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Mourning Has Broken: Anne Boleyn’s Yellow Dress (Part 2)

July 10, 2013

Last week, I wrote about the strange evolution of Anne Boleyn’s yellow mourning dress as it was described in history books over the last four hundred years. Now it’s time to see how these varied, often rather confused assessments translated into fiction. Remarkably, that yellow dress is one of those things which doesn’t really seem to follow any sort of pattern over time — Anne has dressed in yellow for sincere mourning, dressed in yellow to rejoice on her own initiative, and dressed in yellow to match her husband all in roughly equal numbers of works, whose publication dates are all over the map. This isn’t to say that the yellow dress is some sort of fictional constant; in about half of the works I’ve read, it doesn’t appear at all — either Catherine’s death goes unmentioned, or (more commonly) it whisks by so quickly that Anne barely has time to hear about it, let alone change her clothes. But in the other half, the news is invariably Anne’s cue to slip into a blazing yellow gown and dance her way ever closer to her own doom.

The first fictional appearance of the yellow dress which I’ve found so far is in Anne Boleyn: A Historical Drama In Five Acts (1861). The author had evidently been reading Katharine Thomson, who speculated without too much confidence that Anne had worn yellow because it was the colour of mourning in France. The play’s author has no doubts, however, and informs us in a footnote that “Anne, who had introduced French modes to the English Court, was but following the fashionable mourning of the French Court, in which she had resided so many years.” Needless to say, this Anne wears yellow from the purest of motives, although the villainous Lady Rochford naturally refuses to believe this. She remembers

The king himself was wet with unsluiced grief;
But one amidst the court no grief displayed,
One in her yellow livery mocking made.

Only to be corrected by the King’s fool:

Fie, fie, my Lady Rochford! How you prate!
Yellow, in France, is th’mourning of the state;
And what you thought for mockery was meant,
The king considered a high compliment.

Henry the grieving is less enamoured of Anne’s dress in Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy In Six Acts (1884) when the giddy, temperamental Anne orders her ladies into yellow on hearing the news of Catherine’s death — “Let all who love me wear a yellow dress / In token that mine enemy is dead.” In this case, an outraged, black-clad Henry refuses even to speak to her, leaving Mary Wyatt desperately urging Anne to tell him that it’s a mourning colour to as to save the situation, and herself:

Tell him, that yellow, in far countries, is
The badge of mourning; — looks less dull than black;
And that you dreamed to pleasure him therewith!

Anne’s friends would once again be forced to cobble up this excuse for her in Anne Boleyn (1932): “They made hurried excuses — yellow was the French Court mourning. Surely all civilized folk knew that! — and knew too that the Queen’s tastes and upbringing were French. No, no. She was not the woman to insult a dead enemy! They hoped France was far enough off to safeguard their story, but the French Ambassador shook his head, smiling, and it crumbled.”

Yellow is still a French mourning colour in Blood Royal (1988) and this time Anne really believes that it is — or she does somewhat, telling her newly-widowed sister that she’s seen peasant women wear yellow caps for mourning. (She does this so she can have Mary in her retinue without making everyone depressed in her widow’s weeds). Years later, on Catherine’s death, she orders her women into yellow and points out that she told her own sister to wear yellow mourning years earlier. “What ails yellow? It becomes us all.”

At some point, yellow changed allegiances, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century it had become the colour of mourning in Spain. “Anne and Henry would wear yellow, the most joyful and sunny of colours,” narrates Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl (2001). “It was the colour of royal mourning in Spain so it was a great jest on the Spanish Ambassador who would have to report the ambiguous insult to his master, the Spanish emperor.” “Many people say that yellow is the colour that the royals of Spain wear in mourning,” says the Anne of Dear Heart, How Like You This? (2002), though she goes on to say that “I know otherwise!” and laments that only Catherine’s death could make her secure. And in Anne Boleyn And Me (2004) and At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) yellow is described as the Spanish colour of mourning, without any comment or qualification.

Less restrained are the Annes who openly wear yellow to show their rejoicing and don’t care what anyone thinks about it. “We will have no lies here,” says the Anne of The Favor Of Kings (1912), as she orders her ladies into yellow, “the color of rejoicing.” When Henry comes to dine with her, he’s noted as wearing “fine attire,” although the colour is unspecified. It marks a turning point in their relationship nonetheless, as Anne grows ill at seeing Henry’s malice towards the woman who had once loved him. More properly mournful is the Henry of Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) who, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the 1884 play, interrupts Anne’s joyful, “saffron-gowned” friends in the middle of a masque. “Why are you and your women mumming the night away in unseemly, atrocious yellow?” he demands. He himself is dressed in full mourning and refers to Catherine as “my wife” in order to make Anne feel even worse about her thoughtlessness. Similarly grim is the Henry of Anne, The Rose Of Hever (1969) and The Last Boleyn (1983) — in both instances, he orders the court into mourning only to be shocked at Anne’s flouting of convention. And in Bring Up The Bodies (2012), Anne is guilty not only of malice towards Catherine but of an unconscious fashion faux pas:

Anne the queen wears yellow, as she did when she first appeared at court, dancing in a masque: the year, 1521 … The fashion for yellow had started among the wealthy in Basle; for a few months, if a draper could get hold of it, he could make a killing. And then suddenly it was everywhere … By the time of Anne’s debut it had slid down the scale abroad; in the domains of the Emperor, you’d see a woman in a brothel hoisting her fat dugs and tight-lacing her yellow bodice.

… He says to Lady Rochford, do we call it a new colour, or an old colour come back? Will you be wearing it, my lady?

She says, I don’t think it suits any complexion, myself. And Anne should stick to black.

Henry is mentioned later as wearing a yellow doublet, but all the emphasis is on Anne’s clothing, and it’s strongly implied that she’s the one leading the band. When Henry says later that it’s only natural that the country would mourn for “the dowager” — “`Mistakenly,’ Anne says. She is relentless.”

Anne isn’t always the initiator of dressing in yellow, but if she isn’t, she always follows along with various degrees of enthuasiasm. In Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) both Henry and Anne appear in yellow, with no suggestion that one led the other. In The Queen’s Confession (1947) Anne says of Henry that “he dressed next day in yellow and had me dress the same,” and in Murder Most Royal (1949) Anne “imitated the king’s action and dressed in yellow.” In both instances, Henry wears the full rig-out, complete with white feather in the cap, which Chapuys described, and Anne is too relieved and happy at Catherine’s death to think at the time what exactly Henry’s reaction might suggest for her own future. In Doomed Queen Anne (2002) and A Lady Raised High (2006) Anne and Henry are also co-celebrators of the occasion and are both equally ready to wear yellow (though who suggested it first we never discover). Equally happy but feeling a twinge of fear is the Anne of The Secret Diary Of Anne Boleyn (1997): “I rejoiced that Henry had Elizabeth carried here from Hatfield Hall to join the round of celebration mourning, had her dressed in yellow matching his doublet, and my gown, and that he’d come into the room where my ladies were dancing and joined in their wild gaviote, a man transported with joy. But … I felt a sure and sudden sickness of the heart.”

A long build-up works out beautifully in Anne Boleyn (1957) where instead of being presented with a yellow fait accompli the reader instead gets to look inside the Duke of Norfolk’s head as he receives the news of Catherine’s death and tries to decide what to do.

Cromwell was dressed in black; he was lucky, the Duke thought angrily; he always dressed for a funeral, and if the King appeared in mourning for his dead wife, Cromwell would be correct. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be noticed anyway. Norfolk had worried over what to wear; God knew what Henry’s reaction might suddenly be …. the man or woman who showed gaiety that day might find those terrible little eyes fixed on them in anger, and God, how that anger was dreaded! Or if they chose mourning colors and put on long faces, they might find they’d been expected to rejoice. The Duke cursed and chose doublet and hose of a very dark red, with a black feather in his cap, and hoped for the best.

On seeing Henry, “Norfolk forgot the precautionary black feather in his cap, and thanked God he had chosen red. The King was dressed from head to foot in brilliant yellow.” Notably, the King is clearly in the lead here — one of the few works in which Henry is the undoubted sole instigator of the yellow clothing. As the celebration progresses, it’s clear that Anne is feeling extremely insecure and she keeps asking Henry if he’s really happy, while reflecting that she should feel confident that he is, considering the “outrageous dress” she’s wearing. Queen Anne may be wearing “yelowe for mournyng” but she’s tired, tense and certainly not happy about it.

This is as close as the fictional Anne ever gets to setting aside the yellow dress — at least, while Henry is still wearing his yellow outfit. It’s one of the stranger developments in Anne fiction that while Henry is frequently given the grace of weeping at Catherine’s death, or is at least shown treating the occasion with a sense of decorum, Anne never gets a similar reprieve. At best, she gets a few weak excuses about how yellow is really, truly a mourning colour in France (or is it Spain?), at worst she’s dancing the night away while a shocked Henry slinks off to mourn his first wife and re-evaluate his opinion of the second one. Never, ever is Henry the one rejoicing while Anne is nowhere to be found — and all this in spite of the fact that Chapuys himself never said a word about her; that, as far as his letter describing the occasion was concerned, she may as well not have been there.

This isn’t to say that the books have it all wrong and that Anne was never there. Certainly it isn’t to say that she was secretly mournful; she would have had every reason to be happy that Catherine was dead — if nothing else, it meant that a huge political obstacle was removed. She may well have done as a few books suggest, and worn yellow to flatter Henry. But if her most devoted enemy says that her husband, and not she, was the one who peacocked around in yellow when his first wife died, it might be worthwhile to take him at his word. A novelist who really wants to be different need do no more than follow Chapuys to the letter and keep Anne away from the scene altogether.

From → Essays

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