Anne of the Thousand Days: A Review

Marissa Harding

First seen as a play by Maxwell Anderson in 1948, Anne of the Thousand Days was later adapted for the screen by Richard Sokolove with script written by Bridget Boland and John Hale. Directed by Charles Jarrott and produced by Hal B. Wallis, it premiered on the silver screen in December 1969 to mixed reviews. Yet the film was nominated for ten Oscars, including those for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Film: it won Best Costume Design by Margaret Furse. It also won Golden Globe and Writers Guild of America awards.

The film is a grand parade of historical figures dressed in lavish costumes during the time of King Henry VIII. Played quite richly by Richard Burton, Henry VIII is shown as a man haunted by the thought of not leaving a male heir and as one who madly lusts after that which he cannot have – Anne Boleyn. Genevieve Bujold expertly exudes the allure of Anne; she is not exactly beautiful but rather her personality is fascinating. Anthony Quayle is the Cardinal Wolsey who is shown as the epitome of corruption in the Catholic Church and the facilitator of all the King’s desires, whether they be moral or not. Rounding out the main cast is John Colicos as the lurking lawyer Thomas Cromwell, who eventually plants the seed of “reformation” in the King’s head, and Irene Papas as the forever regal Queen Katherine of Aragon, a princess of Spain who is cast aside.

The film opens at a pivotal moment with Thomas Cromwell bringing to Henry the papers claiming Anne’s guilt for adultery, incest, and witchcraft. Henry’s signature will condemn her to death and free him from the marriage. Burton portrays a Henry who is suddenly struck by the weight of it all and we are then taken back in time to the fateful moment when Henry VIII first wanted Anne Boleyn. He eyes her openly, causing Queen Katherine to notice. An argument ensues which ends in him chastising Katherine for not producing a male heir. This scene will later be repeated with Anne as the Queen and Jane Seymour as the new desire of the King. Cardinal Wolsey also makes his first appearance here, asking the King if Henry Percy of Northumberland and Anne Boleyn may marry. Henry denies the marriage and Wolsey realizes that Anne will be the King’s next mistress.

The court then moves to the Boleyns’ Hever Castle in Kent. It is there that the audience first meets the rest of the Boleyns, including the sister Mary who is indignant at being cast off by the King whilst pregnant with his child, and brother George who is later accused of committing incest with Anne. Thomas Boleyn, the father, is a soft and almost defeated man who lets his daughters be taken at the whim of the King because the Boleyns receive titles and wealth in exchange. The king makes it publicly known here that he wants Anne, who counters him with many refusals because she loves Henry Percy. It is over Percy that Anne makes early enemies with Cardinal Wolsey, claiming that she “will not be a mistress of the King even with the blessing of a Prince of the Church”. After various scenes of Henry pursuing an icy and non-receptive Anne, he commands her to return to court with him, serve as a Lady in Waiting to his wife, and see him every day of her life as punishment. This, however, turns out to be much less of a punishment than an adventure for the young Anne.

Anne comes to love the power that being the King’s chosen one can bring. As Cromwell warned Wolsey she already ruled, almost reigned, and could prove powerful. Unlike her sister Mary who “gave everything, and asked for nothing”, Anne learned to ask for everything and give almost nothing in return. Her motives are made clear in the “bastard scene”. Henry, finally exasperated, tells Anne that he cannot live without her any longer and she expertly replies that any children they had would be bastards. This is all that needed to be said for Henry to decide that his marriage to Katherine must be ended. Anne promises that if Henry makes her Queen, she will marry him and give him sons.

The events that ensue are presented at a whirlwind pace. The request for an annulment is sent to Rome, but met with the news that Charles V of Spain, Katherine’s nephew, had sacked Rome and held the Pope by the nose. An agent of the Pope, Cardinal Campeggio, is then sent to England to try the case. Queen Katherine then refuses to be tried anywhere but in the safety of Rome. This leads to Henry’s extreme displeasure with Wolsey and consequent threatened exile for failing to secure the annulment. It is then that the sneaky lawyer Thomas Cromwell emerges to suggest that loyalty to the Pope first and Henry second is treason, thus allowing Henry to break with Rome and secure himself as the head of the Church in England. Cromwell also expertly points out that if the monasteries were dissolved, all their wealth would go to the King. Henry quickly passes the law allowing the leaders of his church to annul the marriage. Meanwhile, Anne decides that she does love Henry, gives herself to him, and marries him quietly. She is taken to her coronation through a cheerless and angry crowd of English people still loyal to Katherine.

The Princess Elizabeth is born shortly after to a disappointed Henry whose eyes begin to wander yet again. A second child is born dead, and Henry decides he needs to divorce Anne as well. It is Cromwell who suggests that they execute her for treason, and it is he who invents the charges and evidence of incest, adultery, and witchcraft against her. Anne’s own uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, brings her the warrant for her arrest and takes her to the Tower of London where she would spend her last days. It is there that she gives the 1000 days speech, saying how she was his for 1000 days, but there was only one of those on which they were both in love, saying “when I no longer hated him, he hated me.” Henry visits her there to try to bargain her into divorce and exile. Anne is furious at the prospect of being sent away and her daughter being bastardized, screaming that she would die to ensure that her daughter Elizabeth would have a chance to rule. Anne Boleyn was then beheaded before a silent crowd, and Henry rode off to wed Jane Seymour.

The film may show an aging Katherine of Aragon and dissatisfied King Henry, but what must be understood is the history of the early years of their marriage. Alison Weir’s book The Six Wives of Henry VIII gives the sombre history of a young Katherine of Aragon, brought to England to marry Prince Arthur, Henry’s older brother, and then kept there for six years upon his death until Henry VIII came to the throne and decided he would have her. She was pregnant by Henry many times, with one son Henry being born alive. He died an infant , however, and the only the princess Mary survived. By 1525 Katherine was past the age of bearing children (Weir 121). The fear of not having a male heir began seriously to alarm Henry at this time, and this is where the film livens up.

Anne Boleyn did not have the noble lineage that Katherine of Aragon had. She was the daughter of a merchant descended from a London family but who had married smartly into the noble Howard Family. (Weir 145). Though Wolsey was shown in the film as indifferent to Percy of Northumberland’s proposed marriage to Anne, he would not have approved. Not only was Percy betrothed to Lady Mary Talbot, Anne was certainly not a suitable match for a man who was to become Earl of Northumberland (157). However, Anne quickly forgot the power she would have had as Countess of Northumberland when Henry showed interest in her and the prospect of becoming Queen of England became clear to her.

Touched on in the film is Anne’s cunning and almost shrewd sensibility about her power over Henry. We clearly see that she does not particularly like him, but she cannot really help but like the attention she gets from him. The smartest thing she does is not to submit in the way that her sister Mary did. She held Henry at an arm’s length, submitting only enough to keep him interested. This game continued for much longer than the film indicates. As Weir states, her time with Henry did not cause him to doubt his marriage to Katherine, but instead Anne was the “catalyst” required for him to realize that he needed to end the marriage that was devoid of a male heir (171).

As this catalyst, Anne helped to bring about what would later be a very significant part of English history in the break with Rome and the subsequent English Reformation. D.G. Newcombe’s book Henry VIII and the English Reformation sheds great light on the complicated chronology that was the Reformation. Probably the most important distinction to make about this Reformation that the film does not clarify was that Henry VIII was not a Protestant and certainly had no desire to bring a Protestant church to England (Newcombe 1). The break with Rome, the Pope, and the Catholic Church was brought about as a means to a political end. Whether the men who were made to sign the documents actually believed or not was a moot point. All that mattered was that they swore their permanent allegiance to Henry first (4). We see two churchmen and Sir Thomas More in the film who cannot resign themselves to going against the Catholic Church and being told they must die for treason, and later being executed.

The break with Rome did not happen as quickly as was portrayed in the film, it was a longer process that started with what was called the Reformation Parliament in August, 1529 where a bill was passed for the reformation of the clergy (Newcombe 42). Thomas Cromwell then aided the king in further discovering the clergy with his “Supplication Against the Ordinances” which aimed at stripping the church from ruling as a power within itself. The idea that all people, even the clergy, should be loyal to the king first, and not the pope was implanted by Cromwell (46-47). The slow process of undermining the Pope began and the breaking from Rome was sped up when Anne finally gave herself to Henry and became pregnant. With the prospect of an heir on the way, Henry declared himself the head of the church in England and had his new clergy annul his marriage to Katherine so that he might marry Anne (48-49).

The last matter that needs to be placed in historical context is the courtship of Henry and Anne. The film shows the whole thing as a single montage of the most important events, but in reality many years transpired between Henry’s first lustful glance and then their marriage. By 1527 Henry had decided to end his marriage to Katherine. Cardinal Campeggio arrived from Rome in 1528 to hear the annulment trial but Henry married a pregnant Anne on 25 January 1533, nearly five years later. Even so, Henry did not declare his marriage to Katherine annulled until May. The Princess Elizabeth was born that September (Newcombe xi). These scenes happening in rapid succession in the film, but a film that followed chronologically the events of Anne Boleyn’s days as the mistress of Henry and as his Queen would be unbearably long.

After premiering in 1969 Anne of the Thousand Days was met with lukewarm reviews in January 1970 New York Times columnist Vincent Canby conceded that the visuals presented in the film were beautiful in an easy way and that the historical figures of the Reformation were presented in “terms of private personalities who were also public figures,” thus making them identifiable. He complimented the performances of Burton and Bujold, but commented on the unbearable predictability of the story.

Maybe it was predictable and almost too beautiful for the time period, but the heart of the film is the way in which the complex historical figures are portrayed in a human way. More historically accurate than most films of its kind, Anne of the Thousand Days gave audiences a view into the turbulent world of England on the eve of its reformation as well as a hint at the greatness that was to come from the union of Henry and Anne. The film ends prophetically with a young Princess Elizabeth walking the royal gardens as Anne’s voice tells Henry just before her execution: “My Elizabeth will be a greater queen than any king of yours…and my blood will have been well spent.”

(All Images taken from 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days;;

Works Cited
Anne of the Thousand Days. Dir. Charles Jarrot. 1969, DVD. Universal

Newcombe, D.G. Henry VIII and the English Reformation. London: Routledge, 1995.

Weir, Alison. The Six Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991

Canby, Vincent. “Anne of the Thousand Days (1969).” The New York Times 21 Jan.