“Anne of the Thousand Days”: Beauty vs. the Beast

Anne of the Thousand Days

Year Released: 1969

Starring: Richard Burton, Genevieve Bujold

Period of history in focus: Tudor England (specifically 1520s-1530s)

This film is based on a play of the same name, and while I said that I would do movies based on literature rarely, this movie serves a couple of exceptions.  First, when it was released, Anne of the Thousand Days received a great deal of attention, as well as critical accolades.  Nominated for multiple Golden Globes, the film took home one for Genevieve Bujold, and received 10 Academy Award nominations.  For a movie that has not stuck in the public mind, that’s a lot of nominations.  Hell, for any movie, that’s a lot of nominations.  We’ll ignore the fact it didn’t end sweeping the Oscars, and instead appreciate that at the time Anne of the Thousand Days was not some small indie film seen by few and with a miniscule budget.  This was a big and successful project.

Secondly, I think this film is worth looking at because this success could be due to some of the ways the director and writer consciously structured the characters and events in the film to make them more appealing to a modern audience.

Before I start off a discussion of the movie, here is an oversimplified breakdown of Anne Boleyn’s life and relationship with Henry VIII:

– Their “courtship” began while the king was still married to Catherine of Aragon, as early as 1523 or late as 1527, when Anne was still a young woman.  (There are two issues at hand with dates here.  First, some accounts believe Henry broke up a relationship Anne had, which would have happened sometime in 1523, but his relationship with her was not really on public record until closer to 1527, so it seems unlikely Henry was interested in her so early.  Furthermore, historians debate about exactly when Anne Boleyn was born.  Most of the suggestions I have seen support either 1501 or 1507, which could make her as young as 16 or as old as 26.  Henry was born in 1491.)

– Anne withheld sex from Henry while he was still married to his first wife, Catherine.  He started divorce proceedings in 1527, which would face complications for years.  Anne held his attention in the long years.

– Henry finally achieved his divorce by breaking with the Catholic church and creating the Church of England.  This means Anne was in some way responsible for the Anglican religion.

– The couple probably got married in early 1533 (you’ll notice most of these dates are fuzzy, which you can attribute to secrecy, the passage of time, and CONSPIRACY) and Elizabeth was born in September of 1533.

– Anne received coronation and became official Queen while she was pregnant with Elizabeth.

– In the following years, Anne had several miscarriages.  One of these would have – supposedly – been a boy.

– Paranoia, backstabbing, and possible affairs led Henry’s affection and obsession for Anne to sour and eventually turn to hatred and/or betrayal.

– After a criminal trial for treason (ie: sleeping around), Anne was discovered guilty and was beheaded in May of 1536.

Most films and television, and potentially real life also have a lot of double dealing and sexy sex going on.

For many years, Anne was viewed as the terrible woman who betrayed her husband and had a dangerous sexual appetite (faulting a woman for being in control of her sexuality has been around for awhile).  Protestants tended to view her in a sympathetic light, and in the Victorian era she was sometimes viewed as a complete victim of circumstance.  Recently, the more popular view of Anne is as a proto-feminist, using her intelligence and sexuality to her advantage, perhaps even making her somewhat ruthless.  However, the charges that she slept with five men who were not the king (including her possibly not really gay brother) are often the result of politics and backstabbing.

Look at that sly minx.

Portrayals of the Henry VIII have changed over time too.  For a long time he was seen as a strong king, who made decisions and took decisive action.  His work with religion can be admired.  He was incredibly athletic and good looking as a young man, cheerful and boisterous, and had an extensive knowledge of theology, as he was groomed in his early years for a profession in the church.  Later, as historians began to look more at his wives and his personal attitude, some portrayals of Henry became more monstrous.  As a bloated and selfish man, Henry misused women as his (childish) emotions dictated.  It doesn’t help that in his later years, Henry became incredibly physically repulsive.

Not pictured: The bones of 100 turkey legs Henry had just consumed.

The film supports these later portrayals (of Anne the feminist and Henry the self-centered baby).  To a degree, both of these portrayals are accurate.  I actually prefer the Henry VIII as monster view, because I have come to view him as a misogynist dick (somewhat unfairly, as all men in the 1500s were at best misogynists buttheads) who was so constantly spoiled his entire life that he came to care about nothing but his own personal satisfaction.  However, Anne’s role in the movie clearly reflects the feminist sentiments of the time.

For example, early in the film, we are treated to Anne’s life without Henry.  She is with a young man named Henry Percy, whom she loves dearly and wants to marry, blah blah blah.  As they are frolicking out in the grounds one day, Anne informs the young Percy that she is not a virgin.  She does so with an amused boldness: “We don’t come out of a rainbow at 17 and it’s no use pretending we do.”  She had sex in France and long before.  As Glen Richardson notes in his article on the movie, this is “a revelation unthinkable for any real Tudor woman in her circumstances.”  Anne is young, unmarried, and in a family which wants to rise at court, maybe by having her marry this wealthy young man.  The ace up her sleeve is her virginity.  The power a woman could yield in marriage negotiations was her purity.  By admitting that she lost her virginity long ago in France, Anne is risking Percy leaving her and telling everyone he knows that she is a spoiled woman, thereby ruining all her future prospects.  (A disturbing thought: if we assume Anne was born in 1507 and left France in 1521, then she was blithely losing her virginity around the age of 12.)

A woman would never think to admit this.  If it were true, she would try to hide the fact at all costs.  And, seeing as Anne is a woman with intelligence and an awareness of social mores, it seems unlikely she would have had sex while in France.  To an audience watching the movie in the midst of the feminist movement, however, this doesn’t seem like a foolish mistake, but a point for Anne and her sexual independence.  As Richardson notes: “It also gives her a refreshing candour and apparent sexual sophistication which chimes with the rhetoric of sexual ‘liberation’.”

Henry (the king, not Percy) sees the happy young couple and immediately desires Anne, breaking up the engagement so that he can pursue the young woman himself.  He has by this point in the film already yelled at his current wife, Catherine, for having the gall to not bear him a son.  This gives him the seal of approval for a wandering eye.

You had those miscarriages on purpose, I know it! Also, your hat is ugly!

Thankfully, the movie does not ignore the fact that Henry had already slept with Mary, Anne’s sister.  Unfortunately, when Anne tells off the pregnant Mary, it comes across as a sort of triumph.  Anne has learned through her sister’s failure to ask for more and hold out for more, that if she plays her cards right then she can succeed where other mistresses failed.  She does this by insulting the king to his face, calling him out on ruining her engagement to Henry Percy, telling him that he’s “vengeful” and “bloody.”  Henry forces her to court to serve as lady-in-waiting to his wife, despite her continued blatant disgust.

Need I say by this point that Anne would not be at court surrounded by clothes and jewels?  For criticizing the king to his face and continually refusing him with accusations (rather than demure refusals centered around her purity), she would have gotten into a lot of trouble.  Henry, for all his interest in her, was too used to comfort and getting his way to continue pursuing a woman who so openly despised him.  My guess is that he would have married her off to some lord in Ireland and forced her to move away from the sophistication and attention she craved.

Anne, who enjoys all the attention she receives at court, continues to fend off Henry.  She taunts him by telling him any sons he gives her would be bastards.  This sets off the idea in Henry that he can divorce Catherine and marry Anne to earn himself legitimate sons.  The obsession with sons in the movie is actually pretty spot on.  I find it extremely unlikely that Anne would be so forthcoming, but Henry did worry a great deal about his lack of male heirs and with Catherine aging and Anne dancing attractively around him, divorce would begin to look awfully appealing.  When turning Anne Boleyn’s life into a drama, it certainly makes her more compelling to have her suggest and provoke the divorce.  It makes her strong – if sometimes cruel – and forceful.  In her battle with Henry for love and power, the more forthright Anne is, the more equal is the playing field.  In truth, she would have been much more subtle, and the balance of power would never be entirely equal.  It never can be when one of the players is the king.

In the later half of the movie, Henry becomes disgusting in a new way.  In the first half we see him haplessly pursue a woman who viciously rejects him and attempt to divorce the wife who faithfully loves him.  His obsession with Anne cannot be admirable, especially when it causes him to leave behind his duties at court and betray men who work so hard to please him – such as Cardinal Wolsey, whose fate is the topic of a different conversation.  After he and Anne finally consummate their relationship and she becomes pregnant, Henry changes his tune and begins to hate his wife.  It only takes the birth of a baby daughter to completely poison them, and Henry’s attention immediately turns elsewhere.

I am tempted to talk about the overtones of rape and sexual abuse in the movie, particularly with Anne’s violent hate turning to love after some really questionable behavior on Henry’s part (including slapping her to the floor at one point) because that undermines some of the feminist credentials the movie built for itself in the early part.  However, I’d rather focus on the noble portrayal of Anne’s death, so I’ll just say this: I do NOT approve of the relationship between Anne and Henry in the movie.  I find it disturbing and not at all romantic.  If you watch this with a young girl, point out all the creepy.

As in most movies and books, Anne is innocent against the charges that she has slept with other men, including her brother.  (HER BROTHER.  If these charges weren’t false, there is not enough brain bleach in the world.)  This allows for her to be a victim and Henry to be a jerk.  She defends herself in trial, and confronts Mark Smeaton, the one man who confesses to sleeping with her (as a lowly musician it is possible that Mark Smeaton was tortured in real life to admit that he had slept with Anne.  The other men, being nobles, would not have been subjected to physical violence).  She is confident and virtuous and is determined that her daughter Elizabeth will become Queen of England.

This obsession Anne has with Elizabeth becoming queen is not likely.  She probably had other things to worry about, like Elizabeth being killed or exiled, and of course, her own execution.  She is so determined to fulfill this promise to herself, that when Henry offers to let her go into exile with Elizabeth and annul the marriage, Anne refuses: “Yes, Elizabeth – child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher – shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes – MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!”

"I gave up my blood for this? Ah, bugger."

No need to split hairs by saying Henry never would have visited Anne in the Tower.  No need to say that Anne probably would have accepted exile to death.  This obsession with Elizabeth is the best way for filmmakers to connect Anne Boleyn to a modern audience.  Here’s a movie about this brave woman, and — oh, guess what?  She’s the mother of one of the most famous monarchs England has ever had!  Most audiences will know of Elizabeth, and will at some point have probably heard that she was completely awesome.  Tying Anne so fiercely to Elizabeth makes the reign of such a great queen partially due to the tenacity of her mother.  It helps give Anne the same immortality as her daughter.  It also allows Henry to become a total and complete prick.

Overall, the movie works in message and drama.  But if actually set in the time period, Anne never would have gotten as far as she did.  Henry would not have broken up her marriage with Percy.  Anne would not have slept around so much.  She probably would have saved her own neck given the chance.  Also, this two hour movie would have lasted nine years.  The sentiment of the movie works, but it does serve to hold Anne up in higher esteem than she probably deserves, and cut Henry down to lower status than he probably deserves.  Not to mention that it barely touches on matters of religion, which makes it palatable to the masses, but glosses over a lot of the problems surrounding Henry’s divorce and new marriage.

Watch it!  But be aware.  Anne probably did not give up her own life to ensure that her daughter would be queen.

Was your life worth this movie, Anne?


Glen Richardson, “Anne of the Thousand Days,” in Tudors and Stuarts on Film: Historical Perspectives, ed. Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman (Palgrave Macmillan: United Kingdom, 2009).

E.W. Ives, Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).  Ives places Anne in a political world full of factions working to bring her down.

Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).  Warnicke offers an interesting female oriented account.  Unfortunately, some of the claims of witchcraft and George’s sexuality are pretty weak.  Still, I like the book for its woman based center.

G.W. Bernard, “The Fall of Anne Boleyn,” The English Historical Review 106 (Jul. 1991): 584-610.  Bernard constructs the evidence to suggest Anne might be guilty of sleeping with other men.  He just came out with a biography of her life, but I haven’t read it, so I can’t say whether it’s any good.

Greg Walker, “Rethinking the Fall of Anne Boleyn,” The Historical Journal 45 (2002): 1-29.  Walker attempts to identify Anne’s fall as the result as intense emotions moving events forward before anyone sat back and thought about them rationally.

2 responses to ““Anne of the Thousand Days”: Beauty vs. the Beast

  1. Brillant critique on this film! I really appreciate how you point out that while hoping to transform Anne into a feminist icon the film sacrifices historical accuracy.

  2. Great article. I was never a fan of ‘The Tudors’ – too focused on Henry’s sex life, and too many historical inaccuracies. It’s obvious from the tone of your piece that you dislike Henry. I think your mistake is that you judge him by 21st century standards, which IMO is wholly unfair. A king in the 16th century was considered just a small step away from the Divine; his subjects saw him that way, as well as himself. Henry was right to be panicked over his lack of a legitimate male heir, and he was far from the first king to want to put aside his barren wife for failure to produce that heir. You are completely wrong when you state that Henry didn’t consider annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon until 1526-1527. In truth – and diplomatic records as well as English court records support this – Henry stopped sleeping with KOA in 1524 NOT because of Anne Boleyn, or any other mistress, but because 1) he found KOA repulsive; not only was he simply not attracted to her any longer, but she suffered from a foul smelling vaginal discharge. You may think Henry was as jerk, but he was a fastidious, hygiene obsessed jerk, and couldn’t bring himself to be intimate with her any longer, and 2) because he already believed her was committing incest by sleeping with his brother’s wife. Diplomatic and court records also show that at early was 1522, Henry was making inquiries regarding the annulment process. Despite your aversion to ‘The Tudors’, failed to view Henry beyond the narrow scope that show offered.

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