Henry VIII simplified


As the play opens, we learn that an ostentatious display of wealth and power between the French and English kings was recently conducted in France, each king attempting to outdo the other through garish displays of excess. We learn of this event through an emotional two-party conversation, one party having been an eyewitness. It was a-you-won’t-believe-what-I-just-saw type of conversation. Neither of the two friends holding the conversation is very happy about the event or how it came to be.

The play opened in London in 1620 AD, the duke of Norfolk being the event’s eyewitness. The duke of Buckingham was the noble listening in disbelief to the tale being told by Norfolk, both standing there on center stage. The alternate title for the play, All Is True, could have come from the heated conversation conducted in the play’s first few minutes. Both dukes are close to the then king, Henry VIII. Taken back by Norfolk’s description of the event’s excesses, Buckingham asks “Who did guide this great sport together, as you guess?” Norfolk quickly responds “All this was ordered by the good discretion of the right reverend Cardinal of York.” The Cardinal of York is Cardinal Wolsey. Norfolk’s description of the event infuriates Buckingham, no love lost between Buckingham and Wolsey. Listening to Buckingham’s emotional reaction to his story, Norfolk cautions him not to get too angry with the Cardinal, he being the powerful man he is, saying “Like it your Grace, the state takes notice of the private difference betwixt you and the Cardinal.”

Cardinal Wolsey soon passes by and “in his passage fixeth his eye on Buckingham and Buckingham on him, both full of disdain.” As Wolsey moves on, Buckingham says to Norfolk “This butcher’s cur is venomed-mouthed, and I have not the power to muzzle him; a beggar’s book outworths a noble’s blood.” Norfolk replies “What, are you chafed? Ask God for temp’rance. That’s th’ medication your disease requires.” Sure enough, Buckingham is soon arrested by a guard who says “I arrest thee of high treason, in the name of our most sovereign king. ‘Tis his Highness’ pleasure you shall to th’ Tower.”

We soon find the king and Wolsey together in the king’s palace. Queen Katherine enters to tell the king how upset his subjects are with their tax increase, an issue catching the king by surprise, the result of a new tax initiated by the Cardinal. Receiving grief from the queen and then from the king, Wolsey defends his actions. He later tells his aide to revoke the taxes, but that in the doing to let the common people know that the revocation of the tax increase was his, the Cardinal’s idea.

Buckingham’s surveyor, whom Buckingham had earlier labeled as “false,” testifies before the king, the queen and Wolsey, telling them that Buckingham “did strive to gain the love o’ th’ commonalty” and that Buckingham had said “the Duke shall govern England.” Queen Katherine immediately comes to Buckingham’s defense saying “If I know you well, you were the Duke’s surveyor, and lost your office on the complaint o’ th’ tenants. Take good heed you charge not in your spleen a noble person and spoil your noble soul.” The king says “Let him on. Go forward.” The surveyor continues to falsely implicate Buckingham. The king ends the scene saying “By day and night, he’s traitor to th’ height!”

Wolsey soon throws an extravagant dinner party, where a noble says “He has money. In him, sparing would show a worse sin than ill doctrine.” Anne Bullen, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, and other young ladies arrive, a noble saying “By my life, they are a sweet society of fair ones.” The king and others enter in disguise, pretending to be shepherds. The king dances with Anne, unmasking when Wolsey identifies him. As they leave the room for the banquet, the love-struck king says to Anne “Sweet partner, I must not yet forsake you.”

Meanwhile Buckingham, having been accused of treason by his surveyor, offers an honorable and powerful defense at his trial, but is convicted and condemned to death.

Campeius, representing the Pope, and Wolsey, who continues to be accused of various dastardly tricks, visit the king who says, referring to his wife the queen “I must leave her.” Separately, Anne Bullen and an Old Lady grieve over the queen’s predicament, Anne saying “I would not be a queen for all the world.” A Lord Chamberlain enters to tell Anne that the king has honored her as the Marchioness of Pembroke, adding that the title includes “a thousand pounds a year annual support.” Anne responds “This is strange to me.” The Old Lady adds “Are you not stronger than you were?” Meanwhile Queen Katherine is called before the king and lets the king and Wolsey and others know how loyal she’s been, knowing she’s at serious risk. She does her best to protect her interests. Attempting to justify his interest in young Anne, the king lets us know as the queen leaves that he believes he needs a son because his kingdom is “well worthy to the best heir ‘o th’ world.” He and the queen have a daughter. The queen has had a number of miscarriages.

Wolsey and Campeius visit Queen Katherine to give her “the full cause of our coming;” their cause being to encourage her to quickly accept the king’s plan to divorce her. She puts up a good defense, scolding them, but in the end succumbs to the inevitable.

Norfolk, Suffolk, and others are discussing the trap Wolsey has set for himself, he having injudiciously, shall we say, suggested to the Pope that the king’s divorce be delayed. To Wolsey’s misfortune his letters to the Pope had been intercepted and turned over to the king. It’s here where we learn that the politically astute Cardinal Cranmer, just a regular cardinal, “supports the king’s quick divorce.” Wolsey enters, soon followed by the king, along with a number of other nobles, the king letting Wolsey know his time as Archbishop of Canterbury is about up. Wolsey makes a valiant defense saying “I can nothing render but allegiant thanks, my prayers to heaven for you, my loyalty shall be growing till death kill it.” The king responds “Fairly answered.” He then hands Wolsey papers saying “Read o’er this, and after, then to breakfast with what appetite you have.” The king and nobles exit. Norfolk, Suffolk and Surrey soon re-enter asking Wolsey “to render up the great seal.” Wolsey continues with his defense, but knows he is “undone.” As the nobles exit, Wolsey replays to himself his missteps.

Cromwell, Wolsey’s servant, enters, telling Wolsey that Cranmer has been “installed Lord Archbishop of Canterbury” and that the king and Lady Anne “in secrecy long married.” Wolsey offers Cromwell counsel and leaves, saying “My hopes in heaven do dwell.”

Two Gentlemen are waiting to view Queen Anne’s procession. They are joined street-side by a third Gentleman who had attended her coronation, the third Gentleman gushing over the beautiful Queen Anne, saying “Believe me, she is the goodliest woman. Such joy I never saw before.” He enthusiastically proceeds to tell them of the coronation. The young queen was crowned with Edward Confessor’s crown “where she kneeled and saintlike cast her fair eyes to heaven and prayed devoutly.” Edward the Confessor had been England’s king from 1042 to 1066. The three men then give us some insight into the deteriorating relationship between Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, and Cranmer, the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Separately, an ill ex-queen Katherine is told about Wolsey’s death. She says “He gave the clergy ill example.” Capuchius, an ambassador from Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, the king of Spain, enters. Charles V is also known as Charles the Emperor, emperor of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. She gives Capuchius written instructions to deliver to Spain’s king. He says “By heaven, I will.” Her written requests are to take care of her daughter Mary, to take care of her servants, and to “inter me like a queen.”

We learn that Queen Anne is having a difficult labor, and that the Bishop of Winchester has told members of the King’s Council that Cranmer “is a most arch heretic” and that “he’s a rank weed and we must root him out.” Separately, the king lets Cranmer, Cranmer being the king’s man, know that he has “heard many grievous complaints of you.” He gives him some suggestions on ways to deal with members of the Council when he appears before them. The king also gives him a ring to present to the Council members if push ever comes to shove. Cranmer is forced to wait outside the chamber when he arrives at the doors of the Privy Council, a major insult. In time he is permitted to enter and defends himself beautifully, but in spite of his convincing defense the members decide to send him to prison. At that moment Cranmer presents the king’s ring and the tone of the session changes. The king soon enters, berates the Council members, and tells Cranmer “There is a fair young maid that yet wants baptism.”

A huge and unruly crowd gathers at the king’s palace to view the christening. Soon the king, his very recently born daughter Elizabeth, along with Cranmer and others enter. Cranmer christens the young child. Shakespeare has Cranmer offer an extravagant prophecy for the young monarch-to-be, the baby Elizabeth becoming Queen Elizabeth I, the queen at the time Shakespeare was presenting most of his plays, she no doubt being one of his principal patrons. The king says simply to Cranmer “Thou speakest wonders.”

Principal Characters

Anne Bullen. Anne Bullen, Queen Katherine’s lady-in-waiting, first met King Henry early in the play when he masqueraded as a shepherd during Cardinal Wolsey’s extravagant dinner party, the king falling for her while they danced during the party. The king soon divorces Katherine and marries Anne. Late in the play Anne delivers the future-to-be Queen Elizabeth I.

Buckingham. Buckingham is the Duke of Buckingham, a title he inherited from his late father, the most loyal of aides to Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of Gloucester, who became the infamous King Richard III. Before having Buckingham executed, a result of Wolsey’s and the Surveyor’s doing, the king says “The gentleman is learned and a most rare speaker.”

Cranmer. Cranmer is a cardinal at the time Henry VIII meets and dances with Anne Bullen. Cranmer’s support of the king’s divorce from Katherine and marriage to Anne Bullen catapults him to prominence and to the exalted position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Shakespeare has Cranmer throw accolades at the very end of the play to the baby Elizabeth, who later becomes Elizabeth I and a principal supporter of Shakespeare while he was active as a playwright.

Gardiner. Gardiner is the king’s secretary and later becomes the Bishop of Winchester. He considers Cranmer a heretic and becomes his nemesis. Gardiner is better known late in the play simply as Winchester. Taking the lead before Council members, he accuses Cranmer of being a heretic, an accusation that leads Council members to decide to send Cranmer to prison, a decision abruptly cut short when the king enters and protects Cranmer.

Henry VIII. Henry VIII was the son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Henry VII was a Lancastrian; Elizabeth a Yorkist. Henry VII had been known earlier in his life as Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, later becoming the first Tudor king. Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII, wanted a male heir and had an eye for the ladies, justifying for him his divorce from Queen Katherine and his marriage to the beautiful and young Anne Bullen. Shakespeare gives us reasons to think, however, that besides his romantic interests, he was on balance pretty reasonable. Their daughter Elizabeth becomes queen.

Katherine. Queen Katherine is Katherine of Aragon and is Henry VIII’s first wife. She was the widow of Henry VIII’s older brother Arthur who had died in 1502. Henry VIII married Katherine in 1509 when he became king. Shakespeare has her showing real insight with issues surrounding Henry VIII, Buckingham, Wolsey and others. Cardinal Wolsey, eager to be Pope, has reason not to see her and the king divorce, she being the aunt to Charles V, the king of Spain and emperor of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, known as Charles the Emperor. Norfolk says, “Like a jewel (she) has hung twenty years about his (the king’s) neck, yet never lost her luster.” Shakespeare gives us every reason to believe she was a wonderful person, making it difficult we’re sure for the public to accept the divorce.

Wolsey. Wolsey is Cardinal Wolsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is also known as the Cardinal of York, Lord Chancellor, Cardinal York and Lord York. He is so close to the king that Norfolk calls him “The king-cardinal, that blind priest.” Wolsey abuses his powerful position and in the end loses favor with the king; losing favor when he fails to support the king’s planned divorce. Not supporting the king when you were a power player was not in contemporary terms politically correct, but he wanted to be pope, and gambled that he would improve his chances of becoming pope by asking the current pope to not permit or to at least delay Henry VIII’s divorce request. But when his papers to the Pope were intercepted by Henry VIII’s men, Wolsey was finished.

The Play