the death of queen jane

April 15, 2014 § 6 Comments

Queen Jane lay in labour a full nine days or more
Til her women grew so tired they could no longer there.

Good women, good women, good women as ye be
Will you open my right side and find my baby.

Oh no cried the women, that’s a thing that can never be.
We will call on King Henry and hear what he may say.

King Henry was sent for, King Henry he did come,
Saying ‘What does ail you my Lady, your eyes they look so dim.’

‘King Henry, King Henry, will you do one thing for me,
Will you open my right side and find my baby.’

‘Oh no,’ cried King Henry, ‘that’s a thing that I can never do.
If I lose the flower of England I shall lose the branch too.’

There was fiddling and dancing on the day the babe was born
But poor Queen Jane beloved she lay cold as a stone.

The past few weeks I’ve been learning to play “The Death of Queen Jane,” a 16th century ballad I first heard sung by Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. The tune used in the movie is a fairly recent one by Dáithí Sproule, composed in the 1970s and recorded by The Bothy Band in 1979, but the ballad itself, sung to different tunes, and transcribed in literary and vernacular variations I want to describe here, can be traced back to the late sixteenth century. What really draws me to this song is its depiction of a woman in labour, told at times from her perspective, in her voice, and its recording of a possible caesarean section, with the inevitable outcome being the death of the woman as she gives birth to her child.

Since learning the song, and finding it unutterably sad, I’ve been wanting to know the history of the ballad’s transmission (somewhat complicated), if it is actually about Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII (it is), and whether or not Seymour did in fact have a caesarean section (maybe, maybe not).

The words from the film version (Sproule’s 1970s version) are very close to those recorded in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, selected from the Journal of the Folk Song Society and edited by R. Vaughan Williams and A.L.Lloyd (1959). This particular version was sung by a Mrs Russell of Upwey, Dorset, and transcribed in 1907.  I tracked it down in the I.K. Barber stacks at UBC. Here’s how it appears on the page, with the tune she sang it to: 

death of queen jane ballad image

Their note to this ballad goes: “The story is a legendary re-working of historical fact. Jane Seymour, wife of Henry VIII, died on 24 October 1537, twelve days after the natural birth of her son, who later became Edward VI. Some said her death was due to clumsy surgery. We do not know how old this ballad is, nor if it derives from a piece called The Lamentation of Queen Jane, licensed for publication in 1560. The ballad has been collected in Devon (FSJ II 222) and Somerset (FSJ V 257), and a second Dorset version is given in FSJ III p.67. The Death of Queen Jane is No. 170 in Child’s collection.” p.113.

But there’s a bit more to it than this. The information I draw on here comes from an article by Alastair Vannan called “The Death of Queen Jane: Ballad, History, and Propaganda” which appeared in the Folk Music Journal in 2013 [1]. Vannan describes two main traditions from which this ballad can be traced: there is a literary, more formal print-based ballad first published in 1612 in A Crown-Garland of Golden Roses as “The Wofull Death of Queen Jane, wife to King Henry the Eight: and how King Edward was cut out of his mother’s belly”; and then there is the vernacular ballad tradition. Although presumably long in oral circulation, the first known recording of this was in 1776, “sent to Thomas Percy by Thomas Barnard, Dean of Derry, transcribed from the memory of his mother” (Vannan p.349). The vernacular tradition has existed through time in many variations, from the sixteenth century through Inside Llewyn Davis (and now onwards to YouTube, where people who have seen the film are now recording and posting their own covers).

First, the print-based ballad, which appeared in 1612: “The Wofull Death of Queen Jane….”  This is a ballad of nine 8-line stanzas, to be sung to the tune of “The Lamentation for the Lord of Essex.” The ballad describes how Jane was “in travell, pained sore/Full thirty woeful daies and more,/And no way could delivered be.”  Here are the two crucial stanzas:

Being thus perplext with greif and care,
A lady to him did repaire,
And said, ‘O King! show us thy will,
The queene’s sweet life to save or spill.
If she cannot delivered be.
Yet save the flower, if not the tree!’
Oh! mourne, mourne, mourne, faire ladies,
Jane, your queen, the flower of England dies.

Then down uppon his tender knee
For help from heaven prayed he:
Meane while into a sleepe they cast
His queene, which ever more did last;
And opening then her tender womb.
Alive they tooke this budding bloome.
Oh! mourne, mourne, mourne, faire ladies,
Jane, your queen, the flower of England dies.

It’s fussier than the vernacular version sung by Mrs Russell of Upwey, Dorset (and now Oscar Isaac) which I’ve quoted in full above. By contrast, the vernacular is spare, and powerful in its stark portrayal of loss. And as with all vernacular ballads, it has greater dramatic presentation of the story. The print ballad is told from a distanced perspective; the queen doesn’t speak; the King’s knee is tender, as is the Queen’s womb. There are too many words.

Here’s a stanza from the vernacular version recorded by Child (Ballad 170): “The Death of Queen Jane”:

‘O royal King Henry, do one thing for me:
Rip open my two sides, and save my baby!’
‘O royal Queen Jane, that thing will not do;
If I lose your fair body, I’ll lose your baby too.’

Now Jane and Henry are both given words to speak; these carry some of the dramatic action. Vannan points out that the burden of responsibility for Jane’s death is now shifted to Jane, who asks for the surgery to be done, thus absolving Henry for taking such a decision (more on this shortly). As with the print-based ballad, Jane is still described as the flower of England. It ends with her death:

The baby was christened with joy and much mirth,
whilst poor Queen Jane’s body lay cold under earth:
There was ringing and singing and mourning all day,
The princess Elizabeth went weeping away.

In the film version of the ballad I puzzled a little over the line “If I lose  the flower of England, I shall lose the branch too.” Jane is the flower of England, so the branch is the baby? But it would make more sense to think of Jane as the branch, and the baby as the flower. Vannan notes that the print-based ballad confuses the two: Jane is described as the flower of England, but the ballad also “somewhat confusingly refers to Jane as the tree that bore the flower that was Edward. In contrast, the vernacular ballads employ a similar vegetal metaphor for the lineage but avoid reattributing the flower symbol by referring to Edward as the branch.” So Mrs Russell’s version goes: “‘oh no,’ says King Henry, ‘that’s a thing I’ll never do,/If I lose the flower of England, I shall lose the branch too.'” The vernacular wanted to think of Jane as the flower, so Edward became the branch.

But of course, what makes this such a powerful song is the terrible request made by Jane, first to her ‘good women’ as she lies in labour, and then to King Henry himself. Terrible because stated in such plain language: “Will you do one thing for me/Will you open my right side, and find my baby.” Vannan records what is known about Jane Seymour’s labour: she went into labour on 9 October 1537; by 11 October the baby had still not been delivered (at this point rumours of a caesarean delivery were circulating); after two days and three nights of labour she gave birth to Edward. The christening was on the 15th. The “churching” ceremony took place on the 16th (“the blessing customarily given to mothers who have recovered after childbirth, suggesting that she was expected to make a full recovery”). On the 17th of October she began to experience fever and delusions. She was given last rites. On the 24th of October she died.

Almost immediately there were rumours of a caesarean section resulting in her death, but also rumours of puerperal fever (“childbed fever”), which was the most common form of death for women in childbirth, of pneumonia causing death, of exhaustion causing death, even of death due to “aggressive stretching of her limbs in order to aid the birth.” She would have been in confinement long before she went into labour; her absence from public view for well over a month, followed by her death, as Vannan points out, would have lent itself to the circulation of rumours. He also notes that many historians have attributed the rumours of Henry choosing the caesarean, that is, choosing the child over the mother’s life, to Catholic propaganda. Yet the earliest account of a caesarean, he says, comes from the archives of the Rolls Chapel (a “repository for documents produced by the medieval high court of Chancery, and also for documents from the royal household and other official papers.”) This was not a Catholic source, and an entry that likely came within a month of her death “states that Henry VIII was given the choice of whether preference should be given to the survival of the queen or of the child, and that he chose the child, after which surgery was performed.”

All versions of the ballad, says Vannan, whether the print-based “Wofull Death of Queen Jane” or the many vernacular versions, all emphasize a choice between saving the mother or the child, and of a caesarean being performed. He says that although there is no definitive evidence for or against a caesarean having been performed (and they were performed at this time, rarely successfully, usually on a woman who had already died)  it is most likely “the belief that Jane Seymour died following a caesarean section was in wide and general circulation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” The vernacular ballads sympathize with Henry by shifting the responsibility for the decision to Jane. The gap of twelve days between the birth of Edward and Jane’s death could be attributed not only to puerperal fever, but also to the onset of septic peritonitis following the first changing of the surgical dressings if a caesarean had been carried out. But there’s no strong evidence either way. [2]

Whether or not Jane Seymour had a caesarean, we know that she died from giving birth. Labour reduces you to pure body. There is only the pain, and the desire for it to end, to no longer be in your body. The ballad rings true to me — a woman asking for the unendurable pain of her labour to end, for someone to end it for her.

Vannan also speaks to the truth of this ballad when he records this anecdote: “When Cecil Sharp was collecting songs in the Appalachians he took down ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ from Kate Thomas, of St. Helen’s, Lee County, Kentucky, and when she had finished singing he told her that the ballad was founded on historical fact, at which she exclaimed: ‘There now. I always said it must be true because it is so beautiful.'”




[1]Volume 10, Issue 3, pages 347 to 369.

[2] But see Richard L. DeMolen’s “The Birth of Edward VI and the Death of Queen Jane: The Arguments for and against Caesarean Section” in Renaissance Studies, Volume 4, Number 4 (1990). DeMolen offers an exhaustive review of the evidence (including the many variants of the ballad) and argues that a Caesarean was in fact performed on Jane while she was still living.

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