On 12 October 1537 the screams of a new-born boy rang through the chambers of Hampton Court Palace, beside England’s River Thames. King Henry VIII finally had the son he’d so desperately wanted, but it would cost him the life of his beloved queen.
Less than a fortnight later, Queen Jane Seymour, Henry’s third -- and favourite -- wife, died of what are believed to have been post-natal complications. But, as with so many of England’s historical notables, it appears death has not kept her from wandering around.
Unlike some of the other phantoms said to haunt Hampton Court, Jane’s is a peaceful apparition. According to the palace website, she appears as a silent white figure holding a lighted taper as she drifts down the Silver Stick Staircase and glides across the cobbled courtyard of Clock Court.
Her apparition has also been reported coming out of a doorway in the Queen’s Apartments and noiselessly haunting the Silver Stick Gallery. According to veteran ghost author Peter Underwood in his 1992 book, The A-Z of British Ghosts, a few palace servants had “quite recently” quit their jobs because they had seen “a tall lady, with a long train and a shining face”, walk through closed doors and glide down the stairs carrying a taper.
While she was alive, Jane’s reign as Queen was a short one. Before her rise to prominence, she had been Lady-in-Waiting to Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who - after a long marriage - Henry had divorced, largely because she’d failed to bear him a son. Their one surviving child had been a daughter, Mary (later to become Queen Mary I) but Henry wanted a male heir to ensure the succession of his crown.
His other reason for getting rid of Catherine was that he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn. He married Anne in 1533 and she also bore him a child. Again, though, it was a daughter, Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I). There was still no son.
In 1535 Henry visited Sir John Seymour at Wolf Hall in Wiltshire and it may have been during his stay there that he first became attracted to Sir John’s daughter, Jane Seymour. By early 1536, as Anne Boleyn lay recovering after giving birth to a stillborn son, Henry was in full pursuit of Jane.
Although Jane was willing to marry the King she refused to be his mistress. Good for her, you might think, but it was not so good for Anne because Henry was determined to get what he wanted. Jane’s stubbornness undoubtedly helped to bring about Anne’s fall from grace (some might say she was pushed) and her eventual execution on 19 May 1536.
Just 11 days after Anne was beheaded at the Tower of London, Jane became Henry’s third wife. By early the following year, she was pregnant and on 12 October 1537 she finally gave birth to the son Henry had craved for so long.
The King was delighted. With the birth of Edward -- later to become King Edward VI -- Henry at last had a legitimate male heir, but it quickly became clear that the Queen was ill. Weak and exhausted, she developed a high fever and fell into delirium. She died on 24 October.
For once, Henry genuinely mourned the loss of a wife. Jane was given a solemn funeral and it would be more than two years before the King married again. In Henry VIII-years, that’s positively restrained.
There’s an old English ballad called "The Death of Queen Jane" that many believe refers to Jane Seymour. In this song, the titular Queen Jane endures a long and difficult labour, fearing for her child’s life and pleading with various people to cut her open and save her baby even if it means her own death. When at last it seems she is certain to die anyway her request is granted. The surgery is performed, the baby is delivered, and the Queen dies.
Although historically inaccurate, the seemingly popular belief that Jane Seymour died giving life to the country’s future King probably explains one detail of her ghost story.
Jane’s spirit is sometimes specifically said to return to Hampton Court Palace each October, but not on the anniversary of her death as might be expected.
Instead, she is supposed to appear on 12 October - on the anniversary of her son’s birth.
Hampton Court Palace stands to the south west of London, just a 35-minute train journey from Waterloo station. Starting this Halloween, the palace is offering ghost tours on Friday and Sunday evenings. For further information and to book your tickets see the Historic Royal Palaces website.
Hampton Court Palace photograph by edwin.11 at Flickr