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

Natalie Dormer as Anne BoleynAs 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

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