The women who served Jane Seymour

In the first week of May 1536, news of Queen Anne Boleyn’s disgrace was spreading like wildfire at the court of Henry VIII. So too were rumours that the King was looking to discard Anne, and take one of her ladies as his third wife.

The woman in question was the fair, demure Jane Seymour, who, prior to serving Anne, had also been a maid-of-honor to Katherine of Aragon. Much like Anne herself, the pious, patient Jane had also rebuffed Henry’s attempts to entice her into his bed as a royal mistress.

The Seymours of Wolf Hall were a court family, rich but not yet at the acme of their power. Jane’s eldest brother, Edward, was an Esquire of the King’s Body, and Jane herself had been present at court since at least 1529 – most likely in attendance to Henry’s first wife, Katherine. 

In September of 1535, the King’s attention appeared to shift towards Jane during a royal progress with the court. Henry had briefly lodged at the Seymour’s country seat of Wolf Hall before moving west to Bristol and — while Jane may not have been physically present during the King’s stay — her father and brothers may have cleverly extolled her appealing qualities and virtues to the King. Nevertheless, this picturesque country retreat has, in legend, come to symbolize the place where Henry VIII, becoming increasingly disenchanted with Anne Boleyn, courted his third wife. Within a year, Anne would be dead and Jane Queen of England.

As queen, Jane Seymour’s royal household rivaled Anne Boleyn’s in size and featured several ladies who had previously served the deposed queen. Similar in structure it might be, the environment of Jane’s privy chamber was a marked contrast from Anne Boleyn’s. Her ladies received clear instructions to dress modestly, to revert from French fashions back to English, and to maintain a sedate atmosphere, in order to avoid any hint of scandal. The queen insisted on holding high moral standards, and expected the women who served her to follow a strict code of conduct as a measure of security against the conspiracy that once surrounded Anne’s inner circle.

Grace, Lady Parker, by Hans Holbein

One member of Jane’s household strongly associated with the reign of Anne Boleyn was Jane Parker, Lady Rochford, Anne’s former sister-in-law. Despite being rival families at court, both the Parkers and the Seymours shared the Roman Catholic faith, and were sympathetic towards the troubles of Henry’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary.

With her Boleyn shield gone, Lady Rochford would have been expected to set aside any hostility she may have harboured for the Seymours and serve Jane with utmost humility and diligence, relying on the mercy of Thomas Cromwell in order to maintain a place at court. After Jane’s death in 1537, Lady Rochford continued to serve Henry’s next two wives, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, only to face a tragic fate when she was executed alongside young Katherine Howard in February 1542.

Another one of Jane’s attendants, Anne Basset, a newcomer to court, secured a place in Jane’s service thanks to her mother’s skillful flattery. When Jane became Queen in 1536, Lady Lisle wrote eagerly to her acquaintances at court in order to find a place for her two daughters, Katharine and Anne Basset, in Jane’s household. Lady Lisle was a friend of Lady Rutland, one of Jane’s senior ladies, and the aunt of Mary Arundell, also one of Jane’s maids. 

Lady Lisle was informed that Jane’s household was already full, but, determined to advance her daughters, sent Jane a thoughtful gift of quails, which the Queen craved ‘very well, and longeth not a little for’ during her pregnancy.

Jane, usually so discerning about the women she promoted to her household, was nonetheless swayed by the flattery and agreed to meet Lady Lisle’s daughters. Katherine and Anne hustled to court and, after a few days spent in the queen’s company, it was Anne who was sworn into Jane’s service.

Mary, Lady Monteagle by Hans Holbein

The queen’s household would also come to include Mary, Lady Monteagle,he daughter of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and his wife Anne Browne (Charles’ third wife was Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII). Mary was held in high favour by Queen Jane, who gifted her jewellery and commissioned a portrait of Mary by the esteemed court artist Hans Holbein. In 1538, Mary’s husband complained to Thomas Cromwell about his wife’s ‘misbehaviour,’ although nothing ever came of the allegations and little else is known about the nature of the complaint.

Eleanor Manners, the Countess of Rutland, served both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – as did Mary Zouch and Anne Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, the younger sister of Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Katharine Parr.

Margaret Dymoke, who briefly served Anne Boleyn during her imprisonment in the Tower, also served in Jane’s household. While under arrest, Anne reportedly claimed it was a ‘great unkindness’ to be attended by ladies whom she ‘never loved.’ Dymoke’s husband, however, had been Anne’s Master of the Horse.

Jane’s household too included Margaret Lyster, who handled the queen’s jewels, and Elizabeth Tyrwhitt, a Reformist and close friend of Katherine Parr who gave evidence against Thomas Seymour’s relationship with a young Elizabeth I.

In public, Jane lived up to her motto ‘Bound to Obey and Serve,’ and behind closed doors appears to have been a kind mistress to her maids. Her ladies occasionally ran afoul of her lofty expectations, however, resulting in the Queen’s sharp displeasure. One episode involved Anne Bassett, the daughter of Lady Lisle, who complained about Jane’s demands for her ladies to embrace in the English style. It was, after all, exorbitant to completely overhaul one’s wardrobe, and the gable hoods that Jane preferred to Anne Boleyn’s saucy French hoods were now considered ‘unfashionable’ by the young ladies of court.

Tragically, Jane would die less than a month after Anne joined her service. Her ladies remained glued to her side as she weakened after the birth of Prince Edward and succumbed to infection on 24 October 1537.

Jane Seymour after Hans Holbein the Younger © National Portrait Gallery, London

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