Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Centuries of academic study and popular culture have succeeded in reducing Anne Boleyn’s life and death to one grisly word in a school rhyme – ‘beheaded’, a simple way to remember that she was Henry VIII’s unfortunate wife number two.
But there is another story of Anne Boleyn, the story of a woman of ambition and intelligence, who challenged patriarchal power and, as a result, was undermined, isolated and finally killed. This story is told in a new Channel 5 three-part mini-series that reimagines Anne’s final months from her own perspective, struggling to remain at the centre of court and Henry’s life after the stillbirth of her second child, a boy.
Produced by Fable Pictures, written by Eve Hedderwick Turner and directed by Lynsey Miller, Anne Boleyn was filmed entirely in Yorkshire in November and December last year at several locations across the county, but especially at Bolton Castle in Wensleydale, which doubles as Greenwich Palace and as the Tower of London, where Anne is executed.
Built by Sir Richard Le Scrope 600 years ago, Bolton Castle remains under the private ownership of Lord Bolton, Tom Orde-Powlett, a direct descendant. It was an easy choice, said production designer Lucy Spink. “Lynsey and I had been hoping to find somewhere gothic and foreboding, and Bolton Castle provided the perfect backdrop. Some of the later, more ornate Tudor halls we were touring were built under Elizabeth’s reign during the English Renaissance. Implying these modern ideas came under Henry felt like flattery he didn’t deserve. We opted for the earlier medieval architecture to depict a brutalism which was all-pervading.
“We wanted it to feel busy and alive and transport the viewer to the court of Henry VIII, while not softening the environment too much. For instance, the Tudors loved branding and heraldry. This we added in huge banners from the ceiling of the great hall, but we tweaked the colours to be much darker and menacing than they would have been.”
Bolton Castle’s well-preserved state and historical connections made it the ideal setting for this particular retelling of Anne Boleyn’s story, says its general manager, Jacqueline Naylor. “As the castle purportedly hosted Mary Queen of Scots in captivity for the longest time, some six months, the castle story seems to fit well with the stories of women of historical note,” she said.
“In its time, Bolton Castle was seen as a luxurious home,” she added. “The dressing was extraordinary and seems to give the series a somewhat brooding atmosphere. It’s a fascinating take on a story, and we like to think the castle certainly plays its part.
“We love to see visitors enjoying the castle and our country gardens. We hope they will spot various scenes from this fabulous thriller.”
More Yorkshire locations to look out for include: Oakwell Hall, near Batley, which was used for Henry’s privy gallery and bedchamber and for Hatfield House gardens, where Henry kept Princess Elizabeth; St Michael’s Church at Emley, West Yorkshire, as the Kings Hall and as the Tower for Anne’s trial; Fountains Hall, at Studley Royal Park near Ripon, used for the exterior of Greenwich Palace; East Riddlesden Hall, used for Greenwich Palace gardens and stables; Ripley Castle, used for Greenwich Palace riverbank and bridleway; Markenfield Hall, used for London streets and Seymour’s residence; Castle Howard, also for Greenwich Palace riverbank and gardens, and Harewood House, used as a bridleway.
“Everyone was so helpful. The tour guides, who obviously know more than I about the period and are experts in their field, could offer interesting insights as we toured the incredible landmarks of Yorkshire,” said Lucy.
Anne Boleyn is also one of the first TV dramas to use Screen Yorkshire’s Crew Service which provided staff working in sound, hair and make-up, and Covid health and safety for filming across the county.
The producers say that their approach of identity-conscious casting allowed them the freedom to tell Anne Boleyn’s story in a way that can resonate with a contemporary audience and address the lack of access to period drama roles for actors of colour.
Filming in a Yorkshire winter added to the visceral experience, said Jodie Turner-Smith, who plays Anne Boleyn. “It was freezing cold. That was a challenge,” she said. “We did a lot of filming in Bolton Castle and there is definitely an energy in places like that, especially when a building is historical and so many spirits have passed through it.”
The evocative Yorkshire locations were also instrumental in sparking the imagination for Mark Stanley, who plays Henry. “I wanted to deviate from those paintings we see of him and find the humanity,” he said. “Henry is in a transitional period in his life and under a huge amount of pressure to get an heir for the country and internationally, to maintain the strength of the crown.”
Mark, 33, is from Leeds, where he grew up with his dad, Bob, a gardener, his mum, Pauline, who worked for the civil service, and his older sister Debbie, who works for Leeds City Council. He went to Allerton High and then to Prince Henry in Otley, where drama teacher Robin Standeven encouraged him to apply to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
His first job was in HBO’s Game of Thrones, as ranger Grenn in the first four seasons, and he has worked consistently ever since. He now lives in North London with his partner, the actor Rochenda Sandall, best known for her role as Organised Crime Group villain Lisa McQueen in series five of BBC drama Line of Duty (they met aged 18 and have worked together many times, including in Kay Mellor’s Love, Lies and Records).
Filming in Yorkshire was “like coming home”, Mark said. “The locations were incredible. It’s great that Yorkshire is seen on screen, and it should be seen. I was only walking up on Ilkley Moors the other day and it’s stunning. You think, ‘That’s your heritage’.”
* Anne Boleyn starts on June 1 at 9pm on Channel 5 and continues on Wednesday night, 9pm, concluding on Thursday night at 9pm.
* Bolton Castle is near Leyburn, North Yorkshire, and the castle, tea room and shop have reopened.