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Back To Black: Anne Boleyn’s Satin Nightgown

March 20, 2013

The Privy Purse Expences of King Henry VIII, edited by the unimaginatively-named but industrious Nicholas Harris Nicolas, Esq, was first printed in 1827, and has proved a blessing to both historians and novelists ever since. In addition to all sorts of fascinating oddments and trivia — persons healed of the King’s Evil got 7s 6d along with the healing touch, and “Marke” (Smeaton) received roughly iij payer of hosen every other month, at 5s a pair — it contained a minute description of what are probably the best-known articles of clothing Anne Boleyn ever wore, with the exception of that B necklace and her various French hoods. These were, of course, the “Cloke” of black satin, lined with velvet, Bruges satin and buckram, and an accompanying “night gowne” of black satin also lined with taffeta, velvet and buckram. The list of materials ordered takes up two pages in the 1827 edition — a sample of items which were paid for on June 16, 1532:

Itm the same daye paied to John Malte for xij yards of blacke satin for a Cloke for my lady Anne at viij s. the yard — iiij li. xvj s.

Itm the same daye paied for the making of the same Cloke — v s.

Itm the same daye paied for a yerde of blac vellute for edging of the same Cloke — xiij s. iiij d.

Itm the xvij daye paied to John Malt for xiij yards of blac satin for a night gowne for my lady Anne at viij s. the yard — v li. iiij s.

Itm the same daye paied for ij yards of Buckeram for the lyne the upper sleves of the same gowne — xij d.

In addition, “My lady Anne” also received xvj yards of green damask at viij s. the yard, although what she had made from it is not recorded. Antonia Fraser (among others) has noted that “night gown” in that time meant a robe de chambre — casual, but respectable — but the change in terminology, when added to the change in colour symbolism (black used to be entirely serious and respectable) have made these luxurious articles into something they were surely never intended to be: sultry. Considering the timing of the purchase, Anne’s elevation to the peerage two months later, the trip to Calais and Elizabeth’s conception sometime in December, the black nightgown looks like the perfect accessory for a woman bent on seduction.

Not that Agnes Strickland thought of it that way — as with many of the other Anne tropes that recur in novel after novel, this one was publicized — though not invented — by Strickland. She made it clear that the “night gowne” was actually “an evening dress” and included a copy of the bill for the cloak, “For the amusement of such of our fair readers as may wish to see a specimen of a milliner’s bill of the sixteenth century.” Judging by the novels, at least some of her fair readers found it very interesting indeed.

While not quite describing this particular cloak-and-nightgown set, Edgar Lee Masters referenced a sort of hybrid nightgown in Ann Boleyn And Henry VIII (1934). Masters had certainly been reading The Privy Purse Expences on his own account, as Henry remembers:

How in the week that Thomas More resigned
I paid the money that you lost at bowls;
And bought those thirty ells of golden arras
In Flanders for your nightgown, yes and satin,
And black velute.

Thomas More resigned on May 16 1532, and on that same day the Privy Purse records a payment of £74 13s. 4d. to a servant of Anne Boleyn’s, “For the use of willm Reding for xxxij flemysshe elles of golde Aras at xlvj s. viij d. the elle.” (Anne’s debts at bowls were paid a week later, on May 22). However, there’s no mention of satin or black velvet, and no indication of what the material was intended for (although I would imagine that anything costing 45s. the ell was probably not going to be wasted on casual clothing). I would imagine that Masters, intentionally or not, ran the two different entries together and transformed the black nightgown into a gold one so he could show Henry bitterly deploring the money frivolled away on the very day that More left him.

The nightgown’s first unmistakable appearance that I’ve found is in Brief Gaudy Hour (1949): “[Henry] had innumerable garments made for her, not the least significant of which was a black satin bedgown lined with taffeta and trimmed with velvet.” The gown travels with Anne to Calais and she uses it for dramatic effect when she decides that The Time Has Come. “By the light of a single candle on a tall iron stand the unfastened black bedgown revealed the alabaster whiteness of her body, making her a snare for any man.” Henry’s reaction is to pull the gown off of Anne and toss it aside “as if it had cost him a mere song.” With that, the gown disappears from the story, its work done. Anne uses it for seduction once again in The Lady In The Tower (1986), this time going so far as to design the gown herself. “As always at such tiemes, I considered what I should wear … My nightgown should be made of black satin, lined with black taffeta, and this should be stiffened with buckram and lined with black velvet. I enjoyed designing it.” And just before the trip to France, Anne dines with Henry alone; afterwards “I emerged from my black satin and went to him.” In The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) Anne wonders what the servants must have thought:

Anyway, once bathed she had us place her fresh parfumed body into thirteen yards of satin, black with velvet trim — a most magnificent nightdress Henry’d had her made — and had us next undo her long black hair and brush it till it matched her gown. Then she bade us go.

Unfortunately, the gown fails to work its usual magic and Henry has a severe case of performance anxiety. “Mayhap ’twas too much French wine,” Anne consoles herself as she tries to struggle back into the nightgown without calling on any servants to witness their mutual embarrassment.

“Bring me the black nightgown, Jane,” Anne tells Lady Rochford in The Boleyn Wife (2007), when she sees Henry’s anger at Francois I’s flirtations with her during the Calais trip. Jane obligingly does so, then skulks around until it’s all over and Anne comes out, still in black, to give George Boleyn the bad news of the king’s disappointment in her. “I saw it in his eyes tonight, the question: Is that all there is?”

Sometimes the gown has the less exciting job of providing evidence of the King’s indulgence of Anne. “The King is spending huge amounts of money on resplendent new clothes for Anne,” says Elinor in Anne Boleyn And Me. “She has a gown of gold-embroidered velvet that cost £74, she boasts, and her latest order is for a black satin gown lined with black velvet, to be worn in her bedchamber if she chooses to receive guests there.” The date of this diary entry, 19 May 1532, is a little on the early side but, like Masters’ choice of 16 May 1532, probably chosen more for symbolism. In Reap The Storm (1998) Anne spends money when she’s frustrated at the endless legal delays:

[The new gown] was black satin lined with taffeta and trimmed with velvet. It had a matching cloak and each garment took more than twelve yards of material. I watched the fittings she had with the seamstress in charge of making them and I could not believe the amount of material that went into each one. I watched open-mouthed as the seamstress pinned and tucked, handling the satin with reverence …. Anne spent the King’s money as if it came from a never-ending supply but she did not seem happy.

While the gown often is present at their first sexual encounter, it’s made itself much scarcer at the wedding. There’s an ambiguous reference to “my black silk gown” in Doomed Queen Anne (2002) and in The Concubine (1963) Anne is married in “a dark cinnamon colour, furred with black” — sober enough, but not the gown. A close relation to the real gown, though, is the “fur-lined, black satin robe” which Henry gets for Anne in The Other Boleyn Girl (2001). Anne doesn’t wear it to her secret January wedding, but it gets some attention nonetheless: Mary and George, waiting in the king’s chamber and bored, decide to entertain themselves by ordering some food and looking through Anne’s wardrobe. “It was a petty revenge for me, to sit in Anne’s chair and eat off her plate while she was marrying the King of England, but it amused me. To tell the truth, I tried on her black satin bedgown too, while she was safely out of the way, and George swore that it suited me very well.”

Its next chronological appearance comes in Blood Royal (1988) when the now-married Anne has discovered that Henry is no less inclined to stray during her pregnancy than he was during his first wife’s. There’s nothing seductive about this iteration of the gown, as Mary Boleyn tells us:

She wore black, as though in mourning for her illusion that she still ruled her husband’s heart. It was not funeral black, but a beautiful gown of flowing black satin, lined with taffeta of the same and trimmed with velvet. Its skirts stiffened with buckram, it spread all about her like a pool of ink. Black, to flatter her creamy skin and shining hair: the skin that was now blotched with weeping, the great eyes diminished by puffy pink lids, and the hair uncombed, wild about her swollen body.

Anne is still using the nightgown, or at least the fur-lined version of it, three years later in The Black Pearl (1991) in which the heroine first meets Anne in January of 1536 — pregnant for what would prove to be the last time, Anne reclines in her chamber, wearing “an exotic nightgown of black satin edged in silky black fur with long pointed sleeves.” I enjoyed seeing it turn up so late, and considering how much the actual gown and cloak cost, I hope their career was similarly long.

I hope to see them in fiction again — though it might be nice if they varied their moments for appearing slightly more. I hope also one day to find out what really became of those thirty-two ells of golden Flemish arras. A cloak? A gown? A convenient wall hanging for hiding behind? Only a novelist can tell us now.

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From → Essays

7 Comments
  1. Tungsten permalink

    What does the J indicate in the numbered accounts? I recognize the other Roman numerals, but I’ve never seen a J used before.

    And it’s funny how interpretations of things change over the years. Mom mentioned this post to me, and said that with the buckram, that nightgown probably could’ve stood up by itself! Not very sultry by our standards. But people hear ‘black satin nightgown’ and, well . . .

    • sonetka permalink

      I and J were the same letter then — the J is just a terminal I, much in the same way that S used to be written different depending on whether it was at the beginning of the word or in the middle of it. (I and J confusion is why so many novelists insist on having Henry and Jane Seymour’s paired initials as HJ. It was actually HI — very cheerful-sounding, really! And no, a black, fancy, buckram-stiffened dress would not have been intended to convey anything other than stately, serious, non-mistress-like qualities — ironic that over the years, it’s turned into something that conveys the exact opposite message!

      • Tungsten permalink

        Oh, I see! Sort of like how I and J get mixed up between Greek and Latin. (I remember spending half an hour trying to sort out some Byzantium data before realizing that Ioannes Scylitzes and John Skylitzes were the same guy.) So XIJ yards is twelve yards of black satin? Yowza.

        And I guess it’s like the sixth finger: historically inaccurate, but it makes a juicier story.

  2. Amazing! Your research is truly impressive!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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