lady Lisle spoke of Jane’s churching in a letter of 16 October, indicating that she was still not widely known to be unwell. There were similar contemporary hopes that she would quickly safeguard the succession with the births of further royal sons in the years to come. It was believed by everyone that Jane had escaped the perils of childbirth. Henry VIII was certainly pleased with the Seymours and looking towards the future, creating Jane’s eldest brother, Edward, Earl of Hertford on the day of the christening, as well as knighting her brother, Thomas.

While the king, court and country celebrated, the woman at the centre of the drama began to rapidly feel unwell. In the eighteen months since her marriage, Jane had become used to getting her own way, receiving regular deliveries of fat quails from Calais to satisfy her cravings during pregnancy, for example. Even as she began to become delirious with fever, her attendants continued to do all she asked in October 1537, with Thomas Cromwell later complaining that ‘our Mistress thorough the fault of them that were about her which suffered her to take great cold and to eat things that her fantasy in sickness called for’. It was not, however, to be the cold or unsuitable foods that killed Queen Jane.

As night fell on 16 October, Queen Jane Seymour had eight days left to live.

Edward Seymour, Jane's brother

Wednesday 15 October 2014

The Boleyn Women

I received the paperback version of The Boleyn Women today, which was first published by Amberley last year. The book covers the women of this remarkable family from peasant origins at Salle to the royal court and the crown. The women drove the family's advance, with Anne Hoo Boleyn bringing them in contact with the nobility and Margaret Butler Boleyn bringing wealth and - eventually - an earldom. In the sixteenth century the three sisters-in-law - Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, Elizabeth Wood Boleyn and Anne Tempest Boleyn were prominent at court, while the sisters Anne Boleyn Shelton and Alice Boleyn Clere were in royal service.

Of course, Mary and Anne Boleyn were the most prominent members of the family - with the family line passing through them to their daughters, Elizabeth I and Catherine Carey. My book covers the stories of every Boleyn woman (by marriage or by birth) in this remarkable period.

There is actually one last story that I wanted to tell, but which isn't in the book. Elizabeth I is well known to have favoured her Carey cousins, but her allegiance to the Boleyns went deeper. In 1590 a gentlewoman named Elizabeth Hill suffered a personal disaster when her house burned down, with all her property inside. She had hitherto lived a comfortable life, with her house and goods estimated to have been worth £400, Yet, all she had was consumed by the fire.

Facing financial ruin, Mrs Hill petitioned Elizabeth I, asking for the lands and goods which had been confiscated from some recusant Catholics. The queen 'liking of this petitioner's suit', agreed to the request.

The queen showed considerable favour to the unfortunate Mrs Hill. The personal interest that she took in the matter was based solely on the fact that the petitioner was, like the queen, a daughter of an Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth Hill's mother was Anne, daughter of Sir Edward Boleyn, who had been Queen Anne Boleyn's uncle. Even more than fifty years after her mother's death, the memory of Queen Anne Boleyn meant something to Elizabeth I and she sought to protect and advance her mother's kin.

A Tudor through her father, thanks to her mother, Elizabeth I was the last of the Boleyn women.

Prince Edward's Christening

Jane Seymour's final public appearance occurred on 15 October 1537. Although, by convention, neither Henry or Jane attended their son's christening, both were expected to play a public role in the ceremonies. In preparation, the queen was wrapped by her attendants in velvet and furs to guard against the cold, before being carried to an anti-chamber where a special sofa had been prepared for her to lie on.

The couple watched as their baby was carried to the chapel in a grand procession, with Jane, although still weak, conscious that she had finally given the king all that he desired. During her marriage, the queen had built a strong relationship with her elder stepdaughter, Mary, who had agreed to stand as one of the prince's godmothers. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was godfather. The christening was like a 'who's-who' of the Tudor court. Jane's kinsman, Sir Francis Bryan, served as one of the gentlemen dressed in aprons and holding towels who took charge o the font. Her brother, Edward Seymour, was also prominent, carrying the prince's other half sister, the four year old Elizabeth, who made a rare visit to court.

Once the procession left Jane and Henry, the gentlemen walked in pairs, carrying unlit torches before them. The children and ministers of the king’s chapel followed. Then, the knights, chaplains and other members of the nobility also walked in pairs in procession. Following this, the prince was brought, carried carefully by the Marchioness of Exeter and assisted by her husband and the Duke of Suffolk. Jane’s son was dressed in a great robe with a long train borne by Lord William Howard and, over the prince’s head, a canopy was held by a number of gentlemen, including his uncle, Thomas Seymour.

Once inside the chapel, the baby was announced by the king of heralds as ‘Edward, son and heir to the king of England, Duke of Cornwall, and Earl of Chester’. The name Edward had been chosen by Henry both to mark the fact that the prince was born on the eve of St Edward and as a tribute to his own grandfather, Edward IV. 

After the ceremony, the procession finally made its way back to the king and queen, this time with their tapers lit. Edward was handed to his mother and both Jane and Henry gave him their blessing before he was taken away to sleep. Jane’s role was not yet done however and it was past midnight before the last of the guests had left. She was carried tired but triumphant back to her bed in the small hours of the morning to finally get some rest.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Preparing for a Royal Christening

14 October 1537 was the day before the christening of Prince Edward, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. The young prince was two day's old and cared for by his wet nurse, as well as a staff of servants, including 'rockers'. While the queen continued to recuperate in bed, Hampton Court was bustling with activity as preparations for the christening were made.

Over fifty years earlier, the baby's great-grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, who was the formidable mother of Henry VII, had laid down ordinances for how a royal baby should be cared for and christened. Margaret's ordinances, on just how a Tudor baby should be raised, included detail on the furnishings for the nursery, the appointment of servants and precautions taken in the selection and management of the wet nurse. This lady, who enjoyed a privileged position at court, was to be observed by a doctor at every meal to ensure that 'she giveth the Child seasonable Meat and Drink'. Edward's household was to be run like a military operation.

On 14 October, servants would have begun hanging tapestries around the walls of the chapel royal, in accordance with Margaret's ordinances. The altar was to be similarly arrayed with arras or cloth of gold, while the chancel was to be carpeted - a practical concern given the cold October weather. Margaret required that 'the font of silver that is at Canterbury be sent for', 'or else a new font made of purpose'. A canopy was to hang above the font. Margaret even provided that 'there must be provided a little taper for the child to carry in his hand up to the high altar after his christening'. These ordinances had been prepared for Prince Edward's uncle, Prince Arthur, who had been heir to the throne and who, like the little baby being christened in 1537, did not live to see his sixteenth birthday.

You can read Margaret's Ordinances in John Leland's Antiquarii de Rebus Britannicis Collectanea, vol IV from p179, which is available at