Cultural depictions of Anne Boleyn

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Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, has inspired or been mentioned in numerous artistic and cultural works. The following lists cover various media, enduring works of high art, and recent representations in popular culture, film and fiction. The entries represent portrayals that a reader has a reasonable chance of encountering, rather than a complete catalogue. Anne Boleyn was the second wife of Henry VIII and was the mother of Elizabeth I.


A common view in the 18th and 19th centuries was the image of Anne as a romantic victim; a strong-willed and beautiful woman who was destroyed by her husband, who was presented as a brutal tyrant by most popular historians. A 19th-century biography of Anne by Elizabeth Benger was particularly full of praise for Anne, as was one entitled Star of the Court by Selina Bunbury. Famous writers and novelists who subscribed to this view of Anne (which persisted into the 20th century) included Jane Austen, Agnes Strickland, Jean Plaidy and playwright Maxwell Anderson. The play and Oscar-winning movie Anne of the Thousand Days is inspired by this interpretation of Anne's life, as is Donizetti's opera Anna Bolena (from 1830). Various popular novels have also adopted this sympathetic idea of Anne Boleyn.

In the latter half of the 20th century, academic historians who were determined to study Henry VIII's government and court as serious political and cultural institutions argued that Anne Boleyn was one of the most ambitious, intelligent and important queens in European history. They researched her political sympathies, patronage network and influence over foreign policy and religious affairs. This led to several academic studies of her life, the most famous of which are the first and second editions of the comprehensive biography written by the British historian, Eric Ives. The second edition, influenced by fellow historian David Starkey's focus on a reformist sermon commissioned by Anne, posits that Anne may have had an authentic spiritual mission and may have been as much an agent as a catalyst for the British Reformation. They both suggest that it may have been her particular Reformist agenda (and not simply her inability to produce a male heir) that put her at odds with Cromwell and led to her execution. David Starkey, the historian who hosted a television program about all six of the wives, keenly promotes this particularly attractive view of Anne. Combined with the intellectual force of feminism, which has interpreted Anne Boleyn in a highly favourable light, most academic histories write about her with respect and sympathy. Authors David Loades, John Guy, and Diarmaid MacCulloch have also published works that were sympathetic or admiring on the subject. Popular biographies by Joanna Denny and feminist Karen Lindsey have taken similar approaches, both being highly favourable to Anne. Lindsey, in Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, makes the case that Henry's relentless pursuit of Anne, far from being part of a manipulative flirtation which she enjoyed, was a form of royal harassment from which Anne's delaying tactics were the closest she dared come to escape. This is consistent with Henry's "courtships" of Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, which have traditionally been seen as not wholly consensual on their part.

The work of American academic Retha Warnicke focuses on the unmitigated gender prejudices of the early 16th century and how they formed Anne into being first a pawn and ultimately a willingly venal and unscrupulous agent for her own and her family's advancement. Warnicke's Anne is controversial, and some of her hypotheses (that Anne's brother was part of a clandestine homosexual clique at Court; that Anne would have stopped at nothing, including using her brother's own seed, to birth a male heir for the king) are not supported by the majority of scholars, however compellingly lurid they may be. Other notably unattractive portraits come from the work of British historian Alison Weir and novelist Philippa Gregory. In her best-seller The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory puts Anne as the hard-hearted villain in a story with Anne's sister Mary Boleyn as its sadder but wiser heroine. (In her "author's note" to the book, Gregory said her novel's conclusion was based upon Warnicke's findings in The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, but Warnicke has publicly distanced herself[citation needed] from the novel and its presentation of the Boleyns).

There have been various treatments of her life by popular historians such as Marie Louise Bruce, Hester W. Chapman, Norah Lofts, Carolly Erickson, Alison Weir, Lady Antonia Fraser and Joanna Denny. In film, television and the performing arts, she has been played by a variety of well-known actresses and sopranos, including Clara Kimball Young, Merle Oberon, Joyce Redman, Geneviève Bujold (Oscar-nominated), Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Dame Dorothy Tutin, Dame Joan Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Jodhi May, Natalie Portman, Natalie Dormer and Claire Foy.

Film, stage, and television portrayals[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Playing on claims she was a witch, her portrait can be seen hanging along the staircases at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
  • In a dream sequence at the start of Kevin & Perry Go Large, the teenage character Kevin is reading a book on Anne Boleyn for his homework, but instead his mind wanders to a sexual fantasy in which Anne (played by Natasha Little and speaking in 20th-century teenage slang) convinces her executioner (Kevin) that to kill her would be a waste of her beautiful body and in return gives him oral sex.




  • She was the main subject of investigation in The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo (2013).
  • She appears in Bring Me the Head of Anne Boleyn by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (2012).
  • She was a central character in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2009) ISBN 0-00-723018-4
  • She was the main character in The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) and Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007), both by Robin Maxwell
  • She was the main character in A Lady Raised High by Laurien Gardner (2006) ISBN 0-515-14089-9.
  • She was the main character in The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn (2004) ISBN 0-06-059157-9.
  • She was the main character in Doomed Queen Anne by Caroline Meyer (2002) ISBN 0-15-216523-1.
  • She was a central character in The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2001) ISBN 0-7432-2744-1.
  • She was the main character in Incredible Fierce Desire (1988) by Maureen Peters.
  • She was the main character in Blood Royal by Mollie Hardwick (1988) ISBN 0-312-02548-3.
  • She was the main character in The Lady in the Tower by Jean Plaidy (1986).
  • Anne is given a sympathetic portrayal in The Dark Rose (1981), Volume 2 in The Morland Dynasty, a series of historical novels by author Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.
  • She was a main character in Dark Eyed Queen by Lozania Prole (1976).
  • She was the main character in Anne, Rose of Hever (1969) by Maureen Peters.
  • She was the main character in A Tudor Story: The Return of Anne Boleyn by W. S. Pakenham-Walsh (1963) ISBN 978-0-227-67678-3
  • She was the main character in The Concubine by Norah Lofts (1963) ISBN 0-7524-3943-X.
  • She was a character in The King's Secret Matter by Jean Plaidy (1962).
  • She was the main character in Anne Boleyn by Evelyn Anthony (1957).
  • Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy (1949) ISBN 1-4000-8249-8.
  • She was the main character in Queen Anne Boleyn by Francis Hackett (1939).
  • She appears in The House of Arden by E. Nesbit (1908).
  • She is the main character in Jean Bruller (Vercors) 1985 book Anne Boleyn (originally written in French), where she is presented as a far-sighted English patriot, who strove to make England strong and independent by ending its dependence on the Catholic Church and building up its navy, weak at the start of Henry VIII's reign.
  • She is the main character in Nancy Kress' science fiction story "And Wild For To Hold".

Music and song[edit]

  • Anne Boleyn is referenced in Roger Waters' song "Watching T.V." on his "Amused To Death" album within the lyrics, "...And she is different from Cro-Magnon man/She's different from Anne Boleyn/She's different from the Rosenbergs/And from the unknown Jew/She's different from the unknown Nicaraguan/Half super-star, half victim/She's a Victor Star, conceptually new/And she is different from the Dodo, and from the Kankabono, she's different from the Aztec's and from the Cherokee/She's everybody's sister, she's symbolic of our failure, she's the one in 50 million who can help us to be free... Because she died on T.V. ...And I grieve for my sister!" Anne Boleyn is the subject of Gaetano Donizettî's 1830 opera "Anna Bolena"
  • Anne is referenced in Tori Amos' song "Talula" on her Boys for Pele album with the lyrics, "Ran into the henchman who severed Anne Boleyn/He did it right quickly, a merciful man/She said 1+1 is 2, but Henry said that it was 3." Amos also says in her interview on Fade to Red that her song "Crucify" from her album Little Earthquakes was inspired by Anne Boleyn.
  • She is also referenced in a song titled "Old Age", written by Courtney Love and performed by her band Hole: "Someone please tell Anne Boleyn/Chokers are back in again." The song appeared on their outtakes album, My Body, the Hand Grenade, in which Anne was also featured in the artwork. She also appears, with a cutout of her upper chest showing her "B" necklace, on the back cover of Hole's album Nobody's Daughter, released 27 April 2010.
  • The song "Transylvania" by McFly mentions Anne Boleyn and is portrayed by Dougie Poynter in the music video.
  • The Microsoft Sam song "Anne Boleyn" by Jethro Sutherland, 2012.
  • The ghost of Anne haunting the Tower of London is the subject of the comically macabre song "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm", originally performed by Stanley Holloway and later recorded by The Kingston Trio.
  • In his 1973 album The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Rick Wakeman titled the fifth track "Anne Boleyn".
  • The Dutch symphonic rock band Kayak issued a single called "Anne", about Anne Boleyn, from their album Periscope Life (1980).
  • Anne is referenced in the Cat Stevens song "Ghost Town," on the 1974 Stevens' album Buddha and the Chocolate Box.
  • Anne is referenced in the song "Find the Lady" from Edward Ka-Spel's solo album Laugh, China Doll in the line "Anne Boleyn is shouting Boo! (Because a ghost cannot applaud)".
  • "Death (Rock Me to Sleep)", based on a poem said to have been written by Anne Boleyn, and set to a tune by Lucy Ward, appears on Lucy Ward's 2011 album Adelphi Has to Fly.
  • Anne Boleyn is included in the lyrics of the Blues Traveler song "Hook".
  • The Drowsy Chaperone, a musical, refers to her in the song "Love is Always Lovely in the End". The lyric: "Anne Boleyn lost her head!"
  • YouTube singer named Karliene made an album dedicated to Anne Boleyn, called The Ballad of Anne Boleyn.
  • The song "Anna" from the EP Cloud Waves by Norwegian rock band Nine Eyes is written about Anne Boleyn.