The Unhappiest Lady in ChristendomIn this short story that Alison Weir has written as a special addition to our paperback edition, Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s daughter with Katherine of Aragon, recalls what happened in the aftermath of Jane Seymour’s death and looks forward to the coming of Henry’s fourth wife.
Oh, what lamentations were made for the death of my dear stepmother! Even at a distance of twenty years, I can still feel the reverberations from her loss. Yet no one took it more heavily than the King my father. I don’t remember ever seeing him so affected by anything. As soon as the Queen had breathed her last, he stumbled from the room, tears streaming down his face, and withdrew to his apartments, refusing to see anyone.
My father could not bear anything to do with death and soon departed from Hampton Court, leaving instructions that the funeral was to be done with the greatest magnificence. I was chosen as chief mourner—I, for whom Queen Jane had done more than for anyone. She could never have filled the shoes of my sainted mother—no one could—but she had done her very best to restore me to my rightful place in my father’s affections, and for that I shall always be grateful.
We ladies who had loved her took turns to keep watch over her body. After the wax chandlers had done their work, and we had put on the mourning habits that had hurriedly been made for us, she was laid on a bier covered with a rich pall of cloth of gold and dressed in a robe of gold tissue and some of her jewels, with the Queen’s crown on her head. Her fair hair lay loose like a cape of pale gold, her face was painted in an attempt to give a semblance of life, and there was a strong smell of herbs and spices in the bedchamber.
We followed in procession as the bier was reverently carried to the presence chamber, where her body would lie in state for a week. The officers of the Royal Wardrobe gave us white kerchiefs for our heads and shoulders, to signify that our good mistress had died in childbed. As Masses were sung night and day for her soul, we kept vigil, lamenting and weeping, while I tried to ignore a raging toothache.
I had plenty of leisure to mourn my loss and think back on the blows life had dealt me. My childhood had been so happy. The only one of six children to survive, I was cosseted and loved by my parents, both of whom I adored, and brought up to be courteous, decorous, learned and merry—merry, that is, until my father was led astray by Anne Boleyn. How I hated her, the source of all my mother’s woes, and mine. Through those dreadful years, I could barely bring myself to utter her name, and never, ever would I acknowledge her as queen. How could I, when my mother was my father’s true, lawful wife? But Father had been seized with a temporary madness, so in thrall was he to his enchantress, and so my mother and I endured humiliation upon humiliation.
Throughout four long, terrible years of exile from court, Mother and I were kept cruelly apart, and I was often ill. Declared a bastard, to my shame and horror, I was made to wait upon my half sister, the baby Elizabeth, although I would never call her princess, which riled Anne Boleyn still further. In spite of all, I came to love Elizabeth, since I was never likely to have babes of my own to cherish. For what prince would want me, disinherited and demeaned as I was?
When my mother became gravely ill, I was desperate to see her. When she died, it was as if the sun had fallen out of the sky and I was adrift in a black void of grief. And then Anne Boleyn’s wickedness was revealed, by a great stroke of providence and the perspicacity of Thomas Cromwell—how she had betrayed my father with a string of lovers and plotted to kill him. She paid for it with her head.
It was as if my mother had been vindicated, although there was no reversing of my bastardy. Instead, Elizabeth and I were now bastards together, and I did my best to take the place of the mother she had lost, even though I could not—and still cannot—believe that she is truly my sister. She has the look of Mark Smeaton, the lowly musician who confessed to adultery with that whore Boleyn.
Anne did repent of her cruelty to me at the last. She went on her knees to my friend, Lady Kingston, wife of the Constable of the Tower, and begged my forgiveness by proxy. But how can you forgive the person who ruined your life and robbed you of your future?
Praying by the Queen’s bier, I could not stop thinking of my poor baby brother, who was now motherless. As soon as it was my turn for respite, I would hasten to his nursery to see that he was thriving, and watch him as he lay in his cradle swaddled up snuggly and making little snuffling noises as he slept. All I could think of was how tragic it was that he would never know his mother.
One night, as I emerged from my vigil, swaying with weariness, I saw someone waiting for me. It was Lord Cromwell, who had turned out to be an unlikely friend in my great troubles. I had never trusted him, but last year, when the King my father demanded that I sign that dreadful declaration acknowledging that his marriage to my beloved mother had been incestuous and unlawful, and I had shrunk, horrified, from doing so, Lord Cromwell had given me wise counsel and tried to protect me from my father’s wrath. It had been a hard lesson in pragmatism, and I cannot bear even now to recall that I did sign, in the end—and I doubt I will ever forgive myself. But I can see that my father wanted to ensure an undisputed succession for his children by Queen Jane.
Cromwell looked anxious. He lowered his voice. “Madam, I am worried about the King. I hear that he is keeping himself too close and secret,” he confided. “He has taken his loss very hard.”
I felt tears welling again. “We all miss the Queen terribly. It is a great tragedy.”
“Almighty God has taken to Himself a most blessed and virtuous lady,” said Archbishop Cranmer, joining us. “But consider what He has given to us, to the comfort of us all—our most noble Prince, to whom God hath ordained your Highness to be a mother as well as a sister.”
I did not want Cranmer’s comfort. How could I? It was he who broke my mother’s marriage, and for that alone I could never like or approve of him. (And, in the end, I punished him as he deserved, the great heretic.)
I turned back to Lord Cromwell. “Maybe it is best to leave the King’s Grace in peace for now.”
He regarded me sadly. “And maybe we should not. Some of his councillors think he should be urged to marry again for the sake of his realm. He has his son at last, after waiting all these long years, but the Prince is but an infant and might at any time succumb to some childish ailment.”
I was shocked. “But the Queen is not yet buried! For decency’s sake, my lord, let it alone for now.”
“Some feel that the matter is pressing, my lady.”
We left it there, and I took myself off to bed, shaking my head. But a few days later, Cromwell was waiting again as I emerged from the presence chamber to seek a clove for my toothache.
“I have word from Windsor,” he said. “The King is now taking his loss reasonably. The councillors have laid their concerns before him. He is, of course, little disposed to marry again, but has framed his mind to be impartial to whatever they think best, for the tender zeal he bears toward his subjects.”
“I pray he will not be maneuvered into a fourth marriage too soon,” I said.
“Has your Grace ever known his Majesty to do anything he does not want to do?” Cromwell asked with a wry smile.
“Of your charity, pray for the soul of the Queen!” Lancaster Herald cried, as the court assembled in silence to pay its respects. After a long week, we were relieved when the obsequies began, for not all the spices in the world could mask the stink from the body, and we were glad to see it coffined and moved to a catafalque set up in the Chapel Royal, where we were to keep vigil beside it for a further seven days.
There was a great public outpouring of grief. Crowds gathered as my stepmother’s coffin was carried with great solemnity to Windsor, where my father had decreed that she should be buried. And there she was laid to rest, with all the pomp and majesty that could be. She had been our Queen for just seventeen months, but the people had taken her to their hearts, just as they had my sainted mother. She had given England a prince, which my poor mother had been unable to do, and for that we were all profoundly grateful, since it warded off the prospect of civil war. And I was grateful for many other things, especially for her vain attempt to halt the wicked closure of the monasteries. My father was very abrupt with her. Even so, he loved her truly—more truly than he ever loved that witch Boleyn.
After the funeral, Father came out of seclusion, but the joy had gone out of him and he had put on an alarming amount of weight, for grief and the sores on his legs prevented him from taking his usual exercise. He sat alone, brooding and wearing deepest black. It was as if a pall lay over the court.
“I must marry again.” He sighed. “I have but one son, and I must ensure the succession by siring others.”
We were at supper in his chamber. He had sent for me to join him, saying that he needed company to lighten his spirits. Lord Cromwell had been invited, too, and looked up eagerly when Father raised the matter of his marriage.
“There are great advantages to be gained by a foreign alliance, sir,” he said.
“And for others,” Father said. “The King of England must be the most eligible catch in Christendom.”
I smiled, but I was wondering if, with three dead wives and two divorces behind him, the princesses of Europe would agree.
“Indeed, Sir. There should be many ladies who would be delighted to be honored by your hand, but the problem is that, just now, there are very few suitable brides available. Some are of the Protestant persuasion, and others not politically desirable.”
Father waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll rely on your judgment, Thomas.”
That November, I went home to Hunsdon, hoping that a quiet and peaceful life in the country would help to heal my sorrow. I took Elizabeth with me, since Lady Bryan, who had been my lady governess and Elizabeth’s in turn, had been transferred to the Prince’s household. I think Elizabeth felt the loss of Lady Bryan far more painfully than that of her mother, for Lady Bryan had cared for her daily. Yet she was a resilient child, sharp-witted and self-contained. I did my best to fend off awkward questions about Anne Boleyn, wishing to spare her the brutal truth. Even if she was not my blood sister, I loved her as one.
I heard that my father was looking for a bride in France to counterbalance the vast power of the Emperor. It hurt me to hear that he did not want another Spanish bride like my mother. Being her daughter, and half-Spanish, I have always hated the French. But King Francis had marriageable daughters, and it was said that there were other beautiful ladies of high rank available in France.
My father liked to keep his intentions hidden, and it was in character that, even as he considered a French marriage, his ambassadors abroad were told to report on other likely brides. Rumors were rife, even at Hunsdon, and soon I was delighted to hear that the King was now bent on marrying the young Duchess of Milan, niece to the Emperor.
Messire Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador at court, wrote regularly, keeping me informed of what was happening at court. God rest him, he was one of my truest and most devoted friends—and I suspect he wished he could have been more to me. I loved him dearly, but there could never have been anything between us—and yet, when I tried to imagine the husband I might one day have, he had many of the qualities of Messire Chapuys, and even looked like him a little.
Chapuys wrote that the Duchess of Milan was sixteen years old, very tall and of excellent beauty. My father was entranced by reports of her loveliness. No doubt he saw her youth as an advantage, anticipating that her character could the more easily be molded to suit him.
But then, mercurial as ever, he changed his mind. Chapuys informed me that he was now seeking a big wife, since he himself was big in person. I inferred from this that he had put on more weight, which concerned me.
The big wife he had in mind was a French noblewoman called Marie de Guise. She was mature and sensible and—more important—had borne her late husband two sons. But, after receiving advance warning of my father’s imminent proposal, she hastily married her other suitor, the King of Scots.
Father shrugged off his disappointment and sent his painter, Master Holbein, to Brussels to paint the portrait of the Duchess of Milan. With thoughts of marriage in mind, he discarded his mourning garments. When I went to court at Easter, I was dismayed to find him looking older than his years and suffering from constant pain from a sore on his leg. He was forced to submit to the barber surgeons and have it lanced, which relieved the pain but did not cure him. It galled him to have the sporting activities he loved curtailed: no longer could he ride in the lists, but was obliged to sit and watch younger, fitter men doing what he had once done better. Increasing immobility was making him fat, and his red-gold hair was thinning. Yet he still dressed sumptuously, setting a new fashion for short full-cut gowns with built-up shoulders and bulky sleeves. Soon every man at court was wearing one.
Pain and advancing infirmity made Father’s temper highly unpredictable. I was not the only one to suffer the fearful lash of his tongue, and poor Cromwell got bawled at every week. You could hear the King shouting, calling him a knave and other, worse names I would blush to repeat. Sometimes he even pounded him soundly on the head. I once saw Cromwell emerge from the privy chamber with rumpled hair, shaking with fright, but smiling bravely. In certain moods, my father could be dangerous.
He was in such a mood when he heard that my mother’s old chaplain, Father Forrest, was still speaking out in her favor from his prison. Immediately, he gave orders that the old man be taken to Smithfield and there roasted in chains over a fire. Father Forrest was a dear, kind soul, very upright and devout, and he had loved my mother devotedly, so I was devastated to hear of his unimaginable sufferings. Sometimes I thought my father was the most cruel man in all the world.
Summer came, and with it the King’s spirits seemed to revive. He ordered that my little brother be brought to Hampton Court, so that all his children could be together. Attended by his vast retinue, Edward arrived, gorgeously dressed in cloth of gold and cradled in the arms of Lady Bryan. He was eight months old and thriving, with a solemn heart-shaped face, blue eyes and a pointed chin that gave him an elfin look. I never wearied of looking at him. I would sit watching him take suck from his wet nurse, Mother Jack, and took pleasure in seeing my father proudly carrying him around in his arms, showing him off to the courtiers, and holding him up at a window, so that the crowds below could see their future King.
Edward had a loving nature—before the Protestant heretics got at him—and always came joyfully to me in those days. When I asked my minstrels to play for him, he leaped in my arms, as if he would dance. Truly, I felt no resentment toward this child who now took precedence over me. I had never wanted to be queen of England. All I wished for was a husband and children, and a peaceful existence.
That summer, France and Spain signed a truce that left England dangerously isolated. Since my father had broken with the Pope and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, he had been vulnerable to the hostility of Catholic princes. Yet still he hoped to marry the Duchess of Milan. I was at court when her portrait arrived, a magnificent full-length masterpiece that showed a demure young woman with an enigmatic smile and bold eyes. Father was captivated and immediately dispatched an embassy to Brussels with a proposal of marriage. Back came the young Duchess’s pert answer. If she had two heads, she said, one should be at his Grace’s service!
Father spluttered and swore at her impudence. Never would he take a bride who had shown such disrespect toward him!
“His Grace is now inclined to heed my advice and seek a bride among the Protestant princes of Germany,” Cromwell told me, as we strolled together in a garden filled with the scent of late roses. “I think he would be willing to set aside his religious scruples if it meant making an alliance that could tip the balance of power in Europe in England’s favor once more.”
“But—a Protestant queen?” Those German princes were permanent thorns in the Emperor’s side—and threats to the unity of Christendom.
“The princesses I have in mind have been brought up by their mother as strict Catholics,” Cromwell replied, smiling. “It is their brother who has turned Lutheran. I speak of the children of the Duke of Kleve, who has an enlightened approach to religion. Duke John has two unmarried daughters, Anna and Amalia. He has hastened to offer the hand of Anna, the elder, to the King, being sensible of the fact that it would be a brilliant match for her.”
“I trust she is no giddy sixteen-year-old like the Duchess of Milan,” I said, unhappy at the prospect of seeing my father married to the princess of a small German duchy. Heavens, I had no idea of where it even was!
“She is twenty-three,” Cromwell supplied.
“It will seem strange having a stepmother only a year my senior.”
Cromwell picked a rose and handed it to me, an unusually chivalrous gesture in a man who was normally so hard-headed. “We shall see. These negotiations take time—and I fear that the King’s Highness is lukewarm in the matter.”
I took Elizabeth back to Hunsdon. Lady Bryan wrote regularly and reported that the Prince was growing fast. He had stood alone and grown four teeth before his first birthday, and when I read that, I grieved afresh for Queen Jane, knowing how much joy and pride she would have taken in her son.
I was deeply concerned for my beloved old governess, Lady Salisbury. She was of the old Plantagenet royal blood and had been a dear friend of my mother. The two of them had once hoped that I might marry Lady Salisbury’s son Reginald, which still seems to me to have been an excellent idea. Yet my father would have none of it. He distrusted his Plantagenet kinsfolk, fearing they would plot to seize his throne. He would not see that, by marrying me into the old royal House—which had been displaced when my grandsire, King Henry VII, had won the throne at the Battle of Bosworth—he would have united the two royal lines. So Reginald had entered the Church, and was now a cardinal, while I was still only the Lady Mary, the unhappiest lady in Christendom.
I had adored Lady Salisbury. When, as my father’s sole heir, I was sent to Ludlow Castle to learn how to be the Princess of Wales, Lady Salisbury came with me, easing the separation from my mother and ensuring that I was kept happy, healthy and well-diverted with my lessons. Against all the odds, those two years at Ludlow were happy ones.
At eleven years old, I returned to court to find Anne Boleyn flaunting herself. Lady Salisbury did not like or approve of her, and so Anne made my father dismiss her. In her place was a Boleyn aunt, who was instructed to beat me. She did her best for me though, concealing her sympathy under a rough tongue, and protected me from the worst of her niece’s vindictiveness. How I missed Lady Salisbury in those bleak years when I was deprived of my mother’s company. And how overjoyed I was when, with the advent of the good Queen Jane, my old governess was welcomed back to court. It was heartening to hear the people cheering when she arrived and to be folded in those loving arms again.
But now the taint of treason had infected the Pole family, and my beloved Lady Salisbury was in peril. Two years earlier, from the safety of Italy, Cardinal Pole had written a tract damning my father’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and in such insulting terms that it was a good thing he was out of reach in Rome. Had my father been able to arrest him, he would surely have lost his head, for Father was no respecter of cardinals, as the execution of the venerable Cardinal Fisher had shown. Fisher, like Sir Thomas More, had been among the few who had upheld my mother’s marriage. That was why they had to die.
My father was never one to forgive and forget. Obsessively suspicious of his Plantagenet kinsfolk, he convinced himself that the Poles were a pack of traitors. I was shocked to hear that Reginald’s younger brother Geoffrey had been imprisoned in the Tower for aiding him. I was even more appalled when the older brother, Lord Montagu, and his cousin, the Marquess of Exeter, were executed for having plotted to assassinate the King. It was hard to believe that the Marquess, a kindly man of principle who had supported my mother, could have been guilty of such a horrible crime. I would not believe it.
I could not bear to think of how my dear Lady Salisbury was bearing the loss of her sons—one dead, one in prison and one in exile. Her grief must have been terrible, for they were everything to her. I prayed for them all, and for their families, who remained prisoners in the Tower, with no hope of release. It seemed that Father was determined to eliminate or neutralize every remaining member of the House of Plantagenet.
That Christmas of 1538, I helped Elizabeth to make a cambric shirt to send as a New Year gift for Edward. We kept the Yuletide season as merrily as we could at Hunsdon.
In the new year, I received the most unwelcome news. The Duke of Kleve had proposed a double alliance. My father should marry his daughter, and I should marry his son, the abominable Protestant William. Dear God, I prayed, deliver me from such a fate!
It was my father who saved me from my unwanted suitor. He realized that the marriage would render any he himself might make with Anna or Amalia incestuous, and my father would not risk that. His first two marriages had been annulled on the grounds that they were incestuous—though of course my mother’s wasn’t, not at all. But my father never would admit that he had been wrong.
Soon afterward came the most awful news from Rome—the thing I had been dreading for some years now. Aghast at the executions of Montagu and Exeter, the Pope had excommunicated my father.
I prayed for him as I had never prayed before. What must it feel like to be cut off from God and Christian fellowship and the sacraments of the Church? How dreadful to know that your soul is in mortal peril! But, of course, my father was adamant that the sentence of the Bishop of Rome—as he liked to call the Pope—had no force in England. It would make no difference. Yet it was soon clear that France and the Empire were now more hostile than ever toward him. Daily, the prospect of an alliance with Kleve grew more attractive.
As the March winds shrilled around Hunsdon, there came another letter from Chapuys. Lady Salisbury’s house had been searched by the King’s officers. They had found a banner embroidered with the royal arms of England, a banner made for a sovereign. It looked damningly as if my dear old governess had been plotting to seize the crown.
“It’s ludicrous!” I cried to my dear lady-in-waiting, Susan Clarencieux. “Lady Salisbury is sixty-six, far too old to be plotting rebellion! There is not a disloyal bone in her body.” Yet she had been sent to the Tower all the same. I wept when I read how rigorous her imprisonment was, how she was being kept in a cold cell without adequate food or clothing. I despaired of my father. Where was his humanity? Clearly he wanted her out of the way like the rest of her kinsfolk. That was made plain in May, when Parliament passed an Act of Attainder against her, depriving her of her life, title, estates and goods.
“No!” I wailed, when the news came. “Not dear Lady Salisbury!”
I waited, tremulous, for news. I heard that Father had seized all her property, but there was, thankfully, no word of his ordering her execution. As the weeks went by, I began to relax, anticipating that he would leave her to languish in prison, or even release her. I prayed that day would come soon.
The coldness between England and the two allies, France and the Empire, grew, to my distress. Like my mother, I had always wished to see England and the Empire bound in eternal friendship. But when the Emperor and King Francis signed a new treaty, my father finally resolved to press ahead with the Kleve marriage. He sent envoys to Germany, followed by Master Holbein with instructions to paint the likenesses of the princesses Anna and Amalia, so that Father could decide which pleased him the most.
Chapuys wrote that my father already fancied himself in love with the lady. He had even said he would take the Lady Anna without a dowry if her portrait pleased him. And please him it did.
I own that portrait today. It’s a little miniature in a carved ivory frame, which opens to reveal Anna smiling demurely. It’s a good likeness—to a point. And the whole world knows that, when my father saw it, he made up his mind at once that he wanted to marry Anna.
I had mixed feelings. I wanted to see him happy and contented again, as he had been with Queen Jane. And yet I feared that the Protestant cause would be greatly advanced if Anna of Kleve became Queen. Brought up a Catholic she might have been, but her brother now ruled Kleve and might yet have infected her with his heresies. God forbid, she could turn out to be another Anne Boleyn, which was what the reformers were all hoping for.
I was staying at Hertford Castle in October, when word reached me that the marriage treaty was signed. We heard that the ambassadors from Kleve had been royally entertained by the King. Chapuys reported that great preparations had been set in train for the reception of the Princess Anna. No doubt I would soon be summoned to court to meet my new stepmother. Fervently I prayed that she would be as kind and well-disposed to me as was Queen Jane.
My father was planning a Christmas wedding at Greenwich, to be followed by twelve days of festivities and Anna’s coronation on Candlemas Day. I was gratified to hear that he was in exuberant spirits, and that his leg was troubling him less. He sounded impatient to meet his bride!
We all waited expectantly. It had been two years since the death of Queen Jane. Now England was ready for its new Queen. Setting aside my reservations, I resolved to welcome her warmly and make a friend of her, if I could. She would have need of it, I was sure.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. When you began reading this novel, did you have any preconceptions about Jane Seymour’s character? If so, did the novel change those perceptions in any way? Did you like Jane as a character?
2. What was your impression of the Seymour family? How did the dynamics within the family change during the course of the novel? Was it a happy family? How well did its members cope with scandal?
3. Did the young Jane really understand what becoming a nun would entail? What made her change her mind?
4. What did you make of Jane’s relations with Sir Francis Bryan? What motivates his interest in her?
5. Jane’s compassion for her sister-in-law impels her to acts of kindness. Do they also show wisdom and emotional intelligence?
6. Why did Jane come to love Henry VIII? What was her attraction for him? Did he truly love her? In what ways was she a contrast to Anne Boleyn?
7. How does Jane see Anne Boleyn? Was her conduct as shameless as her Victorian biographer, Agnes Strickland, claimed? Or did she have strong moral grounds for encouraging Henry VIII’s courtship?
8. Do you think that Jane deserved to feel guilty about Anne Boleyn’s fate? Why is the novel subtitled “The Haunted Queen”?
9. In what ways did Jane show moral courage?
10. Is it likely that Jane had one or more aborted pregnancies before she bore the future Edward VI?
11. Was Jane a good queen? In which ways was she at a disadvantage? Do you think she overcame these challenges?
12. Did you find the author’s new theory about the cause of Jane’s death convincing?