Yellow for Mourning – The Reaction of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Catherine of Aragon’s Death

Posted By on January 8, 2012

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn As I explained yesterday, Catherine of Aragon died on the 7th January 1536 at Kimbolton Castle. A messenger arrived at Greenwich Palace with the news and when Henry VIII found out he cried “God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war!”1, as Catherine’s death meant that Henry had no quarrel with the Emperor, Catherine’s nephew, anymore and that “he would now have the advantage over the French, who would have to toe his line or risk an English alliance with Charles”2.

Eric Ives, in “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, writes of how, on Sunday 8th January 1536, both Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII appeared at court dressed “from top to toe” in “joyful yellow” and that they “triumphantly paraded” their daughter Elizabeth to church3; however, it is not really clear who was dressed in yellow that day.

Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, reported to his master, Charles V that “On the following day, 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 was conducted to mass with trumpets and other great triumphs”4, making no mention of Anne. The chronicler Edward Hall, however, puts Anne in yellow, writing that “Quene Anne ware yelowe for the mournyng.”5

The Catholic recusant Nicholas Sander, writing in Elizabeth I’s reign, reported that “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
But then Sander quotes Hall as his source, so he is certainly not a new source for this information.

Although some historians and authors have suggested that yellow was the colour of mourning in Spain, Catherine’s homeland, I have never found any evidence of that being the case, only white and black seemed to have been associated with mourning in Spain. In early Christian art7, 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. Of course, it could be that the colour had no significance at all and that Chapuys just saw it as inappropriate, when combined with Henry’s behaviour.

It is hard for us to know who exactly was wearing yellow that day, seeing as the reports differ, and we cannot make a judgement on what the colour meant, but it is surely understandable that both Anne and Henry would be relieved to hear of Catherine’s death when she had been their Nemesis for so long, a real thorn in their side

Notes and Sources

  1. LP x.141
  2. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p295
  3. Ibid.
  4. LP x.141
  5. Hall’s Chronicle, Edward Hall, p818
  6. Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, p132
  7. Meaning of Colors in Christian Art

6 thoughts on “Yellow for Mourning – The Reaction of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Catherine of Aragon’s Death”

  1. jillian says:

    Chapuys’ account would seem to be the most reliable – apart from the fact that he seems to have been an eyewitness, he gives a detailed description of Henry’s outfit, a yellow satin suit and a matching hat with a white feather. Given that the ambassador could never resist a dig at Anne, he would surely have mentioned her clothes if she was also dressed in yellow. Later writers such as Hall may well have been trying to blame Anne rather than the King for behaviour that many saw as tasteless. Henry himself seems to have noticed an adverse reaction, as he subsequently switched to clothes of a sombre purple – or maybe he realised that yellow just wasn’t his colour!

    Yellow was never the colour of mourning in Spain, as some writers have suggested. Until the death of Queen Catherine’s brother Price John in 1497, the offical colour was white, which was then changed to black in common with most of Europe. Although the white garments may have had a yellowish tinge as they were often made of unbleached wool, the colour would have been very different to Henry’s attire. Yellow was associated with penitence – the sanbenitos worn by ‘heretics’ were yellow – but Hnery would have hardly shown penitence about his former wife’s death and it is unlikely that he even knew of this association.

    It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Henry wore yellow to show that he was happy and that the comments of later writers are merely excuses of behaviour they saw as rather unseemly.

  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    Henry was certainly a man of conflicting emotions–I, too, think he wore yellow to show his relief, yet he cried when he read C’s letter. He seemed to be capable of such differing emotions–his outburst was certainly one of relief. I had always thought Anne also wore yellow and Elizabeth, too. Interesting to find Chapuys didn’t mention Anne, and he surely would have if he could have found something negative to say about her. I can’t help but feel sorry for Catherine….to have her death celebrated by the man she continued to love.

  3. David says:

    Claire, I am going to go with your feelings that white or black would have been the color worn for mourning. Since neither one of them were mourning Catherine in any manner it only seems logical that a bright color, maybe representing happiness, would have been the selected color to wear. Also Claire, I see that you are able, or Tim to do still pictures from the series, “The Tudors.” Could you post a still of Natalie Dormer wearing the long gold sun burst ear rings that you sell and that I bought for Linda….wow, she gets a ton of wonderful remarks on those ear rings….!! All of the products and books that you place on your site are so nice and we have gotten many and all are so beautiful……except my Henry VIII hat…hahahaha Where did that end up….??? Hummmm

  4. David says:

    In fact, thinking on this more, was not white the mourning color in France and did not Mary, Queen of Scots where white after the death of her husband. ?? I could be wrong but I seem to remember that in all my reading…

  5. Dawn 1st says:

    I think that if they wore yellow it was to represent joy and happiness, and as to show no signs of sadness in the death of Katherine, the only thing that we can probably be certain of is that they didn’t wear black…

  6. Laurence says:

    In reply to David. Off the top of my head and without checking through books you may find Mary Queen of scots chose to get married to the dauphin of France in white supposedly because it was her favourite and most flattering colour even though it was still regarded as the colour for royal mourning. There was a family death (I think) at that time that justified her choosing white. At the time it was considered a bad omen, justifiable considering events! I think this is recognised as the first white wedding dress from which all white wedding dresses originate.
    Interestingly, another queen who’s white wedding dress was considered a bad omen was Marie Antoinette’s. Made of white cloth of silver the bodice was made too small and would not lace up properly down the back. With no time to alter it, the future dauphin è had to wear it in front of the whole court. The amount of her under garments showing was considered both a bad omen and shocking faux pas in the etiquette obsessed court. She didn’t stand a chance from the start it would seem!

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