Anne Boleyn and the Death of Catherine of Aragon

by James Peacock

anne boleyn yellow gown 3

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Today (the day I wrote this) is the 7th January. It is the four hundred and eightieth anniversary of Catherine of Aragon’s death. Tomorrow will be the 480th anniversary of the news of her death reaching court. The subsequent reactions of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have caused endless amounts of debate since. Usually, it is Anne Boleyn who gets the criticism. Yet was Anne completely heartless? Let us look at the evidence…

 

Contemporary Reports

Eustace Chapuys

In his report to his sovereign (and Catherine’s nephew) Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, Chapuys reports:

“No words can describe the joy and delight which this King and the promoters of his concubinate have felt at the demise of the good Queen, especially the earl of Vulcher (Wiltshire), and his son, who must have said to themselves, what a pity it was that the Princess had not kept her mother company. The King himself on Saturday, when he received the news, was heard to exclaim, ‘Thank God, we are now free from any fear of war.’ On the following day, which was Sunday, the King dressed entirely in yellow from head to foot, with the single exception of a white feather in his cap. His bastard daughter (Elizabeth) was triumphantly taken to church to the sound of trumpets and with great display. Then, after dinner, the King went to the hall, where the ladies were dancing, and there made great demonstration of joy, and at last went into his own apartments, took the little bastard, carried her in his arms, and began to show her first to one, then to another, and did the same on the following days. Since then his joy has somewhat subsided; he has no longer made such demonstrations, but to make up for it, as it were, has been tilting and running lances at Grinduys (Greenwich).

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in THE TUDORS
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in THE TUDORS

Interestingly, Chapuys makes no mention of Anne. As we know Chapuys detested Anne entirely and could not even bring himself to mention her by name. He reported any piece of information that made her look bad, yet here Chapuys seems to mention everyone else but Anne. He does go on however later say that he had heard that Anne had “frequently wept, fearing that they might do with her as with Catherine.” Chapuys was sceptical of this information.

 

Chronicler Edward Hall

In his Chronicle, Edward Hall writes that “Quene Anne ware yelowe for the mourning”, yet he does not mention what Henry wore. Some have said that yellow was the colour for mourning in Spain, yet this has been proven not been the case. As Claire Ridgway points out in “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown” the colour yellow in early Christian plays symbolised renewal, hope, light and purity. Claire wonders whether Henry and/or Anne were hoping for a new start. Catherine was gone, War with Spain had been averted — and Anne was pregnant.

 

Nicholas Sander

Nicholas Sander provided probably the only account to paint Henry in a more redeemable light. Sander states: “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.”  Sander was a Catholic recusant, writing years after the event. He had gone into self-imposed exile upon Elizabeth I’s accession. He wrote this account years after the event took place, and as he would have been about six years old at the time events took place. It is doubtful that Sander really had first hand witness to the account.

 

Would Anne have been happy at Catherine’s death?

I always remember about three years ago at a talk at the Tower of London by Alison Weir, a guest commented on how we always hear so much about how Anne supposedly celebrating Catherine’s death. He countered that very rarely do we ever hear about Henry celebrating her death, yet he celebrated just as much as Anne did. This completely struck me, as the facts show this to be true. Always it is stated how wicked Anne was celebrating Catherine’s passing. In the TV series “The Tudors”, we see Anne parading in yellow, holding her beloved daughter Elizabeth whilst Henry collapses, weeping over Catherine’s last letter. In actual fact, besides Sander writing many years later, there are no contemporary sources mentioning Henry’s grief. As David Starkey points out, her funeral was his chance to drive home two points that Catherine “had never been his wife, nor Queen of England; and to get his hands on what was left of her property”. Perhaps the writers/producers of  “The Tudors” felt they needed to make Henry look more human to make viewers feel sorry for him, as he was pretty much unsympathetic the rest of the time.

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in WOLF HALL
Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in WOLF HALL

So would Anne have been happy at Catherine’s death? Most likely yes. Just as Catherine had believed herself Queen of England and Henry’s rightful wife until the end, so did Anne believe in her own marriage and position. Catherine had been the obstacle in her marriage to Henry, “the elephant in the room” as it were, for the last nine years since the annulment proceedings began. With Catherine gone, Anne most definitely believed that nothing could stand in her way. After all, she was pregnant. If she were to give birth to a son, her position would be secure forever.

So does this make Anne cruel? No, I do not believe it does. Undoubtedly Catherine herself would have felt the same way had Anne, “the scandal of Christendom” and obstacle to her marriage and position died during her lifetime. Perhaps as a couple of reports state, Anne genuinely was sorry for Catherine. She would have been a fool, however, not to have seen that this was now her chance to be the only woman recognised Queen of England. Repeatedly Anne attempted to mend bridges with her stepdaughter Mary, and was rebuffed. So perhaps Anne wasn’t completely heartless after all.

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Sources

Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII

Edward Hall’s Chronicles

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives

Six Wives: The Queen’s of Henry VIII by David Starkey

The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism by Nicholas Sander

The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway

The Tudors, Showtime series 2007-2010

James Peacock

I work as a State Apartment Warder at Hampton Court Palace, a job which gives me the chance to walk in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn and many great and important figures of English/British history. There is nothing more special at times, then standing in the Great Hall at Hampton Court and looking at the surviving Falcon, Anne's symbol, or the entwined HA that possibly got left behind (or is it Victorian?- either way a marvelous tribute). Earlier this year i founded The Anne Boleyn Society on the basis to discuss, debate and deliberate the life and times of the notorious English Queen, second wife to King Henry VIII and mother to Queen Elizabeth I. The page can be found at; https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Anne-Boleyn-Society/344546252366375 and on Twitter; "Society_Anne :)

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