Skip to content

Anne Of The Thousand Days by Edward Fenton (1970)

February 2, 2016

The novelization of the 1969 movie which was based on the 1948 play, so yes, the book of the movie of the play. If you’ve seen the movie, the books adheres to it very faithfully; the main differences lie only in that it contains a couple of extra scenes, mostly centered around Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, and of course has the obligatory The Book Of The Movie eight-page photo spread. Basically, this is the 1970s version of an extended edition DVD release, without the benefit of actually seeing the scenes acted out but with the benefit of not being distracted by the British Invasion hairstyles being worn by most of the 16th century courtiers. (Come on, costume designers — French hoods still look nice even with veils attached, they weren’t just fancy headbands). Anyway, if you’re familiar with the play, much of this is taken straight from the script although the poetry is somewhat reduced and a number of scenes are added which feature Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary, neither of whom were portrayed in the stage play.

As in the play, both the book and the movie open with a gloomy Henry contemplating the signing of Anne’s death warrant, as a cadaverously creepy Cromwell urges him on. We then flash back to his first sight of her at court, where the middle-aged, ill Catherine watches helplessly from her throne as Henry becomes increasingly intrigued by this Frenchified young woman who just so happens to be the sister of Henry’s pregnant mistress. Anne, however, is enamored of the clumsy, unlikely yet somehow charming Henry Percy and insists that she’s not going to give the king the time of day, even when her parents insist that she should. After all, she protests, Henry made Mary his mistress, he should think of her and their impending child even if he’s not going to be bothered with his wife any more. And it’s while speaking to Mary that Anne receives the advice which will be key to the story.


”Learn from me, Nan. Lock up your heart. Never surrender yourself completely … When he came to me first, he was still naive. He was afraid of women who might be difficult. He wanted someone to whom he could say `open!’ and there I was: his — his mule. It’s his own word.”

“You may yet be the mother of a king of England,” her mother reminded her.

Mary shook her head. “Small chance of that,” she said, “And small reward in it.”

Anne said, holding her head very high, “I shall never surrender myself at all.”

“If you ever go to him,” Mary told her, “remember to keep a cold reserve of hate and anger and —“

“Thank you,” said Anne, “I shall not go to him.”

“From the moment you are won and conquered and a worshiper, he’ll give you back to yourself and walk away. He’ll want no more of you.”

This is the heart of this particular rendition of Anne’s story and what turns it into essentially a very dark fairy tale. Mary’s warning will sound familiar to anyone who’s read an old collection of children’s stories: the hero (or heroine) has a journey to undertake, and if it’s to succeed he or she must be very careful not to speak to someone / touch a certain thing / go through a certain door. They’ll be strongly tempted, but if they resist, they’ll find the prize they seek. If they give in to temptation, they’ll lose everything. There’s little ambiguity in this kind of story — either the protagonist will follow the warning, or she won’t, and the end result of either choice is predetermined. Anne holds out for years, but finally gives in to her emotions shortly after Wolsey’s death and falls in love with Henry (I could believe this — he’s aggressive and obnoxious from a modern point of view but so clearly all-powerful that it would be impossible not to feel strong emotion for him, especially since he’s making it a point to pay attention to, and flatter Anne as much as he can). And after that, just as Mary predicted, he begins to turn away from her, blaming her for his own crimes and their combined efforts when he’s been doing everything in his power to make her see and do things his way.

I think that’s why both the movie and the novelization (not so much the play, which didn’t hammer this theme quite so hard) have a curious lack of tension considering the high stakes involved for every character in them. If Anne wants the ultimate success, she must keep herself from loving Henry, and if she doesn’t, of course disaster ultimately awaits. That’s what’s predicted, and that’s exactly how it plays out.

Catherine’s and Mary’s parts are rather obviously grafted on — as in the movie, Catherine gets a good scene or two, most notably at the trial at Blackfriars, but they’re both on a consistently downward trajectory and the novelist and filmmakers aren’t skilled enough to make them feel like anything but rather obligatory and one-note antagonists, especially in the case of poor Mary, who barely gets to speak and is reduced mostly to prophetic glowering so we can know that she’ll be bad news one day. After the news of Henry’s and Anne’s marriage is delivered:

Katherine took her daughter’s hand and held it tightly.

“You will reign, never fear. God is not mocked!” she said.

Mary did not answer. Her resolute dark face was fixed on the cross that hung against the bare white wall.

Mary may spend a lot of time contemplating crucifixes, but Anne herself is oddly devoid of religious feeling; her dislike of Wolsey, Fisher and More is on a much more personal level — they’re trying to prevent her from getting what she wants — and even her praying in the Tower before her death, which is something she actually did, leaves little impression compared to the completely invented “My Elizabeth shall be queen!” and the scene in which she takes a stylish leave of Henry by refusing to trade her life for a divorce and telling him that she was “untrue with many!” so he can spend the rest of his days looking around court and wondering. This isn’t to say that Henry — both the real version and this one — didn’t heartily deserve such treatment, just that the impression it leaves is, as I said earlier, strangely free of tension. Of course he audience always knows what’s going to happen; there are very few fictional renditions of her story which end with her being spared (although a few do exist). But here we have not only Anne consciously rejecting life in order to gain an advantage for her daughter, but the fact that she attributes the entire disaster to her having disobeyed the fairy-tale mandate never to fall completely in love with Henry, so she’s in the paradoxical situation of having to make a choice but feeling that the choice has already been predetermined by the one fatal mistake of a thousand days earlier. She gives the appearance of independence, but appearance is all it is.

Unlike the play, which ends with a somber, isolated Henry telling Anne’s shade that “It would have been easier to forget you living / Than to forget you dead” the movie’s and novel’s Henry seems ready to do just that — the story ends with Henry not alone but hunting with other courtiers, and when the cannon fires to announce Anne’s death he shouts “To Mistress Seymour’s!” Her apparent lack of effect on him makes you wonder if he felt the tension as little as the reader does.

SEX OR POLITICS? Light helpings of both; Anne and Percy discuss their respective lack of virginal status in a way that probably seemed pretty daring once upon a time (although it was awfully difficult to believe that the clever Anne would really be quite so casual, considering the high stakes and unreliable contraceptive options at the time). More and Fisher make a few appearances to say their pieces and to concede that the world will go on without them, and Wolsey is also portrayed as the frustrated and ultimately victimized servant who’s just trying to do what Henry wants and is thwarted by Fate and unexpected opposition. (Going back to sex, we also get a brief scene of Wolsey bundling his mistress out of bed when he gets a surprise visit; fair enough, Wolsey did have two children). Anne’s religious opinions get virtually no attention whatever except that she obviously approves of speeding up the annulment and disapproves of people who get in the way of that, though we do see her praying once she’s in the Tower.

WHEN BORN? Not clear, though she acts pretty young and if I had to hazard a guess I’d say 1507. Still, it’s not specified. Mary’s and George’s exact ages aren’t mentioned either, though George is stated to be two years younger than Mary. Where Anne fits in all of this is unclear.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy — this version of Henry is written as the bluff and sturdy Northerner. “Silks are for holiday,” he says, after Anne talks about the various gallants she met in France. “Honest homespun wears best through the years.” He’s described at court as a “clodhopper” and has a “harsh” voice, and Anne loves him wildly because he’s different from all the other men at court. The character really benefits from being on the page and not on the screen here — in the movie, the honest homespun Northerner was pretty much indistinguishable from all the other court men, right down his overly-manicured hair.

They’re already engaged and have gotten approval from both sets of parents, but that gets kiboshed quickly when Henry, already dissatisfied with his invalid marriage and having an affair with Mary Boleyn, first sees Anne at court. Before you know it, he’s riding off to Hever to pay her a visit and commanding Wolsey to break Percy and Anne up forthwith. A few years later, Anne encounters him while on his way to arrest Wolsey — he’s surprised to learn that she didn’t arrange this, but as Anne tells him, “I am past hating [Wolsey].” After Percy leaves, Henry asks how the meeting felt — “Did your heart race?” Anne laughs and calls him a “great royal fool,” to even be asking the question. And that’s the last we see of Percy — he doesn’t come back later to swear they were never betrothed or, for that matter, to be one of the judges at Anne’s trial, though unlike the play — in which he’s said to have died shortly after marriage — his fate is left unclear.

THE QUEEN’S BEES None really, except for Jane Seymour, and we see her only very briefly. Anne herself is of course an attendant on Catherine of Aragon — not seen in the play, but a character in the movie and this adaptation — but they spend virtually no time together. Various anonymous women flutter around her at different times but none of them really stand out; the attention given to the second-string men at court does not transfer over to the second-string women. Norris, Weston, and George Boleyn are the people we see conversing and socializing with Anne.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Smeaton is, like many Smeatons, devoted to her but only platonically.

THE PROPHECY As in the play, “My Elizabeth shall be Queen!”

IT’S A GIRL! Nobody dares to tell Henry the good news until he’s actually in the birthing chamber, and when he finds out he’s not pleased. He pulls it together long enough to observe that “There must be girls as well as boys. If we can have a healthy daughter we can have a healthy son … So I’ll kiss you and leave you, Nan.” He declines to kiss the baby until “she’s a shade older, my dear. When she’s grown a foot or two and is in petticoats, and can run! When she has a brother!”


FAMILY AFFAIRS Elizabeth Boleyn appears on several occasions but doesn’t leave a very strong impression; mostly she’s concerned for, and sympathetic towards her distressed daughters (first Mary, then Anne) and always trying her best to accommodate the king. Thomas is the mover and shaker who begins making long-range plans the moment the king so much as glances at one of his daughters, and like most of his other incarnations, he’s hard-headed to the point of brutality. When it’s clear that Henry has transferred his affections to Anne, he sees no point beating around the bush with the pregnant Mary: “You’ve lost him. I can’t help you. Go now, and cause no trouble. I’ll not have you put the rest of us at risk.” Mary eventually delivers a boy, but we don’t hear anything more of him. Mary herself, however, gets a bit more screen time, enough to give Anne the fairy-tale warning which becomes central to the plot.

George is lighthearted, sociable, sympathetic to his sisters, and not much of a character beyond that. He’s also apparently single — no reference at all is made to Lady Rochford.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, though in her last confrontation with Henry she says she did; if she’s going to go down for something she didn’t do, she reasons, she might as well leave him with a lot of soul-destroying doubts. Fair enough, considering the circumstances.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE It’s a novelization of a movie — “workmanlike” seems like a fair word to use. The author can’t invent dialogue and is limited in his descriptions because he clearly doesn’t want to stray far from the movie, which is how we end up with flat summaries like this:

Anne’s face still lingered in the King’s mind. Her voice still rang in his ears.

“She lies,” he muttered, burying his face in his hands. “She lies. She would not be unfaithful to me. And yet — if she were — she could. Any woman could — and yet she lies!” He raised his head. “If she lies, let her die for lying! Let her die!”

He took the pen from Cromwell’s hand and signed the warrant.

ERRATA The movie and book don’t go out of their way for Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, and they both suffer in that their scenes generally have so little to do with the other characters — there are a few court scenes, then the trial, then Mary and Catherine are stuck in exile together in a succession of dreary vignettes. Their appearances are both given unflatteringly and inaccurate as dark, sallow and unattractive, none of which seems to have been true. The timeline has also been compressed, as drama demands; Anne’s pregnancy follows virtually on the heels of Wolsey’s death. Catherine of Aragon is depicted as having her daughter by her side for the final years of her life, when of course they were kept very deliberately apart — Mary is certainly not moved into Elizabeth’s household as an underling. And of course Anne’s arrest, trial, and actions after sentencing are, as in the play, dramatized well but very inaccurately in that Henry plays a real part in them beyond simply authorizing them. Henry questions prisoners himself, accuses Cromwell of manipulation, actually attends Anne’s trial, and finally pays her that visit in the Tower to offer her her life in exchange for consenting to a divorce. None of this happened. It’s true that Anne was “in hope of life” as her jailer famously put it, and perhaps there was at some time the idea of banishment being kicked around as a possible alternative to actually killing her, but there’s absolutely no indication that Henry ever saw her after her arrest, much less made her any sort of offer of life which she could unhistorically but dramatically reject.

WORTH A READ? If you like Anne of the Thousand Days and would like a written form of its extended edition, you certainly can’t go wrong here, but I wouldn’t say that it stands up particularly well as a novel. It’s a bit too faithful to the film; numerous short chapters which work as brief movie scenes but which are disconcerting and choppy when sprinkled in amid the longer set pieces, characters are awkwardly introduced and just as awkwardly dismissed, and there’s very little narrative perspective of any kind; it’s someone watching actors and making a running commentary, not weaving a coherent piece of prose.


  1. I dunno…I love this movie, especially since it was what sparked my interest in Anne Boleyn back in 1999, when I’d recently graduated from grad school, was still living at home, and stumbled across it one night on Bravo (back when Bravo showed classy programming and not endless iterations of “Rich People Make Fools Of Themselves”). I read every historical novel about Anne I could get my hands on, starting with Evelyn Anthony’s (it’s back in print, you know, mainly in Kindle), Blood Royal (which I wish WOULD come back into print), The Concubine, Brief Gaudy Hour, and Jean Plaidy’s two.

    I also read the play, which was in the library where I worked. I noticed that the movie had smoothed out much of the play’s language to be more naturalistic and less verse-like. It’s funny that this novel (which I got my hands on sometime later) reverted to some of the language of the play.

    It’s also funny that no one has re-staged the play that I know of–either a large-scale one or even any local community theaters. You’d think that with interest in the Tudors growing, someone would take advantage of it.

    (I must ask–I’m not on Twitter as yet, so I can’t ask you there. Who’s the “historian turned novelist” who’s coming out with a new Anne book?)

    • sonetka permalink

      I can definitely see that — my gateway Anne experience (so to speak) was Evelyn Anthony’s novel and while intellectually I realize it may not be the Best Novel Ever Written about her, it still *feels* like that to me. I think for me the problem was twofold; seeing it after having read too much about her, and also having grown up with a mother who was extremely conscious of costuming anomalies in historical movies so I couldn’t just relax and enjoy it :). I will say I love the actors; Genevieve Bujold owned that role and I only wish they’d given her a chance to speak French for a bit so that we could see everyone else at court either being wowed by or extremely jealous of her. I would also like very much to see the play — no doubt the costuming wouldn’t be any closer to “the real thin” than the movie was, but it’s easier to forgive (or just not notice) things like that in a stage performance, especially since a modern stage performance would have the actors conforming to modern beauty standards, and that’s not the kind of thing we tend to notice when we’re living in the middle of it. With the stylized language and poetry; I think it could be like “The Crucible” where it looks absolutely contorted on the page but when you hear it spoken it sounds great. (Though I don’t know enough about that play to remember if the 1996 movie smoothed out the language or not).

      The historian-turned-novelist is Alison Weir, who has apparently just finished a novel about Anne (she tweeted about it a week or two ago). I’m sure it will be an interesting read, but given the way she characterized the Jane Grey/Guildford Dudley marriage, not to mention her take on George Boleyn in her nonfiction, well …

      • Her novel on Catherine of Aragon comes first. I’m a bit hit-and-miss on her novels, though I must say I liked the one on Eleanor of Aquitaine. Haven’t finished The Marriage Game yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: