Jane Burden was born in Oxford to a stableman named Robert Burden and his wife Ann Maizey. Around the time she was born, her parents were living at St Helen's Passage, in the parish of St Peter-in-the-East, off Holywell Street in Oxford. This has since been marked with a blue plaque. Her mother Ann was illiterate and probably came to Oxford as a domestic servant. Little is known of Jane Burden's childhood, but it was one of poverty and deprivation.
In October 1857, Jane Burden and her sister Elizabeth, known in the family as "Bessie", were attending a performance in Oxford of the Drury Lane Theatre Company. Jane was noticed by the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones who belonged to a group of artists painting the Oxford Union murals, based on Arthurian tales. Struck by Jane's beauty, they sought her to model for them. Jane initially sat mainly for Rossetti, who needed a model for Queen Guinevere. After this, Jane sat for Morris, who was working on an easel painting, La Belle Iseult (Tate Gallery). Like Rossetti, Morris also used Jane as his model for his rendition of Queen Guinevere. During this period, Morris fell in love with Jane and they were engaged.