Jul 12, 2010

Book Review: Jane Seymour: Henry VIII's True Love by Elizabeth Norton

Jane Seymour: Henry VIII's True Love by Elizabeth Norton
Amberley Publishing, 2009
198 pages (not 240)
ISBN-13: 978-1848681026
Review copy provided by the publisher, Thanks!
The Burton Review Rating:
The first ever biography of JaneSeymour, Henry VIII's third wife, who died in childbirth giving the king what hecraved most - a son and heir.
First biography to show the real Jane Seymour, she may have been submissive and obedient in front of Henry, but her true personality was far more cutthroat.

Huge interest in the wives of Henry VIII, most of his wives are the subject of at least two books, Jane has none.


Jane Seymour is often portrayed as meek and mild and as the most successful, but one of the least significant, of Henry VIII's wives. The real Jane was a very different character, demure and submissive yet with a ruthless streak - as Anne Boleyn was being tried for treason, Jane was choosing her wedding dress.

From the lowliest origins of any of Henry's wives her rise shows an ambition every bit as great as Anne's. Elizabeth Norton tells the thrilling life of a country girl from rural Wiltshire who rose to the throne of England and became the ideal Tudor woman.
Jane Seymour, the mother of Henry's heir to the throne, is one of the lucky wives of the tyrant Henry VIII that he did not kill or repudiate. Jane Seymour was practically an unknown figure at the Tudor Courts, as she was merely a lady in waiting to both of Henry's first two queens. Once Queen Anne Boleyn became too cumbersome for Henry to deal with, he allowed his advisors to condemn her to death. Henry had his eyes on Jane Seymour already, and he wanted Anne out of the way, and not in the same way that the tiresome Catherine of Aragon had hung on to him. Anne was executed May 19, 1536 and Henry was betrothed to Jane Seymour the very next day. Tudor films like to portray Jane as a shrew as poor Anne Boleyn looks out from her tower and watches Henry and Jane walking arm in arm. What is the story behind this Plain Jane? The novel by the same name by Laurien Gardner turned her into a naive young lady with very little going for her. I am intrigued by Jane Seymour, the one lady who provided Henry with everything he ever wanted: Edward VI.

Though this is touted as the first ever biography on Jane, I would hesitate to characterize Norton's book as such. Inevitably in any book that deals with Henry VIII, we must be given the backstory of the wives that came before the one in question. So Norton goes through the motions of again explaining the debacles of the marriages of Catherine and Henry and then Anne and Henry before we get to the marriage of Jane and Henry. No extraordinary information was given, my eyes had glazed over a few monotonous passages. But what I did glean was the information on Jane's own family which my previous reads had never terribly touched upon, except for the two brothers, Edward and Thomas, who were prominent figures of the Tudor courts.

Norton describes subtly a potential scandal between Jane's father and Jane's sister-in-law Catherine Filliol, but sadly she does not elaborate. This would have been eagerly pounced upon if she had. I have also read elsewhere that the elder brother's (Edward) second wife, Anne Stanhope, was quite a haughty person and very demanding, but this wasn't expanded upon either. One very interesting sentence at the beginning of the book when Norton was going through the family tree was that "of Henry's wives and three named mistresses", four were great grand-daughters of Elizabeth Cheney (would have been nice if she elaborated on more of Elizabeth Cheney). She also said Elizabeth Tilney, daughter of said Cheney, was the grandmother of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.  I would have enjoyed a pictorial look at the family tree, as the Seymours and the Howards were cousins. These two Elizabeths' histories sound like it would make a great book.

What is it about Jane that attracted Henry? Simply put, she was the opposite of Anne Boleyn, the former wife. Jane's motto became 'Bound to Obey and Serve' which is also something Anne would not do if she did not agree with Henry. One thing that Jane did not agree with Henry on was the dissolution of the monasteries. This is one subject that the author does take a great deal of time with, and was a refreshing change outside of the typical historical view of this time. Jane was opposed to the desecration, and was not of the protestant leaning that her son Edward had later embraced. The author does state that Jane would probably have been quite distressed to learn how her favored brother Edward had manipulated her son Edward into turning the country into such Protestant zeal.

One nagging thought on the writing of Norton is that she calls Catherine and Anne by their title as Queen several times, and I barely remember she actually calling Jane a Queen, and it perturbed me. It was always simply Jane. Just as Jane was probably always a Plain Jane, as history likes to continually portray her. The inner need I have to categorize Jane as a she-wolf was not achieved in this book, as Jane was just still Jane. She did not seem very interesting, and the author even stated that she was excellent at staying in the background. Was this done on purpose by Jane? Did she know that Henry wanted the epitome of the subservient wife and she purposefully managed to keep her head by portraying no countering thoughts? She couldn't have become too outraged at the dissolution of the monasteries or we would have heard of it, although according to Norton she did not like it.

The one other thing that we know that she disagreed with Henry on was the attitude towards his first daughter, Mary, aka Bloody Mary. Jane was eight years her senior, and showed great affection towards Mary, since Jane was first a maid to Mary's mother the first Queen and Jane felt a distinct loyalty towards Catherine and her daughter Mary. Mary also approved of Jane, which was a rarity for Bloody Mary to not turn her back on someone trying to show her a kindness. Anne Boleyn had attempted to show kindness to Mary, but was rejected time and time again with Mary calling Anne the whore. Jane comes along, and Mary and her were fast friends, well before Mary accepted her father Henry as the head of the Church of England. Where Jane showed extreme kindness towards Mary, she seemingly despised young Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne Boleyn. Was it because of that family tie that Jane didn't like her, or was it merely the fact that Elizabeth was a preciocious toddler?

Information on Jane is scarce. The book is scarce on information on Jane. The book is very short, and is not the 240 pages that is advertised. The text is 158 pages and then the notes, index and bibliography make it 191 pages. There are also the interesting illustrations, some of which are the same ones used in other Amberley publications. It would have been more helpful if the notes were simply footnotes to the actual writing as it would have been better served being displayed as such and not as the afterthought. There were moments when I felt something was interesting and the author made some good points, albeit speculatively. Since the book is short, it was worth the time I did spend on it (a part of a day) but would not recommend spending the list price for it. This would be a good library find, and is perfect for my Tudor Mania Challenge.