Of all the many ironies of Henry VIII's reign, perhaps the most glaring is that after everything he had subjected Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn to because of their 'failure' to produce a son, his third wife Jane Seymour lived less than two weeks to enjoy his favour after achieving the great biological triumph which had eluded her two predecessors.
Probably about twenty-nine years-old at the time, Jane Seymour had been queen of England for just under eighteen months when she died. She and Henry had been privately married at the Palace of Whitehall, eleven days after the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The royal pregnancy had been announced in April and by late May, the queen was appearing at public events wearing a sixteenth century form of maternity wear. Her weight quickly ballooned as she indulged her cravings for expensive delicacies like quails, which had to be shipped over specially for her from Calais. In one day alone, she ate two dozen. As she spent more and more time in her chambers, growing fatter and avoiding exerting herself at all costs, one courtier looked at her expanding belly and prayed, "God send her good delivery of a prince". Considering what had happened to her predecessors, it's likely Jane was silently saying the very same prayer each and every night.
On the afternoon of October 9th, labour began. But it was not destined to be an easy birth. Two days later, Jane was still in the full grip of childbirth and suffering enormously. A procession led by the Lord Mayor of London made its way from Saint Paul's Cathedral to Westminster Abbey to pray for the queen and the baby's safe delivery. As they prayed, Jane screamed and writhed in her magnificent bed at Hampton Court Palace. Rumours circulated later that Henry had been so eager to have his son that he gave permission for the doctors to perform a Caesarean, despite the fact that he knew such a procedure would almost certainly cause his wife's death. Sadly for the historical rumour mill, this story is definitely untrue. Although Henry VIII had directly caused the death of his second wife, he did not cause the death of his third. At two o'clock in the morning of Friday October 12th 1537, Jane's agony came to an end when the physicians announced that she had given birth to a fair, healthy and fat baby boy, who was christened Edward in honour of the king's grandfather. Henry immediately made him Duke of Cornwall and the other traditional titles of the heir to the throne - Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester - would follow.
The national mood was euphoric and celebrations continued for days. Getting rather carried away with himself, the bishop of Gloucester compared the new prince's birth to that of Saint John the Baptist, which falls under the category of faintly blasphemous hyperbole. In her chambers, Queen Jane, now sitting up and coiffed by her ladies, could begin receiving the visitors who had come to offer her congratulations. Three days later, her son was christened and Jane could relax, safe in the knowledge that her position as queen was now unassailable. However, the reception after the christening, where four hundred privileged guests were invited to join the King and Queen in celebrating the day, was destined to be Jane Seymour's last public appearance. The day after it, she suffered a terrible attack of diarrhoea and by the next morning, she had taken to her bed.
The reason for Jane Seymour's sudden decline is difficult to pinpoint. At the time, some blamed her attendants, who they said had indulged the queen's gastronomic cravings and given her everything she asked for, even after the birth, when they should have been watching what she ate. Even if Jane's diet had been too rich and too self-indulgent for a woman just recovering from the rigours of child-bed, it's difficult to see how that could have killed her. It's also impossible to see how the servants were expected to refuse her requests, without either losing their jobs or facing the queen's displeasure. Others attributed her death to puerperal fever, a catch-all term in the early modern period which basically covered all manner of post-natal complications. Today, Jane would almost certainly have been diagnosed with septicaemia and that during the three-day long labour she had suffered a tear in her perineum, which subsequently became infected.
In a panic, Jane summoned the bishop of Carlisle, with the intention of asking him to administer the Last Rites. However, shortly before the bishop began, Jane began to feel better and the bishop postponed the rite. She kept to her bed, but Henry carried on with the celebrations for Edward's birth and ennobled Jane's eldest brother, Edward, making him the new earl of Hertford. On the day of her brother's triumph, however, the queen had a relapse and the king ordered the bishop of London to celebrate a Mass asking for her recovery at Saint Paul's.
For three days, Jane lay in her bed in a sweat-soaked fever. Henry remained undecided about whether or not to go back to his house at Esher for the start of the hunting season, but eventually he decided his wife's condition was too serious for him to leave. In a rare moment of selflessness, he stayed at Hampton Court with her. On Monday October 22nd, the bishop of Carlisle visited the queen again and pronounced with certainty that she was going to die. The royal doctors, however, disagreed and said they were "in good hope" that Jane might make a full recovery. At eight o'clock on the following morning, they changed their minds and told the king he should prepare to say goodbye to his queen.
In the early hours of the following morning, after a terrible final few days alive, Jane Seymour finally received the last rites from the bishop of Carlisle and passed away, shortly before dawn. Henry, who had a pathological fear of illness and death, immediately left Hampton Court and went to Windsor, where he locked himself away in his chambers to mourn his wife. Despite a vigorous romantic tradition which states that he was heartbroken at the death of his "true" love, Henry, although undeniably grieved at Jane's death, was pragmatic enough to meet with his ministers to discuss making enquiries into a fourth marriage - this time with a European princess.
Meanwhile, at Hampton Court, requiem masses were said day and night for the repose of Queen Jane's soul and her body lay in state, sumptuously dressed, bejewelled and embalmed, for over a week. Her eldest stepdaughter, Mary, who had enjoyed an affectionate relationship with Jane, stood as chief mourner and took charge of Jane's servants during the mourning period. The funeral itself, which took place at Windsor Castle, was a magnificent affair, with Jane being followed by twenty-nine young damsels from her household, each representing a year of her life, and two hundred poor men, carrying flaming torches as the coffin was taken into Saint George's chapel, where it still rests today. On the final day of the mourning period, the bells in all the churches in London were instructed to ring for six hours, followed by one last requiem mass for her at Saint Paul's.