A Brief History
On October 24th, 1537, in a cruel twist of fate, Queen Jane Seymour died of complications following childbirth after having just 12 days earlier provided Henry VIII with his much longed-for son and heir.
There is a popular rhyme that people can memorize to remember the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives:
divorced, beheaded, died,
divorced, beheaded, survived.
Jane, the only one of his wives to bear that name (the rest were either “Catherines” or “Annes”), was the one who died. If she had not died, however, she would have been the one who survived, as she was the only one of his wives to bear Henry VIII a legitimate son who survived infancy, an achievement that would have secured her position as queen indefinitely.
In the first article of this series on the Six Wives of Henry VIII, the possibility that Catherine of Aragon might have lied about being a virgin at the time of her marriage to Henry was discussed. The second article focused on the consequences of Anne Boleyn denying Henry sex and what might have happened had she not. This third article contemplates another historical “what if,” that being what might have happened in regard to the Protestant religious reform of Jane’s son Edward VI had she not died.
Though Henry VIII had separated from the Roman Catholic Church and created his own Anglican Church in order to divorce himself from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, at heart he remained a Catholic. The main difference between him and other Catholics, however, was that he no longer recognized the authority of the pope and had proclaimed himself head of the his own church. Because he no longer trusted the established religious institutions and because he needed money, in 1536 he began with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. To ease his conscious, he had his henchmen find proof of corruption in the religious orders. His argument was that they were no longer interested in the spiritual well-being of the English people but that they more concerned with accumulating vast amount of personal wealth through the sale of relics and indulgences (forgiveness for one’s sins), etc.
Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour, whom he married in 1536, was an ardent and pious Catholic and was horrified by the reforms. Though she was not able to influence his policies, she was able to reconcile him with his Catholic daughter Mary from whom he had been estranged following the divorce from her mother Catherine of Aragon. Due to Jane’s short tenure as queen, however, she was not able to accomplish much else except, of course, for her great victory – the birth of the next king.
Despite this great triumph, she remains the least-written-about wife of Henry VIII. As the only wife to do her duty of providing a male heir, however, she was rewarded by being viewed by Henry VIII as his “one true wife” and by being included in family portraits long after her death, to the exclusion of the current wife. Significantly, she was also the wife next to whom Henry VIII chose to be buried.
Right before her death, Jane had just secured her ace, the trump card that might have given her confidence to intervene in Henry VIII’s politics. During her pregnancy, after she asked Henry to be lenient toward those who had participated in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic uprising, Henry had warned her not to meddle in his affairs and used the fate of Anne Boleyn as an example of what could happen if a wife dared to cross him. With a son, Jane could have afforded to be more bold again, as Henry would have granted her every wish and would never have done anything to compromise the position of his heir.
As good a Catholic as she was, Jane would certainly have ensured that her son be raised in a conservative manner, and during Henry VIII’s lifetime, this was the case. When Henry VIII died, however, Edward was just 9 and still very impressionable. He greatly admired Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and with a willing monarch, Cranmer was finally able to establish Protestantism. Clerical celibacy and the Mass were abolished, and religious services were no longer held in Latin but in English.
Now the question. Would Edward VI have become a fanatical Protestant if his mother had survived his birth? As she was not an educated woman, she most likely would not have become her son’s regent during the duration of his minority, however, as his mother, she still would have wielded considerable influence over him. And as a devout Catholic, she would have always have been suspicious of Cranmer, and this stance would most likely have made an impression on her son. For all anyone knows, she might even have encouraged Edward VI to renew English ties with Rome. She certainly would not have tolerated Edward’s treatment of his older sister Mary when he demanded that she abandon Catholicism and forbade her from freely practicing her religion when she did not.
As it was, Mary succeeded her brother, reversed his Protestant reforms, which included burning Archbishop Cranmer as a heretic, and reintroduced Catholicism as the religion of England. She did not live long enough, however, or produce the much needed heir in order to firmly and completely reestablish the Catholic faith as the one true faith of the land, and it was Edward’s and not her religious stance that would become the basis of the Anglican Church during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Who knows what poor Catholic Jane would ever have thought about her son being the first Protestant king of England? She died during her moment of glory and before she could make her own meaningful impression on the world of politics, so all that is left is a bunch of “what ifs” and a woman whose historical relevance is solely connected to her reproductive capability.
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