Anne of the Thousand Days

By Aaron Weiss

Dieu et mon droit. “God and my right shall me defend.” This Latin motto reappears throughout the film Anne of the Thousand Days. These words symbolize the film perfectly. Some events of the film do not fully appear accurate; rather it is the symbolism and representation of the portrayals of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey that make the film an observation on the Church and nobility. It was in 1517 that Martin Luther posted the Ninety Five Theses and only ten years passed before Henry VIII initially petitioned for divorce under the Roman Catholic Church. By a mere ten years, Martin Luther’s 95 theses so changed the world, in a sense, that it enabled many others to brazenly challenge the church. The Church was reeling from these attacks and the mounting discontent faced with a king who sought a divorce (separation ab initio) under the Church and God. This king, like all kings, wielded incredible influence over the masses and the nobility, and came to influence the power of religion itself in England. Henry VIII challenged the church, the events leading up to the break with Rome. The way this was done disputes the accuracy of the film itself on some levels.

The basic storyline of Anne of the Thousand Days can be considered as a series of events that culminate with the death of Anne Boleyn, (played by Geneviève Bujold) Pivotal scenes between the King and Anne are connected with scenes that draw heavily on history. While the relationship of Henry and Anne was depicted in great detail, the greater interest for the audience lies with that between Henry and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and by extension, the conflict between King and Church. Every major character in the film undergoes obvious change, except that of Cardinal Wolsey. Hence, it is observed that Wolsey represents the conflicts that the church was dealing with at that time. Throughout the film Wolsey seems to struggle with his influence over the king, as well as with his own personal corruption. Initially, the film seems to set King Henry up as the embodiment of nobility and of kinship. Historically, Henry is viewed as the pinnacle of nobility, due to his charm and position but the film goes beyond that representation and uses Henry to exemplify the struggle of the state with Church. On the other hand, Cardinal Wolsey represents the king in matters of the church but also embodies the status and corruption of the church. Therefore, this movie can be considered an observation of Tudor political and religious issues as much as it is intended for entertainment.

In the absence of letters to and fro or reports by eye witnesses, we can never know what words passed between Henry and Anne when they were together, or for that matter between Wolsey and Henry. The movie understandably takes great liberty with the dialogue, as in one memorable scene, the king remarks “I am the king of England; when I pray, God answers.” Did Henry VIII publicly say such a thing? Taking into consideration his actions towards the Catholic Church, such a statement is not far removed from what Henry truly believed. At the same time, there are scenes within the movie that are not based on history and are for drama. For example, Anne was never allowed to speak out at her trial in 1536 against the charges of incest and adultery, a liberty that is given to her in the film. Less significantly, Henry never did interrupt the trial proceedings to personally question Anne.

The first true scene with Anne depicts her initially as in love,courted by a young noble named Percy. Henry Lord Percy is a minor historical footnote, noted for his romantic courtship of Anne prior to King Henry’s courting of Anne. This romance and courtship is illustrated in several succeeding scenes until Cardinal Wolsey crushes the relationship. During this critical scene it is revealed to Anne for the first time that the king has asked about her. This is important, as the viewer is first exposed to Anne’s fire, and her boldness with her words. This is unfortunate for the king, as Anne refuses to become his mistress. The following scene has Anne arguing with her parents against the courtship of Henry, when the king himself shows up. The first interaction between Anne and the King sets the tempo. As has been said, every major character undergoes dynamic change, save for one. Anne begins a reluctant courtship with the King, but as the movie progresses finds she would profit if she could use him to become Queen. Indeed, “she resolved to spurn every lower prize and to strive with all her might for the crown” (Friedmann 48). As events proceed Henry becomes more and more enamored with Anne. The many following scenes illustrate the relationship between the King and Anne: full of tenacity and frustration. The scenes of Henry courting Anne culminate in a high point in their relationship. Anne is giving Henry more of herself; which leads to Henry appealing to Anne to give him a male heir. This reaches a climax with the two dining near a fireplace; Henry is so frustrated with Anne that he begs Anne to become his mistress to bear him children. Anne rebukes the King scathing him with the words “Bastards, they would be bastards!” ( Both Henry and Anne realize that in order for any children to be heirs, a divorce from Catherine is necessary. Thereafter, the film diverts from the line of romance it has followed up to this point, and greater attention is placed on Wolsey, Catherine and Henry. Since the marriage of Catherine and Henry was consecrated in the name of God, the only way to obtain a divorce would be through the powers of the pope. Henry convinces himself (in the film and in history) that his first marriage is cursed and unlawful in the eyes of God. Catherine refuses to agree to an annulled marriage, claiming that their marriage has been consecrated under the church; she professed her love to him. This leads to Henry seeking the divorce and using Wolsey’s influence in the Church.

Henry and Wolsey attempt to prove to the church that the marriage to Catherine of Spain was against God’s law. After a failed trial to seek the divorce, Henry dismisses Wolsey. Thomas Cranmer, the legal muscle behind Henry’s throne, points out that in England there is no one who may rule higher than the king. This leads to Henry considering splitting from the Catholic Church and being excommunicated, but being able to marry Anne and acquire an untold amount of wealth by becoming Head of the English Church. Henry agrees with Cranmer, and Henry creates the Act of Succession so that any child of Anne and Henry will be heir. Henry will ignore the Pope’s decision, accepting excommunication. The marriage of Henry and Catherine will be annulled under the English Church and the marriage of Anne and Henry will be proclaimed valid. By pursuing these steps Henry effectively takes control of the Church of England (Fraser 208). There is opposition to the act from supporters of Catherine and enemies of Anne. Henry also declares that any opponent to his solution will lose his life. In a pivotal moment, Thomas More and two other associates enter in private conversation with Henry and Anne, to declare that they will not sign the Act of Succession. Henry replies that they will be executed for their treason with all the rest of the opposition.

This turn of events leads to Anne finally conceding her love to Henry and they consummate the union together. The movie jumps forward to a time when Anne finds out she is pregnant and reveals the news to her king. In order for their child not to be a bastard, Henry and Anne have a secret marriage. Unfortunately, the child that she later delivers is not the wished for male heir. Anne instead gives birth to a beautiful daughter who would later become England’s most successful and recognizable Queen. This begins the downfall of Anne, as Henry later catches the sight of a Jayne Seymour, whom he would later court and marry. Anne infuriates Henry by sending Seymour away from her court. By this point, it is obvious that the king and queen do not love each other anymore, and the king turns to Cromwell to find a way to “get rid of her.” Anne is arrested and is set to be executed for adultery, incest and treason. In the near final scene, Henry asks Anne to annul the marriage so he can have a son with Jane Seymour. Anne refuses, boasting that Elizabeth will rule after Henry dies, and will be greater than any ruler of England that is a male heir of Henry’s. Anne is thereafter consigned to her fate, and is executed while Henry VIII rides out to meet Jane Seymour.

Henry VIII is described as a “gargantuan figure, a handsome young king who was an accomplished musician, a patron of the arts and a fine athlete” (Ridley 17). The late Richard Burton portrays Henry in the film, and gives the audience the impression of a physically domineering Henry who oftentimes uses his height to intimidate. Indeed, portraits of Henry VIII show one with athletic prowess and obvious strength. At the same time, this is a very emotional Henry. His frustration, stress and fears are worn well on his face. Then there is the intelligent, strong and lively Anne Boleyn (played wonderfully by Geneviève Bujold). Besides Wolsey, Anne is probably the only other individual to exert so much influence over the King. Her influence over him allowed her great power as Queen. At the same time Anne was not regarded highly by the subjects of the king (as Catherine was considered the true Queen) and was not considered “one of the handsomest women in the world” (Fraser 122). There have been other claims that Anne had a vestigial sixth finger, a claim that was dismissed when her grave was unearthed and the corpse examined (Fraser 124). Regardless, the Anne Boleyn of the film is depicted as youthful and extremely beautiful.

Cardinal Wolsey’s depiction in the film is that of a pious but corrupt churchman. He was very influential. During the early reign the advice the Cardinal gave to the king was always taken into consideration. The film contains a scene which gives color to Wolsey’s corruptible side: late at night and in bed he is called to the King. What makes this scene significant is that Wolsey has a mistress in his room with him. Since a vow of celibacy is taken to attain priesthood this shows the good Cardinal’s disrespect for the Church. In addition, Wolsey is called to debate the legality of a divorce under the church; Wolsey knows that it would be impossible to obtain a divorce. However he used his influence to manipulate the proceedings against Catherine.

Cardinal Wolsey is to Henry what Richelieu was to Louis XIV. Wolsey was a mere priest in the King’s court when he won Henry’s favor. He would eventually be promoted by Henry to Lord Chancellor, following a line of succession of previous priests. It is here that his influence was greatest upon the king, as he is believed to have “ruled everything.” Even prior to attaining this prestigious position, Henry was attentive to what Wolsey had to say and would take his suggestions into consideration. Wolsey knew exactly how to manipulate the king, and use excessive flattery and subtle suggestions in order to meet his own ends. When Henry made a decision that conflicted with that of Wolsey, the prelate was able to argue with the king with little rebuke and Henry would sometimes be in agreement with the good priest. Since Wolsey held a high, influential religious position it is natural to believe that he worked for the papacy. Instead, his loyalties lay with the king, and his own ambitions. Wolsey was thought to covet the position of the pope, and he would have used that power to further strengthen the king. [In fact, he came within one vote of being Pope in 1521.]

This leads us to the actual divorce. The end result of the attempt to get the divorce led to Henry splitting from the Roman Catholic Church, forming the Church of England, or the Anglican Church and proclaiming himself head of that Church. As said previously, Henry believed that his former marriage to Catherine was a violation of God’s law. His evidence for divorce lies within the book of Leviticus (Fraser 135). The text that is in question follows:

‘If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity;

He hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness;

They shall be childless (Fraser 135)

There were substantiated arguments from the papacy against this reasoning such as Henry not being childless, as his first daughter would grow to become Mary, Queen of England. Cardinal Wolsey at the same time advised Henry against such tactics. Another point of contention looks to the actual marriage of Arthur and Catherine. Henry’s older brother Arthur was initially married to Catherine but had died of the sweating sickness. When Henry inherited the throne, his father Henry VII sought the remarriage of Catherine to his younger son, so that English-Spanish relations would still be on good terms. The question arises as to whether Catherine’s previous marriage to the elder brother had been consummated, something that Catherine insisted had not happened (Ridley 31). The Pope also delayed for as long as he could in giving a decision on the divorce proceedings. The divorce trial proceedings took over seven years to complete.

The pope’s ruling against Henry led to the king splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. This involved eliminating any opposition to the marriage of Henry and Anne, and individuals who questioned the authority of the King. Henry would effectively become known as the Head of The Church of England. Anne of the Thousand Days includes the historically correct execution of Sir Thomas More, who failed to recognize the secret marriage of Henry and Anne by questioning the Act of Succession (Ridley 248). In addition, Henry was able to control the priesthood and to censor certain aspects of the bible, such as references to the Pope (Ridley 235).

Anne of the Thousand Days is a superb film. It won only one Oscar out of ten nominations which was for best costume design; that is a shame. It was nominated for best actress and actor in a leading role as well as cinematography, music and art direction. Both Burton and Bujold give top-notch acting, although Bujold commands the film. I liked the film for the dialogue that it contained. It shows a woman empowered, albeit motivated by greed and power rather than love. One can only imagine what the interactions between Henry and Anne truly were; this film gives us insight of what they might have been.


Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. (First American Edition.) New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992.

Friedmann, Paul. Anne Boleyn. (Reprint from edition of 1884.)
First AMS edition. Library of Congress, 1973

“Anne of the Thousand Days.” 2008. Internet Movie Database. 8 Nov 2008

Ridley, Jasper. Henry VIII. (First American Edition.)New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1985.