Henry-VIII-and-Anne-Boleyn yellowI’ve written about this subject before but I received so many questions about it yesterday that I thought I’d write another article on the wearing of yellow after Catherine of Aragon’s death and ‘who wore what when’.

As I mentioned yesterday, on 7th January 1536 Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, died at Kimbolton Castle. On hearing the news from a messenger, Henry VIII cried out “God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war!”1. We might find his joy distasteful and cold-hearted today, but Henry VIII was relieved that the woman who had been a thorn in his side for the past few years was finally gone and that he no longer had any quarrel with Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew, and could ally himself with the Empire against France if he needed to.

According to Eustace Chapuys, the imperial ambassador, on Sunday 8th January 1536, “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.”2. The Spanish Chronicle, which generally has to be taken with a pinch of salt due to its numermous inaccuracies, corroborates Chapuys’ account: “Couriers were at once sent off to the King informing him of her death; and as soon as the King heard of it 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.”3 Neither of these sources make any mention of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s queen consort at the time, dressing in yellow, but chronicler Edward Hall writes “Quene Anne ware yelowe for the mournyng.”4 Nicholas Sander also puts Anne in yellow but was writing decades later and appears to have been using Edward Hall as a reference.5 It is impossible to know who wore yellow that day, and for what reason, but it appears that Henry VIII saw Catherine’s death as an event to be celebrated.

Some historians and authors have justified the wearing of yellow on this day as a mark of respect, yellow allegedly being the colour of mourning in Spain, but this does not appear to be true.6 I have found nothing in my research to suggest that yellow was the traditional colour of royal mourning in Spain, only white and black are associated with death and mourning. As Carlyn Beccia pointed out in an online discussion “The color of mourning in Spain was black not yellow. When Juana the Mad’s husband died she ordered all her ladies to wear black. When she herself died, Charles V wore black. And when Philip II died, a proclamation ordered by Philip III sent the country into mourning. In Seville, so much black fabric was sold that it created a black market on black clothes” and I agree with her.7

Another theory regarding Henry VIII’s alleged wearing of yellow on that day has been put forward by author Sylwia Zupanec. Zupanec explains that Henry VIII “forbade wearing saffron-dyed textiles and he himself wore them emphasizing his exclusive right to do so”. She goes on to explain that “In 1536, Henry VIII forbade his subjects in Galway to wear saffron in their ‘shirts, smocks or any other garments’ because he saw this as a way of suppressing Anglo-Irish extravagance.”8 It is an interesting idea and yellow may well have been a colour associated with wealth, extravagance and status, although Henry’s instructions regarding the wearing of the colour saffron were not issued until the end of April 1536.9

As I have mentioned in a previous post, in early Christian art, yellow symbolized renewal, hope, light and purity, so perhaps Henry, and/or Anne, were simply expressing their hope for a new start now that Catherine was gone, war was averted and Anne was carrying a child.10

Of course, the wearing of yellow could have no meaning or symbolism and we might be reading far too much into the choice of clothing that day, if, in fact, yellow was worn at all. I’m sure that Henry VIII would find it quite amusing that we’re debating his choice of clothes on one day in 1536 in 2015!

Notes and Sources

  1. LP x.141
  2. Ibid.
  3. Chronicle of King Henry VIII. of England: Being a Contemporary Record of Some of the Principal Events of the Reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI (The Spanish Chronicle), ed. Martin A. Sharp Hume, p52.
  4. Hall’s Chronicle, Edward Hall, p818
  5. Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, Nicholas Sander, p132. Sander writes “The king could not refrain from tears when he read the letter [Catherine’s last letter to him], but Anne Boleyn, instead of putting on mourning on the day of Catherine’s funeral, put on a yellow dress.”
  6. For example, Alison Weir states this in her book “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” but corrects this in her later book “The Lady in the Tower” and states that it is a “misconception”.
  7. From a discussion on TudorHistory.org at http://queryblog.tudorhistory.org/2008/11/question-from-deb-yellow-mourning.html
  8. Did Anne Boleyn wear yellow for mourning after Katherine of Aragon’s death, Sylwia Zupanec, 7 January 2013.
  9. A Few Arguments on the Subject of Saffron and LP x. 743, Henry VIII to the Town of Galway, 28 April 1536: “No saffron to be worn in shirts or smocks, and no more cloth than five standard ells.”
  10. Meaning of Colors in Christian Art.

Picture: Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Arthur Hopkins (1848-1930)

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17 thoughts on “8 January 1536 – Joyful Yellow and Triumphant Parading”
  1. I’ve wondered about this before as well and posted on it a few times. The contradictions between Hall and Chapuys are interesting, but I’m inclined to think that Anne did not wear yellow because otherwise Chapuys would hardly have failed to mention it; he certainly makes enough unflattering observations about her father and brother rejoicing in the same communication, but he only ever mentions Henry dancing with Anne’s ladies, not with Anne herself. It could be that her pregnancy was making her ill enough not to be able to participate in any kind of elaborate celebration (which isn’t to say she wasn’t happy, if the account of her giving a bowl to the messenger who brought news of Catherine’s death is true). The first account I’ve found giving the “Yellow is the colour of mourning in France” is Katharine Thomson’s 1826 “Memoirs Of The Court Of Henry VIII” but even then she treats that explanation with some skepticism.

    About Hall I’m not sure — the fact that he doesn’t mention Henry wearing yellow but emphasizes that Anne did makes me wonder if some post hoc blame shifting is going on. Unlike Chapuys, he wasn’t writing at the time and his account was written not long after Anne’s death — and of course, in Hall’s mind, Henry VIII could do no wrong. I wonder if “Queen Anne ware yellow for mourning” was an attempt at retconning an episode which might have lingered in popular memory. “No, no, it wasn’t the KING rejoicing over the Princess Dowager’s death, it was the evil, adulterous QUEEN who did it!”

    1. I agree with you, I’m inclined to go with Chapuys too as if Anne had worn yellow then he would have gleefully reported it. Perhaps Hall put Anne in yellow so that the King wasn’t seen in a bad light and perhaps he added “for mourning” to make it sound like she was actually mourning Catherine’s death and to sound sympathetic to her too.

      I often think that we all make too much of this choice of colour on that day. Henry may well have been happy and may well have celebrated by parading little Elizabeth round court etc., but the choice of yellow may not have been premeditated or had any meaning at all.

      1. Yes, it could just as easily have been the colour he was planning to wear anyway and it became an issue of “Why should I go into mourning, she wasn’t my wife!” (Of course, she was undoubtedly his sister-in-law, whom you’d think would rate at least a week or two of mourning, but it probably wouldn’t have been politic to remind him of that).

  2. Hi
    I I guess King Henry was just having fun but it was a bit insensitive to dress in yellow like that especially as he once loved Katherine but he was never one of the most sensitive of people either. I think he has done much worse things than that

  3. But was Henry really insensitive? He did show his feelings – only those feelings, joy and relief, were not not approved by Chapuys. Henry did not pretend to feel sorrow that he did not feel. This can be interpreted that he was not a hypocrite – but then, living in a society then and now demands some sort of hypocrisy if one does not want to hurt feelings of others, in this case feelings of those who had loved Katherine and now mourned her.

    However, there is a situation even today when many people show openly their joy when somebody is dead or even killed – when it is a question of an enemy. And that had Katherine become to Henry.

  4. If the Daily Mail was around in 1536 undoubtedly the King & Queen appearing in yellow apparel so shortly after the death of Katherine would have produced front page headlines, backed-up with wild speculation. Thankfully today we have access to historical documents and no long have to rely on ages-old rumours often created at that time by self-serving individuals for propaganda purposes.

  5. It is interesting that there is criticism of either Anne or Henry wearing anything but black as black was not widespread as a colour of mourning until the Victorian age. It was respectful to cover portaits and furnishings in black cloth with the persons symbols upon them, but there is mixed evidence in the sixteenth century for what people wore as mourning and no official tradition seems to have been set. In France it was white that was the colour of mourning; and sources indicate that Mary Queen of Scots caused a flurry of disapproval by wanting to wear white as her wedding gown. By the same token the widespread modern custom of wearing white was not introduced until more recent centuries for a wedding as people wore all sorts of colours before official ceremonies began in the 17th century. Even today in New Orleans the traditional colour is red and black, not white. So the symbols of yellow for mourning may have been disapproved but there is nothing to suggest that Henry was expected to wear black.

    I also find it interesting that Chapyrus, the one person who would have loved to have boasted about Anne flaunting herself in yellow as a bright canary puts Henry in that colour instead. I don’t think anything as bright as yellow would have been used in mouring in any country, there is no evidence, and it is most likely that dark and sombre colours were in fact worn. The King also ordered that mourning be observed for Katherine and some authorities believe that he wept when he read her last letter. I don’t think that his explanation is anything more than relief that the armies or the Emperor, who had recently won a great victory over the Turks could no longer sail against England. May-be this explanation was exaggerated by those who heard it.

    Did Anne were yellow? Yes, most probably both of them did and this is why the sources vary; may-be they wore the colours at different times. Anne would have been triumphant about the death of Katherine as she had wished for her death for a long time and now felt secure as Queen. Anne also loved to express herself and most likely would have proudly walked about with her daughter and her belly exposed to show that she was advanced in carrying Herny’s son as well. Anne had no love for Katherine and would have felt joy and triumph at this time. Henry would have felt a mixture of joy, relief and sadness as he was married to Katherine for nearly 28 years; living with her intimatelly for 20 years. After all they had shared, he cannot have simply have cut all of those mixed emotions off. He was not a machine. He may well have expressed all of the above; but I also feel that he privately felt some regret that Katherine was no longer part of his life and that it had all gone wrong. I think also that his relief was more to do with the last three years when he had to try to persuade a rather stubborn Katherine to accept their divorce and that had enbittened all sorts of things between them. We cannot really know how or who did what as the sources are mixed, but both Anne and Henry would have expressed many emotions, some of them tensed up from the last difficult few years; even the outrageous idea of walking around in yellow could be a result of letting those tensions go.

    1. Chapuys was offered black cloth for mourning when Catherine of Aragon died, and when Catherine’s brother Juan died the court went into black for mourning (per Giles Tremlett’s biography). Black may not have been as universal for mourning as it became later, but it certainly existed.

      1. Yes, indeed, and there are many examples of it being used, but it was far from the universal custom it has become. I think Claire has pointed to the mourning for Philip III of Spain for example; and I believe the illustration of the funeral of Elizabeth I shows the Ladies that followed her coffin wore long black cloaks from head to foot; it was certainly used, indeed.

  6. In my opinion, Henry and Anne were celebrating the death of Katherine of Aragon. The color may not have mattered, but I don’t buy into the somewhat popular notion that yellow was the color of mourning in Spain. As for Henry not being a hypocrite, he may have showed his true feelings on occasion but there are plenty of instances where this man was a hypocrite to the bone. In fact, I don’t see how being respectful for someone’s death is being a hypocrite? I think what is meant that he wasn’t be phony or fake in his feelings which again plenty of instances of Henry being fake. He knew how to dissimulate and lie just as the other monarchs of this period. And on top of that, he was a hypocrite, several times over.

  7. I think we have to see some sort of symbolic importance in Henry (and maybe Anne) wearing yellow because Chapuys places some sort of importance on it. Yes, it may just been to make Henry look bad, but there was obviously some kind of cultural resonance of disrespect in wearing yellow, or why would Chapuys point it out?

    Thank you for highlighting the primary sources for who was wearing yellow. I always took it as a fact that Henry and Anne were wearing yellow, but it seems telling that Chapuys omits telling us what Anne was wearing as well – he hated her after all! I think if she had been wearing yellow, he would have been trumpeting it from the rooftops! I think the real reason we are all debating this is because of Hall’s cryptic statement of Anne wearing it for ‘mourning’. But was he trying to make what Anne and Henry supposedly the whole incident seem a little bit more tasteful? I imagine so, but if Anne wasn’t wearing yellow, why single her out? It’s all very confusing and I think the only thing we can conclude is that someone was wearing yellow, and it may have been Anne, or Henry or Elizabeth!

  8. Henry had not known of her death previously, so if he was already in yellow when the news arrived, then I’m certain it was coincidence. If he changed into yellow after hearing, that shows to me spiteful celebration. If he simply had it on and did not change into black after being delivered the news, that could be taken a few ways. He either did not care enough for her to mourn, or possibly that he didn’t want to upset Anne, in her state of being with child, by showing he cared enough for Katharine to mourn her. Just a few thoughts 🙂

  9. Indeed, Henry would definitely LOVE to know that his fashion choices were still being debated so many years after the fact.

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