The death of Jane Seymour

No one said Henry was the sensitive kind. Most of us would even go so far as to say he wasn't even close. But if he loved his third wife, Jane Seymour, as much as we are led to believe, why wasn't he close by when Jane died? Especially after delivering an apparently healthy baby boy, the longed-for heir, that Henry craved so much.


It was in the early hours of October 24, 1537, that Jane Seymour died after days of suffering, less than two weeks after a gruelling three day labour because the baby was badly positioned. She was exhausted but relieved when she heard it was a boy because she had fulfilled her duty as a queen and given Henry a son. It also meant that she may finally get that coronation and recognition she deserved since Henry had kept finding excuses not to so up until then. Henry had dithered and delayed, firstly putting it off because of plague in the city and then when Jane became pregnant. I wonder if Jane had been tempted to remind Henry that her predecessor, Anne Boleyn, had been in her third trimester when she was crowned. Perhaps Jane was simply being wise not to poke the bear.


After the birth, she seemed to be recovering well. She was in seclusion in Hampton Court, which was customary, and would remain so for forty days after the birth until she was 'churched'. Only then could she return to court life. During the few days after the birth, she had a healthy appetite and later, when things began to unravel, her servants would be blamed for overindulging her in a too-rich diet that led to diarrhoea and the fever which finally took her.


What actually killed Jane has been discussed extensively. Some say it was most likely from a massive haemorrhage caused by retention of parts of the placenta in her womb, an oversight of the royal physicians who had banned experienced midwives from the delivery. Other say the cause was childbed fever, the terrible killer of all new mothers alike. Henry's own mother had died from it and if the Tudors had known that the simple act of washing hands could cut the risk by almost 80%, I'm sure they would have done so. It has even been discussed that Jane's life was sacrificed for her child. The labour was long and the baby was in danger of dying so perhaps she had a cesarean performed to save the baby. In the Tudor era, such an operation meant that the woman was expected to die. But if this procedure was performed, Jane would have died immediately instead of twelve days later. There is a cruel legend that Henry was asked which to save, his beloved wife or the child, and he chose the child because another wife could easily be found. My hope is that this is not true and Henry was never offered the choice.


But while Jane suffered, did Henry even bother to visit? We know he was busy with preparations for the celebration and christening of his treasured son's birth but you can be sure he would have been kept up to date on her well-being and on her status as she declined. Finally, when she died, he wasn't even there to see it in person.


It's easy to hate Henry and everything he did, I know. But in this, you have to be careful of applying modern day standards to medicine. Because of her sudden fever, you can be assured he would have been strongly advised by his government advisors to leave in order to protect the physical safety of both himself and his son. This may have gone against his own personal wishes but no doubt he was in agreement when at the time there was a bevy of infectious diseases circulating. With medicine the way it was at the time, any sign of a fever meant trouble and the only solution was separation.


And Henry was terrified of illnesses. His usual reaction to hearing if someone was ill was to pack up and head for the hills. Even when Anne Boleyn was ill with the Sweating Sickness, he avoided her. After all, he had to protect himself. All the same, Henry seems to have taken it all a bit far with Jane, even for Henry standards. He had no reason not to visit her because she certainly wasn't contagious, or so we know now, but still he made it known that he intended on moving himself to another palace while Jane languished at Hampton Court.


Jane rallied but it soon became obvious she wasn't going to recover. She was given last rites and Henry was informed that she was most likely going to die. Knowing the medical treatments in the Tudor times, the doctors would have added to her suffering with their 'remedies'. So in the early hours of 24th October, Jane died.


Upon hearing that Jane was dead, Henry decamped to Windsor, leaving Jane's household to take care of the arrangements. She had to be embalmed as soon as possible since funeral services lasted about a month and could be 'unpleasant' if the body wasn't prepared early. It was Jane's chandler - the servant who had charge of the candles and wax - who was given the task of disemboweling Jane and stuffing her empty torso with herbs, spices and sawdust before wrapping her body in a wax-coated cloth and the seams covered in wax. Her plumber then covered her in sheets of lead and placed it inside a wooden coffin. A wood or wax effigy of Jane was then crafted and dressed in her clothing, intending it to look as lifelike as possible. The coffin was then set up in the chapel surrounded by hundreds of burning candles and attended by her ladies-in-waiting day and night.


While all this went on, her newly widowed husband stayed well away in seclusion. Give him his due, he did wear black for three months to honour her but during that time, the search for a new queen was well under way.


Jane was the only queen honoured by being buried with Henry. She had done her duty in giving him a healthy son and she had been polite enough to die before he could get tired of her... or worse. She had in fact been the perfect wife.

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