Jane Seymour projected the persona people demanded of her: An interview with Adrienne Dillard

It is difficult to try and define which of Henry VIII’s queens have been the most maligned, because they have all been the victims of misogyny, stereotyping or scapegoating, often in the pursuit of entertainment. Jane Seymour, the wife Henry idealised after her death, has been the victim of all three. Yet it was Jane who had to navigate what must have been one of the most dangerous periods of Henry VIII’s reign, particularly for his spouses, as he had just come to the knowledge he was able to judicially murder wives who had not produced his longed-for son without consequences. Jane had to pick out her wedding clothes and marry for the first time during the executions of Anne Boleyn and the five men who were charged along with her. After the thankless task of producing Henry’s heir, Jane lay dying while Henry left her to go hunting.

So I was thrilled when Adrienne Dillard revealed to me that Jane Seymour was to be one of the subjects of her next book. Fresh from helping rescue Jane Boleyn from a sea of hostility, no mean feat considering most of the history books are against the idea, Adrienne is busy creating the thoughtful and deeply human portrayals she is now well-known for. Who was Margery Horsman, and was Jane Seymour truly ‘bound to obey and serve’? Adrienne joins us today to discuss the two fascinating women behind her upcoming book, (working title) Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels.

OH: It has been two and a half years since The Raven’s Widow was published, the last time we discussed your research was a few months prior to publication. It has had a really positive impact on Jane Boleyn’s memory which is wonderful to see, although I think we have a way to go yet when it comes to altering the traditional view. How are you feeling about it now that your story is reaching so many people?

AD: Oh my goodness, I hope it’s having a positive impact! That was the goal I had in mind when I set out to write Jane Boleyn’s story, but it’s always sort of hard to tell whether or not the message is strong enough to cut through so many years of misinformation and slander. I agree there is still work yet to be done – the caricature of Jane as the vile villainess is just too tempting, unfortunately – but at least the tide is beginning to turn. At least 95% of the feedback I’ve received on The Raven’s Widow has been positive, so perhaps readers were hungry for a fresh perspective. I still see the odd comments in history groups about how awful she was, but the comments about how unfairly she has been maligned are now starting to outnumber them, and it feels really gratifying. If my portrayal of her in The Raven’s Widow had anything to do with that, then I feel truly honoured, but the credit really belongs Julia Fox. Without Fox’s wonderful biography, there would have been no novel. She paved the way by being the first voice of support for Jane.

OH: You’ve taken quite a different approach with this novel, tackling another obscure historical figure, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies Margery Horsman, alongside the very well-known Queen Jane Seymour. Although we can say we don’t know a great deal about Jane either. Tell us what attracted you to these particular women.

AD: To be completely honest, I chose to tell this story because I was missing Jane Boleyn so much I wasn’t ready to let her go! I wanted to check in with her during this transitional time. That’s how it started anyway. But then I sort of fell in love with Jane Seymour. That sounds a bit strange coming from a professed Anne Boleyn lover – haha! – yet it’s true. I feel a bit of kinship with her. I, too, know what it’s like to be the plain Jane. I have always felt that my friends and family members were prettier, smarter, or more charismatic than me. Even now, as a fairly successful writer, I suffer from impostor syndrome. For Jane, there is a constant comparison to Anne, and it seems she is always falling short. I utterly empathise with that. While Jane may not have been as vivacious and alluring as Anne, she did have a quiet dignity and that was what I wanted to explore. And she was a hell of a lot smarter than she is given credit for! As for Margery – I felt like I gave her short shrift in The Raven’s Widow. She was definitely the most unpleasant of Anne’s ladies in that novel and I’m not quite sure why! I wanted to give her a voice; find out why she always came through that way whenever she appeared in my imagination. What were her struggles and how did she feel seeing her mistress so swiftly degraded?

OH: In Margery Horsman you have a bit of a blank slate in terms of personality. What have you been thinking about while developing her character?

AD: Creating Margery’s personality has been one of the biggest struggles for me. So little is left from her, it’s impossible to determine what she might have been like. We don’t even know where she came from! How did she get such a prime position at court? Who did she have to vouch for her? I have scoured the archives and primary documents, reached out to a genealogist studying the Horsman line, read an extraordinary account of the Lyster family history (Margery married Sir Michael Lyster), and still I’m left with no answers. We have a few letters from Margery – court business mostly, but one asking Cromwell to help a distant cousin. And then we have John Husee’s letters to Lady Lisle. Thank God for that man! I call him the English Chapuys because his prolific letters are just as gossipy! Through Husee’s reports, we begin to see how well-placed Margery was. Her connections to the various people within the court – not just courtiers, but the wider circle…tailors, seamstresses, jewellers, etc. She was a reliable contact for Husee and they seemed to have a genuine rapport. She sort of emerges as a bit of a leader among the ladies, but there was a hesitancy there, and rashness as well. There is a report by Anne Boleyn’s Vice-Chamberlain, remarking in wonderment how the formerly eager Margery had changed her tune when he interrogated her regarding the queen’s behaviour. She had been so helpful to him, but then something happened and she began evading his questions. Had she felt that her earlier participation in the sham investigation was rash? Why had she changed her mind? These are all things I have been considering while crafting her story.

OH: Why did you decide to tell Jane and Margery’s stories together?

AD: Initially, I was going to write the story purely from Margery’s perspective. If you’ve read any of my novels, you’ll know I love to write from a perspective we’ve rarely (or never) heard from before. When I wrote Cor Rotto, there were no books featuring Catherine (though Wendy Dunn’s novel from Catherine’s POV was published a few weeks before mine), and there were only a handful of books out there featuring Jane Boleyn (and only one other book that was flattering in its portrayal), so taking on Margery was a natural choice. She’s never had a starring role, and appears only briefly in a few novels told from other perspectives. I wanted her to be my leading lady, but as I got deeper into the research, I realised that there was almost nothing out there on her. And, while Margery may have been lovely in real life, I was having a hard time figuring out why people would care about what she had to say. She’s basically faceless in the historical record (though I do believe that Holbein’s drawing of Lady Lister is her, not her mother-in-law, as has been suggested!) and I worried there wouldn’t be enough to fill out a novel. Enter Jane Seymour. I’ve always been extremely curious to know what was going on in her mind as she moved through this turbulent time period. What better way to find out than by writing from her POV? In a way, the combination seemed perfect: I could tell the story from both sides. From the side of someone who supported Anne and from Anne’s replacement. From the side of a maid-of-honour and from a newly-made royalty. From the side of an orphaned only child and from the middle child in a large family. How were they the same? How were they different? How could they come to trust each other? In a way, it’s sort of perfect it came together this way because it parallels our modern, divided world. How do we overcome our differences?

I also went this route to try to demonstrate just how much our own perception colours our understanding of others. There are many instances in the story where Jane behaves in a certain way (for reasons she explains in her chapter), but her actions, as viewed by Margery in her chapter, are completely misinterpreted…and vice versa.

OH: Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour has been drowning in stereotypes for centuries. Knowing your research style, what ideas about Jane Seymour did you want to challenge?

AD: Ooh…I really wanted to challenge the idea that she was dull as dishwater! I think Jane just wanted everyone to believe that because it was safer. I also wanted to unwind the romantic notion that has developed that she was Henry’s “one true love.” I certainly believe he put her on a pedestal after her death, and he may have even exalted her in life had she lived after Edward’s birth…but I think she would have gone the way of Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon had she not delivered up a son. Mostly, I wanted to give her some agency and present a more fully formed portrait. Jane is usually shown to be either a pale, meek creature or cold and calculating, stepping through her mistress’s blood to get to the throne. The reality is a lot more complex.

OH: Jane’s situation was reasonably unique, there certainly wasn’t a precedent to follow after a monarch had his wife executed for adultery and demanded a new wife within the week. Do you think her strength of mind in navigating this period is often underestimated due to the tradition of her being meek and mousey?

AD: Absolutely! But I don’t necessarily fault that tradition, because I believe Jane very deliberately cultivated that perception. Her predecessor was the absolute opposite of meek and mousey and Jane saw where that got her. She did everything she could to distance herself and quickly adapted when Henry chastised her for behaviour he didn’t like. Jane was a fast learner, adept at projecting the persona people demanded of her. In the 21st century, we would find it harmful for one to suppress themselves like that, but in the 16th century, it was a valuable skill to have.

OH: Are there any particular incidents from this period in Henry’s court you’ve been looking forward to exploring?

AD: I really enjoyed writing the scene where Henry and Jane visit Princess Mary when she finally capitulates to her father’s demands. I didn’t have a chance to explore her much in my last two novels because she’s pretty much banished from court during Anne’s tenure there and Catherine Carey was pretty much banished when it was Mary’s turn on the throne! She’s always been a distant figure in my books and I’m looking forward to seeing how she gets on with Jane as her step-mother. This is also my first time writing about the Pilgrimage of Grace. It’s certainly not my favourite incident from this period, so I can’t say I’ve been looking forward to it, but the exercise of doing it will be exceedingly valuable. It’s always important to go outside your comfort zone and writing about this tumultuous period, really trying to get inside it, will be an excellent challenge.

OH: We are going to see a great deal of Henry VIII in Jane’s story, how does it feel tackling him from his wife’s perspective?

AD: Sometimes it feels impossible! Henry’s moods shifted wildly during this time period. One moment he is mooning over how much he loves Jane and the next he is complaining how he rushed into marriage, saying that there are a few other pretty maids he may have preferred had he waited. As a researcher, reading the documents of the time, I know he is saying these things, but Jane does not. She doesn’t have the whole picture. This is where it’s handy to have an alternating point of view character. Margery is often more aware of the king’s true feelings than Jane is because she has John Husee feeding her information. It’s always a delicate balance.

OH: Without giving too much away (or do if you please!) who else did you enjoy writing about?

AD: I’m sort of in love with John Husee, haha! He comes across as extraordinarily kind and gregarious. His letters to Lady Lisle are so chatty and funny, but they break your heart too. He shows genuine concern and affection not just for her, but for all the ladies he comes into contact with through his business for the Lisles. He’s very adept at reading people and figuring out what motivates them. There doesn’t seem to be any record of him marrying and I think that’s a shame, because he would have made an excellent husband. He made a few cameos in Cor Rotto, but this was the first time I’ve been able to make him a larger part of the story and I’m really enjoying it.

I’m also having fun writing Anne Stanhope. She has always been such a miserable character in novels, with the exception of a rare few. She’s certainly not the friendliest lady in my story, but there is a reason for it and I hope readers find something in her that they can empathise and connect with.

Adrienne Dillard

Adrienne Dillard is a graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies with emphasis in History from Montana State University-Northern. She has been an eager student of history for most of her life and has completed in-depth research on the American Revolutionary War time period in American History and the history and sinking of the Titanic. Her senior university capstone paper was on the discrepancies in passenger lists on the ill-fated liner and Adrienne was able to work with Encyclopedia Titanica for much of her research on that subject. Her previous works include best-selling novel, Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey and Catherine Carey in a Nutshell for the ‘History in a Nutshell’ series. Her most recent novel, The Raven’s Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn was released in February 2017. When she isn’t writing, Adrienne works as an administrative assistant in the financial services industry and enjoys spending time with her husband, Kyle, and son, Logan, at their home in the Pacific Northwest.


Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey available from Book Depository and Amazon

The dream was always the same … the scaffold before me, my aunt’s head on the block. I stared on in horror as the sword sliced the head from her swan-like neck. The executioner raised her severed head into the air by its long chestnut locks. The last thing I remembered before my world turned black was my own scream. Fifteen year-old Catherine Carey has been dreaming the same dream for three years, since the bloody execution of her aunt Queen Anne Boleyn. Her only comfort is that she and her family are safe in Calais, away from the intrigues of Henry VIII’s court. But now Catherine has been chosen to serve Henry VIII’s new wife, Queen Anne of Cleves. Just before she sets off for Calais, she learns the family secret: the true identity of her father, a man she considers to be a monster and a man she will shortly meet. This compelling novel tells the life story of a woman who survived being close to the crown and who became one of Queen Elizabeth I’s closest confidantes.


The Raven’s Widow available from Book Depository and Amazon

Jane Parker never dreamed that her marriage into the Boleyn family would raise her star to such dizzying heights. Before long, she finds herself as trusted servant and confidante to her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn; King Henry VIII’s second queen. On a gorgeous spring day, that golden era is cut short by the swing of a sword. Jane is unmoored by the tragic death of her husband, George, and her loss sets her on a reckless path that leads to her own imprisonment in the Tower of London. Surrounded by the remnants of her former life, Jane must come to terms with her actions. In the Tower, she will face up to who she really is and how everything went so wrong.



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Cor Rotto: A Novel of Catherine Carey with Adrienne Dillard