The Château Vert pageant: 500 years since Anne Boleyn’s first recorded appearance at Henry VIII’s court
On 4 March 1522, Anne Boleyn stepped foot into the great hall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s opulent Thames residence and onto the pages of history, in her first recorded appearance at the court of King Henry VIII. Lacey Bonar Hull explains what happened, what it was like to be there, and the foreshadowing the event had on Anne’s fate…
Anne Boleyn, future queen of England, first appears at the court of Henry VIII in the historical record on 4 March 1522. She was at the home of Cardinal Wolsey, Tudor statesman and (at that time, at least) the king’s right hand. That night, she took part in the Château Vert pageant, a sumptuous performance that celebrated the relentless pursuit of love.
The pageant was the culmination of several days of festivities that celebrated both Shrove Tuesday and a successful visit from the ambassadors of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, with whom Henry had joined forces against Francis I of France. Cardinal Wolsey had organised the concluding events, inviting Henry, his queen Catherine of Aragon, and the imperial ambassadors to his palace for one final day of celebrations.
What happened at the Château Vert pageant?
We know what happened thanks to the contemporary chronicler Edward Hall. He detailed the evening’s events for posterity, definitively placing Anne at the court of her future husband for the first time.
Immediately following supper, the cardinal brought the ambassadors and the queen into his great hall to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. The room was lavishly hung with rich tapestries and draped with canopies of expensive decorative cloth. Dozens of candles lit the path of the attendees, leading them to a magnificent green castle that stood at the far end of the room.
No expense had been spared on this centrepiece of the pageant, with account books detailing the precise amount spent on labour, materials, and transport. The set itself cost £2, eight shillings and four pence, the equivalent of the pay earned by a skilled tradesman for 80 days of work.
Carpenters, painters, and labourers spent nearly two weeks perfecting the Château Vert from 20 February to 4 March 1522, earning eight pence, six pence, and five pence a day respectively. A barge and five additional men were hired to transport the set via the river Thames to Wolsey’s opulent residence at York Place (later becoming the Palace of Whitehall) and back again.
The massive wooden castle inside Wolsey’s great hall created an impressive scene, featuring a large central tower with a smaller tower on each side and green tinfoil covering the battlements. A banner hung from each tower, providing powerful visuals for the theme of unattainable love: one depicted three broken hearts, a second portrayed a woman’s hand clenching a man’s heart, and the third featured a woman’s hand gripping a man’s heart and turning it upside down.
There was a burning lantern in the central tower, illuminating eight beautiful women who stood within the castle. One of these women was Anne Boleyn, newly returned to England from her years at the French court.
Which virtue was played by Anne Boleyn in the Château Vert pageant?
Anne and the other women were dressed in elaborate costumes, wearing lavish Milanese gowns of fine white satin. Their heads were adorned with bonnets decorated with jewels and cauls of Venetian gold covered their hair. As was customary with many pageants at Henry’s court, the women’s faces were concealed by masks, adding an element of suspense to the evening.
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Each woman was named after a feminine virtue of the courtly love tradition, which was embroidered in gold on her gown: Perseverance for Anne Boleyn; Kindness for her sister, Mary; Beauty for Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk; Honour for Gertrude Courtenay, the Countess of Devon; and Constancy for Jane Parker, Anne’s future sister-in-law. The remaining roles of Bounty, Mercy, and Pity were played by a Mistress Browne, a Mistress Danet, and an unspecified third woman, but the exact identities of these women remain uncertain.
How did the Château Vert pageant foreshadow Anne’s future?
Anne’s participation in the pageant has an element of foreshadowing her tumultuous future. The pageant’s theme of the relentless pursuit of love would mirror much of Henry and Anne’s future relationship, with Henry dedicating several years of his rule to finding a way to divorce Queen Catherine so he could marry Anne.
The royal couple would even make that very palace their home when the king acquired it from Wolsey, and they would secretly marry there in January 1533, only for Henry to famously order Anne’s execution just three years later.
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In addition to Henry, several of the women who participated alongside Anne would come to play significant roles in her life. Of the four other known Virtues, three were future antagonists of Anne’s position as queen.
The relationship that would develop between Mary Tudor Brandon and Anne would be an uneasy one. As the king’s favourite sister, Mary had spent most of her life in close company with Catherine of Aragon. When Henry turned his interest to Anne – who had once served as Mary’s lady-in-waiting – she made her disapproval openly known by publicly opposing the marriage and insulting Anne.
Mary’s words sparked a court brawl between two groups of men loyal to each woman, resulting in one man losing his life and Thomas Cromwell being called to mediate between the two factions. Mary would continue to disapprove of Anne until Mary’s death in 1533, less than one month after Anne was crowned queen.
As another loyalist to Catherine of Aragon, Gertrude Courtenay would help seal Anne’s fate. She allegedly became an informant for Eustace Chapuys, Anne’s most fervent enemy at court and ambassador to Catherine’s nephew, Charles V.
Historians have identified Gertrude and her husband, Henry, as the informants responsible for lodging accusations of witchcraft against Anne in January 1536, just months before her execution. Chapuys stated that these informants had heard that the king wanted to be rid of Anne, claiming she had supposedly used charms and sorcery to ensnare him in the first place. These accusations of witchcraft would stain Anne’s reputation for generations.
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Jane Parker would go on to have a close relationship with Anne, marrying her brother George Boleyn and becoming Lady Rochford. Although trial records do not mention Jane by name, it was popularly believed that she reported Anne’s alleged adultery to the king, possibly even implicating her own husband on charges of incest. Like Anne, George would be executed by Henry in May 1536 on charges of treason, and Jane would be viewed by many as a key player in the Boleyn family’s downfall.
The fourth Virtue – Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn – had an affair with the king, which was possibly ongoing at the time of the Château Vert pageant and was rumoured to have resulted in the birth of one or both of Mary’s children. This relationship would prove problematic for Anne’s future. Before his marriage to Anne, Henry had to secure a papal dispensation due to his sexual relationship with her close relation. Although the dispensation dismissed this relationship in the eyes of the church, some people still viewed the legitimacy of Henry’s marriage to Anne with suspicion due to his previous affair with her sister.
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As Anne stood high in a tower in the hall of Thomas Wolsey, waiting for the festivities to begin, she would have had no inkling of the complicated relationships she would have with her fellow Virtues in the years to come. In that moment, she was just a young noblewoman making her debut at one of the world’s most illustrious courts, full of future possibilities and promise.
Anne and the other Virtues were guarded below by actors in costume as the feminine vices of Danger, Disdain, Jealousy, Unkindness, Scorn, Malebouche (inappropriate speech), and Strangeness. Dressed as Indian women, these characters were likely played by young boys who served as choristers in the royal chapel. They stood watch over the Virtues from their places behind the lower wall of the castle.
Wolsey and other audience members took their places in front of this elaborate set, with hidden musicians setting the scene to music from their positions behind the castle walls. With Henry’s love of theatrics and chivalric displays well-known by the members of his court, the audience would have been aware that a dramatic scene was about to unfold.
What role did Henry VIII play in the Château Vert pageant?
Suddenly there was a commotion as a group of eight men entered the hall, dressed in caps of cloth of gold and mantle cloaks made from blue satin. Henry himself was chief among them. Like the women up in the towers, these men were similarly masked in an effort to conceal their true identities.
The men were led to the castle by a character named Ardent Desire, who was dressed in crimson satin decorated with burning flames of gold. Ardent Desire was likely played by William Cornish, master of the royal chapel choristers, who also may have written and directed the pageant.
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In accordance with the theme of the evening, Henry and his men played the parts of masculine virtues: Amorousness, Nobleness, Youth, Attendance, Loyalty, Pleasure, Gentleness, and Liberty. Their virtues were similarly displayed on their costumes, written in blue letters on scrolls of yellow damask that had been fixed onto their blue mantle cloaks.
When the men approached the castle, Ardent Desire asked the ladies to give it over, but the Vices refused. Determined to take the fortress and the Virtues within it, Ardent Desire rallied the men, encouraging them to use force to achieve their goal. At that moment, men stationed outside Wolsey’s palace were alerted to set off cannons, shaking the palace walls while Henry VIII himself led the attack on the Château Vert.
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Fruit was the weapon of choice for the men. They threw dates and oranges at the choristers while the choristers defended the castle with rose water and comfits. After a back-and-forth battle, the men unsurprisingly won the day, chasing the choristers from their post and claiming their prize.
Each victor took the hand of a newly imprisoned Virtue, leading her down from the castle and onto the floor of the great hall. To mark the men’s triumph, the men and women danced, much to the delight of their distinguished audience. When they finally had their fill of the revelries, the actors removed their masks, revealing their true identities to the onlookers to conclude the show.
Did Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn speak at the Château Vert pageant?
It might be romantic if the Château Vert pageant was the start of Henry and Anne’s notorious love affair, but that was not likely the case.
Henry worked closely with Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, who served as one of the king’s most skilled diplomats, and he was likely aware of Boleyn’s second daughter having just arrived at his court. Henry would have performed alongside Anne during the pageant and might have even interacted with her directly, but any personal contact went unrecorded.
A further five years would pass before the two would be undeniably linked in historical record. Anne’s participation in the pageant did foreshadow her time as Henry’s love interest, though: there was no better role for the future queen than that of Perseverance.
Lacey Bonar Hull is a PhD candidate who is currently writing a dissertation on medieval history. Her areas of specialisation include medieval and Tudor England