Review of Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

In the case of England’s Queen Jane Seymour, there is little evidence for historians like Alison Weir to go on since Jane did not leave letters behind. Jane is therefore the perfect subject for a historical novel like Weir’s Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen. In this novel, Weir makes a little-known and seemingly dull queen come to life.

We see Jane first at her beloved home, Wulfhall. From an early age, she learns that life for women in the sixteenth century is often unfair. Her father has an affair with his daughter-in-law, but the girl is the one who is sent away to a nunnery. Jane also sees how her mother suffers as she pretends that the affair never happened. Obviously, married women have few choices.

When Jane goes to court to serve Queen Katherine of Aragon, she learns that even queens have little power in their marriages. Katherine is putting on a brave front, but Henry VIII is in love with Anne Boleyn. He eventually breaks with the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne and puts aside Katherine and his daughter Mary.

Jane serves Katherine joyfully because they are both devout Catholics. Weir even has Jane consider becoming a nun, though there is no proof of this. Yet even the scant historical evidence suggests that Jane was sincere in her faith. When Henry tires of the reform-minded Anne and shows an interest in Jane, she hopes that she can use her influence to help the Catholic church as well as Princess Mary. “Was it presumptuous to wonder of God had appointed her, Jane, to put an end to these ills…By her means, true religion might be reestablished, and the rights of the Princess Mary recognized.”


Jane Seymour, Queen of England, 1536

Jane successfully urges reconciliation between Henry and Princess Mary. Jane welcomes the younger women to court and promises to make her first among her ladies.

Her efforts on behalf of the monasteries that Henry has ordered to be broken up are unsuccessful, however. Weir has Jane plead with the king, “Sir, I beg you, for the sake of peace and of those your loving subjects who regret the passing of the old ways, please think kindly upon the monasteries. I urge you to restore those you have closed.” Henry does not take kindly to her plea, but even broaching the subject with him demonstrates Jane’s courage and her religious convictions. In this novel, Jane loves her husband but does not, as her motto suggests, simply exist to “Obey and Serve” him.

Throughout the novel, Jane feels responsible for indirectly bringing about Anne Boleyn’s death. When Henry started to seek Jane out and profess love for her, Jane thought he might set Anne aside like he did with Katherine. Yet when Anne is charged with adultery and conspiring to kill the king, Henry insists on putting her to death. Jane has no idea whether all of the charges are accurate, and feels sick over her part in Anne’s execution.

During Jane’s marriage to Henry, she repeatedly sees a shadow on the wall of her bedroom at night. She believes the shadow is Anne, thus the reference to the haunted queen in the book’s title.

Days after she gives birth to Prince Edward VI, Jane sees the shadow again. “Moonlight shone through it [the window], illuminating a shadow on the wall. No! Not now! And then, for the first time, she could clearly see those unmistakable features: the narrow face, the pointed chin, the dark eyes flashing with menance, glaring at her malevolently. Now she could not doubt who it was who had visited her in the dark reaches of the night, or of what her appearance heralded. I am going to die, she thought desperately.” Of course, no one knows exactly how Jane reacted to Anne’s death, but she would have likely been surprised since there was no precedent for killing an English queen. Obviously we don’t know if she ever thought Anne was haunting her, though it does make for interesting reading.

I recommend this novel for readers who want the known facts about Jane Seymour to be accurate, but are also looking for an interesting interpretation of what the real Jane might have been like.

Halloween and the History of Witches

Modern depiction of a witch

Modern depiction of a witch

With Halloween approaching, you’ve probably seen witches decorating people’s houses and yards. Maybe you or a friend will dress up as a witch before going trick-or-treating. But do you know how witches became a symbol of Halloween?

In another blog post, I wrote about the festival of Samhain, which represented the start of winter and the New Year for the Celtic people. Celts believed that the dead roamed the earth on Samhain. The Celtic priests, called Druids, told the people that since spirits knew a great deal about the afterlife, predictions for the future would be more accurate on Samhain. The practices of Druid priests, such as predicting the health of the community or figuring out how to cure an illness, were associated with witchcraft.

The Celts did not view witchcraft or witches as evil. That idea came from the early Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Though the Church incorporated some elements of Samhain into a new holiday that honored the dead with prayers (All Saints’ Day), witches were excluded. The word witch meant “wise one,” and the male heads of the Church saw witches’ knowledge of the natural world as a threat to the Church’s authority. As one historian put it, women did not fit into the early Church hierarchy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God in all his forms was referred to as “He.”

To rid the communities of witches, the Church claimed that these women made a pact with the devil and wanted to bring harm to their neighbors. Witch-hunts became popular not only in the Middle Ages but also during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe. Most witch-hunts occurred in areas with political and religious turmoil. Accused witches were either burned at the stake or hanged.

Like their European counterparts, American colonists also viewed witches as evil. Colonists blamed witches for their problems, such as illness or poor a harvest. When teenaged girls in Salem, Massachusetts consulted an African slave to tell their futures, they became frightened and appeared possessed by an evil force. The town’s church leaders accused the slave woman of witchcraft, and other colonists used the hysteria to accuse neighbors they disliked of planting spells that caused illness or other problems. The witch trials in Salem sentenced twenty people to death in 1692.

Salem’s residents, along with most colonists, did not celebrate All Saints’ Day because they were Protestants who didn’t believe in saints. Some aspects of the holiday were preserved, however. For example, New England residents celebrated the harvest in late autumn. The Puritan beliefs in the magic of witches and fortunetelling eventually led to our modern day Halloween celebrations, which prominently feature witches.