The film begins in 1536 when Henry VIII of England (Richard Burton) considers whether or not he should sign the warrant for the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn: then, in a long flashback which takes up virtually the entire film, the whole truth is revealed. Starting in 1527, Henry has a problem: he reveals his dissatisfaction with his wife, Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas). He is currently enjoying a discreet affair with Mary Boleyn, a daughter of one of his courtiers, Sir Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire; but the King is bored with her too. At a court ball, he notices Mary's 18-year-old sister Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold), who has just returned from her education in France. She is engaged to the Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland and they have received their parents' permission to marry. The King, however, is enraptured with Anne's beauty and orders his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to break up the engagement.