Anne of the Thousand Ways: The many faces of Anne Boleyn in popular culture

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in BBC's Wolf Hall (2015)

Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in BBC’s Wolf Hall (2015)

Anne Boleyn has completely beguiled me since I was four years old. I remember vividly in the late 1980’s leaving a birthday party early with my mother to watch Anne of the Thousand Days on TV. I was as entranced with the film as she had been at my age. Living so close to Hever Castle, Anne’s ancestral home (used extensively in the film) bought history to life for me. I have visited Hever more times than I would care to confess in writing, and yet it still holds me in its grip, encouraging me to listen for conversations long past, hints of the events that happened between then and now. My idea of Anne was undoubtedly shaped by both this cultural representation of Anne, and my many visits to this site. But the Anne that Genevieve Bujold played varies vastly to the other incarnations of Anne in popular culture.

Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist (Hever Castle)

Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist (Hever Castle)

My Anne is not everyone’s Anne. In fact, I would go so far to say that she remains one of the most divisive characters of history. For many she is a home-wrecker, a whore, a promiscuous woman whose death was the price of her ambition. Others raise her so high in their estimation that her innocence is next to godliness. These divergences speak to the complexity of Anne’s character, the viewpoints of the varying sources by which she is understood, and the cultural climate in which they have been read.

Laura Cowie in Henry VIII (1911, Left) and Henny Porten in Anna Boleyn (1920, Right)

Laura Cowie in Henry VIII (1911, Left) and Henny Porten in Anna Boleyn (1920, Right)

Anne Boleyn’s first incarnations on screen silently portrayed Anne as a victim of Henry’s lust and greed. Laura Cowie (left) played Anne in the 1911 British silent film Henry VIII, whilst German star Henny Porten starred as the doomed queen in a landmark two-hour silent biopic in Ernest Lubitsch’s Anna Boleyn (1920). These films draw upon an historical narrative forged in the Victorian era, which championed Anne and other decapitated queen’s as fragile victims of a much married monarch. A particular influence was drawn from historical novels, such as The Tower of London, a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth serially published in 1840. Here it is possible to find such sentiment that describes the rich British soil being soaked with the best blood in England.

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

In 1933, Merle Oberon made a brief yet memorable appearance in The Private Life of Henry VIII. As the film begins on the day of Anne’s execution, she is given relatively little script, but recites many of the known phrases that Anne was reported to have said during her incarceration, such as her infamous ‘I have a little neck’ speech. Comedy plays an important juxtaposition to Anne’s grizzly fate, with sharp witted scenes between bickering executioners balancing the melodrama. The plot is also juxtaposed with the dressing of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, as Anne disrobes for the executioner. We do not doubt that Anne is going innocently to her end in this version, and yet we are also encouraged not to dislike her murderer, Henry, who is brash, irascible and yet somehow human. Oberon was so taken with her character that she adorned her apartment with paintings of her.

Elaine Stewart as Anne Boleyn in Young Bess (1953)

Elaine Stewart as Anne Boleyn in Young Bess (1953)

Anne was far from innocent in Hollywood’s 1953 version of Anne Boleyn. Afforded less screen time than Oberon, Elaine Stewart played a frivolous, ever-giggling strumpet, whose neck Henry VIII cannot help but fondle. The narrator advises us that Anne went to her end ‘with her lovers’, suggesting that she was guilty as charged. Her daughter’s subsequent struggles to stay alive throughout her early childhood are directly as a result of her mothers reputation, before triumphantly ascending to the throne as Good Queen Bess.

Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn in A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Vanessa Redgrave appeared briefly as Anne in the 1966 biopic of Thomas More, based on Robert Bolts award winning play A Man for All Seasons. As the film is focused on a very specific image of More, minus the private torture chamber that he had installed in his family home at Chelsea, other characters are portrayed in a somewhat harsh manner in order to sanctify More’s battle of conscience. Anne is again frivolous and giggling in this narrative, with no dialogue to possibly render her in a positive light.

Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

It was only in 1969 that Maxwell Anderson’s 1948 play Anne of the Thousand Days was deemed appropriate for the screen, with its frank discussions of virginity, sex, incest and adultery. Genevieve Bujold played the title role of Anne, who reigned for one thousand days. She is no gold digger in this adaptation. Here Anne is a victim, loosing her youthful love at the request of a king intent on having sex with her. Her resistance is absolute, her only bargaining tool is the crown of England. In this sense, Anne is absolved of being a home-wrecker, and we sympathise with her plight.  Although the film is somewhat long and plodding in parts, it contains a banging scene in which Anne get’s the last word with Henry. In what has been often referred to as a feminist scene, Anne’s defiance in the face of Henry’s ambition is quite wonderful.

Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn in BBC's Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn in BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Dorothy Tutin played a bold, fiery Anne in the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). Focusing on her downfall, Anne is an innocent victim of her husband’s inability to remain faithful to her, and her inability to provide henry with sons. Tutin played a champion and headstrong Anne from the turmoil of her demise, and carried many similarities to the narrative provided in Anne of the Thousand Days.  Anne did, however, scheme to snatch Henry from the loving grip of his first wife, and as such her downfall is seen in a slightly less rose-tinted light.

Charlotte Rampling as Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1971)

Charlotte Rampling as Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1971)

When the BBC series was turned into a film, Anne had something of a revision to her character. Here Anne is a home-wrecking ‘night crow’, who is far too flirtatious with them men at court. This is also the only portrayal of Anne to date that shows Anne with the sixth finger on one hand and moles on her neck that the sixteenth century catholic priest Nicholas Sander profligates in his history of Anne. She is jealous, spiteful, and rouses Henry into strangling her.  We know she is innocent of incest and adultery, but her rapid downfall and death off screen leaves a cold and bitter remnant of the Anne of previous incarnations.

Barbara Kellerman 1979

Barbara Kellerman in The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth (1979.)

 In her complete antithesis, Anne is angelically portrayed in the BBC 1979 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Anne is not here to fall from grace, indeed her end is never mentioned. Instead, she is the glorious mother of the Queen who had just given her name to an age.


Oona Kirsch as Anne Boleyn in God’s Outlaw (1986)

Swinging to the very edges of the saintly side of Anne, Oona Kirsch’s Anne is drawn heavily from the ideals of a protestant paragon portrayed in Elizabethan propaganda, such as Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Here, Anne is the catalyst for the English Reformation. Worldly in religion through studying the works of William Tyndale, Anne presents Henry with the tools to annul his marriage. Again, Anne does not die in this incarnation, but remains a torch in the beacon of reform.

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Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn in ITV’s Henry VIII (2003)

Helena Bonham Carter’s Anne owes much to Genevieve Bujold’s characterisation back in 1969. Here Anne is more human than the saintly portrayals of more earlier productions. Anne is most definitely a victim in this version, with Henry shown raping her in a rather distressing scene. Anne is most the innocent party in this version, and her execution scene is particularly gruesome (if not historically accurate)


Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl (BBC, 2003)

In the first adaptation of Phillipa Gregory’s popular but controversial The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne is a particularly cruel and guilty character. Not only is she guilty of having sex with her brother, but she torments her loving sister Mary, stealing her child. Many fans of Anne objected to this plot-line, however it gained new audiences with their own idea of who Anne was.


Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

When Hollywood adapted Gregory’s novel onto the silver screen, Anne was still as viscous, but remained innocent of incest. Although in desperation she is shown trying to entice her brother into impregnating her, the couple collapse into tears due to their inability to save her life. In this sense, Hollywood has invited us to care about Anne at the last, and although her execution scene is particularly powerful, this turn of emotional stance is somewhat too late in the script.

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Natalie Dormer in The Tudors (2007-2010)

In the most recent portrayal of Anne, Natalie Dormer was so determined to revise the Anne of series one, a scheming, sexual being, that we end up with two Anne’s. The Anne of series two contained narratives pertaining to her faith and charity, and her belief in the right of her ascendency. Although this change of character therefore seems jarring, it tells us so much of the divergent ways in which Anne has been seen throughout history. The ‘fandom’ response to Natalie’s Anne is testament to her enduring and multi-faceted characterisations throughout history.


Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn in BBC’s Wolf Hall (2015)

The mantle has now been past to Claire Foy, whose Anne Boleyn will be premièred on BBC two tonight. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall sees Anne through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who many believe both made and unmade Anne. It will be interesting to see the response to a colder, more calculated Anne in the light of Dormer’s revision. Anne has endured almost five hundred years of scrutiny, and has appeared many times and in many guises throughout film history. So who is your favourite?


6 responses to “Anne of the Thousand Ways: The many faces of Anne Boleyn in popular culture

  1. Love this, Owen! Can’t wait to see what Claire Foy brings to her portrayal of Anne Boleyn. I still don’t feel anyone has, to date, captured the historical Anne perfectly on screen. Having said that, for me, Genevieve Bujold is the iconic Anne, capturing her fieriness, eloquence, principles, outspokenness and charm, all at the same time. Dorothy Tutin and Natalie Dormer were both outstanding, too.

  2. Much as I like Natalie Dormer as a person, the hypocritical Anne of “The Tudors” left me rather cold. Genevieve will forever be “my Anne,” until a script casts Anne Boleyn into a similarly passionate, strong-willed, feisty, and still likable light.

  3. This was certainly interesting…I’m going to have to make a list of the different adaptions so I can see for myself. I always take a more middle ground view with historical figures I haven’t yet voraciously studied–often enough, life shows people to be a mix. But still, occasionally we come across something that just gives you a gut feeling of perhaps what they were really like.

  4. This blog follows very closely my own feelings about Anne! I really enjoyed it! For many years, I have felt that Anne was basically a victim of the Times. Women of the 16th century were nothing but tools for male pleasure-Anne completely broke that trend in showing a strength few females enjoyed. When Henry cast His roving eye her direction, Anne followed her head in pulling the other direction away from Henry; but she was no fool, and certainly enjoyed her position to the fullest extent. Sadly, when Anne fell in love with Henry, her days were numbered. Genevieve Bujold is my favorite Anne–the last scene in prison when Anne chews Henry a new royal Hiney is priceless! I wish more people would try to understand Anne and the woman she was-not just the “other woman” who broke up Henry’s marriage.

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