A fatal love triangle: King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour (part 1)

In the first half of 1536, King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour were tangled in a fatal love triangle, which in the end resulted in the murder of the innocent anointed queen and the king’s third marriage.

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Jane Seymour’s courtship by the King of England was at a peak, although sometimes it must have probably been a bit turbulent due to the ever-increasing tension between Anne and Jane, as well as between two rivalling factions – supporters of the Boleyn family and a multitude of Anne Boleyn’s enemies, namely supporters of the Seymours and of Catherine of Aragon.

Although Henry’s relationship with Anne was strained and his passion for her was cooling off, the king and the queen reconciled by Christmas 1535. It became common knowledge at the court that Anne was again pregnant, which pleased Henry and lessened the tension between the spouses. Henry was infamous for his infidelities: during Anne’s two pregnancies, the king took mistresses, and the third pregnancy was no exception.

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In her mid-twenties, Jane Seymour was still unmarried, and Henry’s affections must have been both daunting and overwhelming for her.

She came from a very humble background, and few people anticipated that she would ever become the king’s love interest. What attracted Henry in Jane wasthe stark contrast of her looks and personality to Anne Boleyn – her pale complexion, her quiet demeanour, as well as her meekness and obedience.

While Anne was carrying the king’s child, Jane, supported by her ambitious relatives, certainly didn’t set her sights to higher than that of a royal mistress. The Seymour family definitely wanted to seize the chance and put her in the king’s bed, but their ambitions had limits. Anne’s miscarriage on the 29th of January 1536 changed everything because never before Anne’s position had been as shaky as it was at that very moment.

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Gossip was circulating around the court that Anne was incapable of bearing healthy sons. The Seymour family and many others were amassing the growing evidence of the king’s disillusionment with Anne. The Seymours were fully aware that they could seize the rare chance for the advancement and enrichment of their family, although it is not very likely that at that stage they planned to have Anne replaced with Jane on the throne.

Early in his courtship with Anne Boleyn, Henry gave her the gift of his portrait in a bracelet so that she would never forget her king. This time, Jane became the recipient of a similar gift: the king gave her the gift of his portrait in a locket, hoping to always remain in her thoughts.

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Upon receipt of the gift, Jane must have been elated beyond measure, responding to the king with a formal letter of thanks. She was proud to display a token of the king’s affection at the court; most likely, her relatives instructed her to wear the locket so that Anne and the courtiers could take notice of it.

How did Anne react to the revelation that Henry gave one of her ladies-in-waiting a similar gift to the one she had received from him years earlier, when they had been courting? It is always painful for a woman to learn about her husband’s infidelity, whatever it is real or alleged, and a woman as proud, passionate, and intemperate as Anne was couldn’t have remained indifferent to the humiliation. Dark, tormenting emotions bubbled in Anne’s heart, and her pain burst into explosion of rage.

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There is the account of Anne tearing a necklace from around Jane’s neck. In the book “History of the Worthies of England”, published in 1662 after his death, we find:

“It is currently traditional that at her first coming to court, Queen Anne Boleyn, espying a jewel pendant about her [Jane’s] neck, snatched thereat (desirous to see, the other unwilling to show it) and casually hurt her hand with her own violence; but it grieved her heart more, when she perceived it the king’s picture by himself bestowed upon her, who from this day forward dated her own declining and the other’s ascending, in her husband’s affection.”

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Despite Anne’s obvious displeasure, Henry continued to lavish Jane with his affection, at first hoping to make her his mistress. Watching the king’s affection for Jane growing simultaneously with the king’s deepening disappointment in Anne, the Seymours focused on teaching Jane how to handle the king and keep his interest in her without consummating their relationship. Jane’s demeanour was a glaring contrast to Anne’s, Henry was tired of Anne, and the Seymours wanted to capitalize on that.

Everyone remembered how Anne managed to keep the king’s unwavering interest in her for years, and the Seymours weren’t an exception. Jane was instructed to copy Anne’s actions by refusing to be a royal mistress, positioning herself as a true maid for whom her honour was her most precious wealth. The strong enmity Anne felt and displayed towards Jane only served to increase Henry’s attachment to Jane, who probably complained to the king of the queen’s hostility.

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In her book “Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s True Love”, Elizabeth Norton writes:

“When Henry VIII had first become attracted to Anne Boleyn he initially sought to make her his mistress, as he had done with a number of women before her. Anne was different to most of the women at Henry’s court. In refusing to sleep with the king unless he married her, Anne Boleyn increased Henry’s love for her and dramatically changed the status quo in England. Unwittingly however, Anne’s course of action also demonstrateda clear way to increase the king’s affection and, perhaps, ultimately, to lead him to marriage and that was to insist upon marriage as the price for consummating the relationship. Both Jane and her supporters knew this and, by the end of January 1536, they had determined to attempt to win the king permanently for Jane.”

As Jane’s courtship by Henry was progressing, stakes were rising higher and higher with every day passing, and her chances to become Queen of England were increasing at the same rate as Henry’s disappointment with Anne was growing. While the Seymours certainly taught her how to act and what to do, Jane wasn’t a fool: she wasn’t a mere pawn of her relatives, and she knew what she was doing very well, and the execution of all recommendations – the performance before the king – was all hers.

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In his letter to the emperor dated the 1st of April 1536, Eustace Chapuys described what he learnt about Jane’s reaction to one of the king’s gifts:

“The young damsel, to whom he is paying court, after respectfully kissing the letter, returned it to the messenger without opening it, and then falling on her knees, begged the royal messenger to entreat the King in her name to consider that she was a well-born damsel, the daughter of good and honourable parents without blame or reproach of any kind; there was no treasure in this world that she valued as much as her honour, and on no account would she lose it, even if she were to die a thousand deaths. That if the King wished to make her a present of money, she requested him to reserve it for such a time as God would be pleased to send her some advantageous marriage.”

Jane’s refusal to open the letter was a deliberate and rational calculation on her part, which was entirely similar to what Anne had been doing several years before. That didn’t paint Jane as a woman who defied and humiliated her sovereign – instead, it looked like a sincere act of a virtuous maid whose high moral code didn’t allow her to have extramarital affairs, even with her king.

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Since then, Henry’s affection for the Seymour maiden strengthened and became “purer”. The king refused to meet with Jane without a chaperone – one of her relatives, which became very easy after giving Thomas Cromwell’s apartments to Edward Seymour. Anne Boleyn’s downfall was almost around the corner; a storm was brewing and it was going to be a big one.