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Mourning Has Broken: Anne Boleyn’s Yellow Dress (Part 1)

July 3, 2013

Next to her black satin nightgown, Anne Boleyn’s best-known dress is one that may never have actually existed — the yellow dress she supposedly wore to celebrate (or, in some interpretations, mourn) the death of Catherine of Aragon in January of 1536. The original accounts of this dress have already been summarized a number of times, but for convenience’ sake I’ll do it here as well. More interesting, and much more tangled, are the permutations that these accounts went through centuries after they were made — so permutated, in fact, that in the interest of not overwhelming the reader (and myself) I’m splitting this essay into two parts: this post will deal with the non-fictional representations of Anne’s dress, and the next post will deal with the fictional ones.

The first account of yellow being worn at Catherine’s death is, naturally, that of Chapuys: on 21 January 1536 he wrote a very long letter (entry 141) to Charles V, giving details of Catherine’s death and interment, and of the reactions of Henry, Mary, and various other people. Of Henry and his retinue, he writes:

You could not conceive the joy that the King and those who favour this concubinage have shown at the death of the good queen, especially the earl of Wiltshire and his son, who said it was a pity the Princess [Mary] did not keep company with her. The King, on the Saturday he heart the news, exclaimed “God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war”; and that the time had come that he would manage the French better than he had done hitherto, because they would do now whatever he wanted from a fear lest he should ally himself again with your Majesty, seeing that the cause which disturbed your friendship was gone. On the following Sunday, the King was clad all over in yellow, from top to toe, except the white feather he had in his bonnet, and the Little Bastard [Elizabeth] was conducted to Mass with trumpets and other great triumphs. After dinner the King entered the room in which the ladies danced, and there did several things like one transported with joy. At last he sent for his Little Bastard, and carrying her in his arms he showed her first to one and then to another. He has done the like on other days since, and has run some courses at Greenwich.

Even allowing for indignant exaggeration, it’s clear that Henry was not suffering from any sentimental regrets at the death of his erstwhile beloved. While Chapuys does not explicitly state that yellow was an inappropriate colour to wear, the fact that he even comments on it is significant — he doesn’t usually bother describing clothes, but by attaching the description of yellow clothing to the descriptions of Henry’s aggressively un-mournful behavior, the implication is strong that his clothing was offensive in itself.

What’s also interesting about that passage is whose clothing isn’t described — Anne’s. Elizabeth is taken triumphantly to Mass, and shown off to various courtiers, but Anne doesn’t rate any sort of mention. Given Chapuys’ antipathy to Anne, it’s difficult to believe that he wouldn’t have mentioned grossly inappropriate clothing if she had happened to be wearing it. The fact that her father and brother are both mentioned, in one of their less glorious moments, but Anne is not makes me wonder if she was there at all. She was, after all, four months pregnant — and although Chapuys couldn’t know this when he was writing the letter, her pregnancy would end just a week later. It’s possible that when Henry was ostentatiously rejoicing with Elizabeth, Anne was too ill to join in.

Or possibly not. The next account which mentions yellow clothing was written after Anne’s death. Edward Hall, in his Chronicle, writes baldly: “And the viii day of Ianuary folowyng dyed the princes dowager at Kymbalton and was buried at Peterborough. Quene Anne ware yelowe for the mournyng.” (818) Hall doesn’t mention the King’s clothing at all. However, the unreliable if always entertaining Spanish Chronicle (compiled roughly around the time of Mary’s reign) states that when Henry heard of Catherine’s death, “he dressed himself in yellow, which in that country is a sign of rejoicing, and ordered all his grandees to go thither, and that she should be buried very sumptuously.” (52) Anne’s clothing is not mentioned; a noteworthy omission in a work which includes, among other things, an adulterous Anne hiding Mark Smeaton in a cupboard and calling for him under the code name of “marmalade.”

Anne was back in yellow, however, by the 1570s, when Nicolas Sander wrote in his Rise And Growth Of The Anglican Schism:

The King could not refrain from tears when he read [Catherine’s] letter; but Anne Boleyn, instead of putting on mourning on the day of Catherine’s funeral, put on a yellow dress; and being congratulated on the removal of her rival, replied, “No, I am sorry, not indeed because she is dead, but because her death has been so honourable.” What malice! Even the death of Catherine could not quench it. (131-132)

In George Wyatt’s rebuttal to Sander, the yellow dress isn’t mentioned one way or another, and in Protestant writings at least both it and Henry’s yellow outfit would stay under the radar for a while. Gilbert Burnet hints at it in his 1679 History Of The Reformation Of The Church Of England, which, although it spends a considerable amount of time denouncing Sander, follows his lead faithfully in describing Henry’s and Anne’s reactions to Catherine’s death. “The King received the news of her death with some regret …. But Queen Anne did not carry her death so decently; for she expressed too much joy at it, both in her carriage and her dress.” (299)

In the nineteenth century, though, it began to return. Elizabeth Benger’s 1821 history of Anne doesn’t mention it, although she follows Sander and Burnet in portraying Henry as the better-behaved one. “On that occasion, Anne, usually compassionate, showed less tenderness than the selfish Henry; and the few tears which he shed over Catherine’s letter, might have taught her that she no longer possessed his heart.” (291) Five years later, the yellow dress was resurrected in Katharine Thomson’s Memoirs Of The Court Of Henry VIII:

The intelligence of Katharine’s death is said to have inspired Queen Anne with sentiments of triumphant joy. She has, even, been supposed to have indicated her satisfaction, by contemptuously assuming a yellow garb for mourning; but, as that colour was usually assigned in France to public mournings for queens, this trifling circumstance may be construed as a compliment on the part of Anne, who may be supposed thereby to have acknowledged the rank of her rival to have been unaltered by recent proceedings. This interpretation of Anne’s conduct is not, however, probable, especially as she exultingly declared, on receiving the news of her rival’s decease, “that she was now indeed a queen.” Her triumph was, however, of short duration; her season of adversity was shortly to arrive. (310-311)

It should be noted that both of these women were firmly pro-Protestant and sympathetic towards Anne. The description of yellow as being colour of mourning in France (it wasn’t) hearkens forward to another explanation which would arise in the twentieth century — that Anne wore yellow because it was the colour of mourning in Spain. But we’ll deal with that in its proper place. The historian who really cemented the yellow dress in novelistic imagination was (who else?) Agnes Strickland, writing in 1844:

On the day of her royal rival’s funeral she not only disobeyed the king’s order, which required black to be worn on that day, but violated good taste and good feeling alike by appearing in yellow, and making her ladies do the same. The change in Henry’s feelings towards Anne may, in all probability, be attributed to the disgust caused by the indelicacy of her triumph. (217)

It’s a vivid image — haughty Anne Boleyn deliberately scorning what few shreds of decency her husband has left, and forcing her ladies to be complicit. It’s certainly accrued a lot of detail since Hall’s bald statement of 1542 that “Quene Anne ware yelowe for the mournyng.” Even more fascinating is Henry’s evolution from giddy rejoicing to propriety-obsessed, nobly grief-stricken ex-husband. It’s hard to shake the feeling that writers simply could not bring themselves to state that Henry the Great Reformer was capable of acting like an immature clown.

At some point in the twentieth century, a new excuse for the wearing of yellow arose; that yellow was, in fact, the colour of mourning in Spain, and so it was actually a gesture of respect on Anne and Henry’s part. I have no idea where this idea originated, though Katharine Thomson’s statement about yellow being a colour of mourning for queens in France demonstrates that at least one person was thinking along those lines well before now. I cannot, so far, find any nineteenth-century publications stating that yellow was a Spanish mourning colour (though the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, published in 1891, makes the odd statement that “Henry VIII wore white [mourning] for Anne Boleyn”). A column in the New York Times (October 4, 1903) states that “Anne Boleyn is said to have worn yellow mourning for Catherine of Aragon,” with no suggestion that this was an improper colour, but it gives no sources. Alison Weir, in her The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, states that yellow was a Spanish mourning colour and that Henry’s and Anne’s clothes were therefore a gesture of respect, but later changed her mind on not being able to source the statement properly. This post has a good summary of various modern historians’ positions on Anne’s and Henry’s reactions to Catherine’s death, and also notes that Weir retracted her assertion about yellow being a mourning colour in The Lady In The Tower (18). Wherever the idea came from, it flourishes on the internet, where you can find countless posts and comments stating indignantly that yellow was a Spanish mourning colour and therefore Anne’s yellow dress would not have been inappropriate.

Aside from the fact that yellow was never a colour of mourning in Spain — which, like France, switched from mourning in white to mourning in black, but with no intermediary stops along the colour spectrum — Chapuys himself describes (59) how, just after Catherine’s death, Henry told him of his plans for Catherine’s funeral. “If I wished to be present, the king would send me some black cloth for me and my servants.” If black cloth was considered appropriate for a funeral, yellow would seem like a strange choice for any mourners.

So how was yellow viewed, exactly? The post I cited earlier summarizing historians’ reactions mentions, correctly, that it’s very difficult to find contemporary assertions that yellow was considered a colour of outright rejoicing in England, not just a colour that wasn’t particularly mournful. Of course, the Spanish Chronicle describes it as such, but since it’s fairly sensational the writer could well be exaggerating. But I would like to add a small piece of information to the pile by drawing your attention to the colours used in the Sarum Rite. The Sarum Rite was well-known in England in the 15th and first half of the 16th centuries (Mary attempted a revival when she became queen). Yellow vestments were prescribed for use on the feasts of Confessor saints. This would suggest to me that the colour yellow was viewed positively, considering the occasions on which it was used.

During all of this wandering through the colour wheel, I keep being struck by the fact that the story of Anne’s maliciously-worn yellow dress derives entirely from Edward Hall’s one sentence about her. Given that it was written six years after the fact, one would think he was reliable, but considering the circumstances, I wonder. Anne, by then, was dead and disgraced. Henry was very much alive and the new Savior of the Church in England. To say that Hall’s attitude towards Henry was reverential would be putting it mildly. Could he possibly have been massaging the facts a bit, so that the popular remembrance of an inappropriate display of yellow would be redirected towards blaming it on Anne, and not on Henry? Could there, in fact, have never been any yellow dress at all? It would be depressing news for fiction writers if that were the case, but luckily they’ve already gotten plenty of dramatic use out of it. Next week we’ll see what kind.

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From → Essays

6 Comments
  1. Amazing research 😀
    Interesting as I recently read Starkey’s Six Wives, there it relates Chapuys’ claims that Henry immediately donned yellow, but I noticed that when he visited Anne, she doesn’t seem to do anything. There is the one account of her rewarding the messenger handsomely, but otherwise it is her ladies that entertain the king. I did wonder whether she was too ill or at least resting for the baby, to join in.
    As Henry and Anne are proported to have been on barely speaking terms at the time of Katherine’s death, if she did wear yellow, it may well have been to match her husband, sharing his joy, rather than malice on her part?

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks! Yes, Anne’s absence is pretty notable in the strictly contemporary accounts — of course, there could be accounts that haven’t been found or were lost in which she played a bigger part. But the fact that Chapuys passes along the reactions of her brother and her father, but not her, does make me think that whatever she did couldn’t have been much. By modern reckoning with the added two weeks, she would have been at about 14 weeks (12 weeks gestation) at that point, and may well have been wiped out by even an ordinary pregnancy, and a troubled one wouldn’t have been any better.

      As for whether they were on speaking terms or not — I think at this point it’s impossible to really tell, it’s so easy to read the whole story backwards. While there were very likely sharp words (to put it mildly) exchanged after the miscarriage, that doesn’t mean they weren’t getting along at least decently beforehand. After all, Catherine and the problems that came with her were gone, Anne was pregnant again (look, divine approval!) and those things could easily paper over any deeper personal or political rifts for a bit. But I can easily picture yellow as an accompaniment to Henry’s wish and a placatory gesture towards him, rather than some rebellious gesture. For all that some modern Anne aficionados like to picture her as a perpetually sassy spitfire, she was probably “bound to obey and serve” often enough after her marriage. And I don’t mean that as an insult to her in the least, just an acknowledgement of the fact that she was tied to a mindbogglingly powerful man who refused to let his wishes be crossed. If Henry decided that yellow was suitable for the occasion, then yellow it would be.

  2. Tungsten permalink

    Now this is interesting. I, too, had heard that yellow was the color of mourning in Spain, and not being particularly knowledgeable about the period had no reason to question it. It’s fascinating to see how one fact (someone, anyway, wore yellow) has been twisted and reinterpreted over the years. So much of history is just storytelling.

    • sonetka permalink

      I’m truly mystified as to where that story got started — the “colour of mourning in France” line from Thomson seems like an embryonic version of it, but if the early sources are out there I don’t have the resources to find them. It does have the sound of an excuse cobbled together after the fact. I’ve read a couple of accounts saying that Anne herself stated that yellow was the mourning colour in Spain, but have never seen those statements sourced. In the absence of anything solid, I would conjecture a nineteenth/twentieth century origin for that story; who came up with it, God only knows.

  3. I think Henry, having been married to a Spaniard for twenty years, would know what the colour for mourning was and it definitely wasn’t yellow!

    • sonetka permalink

      Chapuys would know as well, and he certainly didn’t mention anything like that. I realize that a lot of what he says has to be sifted rather carefully, but for information like this — come on.

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