Anne Boleyn’s reaction to Catherine of Aragon’s death
This post was prompted by an interesting comment left by one of On the Tudor Trail’s readers in regards to whether or not Henry and Anne celebrated the news of Catherine’s death or whether the evidence has in fact been misinterpreted by various authors and historians.
I have myself read many interpretations, including that Henry and Anne wore yellow and celebrated with great relief at the passing of their enemy; that only Anne wore yellow, as Henry was too distressed by the news and ordered the court into mourning and that Henry and Anne both wore yellow as a sign of respect for Catherine, as yellow was one of the official mourning colours of Spain (more on this later).
Let’s begin by looking at what sources historians have used when examining this event in history. One piece of evidence comes from Edward Hall’s Chronicles. Edward was an English chronicler and lawyer whose Chronicle begins with the accession of Henry IV and ends with the death of Henry VIII. Here is the statement he made in regards to Catherine’s death:
“And the viii. day of January folowyng dyed the princes dowager at Kymbalton and was buried at Peterborough. Quene Anne ware yelowe for the mournyng.” (Pg. 818)
He only speaks of Queen Anne wearing yellow and makes no mention of Henry at all.
It is Eustace Chapuys, who served as the Imperial ambassador to England from 1525-1549, that reported that ‘Henry dressed in yellow, stuck a white feather in his cap and went dancing with Anne Boleyn’s ladies.’ (Tremlett, Pg. 424). The report can be found in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII. His account is as follows:
You could not conceive the joy that the King and those who favor this concubinage have shown at the death of the good Queen, especially the earl of Wiltshire and his son, who said it was a pity the Princess did not keep company with her. The King, on the Saturday he heard the news, exclaimed “God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war”; and that the time had come that he would manage the French better than he had done hitherto, because they would do now whatever he wanted from a fear lest he should ally himself again with your Majesty, seeing that the cause which disturbed your friendship was gone. 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. After dinner the King entered the room in which the ladies danced, and there did several things like one transported with joy. At last he sent for his Little Bastard, and carrying her in his arms he showed her first to one and then to another. He has done the like on other days since, and has run some courses (couru quelques lances) at Greenwich.
The ‘little bastard’ he is referring to is of course the Princess Elizabeth. In another letter to Charles V, he informs him that,
Some days ago I was informed from various quarters, which I did not think very good authorities, that notwithstanding the joy shown by the concubine at the news of the good Queen’s death, for which she had given a handsome present to the messenger, she had frequently wept, fearing that they might do with her as with the good Queen. This morning I have heard from the lady mentioned in my letters of the 5th November, [the marchioness of Exeter] and from her husband, that they were informed by one of the principal persons at Court that this King had said to some one in great confidence, and as it were in confession, that he had made this marriage, seduced by witchcraft, and for this reason he considered it null; and that this was evident because God did not permit them to have any male issue, and that he believed that he might take another wife, which he gave to understand that he had some wish to do. The thing is very difficult for me to believe, although it comes from a good source. I will watch to see if there are any indications of its probability. Yet I have not forborne to give some little hint of it by a third hand to the Princess’ gouvernante, so as to warn her to treat the Princess a little better; and I have advised the latter to be as familiar as possible with her gouvernante so as to make her feel that when the Princess comes to her estate she will not regard her with disfavor.
These are the principal sources used by historians when describing Henry and Anne’s reaction to the news of Catherine’s death.
Of course, as with anything reported by Chapuys, we must take into consideration that he was very hostile towards Anne Boleyn and loyal to Catherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary to the very end. Therefore his reports of Henry wearing yellow and dancing could be an exaggeration. Although, Edward Hall’s account also speaks of Anne wearing yellow for ‘mournying’ and so it is likely that Anne wore yellow but for what purpose is yet to be seen.
There is also a separate tradition that claims that Henry was distressed by the news and wept whilst reading Catherine’s last letter. These sources will be outlined in the following section.
The following is a summary of how various historians have interpreted these sources.
Eric Ives claims that the news of Catherine’s death was greeted at court ‘by an outburst of relief and enthusiasm for the Boleyn marriage’ (Pg. 295). This seems very plausible considering that their great enemy was now dead and that Queen Anne Boleyn was pregnant with the heir to the Tudor throne.
At hearing the news of his first wife’s death, Ives states that Henry cried, ‘God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war!’ (Ives, Pg. 295). Anne was overjoyed and rewarded the messenger who brought the news to Greenwich a ‘handsome present’ – for the first time in her reign; Anne was now the one and only Queen of England.
Ives describes the events of the day after Catherine’s death in his biography ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’,
“The next day, Sunday, the king and queen appeared in joyful yellow from top to toe, and Elizabeth was triumphantly paraded to church. After dinner Henry went down into the Great Hall, where the ladies of the court were dancing, with his sixteen-month-old daughter in his arms, showing her off to one and another. After several days of such paternal enthusiasm, he evidently decided that something more masculine was called for, and the tiltyard was soon busy with his favourite form of self-exhibition.” (Pg. 295)
Alison Weir states that Henry received the news of Catherine’s death with ‘joyful relief’ and reiterates the story of Henry stating ‘God be praised that we are free from all suspicion of war!’ as recounted by Chapuys (Pg. 299).
Weir goes on to describe Anne declaring triumphantly, ‘Now I am indeed Queen.’
The one major difference to Ives’ interpretation is that Alison Weir in The Six Wives of Henry VIII stated that they wore yellow ‘as a mark of respect for the woman that Henry insisted had been his sister-in-law’ as yellow was the colour of royal mourning in Spain (Pg. 299).
As far as I was aware, the official colour of mourning in Spain was black. In this well-known image of Juana of Castile, Catherine’s sister, mourning the death of her husband she is wearing black and ordered all her ladies to wear black as well.
When Chapuys was invited to attend Catherine’s funeral he commented on how the King had offered to ‘send me some black cloth for myself and my servants’. Chapuys was offered black cloth in which to mourn Catherine, not yellow.
On the 10 January, King Henry VIII sent a letter to Lady Bedingfield informing her that she had been appointed as one of the principal mourners for Catherine’s funeral. He also advised her that he was sending, ‘yards of black for herself, two gentlewomen, two gentlemen, and eight women.’ (LP)
This contradiction led me to email Alison to ask if she could share her original source with me and she responded by saying that this was in fact an error.
She had, some years ago, located a source that stated that yellow was the official colour of Royal mourning in Spain but, after further research, found the claim to be unsubstantiated.
Alison Weir has corrected this error in The Lady in the Tower where she plainly states,
‘It is a misconception that yellow was the colour of Spanish Royal mourning: Anne’s choice of garb was no less than a calculated insult to the memory of the woman she had supplanted.’ (Pg. 18)
I hope that this is one misconception we can now put to rest.
Catherine’s most recent biographer, Giles Tremlett, speaks of how reactions to Catherine’s death varied. He describes ‘an indignant Chapuys’ reporting on how ‘Henry dressed in yellow, stuck a white feather in his cap and went dancing with Anne Boleyn’s ladies’ (Pg. 424) but also states that popular reaction was quite different, some did genuinely mourn her death.
David Starkey also describes ‘the carnival-like celebration of Catherine’s death’ (Pg. 549). He speaks of how the King ‘dressed flamboyantly’, from head to toe in yellow, ‘except the white feather he had in his bonnet’. Detailing how Anne and Henry paraded Elizabeth ‘like a trophy’ and then in Anne’s apartments ‘entered the room where the ladies danced and there did several things like one transported with joy’ (Pg. 549).
Starkey states that these ‘performances’ went on for days and also involved jousting.
He does though later allude to the fact that Anne’s joy soon turned to fear as she considered that Henry might do with her as he had done with Catherine. Anne could not yet have known that her fate was much worse.
Starkey goes a little further than Ives in his description by commenting on how a separate tradition has Anne wearing the outrageous ‘yellow for mourning’ while Henry is ‘smitten with conscience’ and ‘wept over Catherine’s last letter’.
This account comes from The Anglican Schism by Nicholas Sanders and in it he states,
‘The King could not refrain from tears when he read the letter; but Anne Boleyn instead of putting on mourning on the day of Catherine’s funeral put on a yellow dress; and on being congratulated on the removal of her rival, replied, “No, I am sorry, not indeed because she is dead, but because her death has been so honourable.” (pp.131-132)
It’s important to note that Nicholas Sanders was an Elizabethan recusant activist and he was born c. 1530 so was only a young child during Anne’s reign. He lists Edward Hall’s chronicle as his source for Anne wearing yellow and Harpsfield, another Elizabethan recusant, as the source of Henry’s reaction.
Starkey dismisses the entire account as ‘pious nonsense’ (pg. 550). He believes that not only does Chapuys’ contemporary report prove it but also Henry’s behaviour following Catherine’s death.
Starkey asserts that Henry had only two concerns after Catherine’s death:
‘The first was to exploit her funeral to drive home, irrefutably and for the last time; that she had never been his wife nor Queen of England; and the second was to get his hands on what was left of her property.’ (Pg. 550)
Unfortunately for Henry, these two aims conflicted and in her Will, Catherine divided her personal wealth between her servants and her daughter.
Antonia Fraser also comments on the ‘popular legend’, as she calls it, of Henry and Anne donning yellow. She also states that yellow was ‘the colour of rejoicing’ (Pg. 230) and makes no mention of yellow being the colour of royal mourning in Spain.
Antonia also mentions Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s account in The History of England under Henry VIII where he writes that, ‘The king having received her [Catherine’s] letter, became so compassionate, that he wept’ (Cherbury, Pg. 555).
Antonia Fraser believes that ‘both stories may have been true.’ (pg. 230)
Retha M. Warnicke
Retha Warnicke in her biography of Anne, ‘The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn’, raises another possibility. She questions whether Edward Hall was referring to Catherine’s death at all when he stated ‘Quene Anne ware yelowe for the mournyng’. Here is Retha’s interpretation of Edward Hall’s statement:
‘This intriguing statement may have been a reference to her pregnancy, for the chamber at Eltham, which had been prepared for her confinement in 1534, had been redecorated in yellow ochre.’ (294)
Hall comments on Anne wearing yellow immediately before referring to her miscarriage. Here is the passage in question:
‘iii. day of January folowyng dyed the princes dowager at Kymbalton and was buried at Peterborough. Quene Anne ware yelowe for the mournyng. And in February folowyng was quene Anne brought a bedde of a childe before her tyme, which was borne dead.’ (pg. 818)
Is it possible that Hall wrote the statement about Anne wearing yellow as a postscript to his statement about Anne miscarrying and not in relation to Catherine’s death? This is difficult to answer without having access to Hall’s original notes.
What is clear is that others writing in the second half of the 16th century used Edward Hall as their source when writing about this event.
Hall’s work was first published in 1542 as The Union of the Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York, commonly called Hall’s Chronicle. Another edition was then issued by Richard Grafton in 1548 (the year after Hall’s death) and another in 1550.
These last two publications are particularly interesting because in these editions, Richard Grafton includes ‘a continuation from 1532 compiled by Grafton from the author’s notes’ (Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press).
What if Grafton misinterpreted Hall’s notes? It’s an interesting possibility but doesn’t explain why Chapuys reports Henry ‘clad all over in yellow’ the day after hearing of Catherine’s death.
It also raises the question, why would Anne mourn the loss of her child in yellow when ‘For mourning the end of life, black clothes were the norm in the 16th century’? (Mikhaila & Malcolm-Davies, pg. 25).
All of the prominent Tudor historians agree that yellow was seen as a joyful colour in Tudor England but I have been unable to find a contemporary source to confirm this.
In Herbert Norris’ fabulous book ‘Tudor Costume and Fashion’ he states ‘Yellow was a colour which denoted joy, and to dress oneself in yellow was an outward sign of rejoicing’ (pg. 374). Unfortunately, there are no citations and so the source remains a mystery.
I also took it upon myself to email two experts in the field of Tudor costume and both stated that they do not know of any contemporary source which states that yellow was particularly associated with celebrations and joy.
What Henry’s wardrobe accounts do show is that Henry wore a range of bright colours including yellow and that yellow was a colour often used in jousting and tournament outfits although usually in conjunction with other colours.
Warnicke’s source for the decoration of Anne’s confinement chamber at Eltham and its redecoration is ‘King’s Work’ by H. Colvin, volume 4. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to access the text and so cannot comment on this aspect any further.
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, provides us with invaluable information pertaining to the preparations for Catherine’s funeral that commenced only hours after her death.
It is clear that she was treated with dignity and given a magnificent funeral ceremony but one befitting her position as ‘dowager princess’ and not Queen.
This did not please everyone and Chapuys decided not to attend the interment saying that ‘I will not go, since they do not mean to bury her as Queen’.
I believe that on this occasion, Chapuys’ contemporary account, in part corroborated by Edward Hall’s chronicle, and Henry’s behaviour after Catherine’s death prove that Henry and Anne publicly rejoiced at the news of Catherine’s death.
Whether in private Henry mourned the woman he had once been so close to, we will never know for certain.
I think that the accounts written by Sanders and Harpsfield were simply written in an attempt to show Henry in a better light and further sully Anne’s reputation. By making out that Anne was the only one that wore yellow and that rejoiced at the former Queen’s death, she appears unfeeling whereas Henry, weeping over Catherine’s last letter, comes across as compassionate and sentimental – something that David Starkey believes he most definitely was not.
Let us not forget that Henry forbade Mary to visit her mother on her deathbed and also refused to allow her to attend her mother’s funeral.
The evidence illustrates that Anne was initially overjoyed by news of Catherine’s death. The woman that had stood in her way for so many years was no more and she was now the one and only Queen of England.
If we believe Chapuys’ sources, then upon reflecting on her situation Anne realised that now that she was the only Queen, Henry could rid himself of her and find a new wife without having to worry about any pressure to return to his first wife. It makes sense that once the initial novelty wore off, Anne realised that her position was actually more precarious with Catherine gone than it had been while she was alive.
Henry is not likely to have rid himself of Anne while Catherine still lived because he would have been pressured from home and abroad to return to his first wife.
Now, with Catherine out of the picture, Henry was free to do as he liked…
Edward Hall’s Chronicles
Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII
Lord Herbert of Cherbury, The History of England under Henry VIII, 1870.
Sanders, N. The Anglican Schism.
Fraser, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1992.
Ives, E. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2004.
Mikhaila., N. & Malcolm-Davies, J. The Tudor Tailor, 2006.
Norris, H. Tudor Costume and Fashion, 1997.
Starkey, D. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, 2003.
Tremlett, G. Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen, 2010.
Warnick. R. The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, 1989.
Weir, A. The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 2007.
Weir, A. The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, 2009.