Set in 16th Century England, ‘Henry VIII‘ by William Shakespeare will be better appreciated with some knowledge of the complex intricacies between religion and politics within and among European nations, which serve as a backdrop to the play.
King Henry VIII’s Marriage to Catherine of Aragon
Henry VIII was the second son of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. His elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, was heir apparent to the throne and it was for Prince Arthur that marriage to Catherine of Aragon was arranged to seal a political alliance.
Catherine of Aragon was a princess, the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. In 1501, Catherine was married to Prince Arthur after their long-term betrothal from childhood. But Prince Arthur fell ill and died after five months of their marriage and Catherine was left widowed and childless. Not wanting to lose the political alliance that a marriage with Catherine of Aragon implied, the royal family of England arranged for Prince Henry to marry his brother’s widow.
However, there was a doctrinal impediment to marriage as a portion in the Old Testament of the Bible forbade a man from marrying his brother’s wife. That portion of the Bible said:
If a man marries his brother’s wife, they shall die childless. He has done a ritually unclean thing and has disgraced his brotherLeviticus 20:21
Both families being Catholics and bible-abiding Christians, had to seek permission from the Pope, who was the head of the Catholic Church before the marriage could hold. The Pope at the time, Julius II, issued a ‘’papal bull’’ that permitted Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon to get married. On 11 June 1509, Catherine of Aragon was married to Henry who had become King Henry VIII.
Church Doctrines and England’s break from Catholicism
The Catholic Church, with headquarters in Rome, was in control of the Christian faith across Europe and was actively involved in politics at the time. The only challenge to the Catholic Church’s authority in those early decades of the 16th Century was the Protestant Reformations propagated by a German priest called Martin Luther and possible threats of Muslim domination by the Ottoman Empire that had control of parts of Eastern Europe. The Catholic Church was working hard to resist and suppress Lutheran Protestantism at the time and they did this with the support of many monarchical authorities across Europe, including that King Henry VIII of England. Henry VIII had been given the title ‘’Defender of the Faith’’ by Pope Leo X for issuing a book-length criticism of Lutheran Protestant Reforms.
Many years into the marriage, Queen Catherine had had six pregnancies but lost all the babies to miscarriages and death, except one — a daughter named Mary. Henry VIII who was at this time infatuated with Anne Boleyn began to argue that his lack of a male heir from Queen Catherine was a sign that the marriage was cursed and petitioned the Pope for a dissolution of the marriage.
The Pope at the time, Pope Clement VII, continued to stall giving King Henry VIII a decision on the dissolution of the marriage, with ambiguous theological and diplomatic arguments that stretched for years. Also, the political situation in Rome at the time was in Catherine of Aragon’s favour as her nephew, Charles V had invaded Rome with his troops and therefore was Emperor of Rome, along with Spain, Austria, and other regions in Europe. Pope Clement VII’s physical security was then at the mercy of Charles V. Probably due to pressure from Charles V, the pope was not willing to grant the divorce and offend Queen Catherine who had obstinately refused to consent to the divorce.
The failure to secure papal approval for his divorce made Henry VIII lose faith in Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his Lord Chancellor and trusted advisor whom he expected to deliver the papal approval to him. Thomas Wolsey was stripped of his position and disgraced. Thomas Cranmer, a catholic clergyman who was a supporter of Lutheran Protestantism, convinced the King that he did not need the approval of the pope and as England’s King, was a supreme head whose decisions should not be under the jurisdiction of the pope.
With Thomas Cranmer as the archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas Cromwell as an influential member of the King’s council, the divorce between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was successfully implemented even without Catherine’s consent. King Henry VIII then married Anne Boleyn who was also a Lutheran herself. And soon afterwards, Anne Boleyn, now Queen of England as King Henry VIII’s wife, gave birth to a daughter that was named Elizabeth. The birth of Elizabeth and her christening marks the end of the play.
The above is what forms the historical background to the play ‘Henry VIII‘ by William Shakespeare. Surrounded by Protestants as Queen and as trusted advisors, Henry VIII would later break away from the Catholic Church and form papal authority, forming what is now known as the Church of England placing himself as the Supreme Spiritual leader of the Church.
Political relations among European Monarchs
Henry VIII became King in 1509 at the age of seventeen and ruled England for thirty-six years. Within those years he fought wars with France three times and had other volatile diplomatic alliances with Catherine’s nephew Charles V who was emperor ruling Italy, Austria, Burgundy, and Rome.
France, under King Francis I and Habsburg empire under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V were the major powers in Western Europe at the time. England was a lesser power but with potential and each of the major powers was courting England for an alliance. Henry VIII, being a young king, often left these diplomatic matters to the care of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was shrewd and competent in diplomacy.
Field of the Cloth of Gold
This was a summit meeting between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France. It was an extravagant display of wealth by the two kings. The summit was held in Balinghem which is situated between Ardres in France and Guines in the Pale of Calais owned by the English and it took place from 7th to 24th June 1520.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey had played a crucial role in guiding bring the summit to fruition. With a fear of the encroachment of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, the cardinal sought to outlaw war among Christian nations, and that summit was a show of goodwill and friendship between the two kings.
This meeting between King Henry VIII and King Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold is what is referred to in Act I, Scene I of Henry VIII by William Shakespeare when the Duke of Norfolk said:
‘Twixt Guynes and Arde :
I was then present, saw them salute on horseback;
Beheld them when they lighted, how they clung
In their embracement, as they grew together…Duke of Norfolk (Act I, Scene I)
Shakespeare’s plays were compiled only after his death. William Shakespeare died in 1616 and years later, Shakespeare’s actor friends Henry Condell and John Heming gathered what they knew to be Shakespeare’s works and published them in a folio volume in the year 1623. And that was how Shakespeare was credited with the authorship of thirty-seven plays including ‘Henry VIII‘.
The is believed to be performed first in 1613, many decades after the events depicted in the play. The eulogies on Elizabeth I at the end of the play might have been a celebration of the monarch whose death in 1603 had clocked a decade. at the time of the play’s first performance.
When was Shakespeare’s Henry VIII written?
The story of ‘Henry VIII‘ by Shakespeare is believed to be written in 1613. The date of writing of the play is uncertain but based on the date of its first recorded performance in theatre which was on 29 June 1613.
What happened at the Field of Cloth of Gold
At the Field of Cloth of Gold, King Francis I of France and King Henry VIII of England met at a summit that lasted for many days. It was a colourful display between the two kingdoms and was marked by tournaments, music, jousting, feasts and merriment.
There was no actual diplomatic negotiation in the Field of Cloth of Gold but it served as a message of goodwill between the two kings.
Who wrote Henry VIII with Shakespeare?
It is believed that John Fletcher wrote ‘Henry VIII‘ in collaboration with Shakespeare. This belief is not proven conclusively but is held based on arguments of variation in writing style in various parts of the play. Some parts of the play are believed by scholars to be consistent with John Fletcher’s style, who succeeded William Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre.
What is Henry VIII famous for?
Henry VIII is famous for separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. And also famous for his tumultuous marital life that led to his marrying six wives in his lifetime. Two of his marriages ended in the execution of the wives, two in natural death, and the other two in annulment.
This chaotic aspect of his personal life is part of what makes him a famous historical figure.