The Heads of Anne Boleyn:
The Evolution of Anne Boleyn in Popular Culture as Seen Through Literature, Television, and Film
by Cole Richard Hurley
Anne Boleyn is an intriguing historical figure who has been the subject of many biographies, novels, films, and television series. She has taken on the role of tragic heroine, wicked woman, feminist icon, and parable for the wanton woman. This project compiles a comprehensive catalogue of portrayals of Anne Boleyn in literature, film, and television, chronicling the evolution of Anne Boleyn in popular culture, and how her character adapted to fit into the period in which the product was made. This piece tracks the literary works written about Anne Boleyn following her execution, spanning the Elizabethan Age to the Age of Enlightenment to the Victorian era. It puts Anne Boleyn side by side with film history, showing how she was portrayed in the silent era, how she fared under the Hollywood Production Code, second wave feminism, and the modern age. My goal is to provide the reader with a look at how popular culture alters historical figures over time so that they may fit into the contemporary surroundings, as well as how the same historical figure can be shown in different lights depending on the story teller and the audience.
Keywords: Anne Boleyn, Catholic Church, popular culture, feminism
Introduction: The Stuff of History
When looking at Henry VIII in popular culture, one finds that everything is done in sets of six. It is always Henry VIII and “his six wives.” This egalitarian way of addressing the Tudor King of England’s many spouses is a bit surprising because when it comes to the wives of Henry VIII, only one stands out above the rest: Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn is a mysterious figure in history. Despite being arguably the most well-known of all of King Henry VIII’s six wives, there does not seem to be a definitive history for her. While Henry’s other wives have clear and uncontested histories, Anne Boleyn’s is shrouded in mystery and contention. There have been many books written about the second wife of the infamous Tudor king, which have led to many plays, films, and television shows. The BBC even released a miniseries featuring Anne Boleyn in 2015, so it is clear that Anne Boleyn continues to fascinate artists to this day. Since her death in 1536, Anne Boleyn has appeared in various artistic mediums, with each decade contributing yet another incarnation of the late queen. Other queens of the world have seen their moments in the spotlight come and go sporadically, but Anne Boleyn remains a constant.
There is around five hundred years’ worth of Anne Boleyn iterations to sift through in biographies, plays, operas, works of art, novels, films, and television shows, each with its own interpretations of the Queen. She has been the tragic victim, and she has been the seductive whore. She has been the proto-feminist woman in a man’s world, and she has been the parable for overly ambitious women. She has been the hero, and she has been the villain. Interpretations of Anne Boleyn shift depending on the time period telling her story.
There has been much social change in the world since 1536, and Anne Boleyn has been present through all of it, both in written media as well as in visual media. This project does not seek to provide a biography of the “the real” Anne Boleyn; indeed, this paper does not intend to be biographical at all. Each of the many biographies of Anne Boleyn claim to be “the real story.” Most historians agree that the 1986 biography The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives is the most reliable. Elizabeth Norton’s The Anne Boleyn Papers, comprised of a collection of letters written by Anne Boleyn and her contemporaries, is also revealing. Throughout it, the closest thing to a “real” Anne Boleyn biography emerges, told in her own words and the words of those who knew her.
This project traces the evolution of Anne Boleyn in popular culture. From literature written after her death until the present, to films and television shows of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, this project explores the characterizations of Anne Boleyn. By deconstructing the many iterations of Anne Boleyn, her character will be analyzed through a historical lens. In doing so, I will present a thorough chronicle of the cultural history of Anne Boleyn, “the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had,”  from the earliest plays and novels, all the way to the most recent films and television shows.
Part I: Anne Boleyn: A Biography?
What is known about Anne Boleyn? It is known that she was the wife of Henry VIII, who ruled England from 1509 to 1547. She was Elizabeth I’s mother. She was part of a big marriage scandal, and she was beheaded by Henry VIII in 1536. This summation of Anne’s life is basic, but it is enough of a blueprint for a compelling character. What do historians provide to flesh out this character, “Anne Boleyn”? Admittedly, not much. Upon her death in 1536, Henry VIII embarked on a great campaign to destroy all memory of Anne Boleyn. Due to this, most of what is known about Anne Boleyn derives from secondhand sources. We know that she was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard, and had an older sister, Mary, and a younger brother, George. We know that she completed her education in what is now Belgium and spent much time in France as a maid of honor in the French royal court. Above all, we know that she was devout Protestant.
In 1522, Anne Boleyn entered the court of King Henry VIII as one of the ladies-in-waiting to Henry’s wife, Katherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. By 1523, she was betrothed to Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland, but this was broken by Cardinal Wolsey, due to the King’s interest in Anne Boleyn. During her time at court, Henry VIII began pursuing and later courting Anne Boleyn. It was his love for Anne Boleyn that prompted a long and bitter divorce battle between Henry and Katherine, which ended with Henry breaking with the Catholic Church and starting the Church of England. Henry and Anne were married in 1533, and in September of that year, Anne gave birth to Elizabeth I. After almost three years of marriage, Henry had Anne Boleyn arrested for treason, adultery, and incest, and in May of 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded by a swordsman.
This story, though scant in detail, is compelling enough in its drama to capture the public’s attention. It has all the makings of a modern-day, whirlwind romance: a love triangle, sex and violence, and court intrigue. As Irene Goodman puts it, “Anne’s life was…the stuff of juicy tabloid stories…it has sex, adultery, pregnancy, scandal, divorce, royalty, glitterati, religious quarrels, and larger-than-life personalities.” This so-called “biography” provides a framework for all of the works, both literary and cinematic, that were to be made about Anne Boleyn.
It is this lack of information that has been the driving force for biographers and writers of Anne Boleyn, and has turned her into “a shape-shifting trickster whose very incompleteness in the historical record has stirred the imaginations of different agendas, different generations, and different cultural monuments to lay claim to their ‘own’ Boleyn.” It is a great irony that in trying to destroy all shreds of evidence of her existence, Henry VIII cemented the name “Anne Boleyn” in the public consciousness and allowed her to live on forever.
Part II: Anne Boleyn Remembered (1558-1682)
It is 1558, and Queen Mary I has died. Until this point, Anne’s reputation in the public memory had been badly soiled by the likes of Eustace Chapuys, Ambassador of Emperor Charles V, confidant of Katherine of Aragon and Mary I, and a devout Catholic. Chapuys would refer to Anne in his letters as “that whore” and “the concubine.” He accused her on numerous occasions of plotting to murder Katherine of Aragon and her daughter, the future Mary I of England. When Anne was executed, Chapuys wrote, “I cannot well describe the great joy the inhabitants of this city have lately experienced and manifested…at the fall and ruin of the concubine.” Although Chapuys is now considered an unreliable source due to his obvious hatred for Anne, his writings have formed the basis for most historians and biographers.
With the ascension of Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth I to the throne of England came also the rehabilitation of the name Anne Boleyn. Anne had been known for her Protestant convictions during her life, and now that the English Protestants were free from the tyrannical persecution of Catholic Queen Mary, they were determined to “exonerate her of the charges that brought her down,” and to “create a new martyr to their [Protestant] cause.” Scottish theologian Alexander Ales wrote to Queen Elizabeth I proclaiming that “true religion in England had its commencement and its end with your mother.”
Indeed, both Catholics and Protestants alike were in agreement that Anne Boleyn was a significant part of what the Protestants refer to as “the English Reformation,” and Catholics refer to as “the Anglican Schism.” For the Protestants, Anne Boleyn was a hero and a martyr. In his Book of Martyrs (also known as The Acts and Monuments of the Church) John Foxe credits Anne Boleyn with the English break with the Catholic Church, asserting that “[Papal power] began utterly to be abolished, by the reason and occasion of the most virtuous and noble lady, Anne Bullen [sic]…by whose godly means and most virtuous council, the king’s mind was daily inclined better and better.” But for the Catholics, Anne Boleyn was a whore who seduced Henry VIII into committing heresy and gave birth to the biggest heretic of all. Nicholas Sander even claims in his book The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism that Anne Boleyn was not only an ugly deformed banshee, but also Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter. Sander’s version of Anne Boleyn has endured, and many of the deformities that were claimed in the book, such as the claim that Anne had six fingers, have lived on in the Anne Boleyn mythos. Sander’s depiction of Anne would later be called into question by George Wyatt, grandson of Thomas Wyatt, one of Anne’s admirers, who warned readers of his The Life of the Virtuous Christian and Renowned Queen Anne Boleigne (c. 1590) not to believe the “black mists of malice…instructed to cover and overshadow her [Anne’s] glory with their most black and venomous untruths.”  This manuscript, oddly enough, appears in the first published edition of Thomas Cavendish’s The Life of Cardinal Wolsey (c. 1520). Cavendish had been Wolsey’s secretary, and thus his book has been taken by historians as factual. In his biography of Wolsey, Cavendish blames Anne for Wolsey’s downfall and paints her as “a beautiful temptress who was relatively innocent in the beginning, but grew hungry for jewels and power.”  It is also from Cavendish and Wyatt that we get the stories of Anne’s affairs with Thomas Wyatt and Henry Percy, the latter of the two would go on to become Anne’s secret lover both in various historical fiction novels and films, and along with these works emerges the recurring theme of true love being led asunder by royal interest.
The 17th century saw the birth of a sensationalized Anne Boleyn. Spanish playwright Pedro Caldéron de la Barca in his 1627 play The Schism in England, borrows heavily from Sander’s version of Anne, decrying her as “that woman, that fierce animal, that blind enchantment, false sphinx, that basilisk, that poisonous serpent, that enraged tigress, Anne Boleyn.” William Shakespeare takes a more neutral stance towards Anne in his history The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth: All is True (1613). She is hailed for her beauty, and instead of seducing Henry into divorcing his wife, she wins Henry’s affections through pure happenstance, by virtue of being too beautiful. Moreover, she feels remorse for Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce because it hurts Katherine of Aragon’s feelings. What’s more, she does not want to be queen: “By my troth and maidenhead, I would not be a queen…No, not for all the riches under heaven.” But, alas, she does marry Henry VIII, gives birth to Elizabeth I, and then disappears from the play entirely. Sympathetic though Shakespeare’s Anne may be, there is no more positive 17th century depiction of Anne Boleyn than John Banks’s 1682 play Vertue Betray’d: or, Anna Bullen, based on the version of Anne Boleyn presented in French writer Madame d’Aulnoy’s The Novels of Elizabeth, Queen of England, Containing the History of Queen Ann of Bullen (c. 1680). Banks’s Anne is, “the hapless victim of “royal tyranny allied with Catholic conspiracy.” “Henry is a megalomaniac. . . Wolsey is the Platonic form of the decadent, corrupt priest. The former is heartless and cruel to Anne, the latter plots with Henry’s ex-mistress, Elizabeth Blount, to bring Anne down. And Henry Percy is there as a reminder of what might have been.”  All three plays are highly sensational and not historically accurate, nor were they intended to be taken as such. According to author Susan Bordo, “in the seventeenth century, marking the distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘history’ wasn’t yet an issue. . .’truth’ wasn’t a matter of correct dates or exact measurements, but a metaphysical ideal. . . presenting the moral/religious/political ‘truth’ in a dramatic, emotionally stirring form that would be accessible and engaging to audiences was the goal.” The same sentiment could be said about cultural depictions of Anne Boleyn. Indeed, it was to be the prevailing sentiment of all Anne Boleyn iterations to come.
Part III: Anne Boleyn: Pure Heroine to Victorian Jezebel (1699-1901)
The tragic heroine version of Anne Boleyn that emerged in the seventeenth century would be the default for much of the eighteenth century. This new type of genre, the so-called “she-tragedy,” emerged from Banks and d’Aulnoy, and would later evolve into what we now know today as the historical fiction. Anne Boleyn was a perfect fit for the genre, a clever and beautiful girl ensnared in the metaphorical prison of subordination. Banks’s Vertue Betray’d bred widespread acclaim for Anne Boleyn and started the trend of the “good Queen Anne,” and with it, the “bad King Henry.” Jane Austen wrote that “it is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character.” Anne had become a heroine in the public’s eyes.
This Anne Boleyn renaissance that flourished in the Age of Enlightenment could be attributed to the emergence of women in the intellectual sphere, with the rights of women starting to become a topic of interest amongst the philosophes in the European salons. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges published Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, in which she calls out the failures of the French Revolution in the recognition of sexual equality. The following year, Mary Wollstonecraft was fighting for the education of girls in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. In the political climate of the day, it was no wonder the story of a woman battling for her own autonomy in a male-dominated universe was so popular, at least in England, where the monarchy was still popular. The French, it seems, had no use for a royal romance; they were too busy getting rid of their own royals to read about the wife of an absolute monarch from two hundred years ago.
But this period of “good Queen Anne,” was about to come to an end. Elizabeth Benger’s Memoirs of the Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Queen of King Henry VIII (1821), the first full-length novel devoted entirely to Anne Boleyn, would be the last pro-Anne work before the Victorian Era once again altered the public’s perception of Anne Boleyn. With the rather prudish etiquette and strict code of conduct that the Victorians are famously known for today, it is no wonder that the Victorian view of Anne Boleyn was, best put, conflicted.
Victorian children were taught two different versions of Anne Boleyn. One being that Anne Boleyn was “very young and beautiful…clever and pleasant…the king and some of his wicked friends pretended that she had done several bad things; and Henry…ordered poor Anne’s head to be cut off.” “Whether she was guilty or innocent cannot now be known.” The second being that “Henry, who had never learned the art of restraining any passion that be desired to gratify, saw and loved her [Anne Boleyn]…who only waited some fit occasion to destroy her credit with the king,” and while Henry VIII was “one of the most detestable villains that ever drew breath,” Anne herself was no better, and “was to suffer the penalty of her wicked ambitions,” Furthermore, she was “very worthy of the fate which afterward befell her.” Even in the Victorian Era, the “good Queen Anne” and “evil Queen Anne” archetypes prevailed.
Agnes Strickland, in her 1840 work, Lives of the Queens of England, wrote that Anne Boleyn “lacked the feminine delicacy which would make a young and beautiful woman tremble at the impropriety of becoming an object of contention between two married men…she overstepped the restraints of moral rectitude [by flirting with the king]…[and] took her first steps towards a scaffold, and prepared for herself a doom which fully exemplified that warning, ‘Those who sow the whirlwind, must expect to reap the storm’.” Paul Friedmann describes Anne in his biography, Anne Boleyn: A Chapter of English History 1527-1536, as “not good: she was incredibly vain, ambitious, unscrupulous, coarse, fierce, and relentless.”
The religious angle to the Anne Boleyn story returned in the Victorian Era. James Froude defends Henry VIII’s choice to break with the Catholic Church in his 1891 book, The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon: The Story as Told by the Imperial Ambassadors Resident at the Court of Henry VIII, but lamented that “[Henry] had stained the purity of his action by intermingling with it a weak passion for a foolish and bad woman.” Henry William Herbert, in his Memoirs of Henry VIII of England: With the Fortunes, Fates, and Characters of His Six Wives (1855) holds Anne Boleyn personally responsible for the deaths of Cardinal Wolsey, Bishop John Fisher, and Sir Thomas More, “for they had both given pinions adverse to the divorce…they were both inscribed on the black-list of the revengeful mistress, who never rested from her ill offices towards them, until their heads had fallen.” That being said, it is worth noting that Herbert was a sportswriter by profession, historian by hobby.
In the Victorian era, the “Katherine vs. Anne” battle had also returned, and this time for good. Tom Taylor’s 1875 play, Anne Boleyn, has the Queen haunted by the ghost of Katherine of Aragon, “that poor Queen whose place I took.” Herbert sides with Katherine of Aragon, proclaiming that “if anything mortal could be perfect, that mortal thing, so far as man may judge, was Katherine of Aragon.” Albert Frederick Pollard concludes that “[Anne Boleyn’s] place in English history is due solely to the circumstance that she appealed to the less refined part of Henry’s nature.”
There were some more positive portrayals of Anne Boleyn during the Victorian era, Selina Bunbury’s The Star of the Court, Or, The Maid of Honour and Queen of England, Anne Boleyn (1844) among them. As far as art was concerned, Anne Boleyn continued to be a tragic figure. She’s the tragic heroine in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena (1830). Similarly, paintings like Anne Boleyn in the Tower (1835) by Edouard Cibot depicted Anne as the tragic romantic victim of a tyrannical man. In spite of that, the Victorian consensus was that Anne Boleyn was “pre-eminent neither in beauty nor in intellect, and her virtue was not of a character to command or deserve the respect of her own or subsequent ages.” Anne Boleyn would get a positive portrayal in literature during the Edwardian period in Mary Hastings Bradley’s 1912 novel In the Favor of Kings. This would be the first time Anne Boleyn appeared in a novel, up until this point she had only appeared in “histories,” and it is in this fictional medium that Anne Boleyn is allowed to be “human” as opposed to “a historical figure.”
When Anne Boleyn lost her head she also lost control over her name and image. No longer a person, she became a vessel through which the author could impose a version of Anne Boleyn that fits their own narrative. The 360 years of literature which followed her execution saw Anne Boleyn oscillate between heroine and villainess, depending on who is telling the story and what religion they practiced. These literary works focused on numerous aspects of her life, from her romance with Henry Percy to her rivalry with Katherine of Aragon. Depictions of Anne Boleyn shifted between the proto-feminist allegory as seen in the Age of Enlightenment to the wanton whore of the Victorian era as our views regarding women shifted through time. Anne Boleyn’s characterizations followed her into the Cinematic Age, which dominated the twentieth century. Most of the plot devices, whose origins were found in the above-mentioned literature, would endure. Some of these archetypes would persist, while others would fade away.
Part IV: Anne Boleyn in Early Cinema (1910 – 1966)
In the twentieth century, a new artistic medium emerged: film. Nearly four centuries of Anne Boleyn-related literature presented two different versions of the character to be adapted to the big screen. The first version is Anne Boleyn: the romantic victim who was destroyed by her marriage to a brutal tyrannical monarch. This was the view popular in the 18th and 19th centuries onward, in the works of Elizabeth Benger and Selina Bunbury, as well as in the Gaetano Donizetti opera Anna Bolena (1830). The second version is Anne Boleyn: the femme fatale who destroyed Henry’s first marriage through sex and seduction, as in the works of Henry William Herbert (1856) and Nicholas Sander (1877). Both are compelling narratives that could easily carry a standard feature, with readily adaptable plots.
In 1914, Anne Boleyn appeared on the silver screen for the first time. Unfortunately, this French film, like most silent-era films, is lost. It is believed that this film is a take on the “Anne Boleyn & Henry Percy” love story that was popularized in the eighteenth century. Anne is in love with Henry Percy, but King Henry VIII is in love with Anne, and has Percy banished so he can love Anne, unfettered. Katherine is not happy about this, so Henry does away with her as well. But then Jane Seymour comes along, leading to Anne’s execution off-screen and the end of the film.
Anna Boleyn (1920)
Anne Boleyn’s second appearance in a feature film was German director Ernst Lubitsch’s Anna Bolena (1920). This fictionalized historical drama portrays Anne (played by Henny Porten) as a damsel in distress who does not like King Henry (played by Academy Award winner Emil Jannings). In a unique historical twist, Anne Boleyn loves someone else. But it is not Henry Percy; he is not even in the film. Instead, Anne Boleyn is in love with Henry Norris, who is one of Henry’s knights. Furthermore, Anne resists the King’s constant advances, but one day they are discovered when Henry pursues Anne at a garden party. Katherine of Aragon is shocked, and faints. Anne is shunned at court, and all seems hopeless, but Henry offers Anne the crown of England, which she happily accepts. Henry breaks with the Catholic Church and the two get married, but Anne’s heart still belongs to Henry Norris. The King’s love for Anne fades away quickly after she gives birth to Elizabeth I, and he swiftly moves on to Jane Seymour. The biggest historical difference comes in the form of Anne’s fall. She is arrested for adultery after Marc Smeaton presents her as an adulteress in a poem he wrote to get back at her for not going out with him. The film ends with Anne walking to her execution.
Around this same period, the cinema saw the crystallization of two female archetypes, the latter of which would become a staple of films through the Hollywood Golden Age, namely “the virgin” and “the vamp.” The virgin was the typical silent-era heroine: beautiful, innocent, and pure. She, almost always, must fend off a lecherous male character that is after her virtue. This type of female character was popularized by actresses like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish in films like Tess of the Storm Country (1922) and The Birth of a Nation (1915). The vamp, on the other hand, is the antithesis of the virgin. She is the dark and sexy seductress, who wears heavy makeup and skimpy dresses, preys on the male protagonist’s libido, using her feminine wiles to get what she wants. This character would later be repackaged, or re-vamped, for the gangster movies of the 1930s and the film noir movies of the 1940s.
At a period of time where actresses like Theda Bara and Lya di Putti were out seducing vulnerable men on the silver screens, the American woman was beginning to become more liberated, as seen in the iconic ‘flapper’ archetype. She was wearing shorter skirts, cutting her hair, and voting. Therefore, it is interesting that Lubitsch opted to portray Anne Boleyn as the virgin and not the vamp. If there ever was a time for a seductive, ambitious Anne Boleyn to star on film, it would have been the 1920s. In any event, Lubitsch opted to follow in the eighteenth century tradition and portray Anne Boleyn as a tragic heroine, and much like it was in the eighteenth century, the Catholics were just around the corner to put a stop to things.
Part V: Anne Boleyn Under the Hollywood Production Code (1935-1968)
The years between 1920 and 1929 saw a multitude of high-profile Hollywood scandals that were highly publicized, leading several studio heads to meet with some clergymen to discuss ways to fix Hollywood’s bad reputation, and out of that came a Production Code, which was a set of rules concerning morality that were to be applied to every film that was to be made. However, this Code was not enforced, and often ignored by filmmakers, who instead left it to the local theaters to censor the films.
With all of these Hollywood scandals came a push for “moral decency” spearheaded by American conservatives and the Catholic Church in response to an increase of “wildly unconventional films that were more unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre” in the 1920s. With the advent of sound in 1927 came a period referred to as the Pre-Code. This period between 1927 and 1934 featured, among other things, “sexual innuendo, promiscuity and infidelity, intense violence, drug and alcohol use, miscegenation, profanity, and homosexuality.” Examples of Pre-Code films include Red-Headed Woman (1932) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). Strong, sexually liberated female characters were a staple of Pre-Code cinema, as were gangsters, who were portrayed more as heroic rather than villainous. These films were infamous for their raunchy content, which led to numerous intense campaigns by the American Roman Catholics to put an end to the so-called immorality in Hollywood. This led Hollywood studios to hire Will Hayes to enforce the Hollywood Production Code. Hays and his cohort Joseph Breen were so effective at censoring Hollywood films that the Code would become known as “the Hays Code.”
So what does any of this have to do with Anne Boleyn? Why bring up the Hollywood Production Code at all? The Hollywood Production Code explains the lack of Anne Boleyn-related media during the Hollywood Golden Age. Since this period of Hollywood history is often remembered for its glamour and big budget epics, with films like Marie Antoinette (1936) and Gone with the Wind (1939) bringing studios box office success, it seems as though a sweeping romance set in Tudor England would be nothing short of a moneymaker. But because of the Hays Code, which prohibits anything that goes against “the sanctity of marriage,” it was impossible for Anne Boleyn, arguably history’s most notorious adulteress, to appear on film in any way. I also bring this up to point out the recurring theme of the Catholic influence on the portrayals of Anne Boleyn. Thomas Doherty, Professor of American studies at Brandeis University, called the Code, “a homily that sought to yoke Catholic doctrine to Hollywood formula. The guilty are punished, the virtuous rewarded, the authority of church and state is legitimate, and the bonds of matrimony are sacred.” The Catholic Church had in a sense taken over Hollywood, and it did not go unnoticed.
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Although the Code was in effect, that did not stop directors from featuring Anne Boleyn when possible. Alexander Korda’s 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII was originally to focus only on Henry VIII’s marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (played by Charles Laughton’s wife, Elsa Lanchester) but as pre-production went on, the story was expanded to include four of Henry’s other wives.
The film starts on the day of Anne Boleyn’s execution. Henry VIII’s staff is removing the ‘A’ from the King’s pillows and sewing on a ‘J’, while discussing the rumors surrounding Anne. One chambermaid sighs and says, “Anne Boleyn dies this morning. Jane Seymour takes her place tonight. What luck!” Another chambermaid quips back, “For which of them?” We first see Anne Boleyn (played by Merle Oberon) standing in her bedchamber in the Tower of London. She arranges her hair, and quips, “isn’t it a pity to lose a head like this?”
Anne’s appearance in the film is short, her story being told mostly by ladies in waiting, who provide the exposition, noting how the accusations of adultery are false, and the accused lovers confessed under torture. “She’s as innocent as you or I,” says one lady. “She died so that the King may be free to marry Jane Seymour.” We see Anne climb the stairs to the chopping block, and, like Lubitsch’s Anna Boleyn (1920), she is executed off-screen.
The film was initially shown in the United States without incident but had a turbulent reissue history. The first reissue of the film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1935 and was only given the stamp of approval after various scenes and dialogue were removed, including but not limited to: “dialogue relating to the ‘King’s in one of his merry moods’; the king vigorously kissing Jane Seymour on the shoulder and neck; the reference to the king as ‘a breeding bull’; the king adjusting his crotch before entering Catherine’s bedroom; the dialogue between the king and Anne in reference to the origins of children.” The fact that these seemingly insignificant nitpicks were indeed removed from the film in order for it to be shown in theatres goes to show the real power that the Catholic Church had on the movie industry. But all of that was about to change.
After the Supreme Court ruling in the antitrust case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. in 1948, movie studios were no longer allowed to own their own movie theatres. Furthermore, movie studios could no longer control what films were seen in theatres. Because of this, many foreign films, which up until this point had been condemned by the Catholic Church due to their looser morals, were allowed to be shown in theatres unfettered. This ruling not only changed the way that Hollywood films were produced and distributed, it also weakened the control that the Production Code and the Catholic Church had in Hollywood. No longer could these organizations control what was being showed in theatres, though they would not be that easily silenced.
Young Bess (1953) and A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Anne Boleyn’s appearance in the sequel to The Private Life of Henry VIII, the 1953 film Young Bess, was a mere two minutes of screen-time. In her one scene, told in flashback by one of the ladies in waiting, Henry VIII (played again by Charles Laughton in a reprisal of his 1933 performance) shows off the baby Elizabeth I, and showers the Queen Anne (played by Elaine Stewart) with compliments. All laugh as the camera zooms in on Anne’s neck, and the scene transitions to Anne at the scaffold, with the lady in waiting saying in voiceover, “but Anne Boleyn laughed once too often, and with the wrong people.” Following that quip, Anne is beheaded off screen. It is a brief scene, but it manages to show Anne Boleyn’s rise and subsequent fall from grace in a single fadeout. Similarly, Anne Boleyn, played by Vanessa Redgrave in her big screen debut, only appears for a total of ten seconds in the 1966 adaption of the Robert Bolt play of the same name.
I bring up these two minor cameos for a reason. The period between Young Bess and A Man for All Seasons saw the emergence of a new more liberated woman on silver screens both abroad and domestic. In Europe, actresses like Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, and Ursula Andress were revolutionizing the way women looked and acted on the silver screens. Their films were causing quite a stir, and the Catholic Legion of Decency was completely overwhelmed, with their hands already full trying to combat the films of Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, and Jayne Mansfield. With the more sexualized woman becoming more acceptable on the screen, it is interesting that it is during this period that Anne Boleyn gets the least amount of screen time.
One way to analyze this surprising lack of Anne Boleyn is by looking closely at the genre. The fifties and sixties were a period of political, social, and artistic revolution, both in America and Europe. Several movements defined the era: the French New Wave, New German Cinema, and the Yugoslav Black Wave, among others. These movements were started by young, aspiring artists who were tired of the plastic fakery of the movie studios and favored unconventional low-budget films about real people. Communism, too, was on the rise, with communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The United States and Europe saw the rise of a counterculture, which largely advocated for free love, drug use, and racial and sexual equality, as well as youth culture, dominated by rock ‘n’ roll and teenage rebellion. Furthermore, women’s rights, civil rights, and anti-war sentiment were at their apex. This was not a period in which a period drama could thrive.
Part VI: Anne of a Thousand Feminists (1966-1979)
By the end of the 1960s, television was the most popular form of visual entertainment, and Hollywood was in a state of crisis, with movie studios that had once ruled the industry in financial ruin. By this point, the Hays Code was all but obsolete, as was the old idea of “woman.” Television shows like That Girl (1966-1971) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) were presenting new career-focused women. And with the views on divorce becoming more tolerant and the rise of second wave feminism, it seemed like a perfect time for Anne Boleyn to make a comeback.
Anne of a Thousand Days (1969)
An unprecedented amount of film adaptations of popular Broadway shows emerged in the 1960s. From My Fair Lady (1964) to Camelot (1967) to Hello, Dolly! (1969), a large number of popular Broadway shows received cinematic adaptations to varying degrees of success. Maxwell Anderson’s 1948 play, Anne of a Thousand Days, had been popular on Broadway for some time, but could not be adapted to the silver screen due to its themes of adultery, which was not allowed under the Hollywood Production Code. By 1969, however, the Hollywood Production Code had since been replaced by a film rating system known as the Motion Picture Association of America, and director Charles Jarrott finally adapted the play into a film, releasing Anne of a Thousand Days in 1969. Jarrott’s Anne Boleyn is a tragic heroine, following in the footsteps of previous iterations, and yet there is something different about this depiction of Anne Boleyn.
Filmed mostly at Hever Castle, which was the childhood home of the real Anne Boleyn, the film begins with Henry VIII (played by Richard Burton) contemplating whether or not he should sign the warrant for the execution of Anne Boleyn. From this point forward, the rest of the film is told in flashback. We go back in time to 1527, and Henry VIII is displeased with both his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his mistress, Mary Boleyn. He meets Anne Boleyn (played by Geneviève Bujold) at a court ball, and is immediately smitten with her. Anne is engaged to Henry Percy, but this does not faze the king, who has Cardinal Wolsey (played by Anthony Quinn) break off the engagement. This infuriates Anne, who belittles the king, calling him “spoiled and vengeful and bloody.” Henry VIII is relentless, and continues to pursue Anne, who continues to turn down his advances. Although at first, her rejections are borne out of anger toward the king for breaking off her marriage to Henry Percy, but eventually she becomes intoxicated with the power that the King’s love gives her. She tells her brother, George, “Power is as exciting as love, and who has more of it than the king?” Henry VIII proposes to have Anne replace Catherine of Aragon as queen, after which Anne agrees to marry him. Wolsey begs the King to reconsider the idea, but Henry VIII refuses to listen. After Wolsey fails to get the Pope to give Henry VIII his divorce, he is dismissed from office and his magnificent palace is given to Anne as a gift. It is at this point that Anne realizes that she has finally fallen in love with Henry VIII. They sleep together and, after discovering that she is pregnant, are secretly married. Months later, Anne gives birth to a girl, Elizabeth I, much to Henry VIII’s dismay. It is at this point that Henry VIII turns his attentions to Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s maids. Once she discovers this affair, Anne banishes Jane from court. Furthermore, Anne refuses to sleep with her husband unless Thomas More, who spoke against Anne Boleyn, is put to death.
When Anne’s subsequent pregnancy ends in a stillbirth, Henry VIII demands that his new minister, Thomas Cromwell, find a way to get rid of Anne. After torturing one of Anne’s servants, Mark Smeaton, into confessing to adultery with the Queen, Anne is taken to the Tower of London. At her trial, Mark Smeaton admits that the charges against Anne are lies, prompting a visit from Henry VIII to Anne’s chambers, where he offers her freedom if she will agree to annul their marriage. Anne refuses, delivering a stirring speech. A few days later, Anne is taken to the scaffold and beheaded by a French swordsman. Henry VIII rides off to marry Jane Seymour, and the film’s final shot is of Elizabeth I in the royal garden as she hears the cannon firing to announce her mother’s death. Before the credits roll, Anne recites the speech she gave to Henry VIII in the Tower in voice-over, proclaiming that “Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. My Elizabeth shall be queen, and my blood will have been well spent.”
Anne of a Thousand Days was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning for best costumes. Bujold’s portrayal of Anne received universal acclaim, earning her a Golden Globe Award, and she remains the only actress to be nominated for an Oscar for playing Anne Boleyn. Furthermore, Bujold’s portrayal of Anne has been lauded as ‘feminist’ by many critics and film historians, most pointing to the heart-wrenching speech she delivers to Henry VIII. Author Alison Weir takes slight umbrage with this claim: “To describe Anne Boleyn as a feminist would be an anachronism…she had learned to value her body and her ideas, and ultimately recognized that there was something unsettling about this to Henry, [and] understood that this played a role in her downfall…Anne wasn’t a feminist. But she did step over the ever-moving line that marked the boundary of the comfort zone for men of her era, and for all the unease and backlash she inspired, she may as well have been one.”
Whether warranted or not, here Anne Boleyn entered a new phase in her evolution. Anne Boleyn became a feminist icon—an independent and driven woman who was ahead of her time. This characterization of Anne Boleyn continues to endure and serves as the model for future film adaptations.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972), and Henry VIII (1979)
In 1970, the BBC produced a series of six plays, each play focusing on one of Henry VIII’s six wives. This series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, the series won the Prix Italia award in Italy, as well as several BAFTA and Emmy Awards. Anne Boleyn was played by Dorothy Tutin, and her character appears in the first two episodes. In “Katherine of Aragon,” she is one of Queen Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting, and during that time, she is openly conniving for the King’s affection. Her plot is well-known by Katherine of Aragon and the other ladies-in-waiting and stirs up a lot of dislike for Anne amongst Katherine’s household. By the end of the episode, Anne has won Henry VIII’s affections.
In the episode devoted to Anne Boleyn, the timeline skips ahead to the final year of their marriage. Anne has already given birth to Elizabeth I, and now finds herself in King Henry VIII’s bad graces. Her position in the king’s favor is worsened by her inability to stifle her emotions, which leads her to confront him about his infidelities. Anne’s brother, George, tries to convince her to be more cautious in her conduct with the king, but Anne berates Henry VIII for his adultery, and when she miscarries for a third time, her fate is sealed.
This version of Anne Boleyn continues the archetype of the tragic victim, but the play also implies that she was not only the victim of Henry VIII’s cruel behavior, but was also the victim of a conspiracy to remove her from the king’s court. This ultimately successful plot is led by Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers, and Lady Jane Rochford, Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law, and creates a melodramatic subplot that will be returned to in later films.
The 1970 six-part miniseries was compiled into a two-hour film in 1972, with Keith Michell reprising his role as Henry VIII. Dorothy Tutin did not return as Anne Boleyn, instead the role went to Charlotte Rampling. The film condenses the 1970 version of Anne Boleyn’s story into about forty minutes. The Anne Boleyn portion of the 1970 miniseries was again revisited in the 1979 made-for-television film The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight, known as Henry VIII, where she is played by Barbara Kellerman. This trend of remaking the same Anne Boleyn story in the seventies is proof of Anne’s enduring popularity in the era of second wave feminism, but the rise of conservatism in the decade that followed would once again push Anne Boleyn back underground.
Part VII: Anne Boleyn in the Modern Age (1980-2018)
The 1980s is remembered as a period of excess, so it is understandable that the most popular period films of the 1980s, including Amadeus (1984) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988), focus on the excesses of eighteenth-century aristocracy, which is also remembered for its decadence. Almost no films set in the Tudor era were released in the 1980s, and Anne Boleyn stays largely out of the cinema in the 1980s, perhaps due to the rise of conservatism in America, which reached an apex under Ronald Reagan. This political movement emphasized traditional family values, and feelings toward society were similar to those expressed during the Hays Code period, so Anne’s absence from the cinema is understandable. Moreover, despite the rise in popularity of film adaptations of Regency era novels, like Sense and Sensibility (1995), and even a big-budget biopic of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth (1998), characterizations of Anne Boleyn did not appear in visual media in the 1990s either.
Henry VIII (2003)
Anne Boleyn appears in the two-part period-drama series Henry VIII in 2003. Anne Boleyn (played by Helena Bonham Carter) appears in the first episode and begins the film happily engaged to Henry Percy, but when King Henry VIII meets Anne and not long after that he has her marriage to Percy annulled. Like Bujold in Anne of a Thousand Days, Carter’s Anne makes no effort to make her displeasure known, and Henry VIII can only get Anne to return his affections when he breaks from the Catholic Church and gets a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII’s love for Anne soon turns sour when she gives birth to Elizabeth I, but he is nonetheless heartbroken when she is condemned to die, even going so far as to offer his soon-to-be ex-wife an alternative to execution, which Boleyn rejects on the grounds that it would be an admittance of guilt and would remove her daughter from the line of succession.
The strong-willed tragic heroine archetype of Anne of a Thousand Days, which by this point has become the standard template for portrayals of Anne Boleyn, is likewise seen in Henry VIII. In an interview that Helena Bonham Carter gave which was included in the special features of the Henry VIII DVD, Carter had this to say about Anne: “[S]he was very intelligent, very witty, she had sex appeal…She was everything that the ideal woman for that time wasn’t meant to be. She wasn’t submissive, she wasn’t meek, she wasn’t somebody who withheld her emotions, she was very outspoken, and very assertive, and ultimately somebody who wanted to be in control of her own destiny, and in that way makes her quite modern.” This character analysis is evident in Carter’s portrayal. Carter’s Anne Boleyn is intelligent and astute, never allowing herself to lose her composure in public. Anne is at her most blissful when she is with Henry Percy, and as she slowly loses control over her life, the more determined she becomes to reclaim it and not show her enemies any signs of weakness, keeping her composure to the very end. Carter’s thoughts on Boleyn were reflective of what the general public thought about Anne Boleyn; indeed, this consensus appears to be almost completely influenced by Bujold’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn in Anne of a Thousand Days, which despite having come out almost four decades earlier appears to be the standard by which all other performances of Anne Boleyn made since are compared, that is until Showtime got its hands on her.
The Tudors (2007-2010)
In 2007, the premium cable network Showtime debuted its big-budget, sensationalist historical drama, complete with sex, scandal, palace intrigue, and all the lavish costumes and sets expected from Tudor-related visual media. Although the series is called The Tudors, it is really about of the reign of King Henry VIII, spanning the years 1520 to 1547, the period from when he first encountered Anne Boleyn to his death. Time is greatly condensed, thereby making it look as though things happened closer together than they really did in order to fit approximately thirty-five years into thirty-eight episodes. The series lasted four seasons, with the latter two seasons focusing on Henry’s marriages to his final four wives. Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves both get four episodes each in the third season, while Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr both get five in the final season. The first season concerns Henry’s affair with Anne Boleyn (played by Natalie Dormer) and its effect on his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (played by Maria Doyle Kennedy), while the first third of the second season follows the disintegration of Henry and Catherine’s marriage, and the rest of the second season shows the slow downfall of Anne Boleyn, ending with her execution in the second season finale.
Before she was entertaining petulant child Joffrey Baratheon in the HBO series Game of Thrones, Natalie Dormer was entertaining the man-child Henry VIII in Showtime’s The Tudors. When describing her character, Dormer says that The Tudors is based around “the young, charismatic King of England Henry VIII when he was the charismatic alpha male of Europe, and the stories are based around the shenanigans of court, and I play one of Henry’s shenanigans.” Dormer gives a marvelous performance as Henry VIII’s second wife. LA Weekly wrote that “Natalie Dormer presents a painterly exquisiteness and complexity in her portrayal of Anne Boleyn… her enigmatic, time-halting loveliness is a boon for The Tudors, and damn near worth losing your head over”. The Boston Herald noted that “Dormer gave Anne Boleyn life, making her not just a beautiful schemer but a rebellious, defiantly independent tragic hero.” Indeed, she is ravishing and understated, and manages to combine both Anne Boleyn archetypes in one performance. She starts out as the “femme fatale Anne”; the king, deep in the throes of a failing marriage, first notices Anne at a masquerade ball, where she is dressed as a sexy swan, and desires her for his mistress. He writes her sappy love letters and has expensive jewelry made for her; he even gives her a giant portrait of himself, all in an attempt to win Anne’s love. But Anne rejects the King’s advances and gifts, proclaiming that she will only have him if he makes her Queen. This leads to Henry going through great lengths, excruciating pains, and half a season trying to divorce Catherine of Aragon.
One of the main plot points of the show is the rivalry between Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Though the “Anne Boleyn vs. Catherine of Aragon” battle was a common trope in Anne Boleyn literature, with the exception of the 1970s miniseries, it was never really a major plot point in any of the adaptations. Up until this point the “love triangle” was between Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII. and Henry Percy, a love triangle which was easily solved. But in The Tudors, it is the driving force, dominating the plot for the entire first season. While Catherine of Aragon is depicted as the amiable woman and dutiful wife and mother, Anne Boleyn is characterized as a manipulative seductress. She wears beautiful gowns with décolletage and flaunts her sensuality shamelessly in front of the married Henry VIII, attempting at every moment to undermine his marriage. But she also loves her children, as is evident in The Tudors during the brief moments when the little Princess Elizabeth makes an appearance. Although the two characters are rarely seen together, their close proximity to the King is never lost on the other. This dynamic also endears the two women to the audience more. We feel for Catherine as she tries to salvage her broken marriage, but we never really find ourselves hating Anne Boleyn.
When it comes to portrayals, Dormer is often mentioned alongside Bujold as not only one of the best portrayals of Anne Boleyn, but also the best-remembered portrayals. Bujold established the template for Anne Boleyn portrayals in media, but it is Dormer who takes that template and fleshes it out into a complicated and layered characterization. Because television is less bound to time restraints than film, there is more time to flesh out the characters, which allows the audience to spend more time with the characters. Perhaps this is why Dormer’s Anne Boleyn has the most staying power. Her intricate performance, supported by a talented cast, enhances what could easily be a sensational melodrama comparable to a campy soap opera and imbues it with a sense of seriousness and nuance which makes the show not only palpable, but memorable. Bujold may have brought the most nuance and humanity to the character, but it was Dormer who cemented Anne Boleyn in popular culture forever.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
In 2001, British author Philippa Gregory took the world by storm with her book The Other Boleyn Girl, a highly sensationalized account of the life of Mary Tudor. Though the book and subsequent film have been discredited for their historical inaccuracies, they have both helped form ideas about Anne Boleyn. Gregory, who claimed to have applied “very strict rules of accuracy” when writing the novel, could easily be compared to those Anne Boleyn authors of old. Her less-than-favorable image of Anne as the adulteress and incestuous whore harkens back to Nicholas Sander, who also perpetuated rumors about the Queen and masqueraded them as historical fact.
The film adaptation, like the book, is told from the point of view of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary (played by Scarlett Johansson), who was a favorite of King Henry VIII before he met Anne (played by Natalie Portman). There is the trope of Anne as the pawn in her politically ambitious father and uncle’s quest for power. Henry Percy is also a plot point, though The Other Boleyn Girl takes their romance a step further by having Percy and Anne secretly marry, much to the anger of Anne’s father and uncle, who have the marriage annulled and force Anne into exile in France. Anne is promptly brought back to England to keep Henry’s affections while Mary is pregnant. Mary gives birth to a son, but King Henry is now much more interested in Anne, though Anne only flirts with Henry as revenge against Mary, whom Anne believes had her exiled on purpose. Anne gets back at her by successfully winning Henry over and encourages Henry to break from the Catholic Church when the Pope refuses to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry succumbs to Anne’s demands, declares himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, and gets Cardinal Wolsey to annul his marriage to Catherine.
This is the first Anne Boleyn iteration where Henry VIII rapes Anne, elevating the “Anne Boleyn: tragic heroine” archetype. After Henry VIII rapes Anne, she becomes pregnant, and the two are married. Not long after they are married, Henry VIII loses interest in Anne and eventually grows to loathe her. What’s more, he blames Anne for not producing a son and begins courting Jane Seymour in secret. This is also the first iteration of Anne Boleyn in which she does commit incest; an accusation which most historians believe was not true. After Anne miscarries, she begs her brother George to have sex with her to replace the child she lost. George reluctantly agrees, realizing that it is Anne’s only hope, but, alas, they cannot go through with it. Lady Jane Rochford, George’s shifty wife who has been employed by Anne’s uncle as a spy, sees the two in bed and suspects something. She reports what she saw, and both Anne and George are arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Mary tries to plead with Henry to spare Anne’s life, and at first he seems to relent. But he later reneges on his promise, and Anne is executed.
This film, much like the novel, is arguably the most historically inaccurate depiction of Anne Boleyn in film. Regardless, it was one of the more entertaining Anne Boleyn films, and it is easy to see why Philippa Gregory’s version of Anne Boleyn was so successful. The entire film is a soap opera, riddled with scheming and manipulation, backstabbing and revenge. It has love, lust, jealousy, and hatred. In short, it is high melodrama, and it worked. The film was a hit at the box office and in the end more than doubled its initial budget. It takes the Natalie Dormer version, which had been so highly praised for its nuance and dimensionality, and turns it on its head, turning Anne into a sixteenth century mean girl.
Wolf Hall (2015)
The five hundred years of portrayals of Anne Boleyn come full circle in the 2015 miniseries Wolf Hall. This iteration of Anne Boleyn (played by Claire Foy) is petulant and impatient, and is often on the verge of tears when in stressful situations. She lacks the composure present in previous cinematic iterations of Anne Boleyn and wields absolutely no authority over her ladies-in-waiting, who show her very little loyalty. Nor does she get any respect from her sister in-law, Lady Jane Rochford, who talks back to her and deliberately ignores her orders and tells Anne to her face that she isn’t the real queen.
Since the series is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor at the time, Anne Boleyn does not appear much. When she does, the scene is often staged as if it is a painting. Anne always stands above everybody. Her throne sits atop a platform, implying her dominance, though this attempt at symbolism is undercut when those underneath her do not take her seriously. It is also implied that Thomas Cromwell has amorous feelings for the Queen, and he feels bad about turning on Anne and having her falsely accused, but in the end, Cromwell’s political ambitions mean more to him, and Anne is executed, to the great joy of King Henry VIII.
Over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, what we have seen in terms of Anne Boleyn in film and television is not an attempt to define Anne Boleyn, the person, as the pre-1900 literary works tried to do. Authors and biographers attempted to give readers an idea of who Anne Boleyn really was; films attempted to use Anne Boleyn as a device with which to project their societal notions of the ideal woman. She was the pure and innocent virgin of the silent era, the feminist icon of the 1960s, and the complicated, multi-faceted woman of the 2000s. Moreover, when Anne Boleyn did not fit the current society’s vision of the ideal woman, she simply went away.
The last five hundred years have produced countless versions of Anne Boleyn in various forms of media, running the gamut of literature, art, film, and television. What will Anne Boleyn look like in ten years? Only time will tell.
Part VIII: Conclusion
Anne Boleyn is one of the most contentious historical figures in English history. “We argue over her, we pity and admire and revile her, we reinvent her in every generation. She takes on the colour of our fantasies and is shaped by our preoccupations: witch, bitch, feminist, sexual temptress, cold opportunist. She is a real woman who has acquired an archetypal status and force, and one who patrols the nightmares of good wives; she is the guilt-free predator, the man-stealer, the woman who sets out her sexual wares and extorts a fantastic price. She is also the mistress who, by marrying her lover, creates a job vacancy. Her rise is glittering, her fall sordid.” Henry VIII was married to five other women, and yet Anne Boleyn is the one that everybody remembers. She is a woman who lived, whose life has been largely erased by a bitter king, leading to the emergence of multiple versions of the same woman in literature, film, and television. She is the romantic victim who was destroyed by her marriage to a brutal tyrannical monarch. She is the home-wrecking femme fatale who destroyed her husband’s first marriage through sex and seduction. And she is an ambitious and independent proto-feminist woman ahead of her time. Anne Boleyn is all of these things, and which version she assumes depends on how society views marriage and the role of women. “Anne Boleyn presents a cultural dichotomy that we have placed on our women for centuries. She was at once, both a virgin and a vamp.”
Historical biopics are difficult to do because they have higher stakes than your average period drama. A historical biopic does not just tell a story, but a history, and its characters are not fiction, but real. The roles these characters assume depend on the perspective and demands of the audience, which have shifted and re-shifted over 500 years. To Catherine of Aragon or Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn was a villain, but she was not a villain to Elizabeth I or Thomas Cranmer. Many versions of the “Anne Boleyn” straddle the line between historical and dramatic, often favoring the latter. The further removed from a historical event, the more okay it is to appropriate someone else’s life for your fictionalized drama, and perhaps that makes looking at people who actually existed more interesting than fictional characters.
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