Monday 12 May 2014

Queen Jane the Peacemaker

 In May of 1536, Henry VIII’s courtiers were puzzled as to what to make of Jane Seymour, this inconspicuous – but remarkable young woman who was able to take down the Queen of England Anne Boleyn.

 What could the King possibly see in her, they must have thought. Being ‘that nobody thinks that she has much beauty,’ Jane was hardly competition for the alluring Anne. She was, the common opinion ran, a pallid wallflower. Her complexion was dull, and her long nose, thin lips, and double chin did little to enhance her appearance.

 Despite her shortcomings, Jane become Henry VIII's third wife within a fortnight of Anne Boleyn's execution. Whether she had triumphed through her own ambition or that of others, remains debatable. Whatever the means, there was universal rejoicing at the new royal marriage. The King, it was said, had ‘come out of hell into heaven for the gentleness in this, and the cursedness and the unhappiness in the other.’

Print depicting the execution of Anne Boleyn and the marriage of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, by Matthäus Merian (1629-1630) in 'Chronica, Beschreibung der fürnembsten Geschichten'.

 Even the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys jumped on the bandwagon. He had, however, been cynical at first. Being a lady of the court, Jane’s virtue was suspect, snickered the envoy. But that would have posed no obstacle to the amorous Henry. He had a great capacity for self-deception. If he wanted to believe Jane was a virgin, Chapuys supposed, Henry could easily convince himself of her purity. But should he then tire of her, he would conveniently find witnesses testifying to the looseness of her morals. Jane’s own motives were questionable as well. Her support for the Princess Mary was perhaps insincere and entire self-serving, the ambassador believed. It remained to be seen whether Jane was as truly devoted to Mary’s cause as she claimed to be. 

 To Chapuys’ delight, Jane was. She was genuinely interested in bonding with her new stepdaughter, and was set on restoring her to the King’s favour. For years, father and daughter had been estranged after Henry had separated himself from her mother Katherine of Aragon.

 Bolstered by Jane’s expressed devotion to Mary, Chapuys, in meeting with the new Queen shortly after her wedding, saluted her as the ‘peacemaker’ – she who would restore tranquillity and order to the realm and to the King’s family. The envoy’s congratulations left Jane utterly tongue-tied, and Henry, who was hovering nearby, had to intervene. He apologized for his wife’s nervousness; she had never received dignitaries before.

  Perhaps such a meeting was the inspiration for a curious portrait of Jane Seymour (Fig. 1). Copied from Hans Holbein’s famous picture of her (Fig. 2), the painting shows Jane wearing an unusual headdress. Instead of the very English gabled hood she is always depicted with, Jane wears a large Continental style hat, a fashion favoured by many ladies of the Hapsburg Imperial Court.

Fig. 1: Jane Seymour, by an Unknown Artist. Whereabouts unknown.

Fig. 2: Jane Seymour, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. 
 But why the substitution?  Most probably, the portrait was redone to emphasize Jane’s political sympathies. She was, according to the Emperor's sister Mary of Hungary, 'said to be a good Imperialist'. Unlike her predecessor Anne Boleyn who was pro-French and no friend to the Princess Mary, who was the Emperor Charles V’s cousin, Jane favoured a rapprochement between England and the Empire - diplomatic relationships had been strained since Henry VIII’s divorce from Queen Katherine – along with the advancement of Mary.

  Most likely, a copy of Holbein’s portrait (of which variants still exist) had been sent to the Emperor's court, and a new version was made, showing Jane as an Imperialist supporter by way of her headdress.1 The hat, bearing what appears to be the same hanging jewel, was copied from one very similar to that worn by Bianca Sforza, the Emperor's step-grandmother (Fig. 3).2 Jane's hairstyle  was evidently modelled on Bianca's too.

Fig. 3: Bianca Sforza, by Bernhard Strigel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Unlike Henry VIII, who reputedly said that if his own hat knew his thoughts, he would throw it in the fire, Jane - or rather her Hapsburg painter - had no such concerns.


The quality of this portrait suggests it might be a copy by a lesser hand of a lost original.

2  My gratitude to Dr. Martin Spies (University of Giessen, Germany) for referring me to the portrait of Bianca Sforza, and for pointing out the similarities.


1 comment:

  1. Lovely to see this unfamiliar portrait of Jane, thanks.

    If only hats could know the wearers thoughts AND retell them...The gable hood that Jane Seymour is wearing in the Holbein portrait was clearly part of the official Queen's Wardrobe (along with the matching dress and necklace/pendant), and various parts of this ensemble can be found in portraits of Henry's previous and subsequent wives. Anne Boleyn can be seen wearing the hood and necklace in The Moost Happi Anno 1534 portrait medal. No wonder Jane looks so pensive wearing these head and neck adornments!


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