About the Book

Book Protagonist: Henry VIII
Publication Date: 1623
Genre: Drama, Historical Fiction


Henry VIII

By William Shakespeare

'Henry VIII' centres on the plotting of officials in King Henry VIII's council and on some of the events that followed the king's controversial decision to dissolve his marriage to Queen Katherine.

In ‘Henry VIII‘ by William Shakespeare are major events like the tragic execution of the Duke of Buckingham, the extent to which Cardinal Wolsey’s political scheming takes him, and then the happy occasion of Princess Elizabeth’s birth and christening which concludes the play.

Henry VIII ‘Spoiler-free’ Summary

The play begins as the Duke of Norfolk meets the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Abergavenny in an antechamber of King Henry VIII’s palace. The Duke of Norfolk, who had just returned from a visit to France, tells the other men about the volatile relationship between the kings of England and France and that it is believed that Cardinal Wolsey is playing a key role in the diplomatic relations between the two kings.

Upon hearing this, the Duke of Buckingham expresses his disdain for Cardinal Wolsey, but the Duke of Norfolk warns him to be cautious about his open hatred of the cardinal. The Duke of Buckingham takes the advice but pledges to relay to the king information that indicts Cardinal Wolsey as a corrupt man that ”does buy and sell his honour as he pleases and for his own advantage”.

While still in this conversation, guards come and arrest the Duke of Buckingham along with Lord Abergavenny, his son-in-law on a charge of high treason.

Duke of Buckingham faces trial but although he eloquently defends his case, the testimonies of his surveyor, his chancellor, his confessor, and a monk indict him and he is pronounced guilty. He gives the public some words of advice and then proclaims that he has forgiven all that have offended him before his execution.

Cardinal Wolsey organizes a feast and the beautiful Anne Bullen, who is Queen Katherine’s maid of honour, is in attendance. Lord Sands begins to flirt with Anne Bullen but the party is interrupted by the arrival of an entourage with King Henry VIII under disguise. When the identity of the king is later revealed, the party continues and King Henry VIII notices the beautiful Anne Bullen and becomes infatuated with her.

The King becomes irascible and melancholic over the issue of his marriage and his inability to have a healthy male heir. And prompted by his infatuation with Anne Bullen, he decides he must dissolve his marriage to Queen Katherine. Cardinal Wolsey assures the king of his support of the divorce.

The cardinal does not reckon that the king already has Anne Bullen in mind as a replacement for Queen Katherine, so he plans to arrange a match between King Henry and the Duchess of Alencon, sister to the King of France. And this move of his lands him in an unexpected fate.

The king eventually divorces Katherine and marries Anne Bullen, who births a baby girl for the king. The play ends with the christening of the child birthed by Anne Bullen. Cranmer names the baby Elizabeth and blesses her, prophesying her future as a great monarch.

Henry VIII Complete Plot Summary

Warning: This article contains spoilers and important details

Act I

In this Act, the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Buckingham set off the stage as they discuss the political turbulence in the relations between the King of England and the King of France and how Cardinal Wolsey is the chief dictator of the tune.

The Duke of Buckingham vows to reveal to the king how Cardinal Wolsey abuses his office for personal aggrandizement. Norfolk warns Buckingham against his passionate disdain for the cardinal and how it may backfire against him. While talking, guards come and arrest the Duke of Buckingham on charges of high treason.

Queen Katherine goes with the Duke of Norfolk to King Henry’s council chamber and tells him of an exorbitant tax imposed on the masses. King Henry is outraged to hear this and instructs that Cardinal Wolsey revoke the tax. Cardinal Wolsey agrees to act upon the king’s instruction but plots to take credit for pleading for the tax pardon.

Queen Katherine then expresses regrets about the predicament of the Duke of Buckingham. The king regrets it too but decides that the duke must be duly tried. The Duke’s former surveyor comes to the King’s council and testifies to the Duke of Buckingham’s alleged treasonous activities. Queen Katherine is sceptical about believing the charges against the Duke but her scepticism is overshadowed by Cardinal Wolsey’s insistence.

Cardinal Wolsey hosts a party and people make merry. The king comes to the party under disguise but later reveals his identity. There, he meets Anne Bullen and is besotted with her.

Act II

Two gentlemen meet in the streets of Westminster and discuss how the Duke of Buckingham was found guilty— he had defended himself eloquently but the testimonies of his surveyor, chancellor, and confessor against him overwhelmed his defense.

The Duke of Buckingham is executed after his trial but he declares blessings upon the king and forgiveness upon those who orchestrated his fall.

King Henry is increasingly sad and ill-tempered. Some of his council members suspect that he is troubled by the implications of marriage to his brother’s wife, while some others believe his melancholy is about his infatuation with Anne Bullen. He refuses to attend to members of his council, only giving an audience to Cardinal Wolsey. Cardinal Wolsey helps his loyal benefactor, Gardiner, secure the post of secretary to the king.

News of the king’s decision to divorce Queen Katherine has spread around the kingdom. Anne Bullen in a conversation with an old lady expresses pity for Queen Katherine and vows to never be a queen. King Henry dispatches a letter to Anne Bullen, the letter bestows on her the title of Marchioness of Pembroke along with financial entitlement of one thousand pounds a year. The old lady tells Anne Bullen that it is only a matter of time before she gives in to the temptation of becoming queen.

There is a council hearing for the divorce of King Henry and Queen Katherine. Queen Katherine appears before the council but refuses to participate in the hearing. She appeals to King Henry not to repay her long years of devotion to him with such treatment and leaves. King Henry on his part, believes that the emissary from Rome sent to handle the divorce proceedings is trifling with him.


Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius visit Queen Katherine, the Queen tells Cardinal Wolsey she considers him her enemy and refuses to grant them a private audience despite Cardinal Wolsey’s assurances that he is working to protect her interest.

The dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk and the earl of Surrey all position themselves to give King Henry evidence of Cardinal Wolsey’s corruption. The king intercepts a letter written by Cardinal Wolsey asking the pope to delay making a decision on the king’s divorce and some other documents that show that Cardinal Wolsey embezzles the kingdom’s funds. The king is outraged and instructs that Cardinal Wolsey be stripped of his powers and disgraced. The dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk eagerly carry out the duty of disgracing Cardinal Wolsey.

Cardinal Wolsey is repentant and sober after his disgrace. Cromwell pities him and the cardinal advises Cromwell not to be greedy and ambitious like he was. Cromwell takes the advice and informs Cardinal Wolsey that Sir Thomas More has been chosen to replace him as Lord Chancellor. Cardinal Wolsey bids the king a prosperous reign and accepts his fate in penitence.

Act IV

King Henry VIII gives new appointments as the coronation of a new queen takes place. The Duke of Norfolk becomes earl marshal and the Duke of Suffolk’s high steward. The Archbishop of Canterbury leads the dissolution of King Henry’s marriage to Queen Katherine, and Katherine, no longer queen but princess dowager, is removed to Kimbolton where she stays in ill health.

The king holds the official coronation of Anne Bullen, whom he married in secret, as queen.

Katherine is in her dwelling in Kimbolton, sick and frail. Her servant Griffith informs her that Cardinal Wolsey is dead. She condemns him for being a greedy and corrupt man but Griffith tells her that the late Cardinal Wolsey also had some good aspects to his person. Katherine is so sick that she gets delirious and sees visions. Capucius, an ambassador from Katherine’s nephew the emperor, visits Katherine. Katherine gives Capucius a letter to deliver to her nephew the emperor. In the letter is Katherine’s request that the emperor looks after her daughter Princess Mary, find her female servants good suitors, and financially establish her male servants.

Act V

Sir Thomas Lovell informs Gardiner that Anne Bullen, now queen, is in labour. Gardiner who despises Anne Bullen because of her Lutheran support wishes her death in childbirth along with Cranmer and Cromwell who also support Lutheran reforms. Lovell warns Gardiner not to speak against people who occupy good positions with the king.

The king suspects a plot against Cranmer by other members of his council. He gives Cranmer his royal ring to use in his defence if other council members try to victimize him.

Queen Anne gives birth and the king is informed. Although he hopes that it is a baby boy, he is still happy when he learns it’s a baby girl.

Gardiner, along with other council members, holds a meeting but does not permit Cranmer entry into the council chamber. The king’s physician, Doctor Butts, witnesses this and reports to the king. When Cranmer is eventually admitted into the council chamber, he is charged with heresy and Gardiner passionately insists that Cranmer be locked away in the Tower, but Cranmer uses the king’s ring in his defence. The king who had secretly witnessed the whole scene chastise Gardiner and other council members for their plot against Cranmer. The council members apologize and they all reconcile.

The play ends with princess Elizabeth’s christening which is celebrated by the entire kingdom and where Cranmer blesses her and prophesies her greatness.


What genre is Henry VIII by Shakespeare?

Henry VIII‘ by William Shakespeare is in the genre of historical play because it is a play about true-life historical figures and events from a past era.
The play is also a tragicomedy because of the tragedy of the unjust death of the Duke of Buckingham but the happy ending of the birth of Elizabeth I.

What is a summary about Henry VIII by Shakespeare?

Henry VIII‘ by Shakespeare is a play about politics and interest as officials scheme and plot in court while King Henry VIII embarks on a quest to find an heir and satisfy his infatuation.
The play also depicts the unjust execution of individuals during King Henry’s reign and how nemesis can catch up with evildoers.

Who was Thomas Cranmer and what did he do?

Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury who found favour with King Henry VIII for successfully dissolving King Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine. He was a supporter of Lutheran reforms and encouraged the king’s separation of the Church of England from the Catholic church.
In the play Henry VIII by William Shakespeare, Cranmer was the priest that baptized Elizabeth I as a baby.

What happened to Queen Katherine?

Katherine was forced to vacate her position as queen when Henry divorced her despite her refusal to consent to the divorce. She later moved away from the palace to a castle in Kimbolton where she stayed in sickness.

Onyekachi Osuji
About Onyekachi Osuji
Onyekachi is a lecturer of Public Administration and a Literature enthusiast. After gaining accreditation in English Literature, Onyeka analyzes novels on Book Analysis, whilst working as an academic and writing short stories.
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