is a historical play written by William Shakespeare, based on the life of King Henry VIII of England.
During Henry VIII’s reign, Cardinal Wolsey is the most powerful figure at the court. However, he is from a meager background and lacks family connections within the nobility. Although this is true, Wolsey is aggressive in his dealings with the nobility, leading them to resent him. He has certain talents which have allowed him to rise to his esteemed position, and he also owes a great deal of gratitude to the King, who allows him, for the most part, to handle many of the affairs of the state. It is clear that Wolsey is out for his own benefit above all else, and willing to do whatever it takes, ruthlessly removing all obstacles in his way on his climb to power.
One of the aforementioned obstacles in Wolsey’s ambitious endeavor is the Duke of Buckingham. Wolsey arranges to have him accused of high treason, and he is brought before the court and the King for trial. Queen Katharine speaks in his defense, proclaiming his innocence. She argues against Wolsey specifically, informing the King of growing tensions around the fact that Wolsey is his advisor.
Wolsey produces witnesses who testify to Buckingham’s disloyalty. The witnesses draw upon minor offenses committed by Buckingham, attesting that it is his plan to rise to claim the throne of England for himself, even going so far as to murder the King in order to achieve his lofty ambitions.
In spite of Katharine’s repeated protests against Wolsey and his faulty witnesses, Buckingham is found guilty and sentenced to be executed. Worried about Buckingham’s son coming after him, Wolsey makes sure he is sent to Ireland as a deputy. He is also wary of Katharine after her open accusations of him in front of the King and the court, and so he begins to plant seeds of doubt in the King’s mind, questioning the legitimacy of their marriage. He reminds the King that Katharine’s previous husband died, and attempts to direct his interests elsewhere in introducing him to Anne Boleyn at a ball.
Wolsey is doing everything in his power to lead the King toward the decision of divorce, and it seems to be working. King Henry is swayed by his unwavering trust in Wolsey as well as the fact that all of his male offspring with Katharine have either been stillborn or died shortly after birth, leaving Henry with no male heir to the throne, a fact which troubles him greatly.
Wolsey appeals to the pope for a royal divorce. He arranges for a trial for Katharine to prove that her marriage to Henry is in sin. Katharine defends herself, stating that her marriage to Henry is just and lawful. Wolsey once again brings forth witnesses that provide false testimony against Katharine. Katharine denounces such treachery and the unhappiness that it has brought her.
Wolsey is spurred on by his insatiable desire for power. He accumulates more wealth than even the king has. He even goes so far as to have a British coin stamped with a cardinal’s hat, creating a slogan that states that the King is subordinate to the cardinal. He begins to worry, however, when he believes that Henry might marry Anne Boleyn instead of seeking the royal alliance in France that was Wolsey’s design when he instigated the divorce between Henry and Katharine.
In order to prevent this from happening, he writes to the pope, asking him to delay Henry’s divorce. There is some confusion in the delivery of the letter and it ends up in the hands of the King. Wolsey, confronted with his own carelessness, is now forced to face the consequences. Although he realizes that this error will cause the King to lose complete faith in him, he nevertheless attempts to further ingratiate himself with the King, refusing to give up and demonstrating his overarching ambition that at this point extends beyond reason.
However, it is too late, and Wolsey cannot save himself. He has failed to realize the severity of the consequences of his actions and how fully he has alienated himself from Henry. Wolsey expresses his remorse that he has failed to serve God with the same devotion as he has given to the King. He is later arrested at York to be tried before Henry, but he dies on the way to London.
After Wolsey’s death, Henry marries Anne Boleyn and she is crowned queen. The King appoints Cramner the new archbishop of Canterbury. This sets off great jealousy in Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester, who seeks to undermine Cramner’s position with the king. He attempts to bring him to trial and prosecute him, but he doesn’t realize that King Henry is aware of his ulterior motives. The King condemns the assemblage for their treatment of Cranmer and asks him to be the godfather of his newly born daughter, Elizabeth.