History in song again. I think Henry VIII a monstrous figure, even within the context of his time. He set no limit on himself, and others suffered for it. Nevertheless there is a very tender portrayal of him in Child Ballad no. 170, The Death of Queen Jane. It’s extremely moving and intimate, a quiet tragedy of bereavement and longing. Here it is sung by Karine Polwart – heartachingly lovely. Henry expresses his love for his wife, even putting her life ahead of her unborn child’s. Jane wishes otherwise and the child is saved at the cost of her own life. Henry is grief-struck and the song ends with the contrast between the joy at the baby’s christening and his mourning at Jane’s funeral:
“They mourned in the kitchen, and they mournd in the ha,
But royal King Henry mournd langest of a’:
Farewell to fair England, farewell for evermore!
For the fair flower of England will never shine more.”
Did he love her as this song suggests? Who can know? Other people’s marriages must always be a mystery, and the more so when they happened long ago in another culture and climate. There’s a portrait, rather stiff, at Hampton Court Palace of Henry, Jane and Edward as an imagined family group but it’s a public statement of dynastic success, not a private one of a marriage. She gave him what he most wanted, a legitimate male heir, and in doing so died as a result of childbirth but not in the manner described in the song. Perhaps because of this, perhaps for her own sake, he honoured her posthumously. He was buried beside her, and lies there still in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
And yet there is the song. Someone, somewhere, wanted to believe that this was love.
It’s always so difficult to imagine manifestations of love that are different to the ones we are familiar with. Like how a father can love his daughter and give her in marriage to an old man she’s never met, or never let her run down the street or climb a tree or go to school. Yet some of them must do. I’m no fan of Henry either and always asumed he only made a fuss of Jane Seymour because she gave him a son. I could be wrong. The writer of the song would say so, or at least knew that the idea of Henry’s love made a good story. As you say, we’ll never know.
It’s hard to get a picture of Jane Seymour. She’s such a shadowy figure after the dazzling, dangerous Anne Boleyn and died little more than a year after her marriage. So yes, there’s a space there to fill and this song offers one way of doing so. Another is offered in Hilary Mantel’s novels of Thomas Cromwell (‘Wolf Hall’, ‘Bring up the Bodies’) where Jane is meek and unassuming but possessed of a clear sighted, sharp intelligence and wit.