Thank you to author Lissa Bryan for this article on Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s Christmas in 1532.
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn's Christmas
Christmas was one of the high points of the year for the Tudor court. The palace would be packed to capacity during the season. So many courtiers attended in 1532 that temporary kitchens had to be erected on the grounds of Greenwich to prepare enough food for the crowd.
Christmas of 1532 was a particularly lavish celebration for Henry's court. He was in a joyous mood. Anne Boleyn and Henry had secretly married a month prior — likely at Dover Castle after their return from Calais — and though Anne likely didn't know it yet, she was carrying Henry's child.
They had not yet announced the marriage to the court, waiting for the right moment, but it seems there were a few hints about it. A new play by John Heywood was performed at court that Christmas, The Play of the Weather. As with many forms of art in the period, it was an allegory, wrapping current events in a fine veil of mythological references.
Jupiter (Henry) hears requests from people begging for the sort of weather they need to be successful in their endeavors. The play alludes to the creation of a new moon because the "old moon" (Katharine of Aragon) could hold no water (have children) but, by Saint Anne, the "weather" would soon amend, an allusion that needs no explanation.
This was the second year that Katharine of Aragon had been absent from the Christmas festivities. The prior year, the French ambassador had attended a feast hosted by Anne in her chambers, rather than the traditional feast presided over by the king and queen. Katharine sent a Christmas gift to her husband, as always. Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys describes the scene:
“The Queen [Katharine] having been forbidden to write letters or send messages to the King, and yet wishing to fulfil her duty towards him in every respect, caused to be presented to him on New Year's Day, by one of the gentlemen of the chamber, a gold cup of great value and singular workmanship, the gift being offered in the most humble and appropriate terms for the occasion.
“The King, however, not only refused to accept the present, but seemed at first very angry with the gentleman who had undertaken to bring it. Yet it appears that two or three hours afterwards the King himself desired to see the cup again, praised much its shape and workmanship, and fearing lest the gentleman of his chamber who had received it from the Queen's messenger should take it back immediately—in which case the Queen might have it presented again before the courtiers (devant tout lemonde), when he (the King) could not well refuse its acceptance—he ordered the gentleman not to give the cup back until the evening, which was accordingly done, and it was then returned to the Queen. The King, moreover, has sent her no New Year's gift on this occasion, but has, I hear, forbidden the members of his Privy Council, as well as the gentlemen of his chamber, and others to comply with the said custom.
“The King used also on New Year's Day to send [presents] to the ladies of the Queen's Household, and to those of the Princess, but this custom, hitherto faithfully observed, has now been discontinued, and no present has been sent, which is a sign to me that unless some prompt remedy be applied the state of the Queen and of her daughter, the Princess, will become worse and worse every day.
“The King has not been equally uncourteous towards the Lady [Anne Boleyn] from whom he has accepted certain darts, worked in the Biscayan fashion, richly ornamented, and presented her in return rich hangings for one room, and a bed covered with gold and silver cloth, crimson satin, and embroidery richer than all the rest. The Lady [Anne], moreover, is still lodging where the Queen formerly was, and during the late festivities has been attended by almost the same number of the ladies as the Queen herself had formerly in her suite, as if she were already a Queen.”
The "darts" Chapuys mentions were Anne's gift to Henry. "Boar spears" is usually how they're described in histories of the era, but they were more like swords, according to Eric Ives, used for finishing off the kill once the boar had been injured by arrows.
This year, Anne openly took the place of Katharine, presiding over the court’s festivities, and also resided in the queen's chambers. One imagines her bursting with excitement, impatient to reveal to her friends and the court that she and Henry had finally wed after so many years of struggle, but they still had to wait until the last pieces of the plan were in place.
New Year’s was the holiday for gift-giving, not Christmas itself. The exchange of presents was a very serious affair, with every gift the king and queen exchanged with their courtiers recorded— several thousand presents in all. Likely trying to choose the right gifts for nobles and the king occupied several months leading up to the festivities. It was part of the complex system of patronage and favors which turned the cogs of the Tudor court system.
Anne's brother, George, gave the king two gilt "hyngers" - which were short swords with gold decorations on velvet-covered girdles, or belts. Jane Parker, Lady Rochford gave the king four caps - two of satin, two of velvet - decorated with gold buttons. Anne’s father gave Henry a writing box with a gold stylus, and her mother presented the king with a box containing six embroidered shirt collars, three embroidered with gold, three embroidered with silver. The earl of Oxford was far less subtle with his gifting. He gave the king ten gold sovereigns stuffed in a glove. The Tudor equivalent of a gift card, one supposes! The Dowager Duchess of Norfolk gave the king “our lord’s birth in a box,” which was likely a Nativity scene. The earl of Huntingdon gave a nod to the king’s love of dogs by gifting him with two silver-gilt greyhound collars.
A chambermaid or a humble citizen couldn’t present the king with something as lavish as a gold cup or a jewel, of course, but they have him what they could. 1532’s New Year’s Gift Rolls include a gift of a sturgeon’s jowl from “a dumb [non-verbal] man” whose name isn’t recorded, and a piece of Parmesan cheese from a man named Antony Cassydony.
Henry's gifts to Anne this year — the first Christmas Anne spent as his queen — included a set of magnificent bedchamber hangings and the following, which he had polished and stamped with her arms before delivery:
Warrant under the King's sign manual to Cromwell, master of the Jewels, to deliver to the lady of Pembroke these parcels of gilt plate, late of Sir Henry Guldeford, controller of the Household :—2 gilt pots with round knobs behind the lids, which came to Sir Henry as executor to Sir William Compton, weighing 133 oz. ; a pair of gilt flagons with the arms of France, 147 oz. ; 6 gilt bowls without a cover, 200½oz. ; 3 gilt salts with a cover of Parres touch," which belonged to Sir Will. Compton, 77 oz. ; 12 gilt spoons with demi-knops at the end, 18 oz. ; a pair of parcel-gilt pots, 99½ oz. ; another, 97¾ oz. ; another, 71 oz. ; 6 parcel-gilt bowls without cover, 199¼ oz. ; the cover of the same, 19¾ oz. ; a basin and ewer, parcel-gilt, 77 oz. ; another basin and ewer, parcel-gilt, 64 oz. ; 11 white spoons with roses at the ends, 20¼ oz. ; 4 candles, white, with high sockets, 86½ oz. ; "a round bason of silver for a chamber, and a silver pot to the same, weighing together 138½ oz." ; and a chafing dish, parcel-gilt, 39¾ oz. "And that ye make entry of the foresaid parcels of plate into our book of Extra for the rather noticing the same hereafter."
- Greenwich, 1 Jan. 24 Hen. VIII.
Within a month or so, Anne Boleyn would know she was pregnant, and the couple would re-marry on the night of a new moon in the gatehouse at Whitehall palace. Rumors would fly, and Anne would make broad hints as she ruled as queen in all but name, but the marriage would not be officially announced until Easter.
Perhaps Christmas held some other significance for her. Anne Boleyn's ghost is said to walk the grounds of Hever Castle around Christmas time, appearing beneath an oak tree where she and Henry are said to have courted. She crosses a bridge, it is said, and tosses a sprig of holly into the river.