Follow Henry VIII with our scene by scene synopsis.
A printable version of this synopsis is available in the downloads section below.
In order of appearance
Duke of Norfolk
Duke of Buckingham
Lord Abergavenny son-in-law of the Duke of Buckingham
Secretary to Cardinal Wolsey
King Henry the Eighth
Sir Thomas Lovell
Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England, later Princess Dowager
Duke of Suffolk High Steward
Surveyor to the Duke of Buckingham
Anne Boleyn maid of honor to Katherine, later Queen of England
Sir Henry Guildford
Servant in Wolsey’s Household
Sir Nicholas Vaux
Cardinal Campeius papal legate
Gardiner secretary to the King, later Bishop of Winchester
Old Lady companion to Anne Boleyn
Scribe to the court
Archbishop of Canterbury
Bishop of Lincoln
Bishop of Ely
Bishop of Rochester
Bishop of St. Asaph
Griffith Gentleman Usher to Katherine
Crier to the court
Woman attendant on Katherine, a singer
Earl of Surrey son-in-law to the Duke of Buckingham
Thomas Cromwell secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, later Secretary to the Privy
Sir Thomas Moore Lord Chancellor
Lord Mayor of London
Marquess of Dorset
Marchioness Dorset godmother to the baby Elizabeth
Barons of the Cinque Ports
Bishop of London
Duchess of Norfolk
Patience attendant on Katherine
Six Spirits in Katharines Vision
Messenger of Katherine’s household at Kimbolton
Lord Caputius ambassador from the Holy Roman Emperor
Page to Gardiner
Sir Anthony Denny
Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury
Keeper of the Council Chamber Door
Doctor Butts physician to the King
One of the crowd
Scene by Scene
Prologue - ‘I come no more to make you laugh’
The prologue warns the audience of the serious nature of the play that follows.
Act 1 Scene 1 - ‘I can see his pride/Peep through each part of him’
The Dukes of Norfolk, Buckingham and Abergavenny complain about Cardinal Wolsey’s misuse of power. Wolsey enters and glares at Buckingham, which makes him worry that he is being plotted against. His concerns are confirmed when Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, arrives with a sergeant-of-arms and arrests him for high treason.
Act 1 Scene 2 - ‘Your subjects/Are in great grievance’
The king enters leaning on Wolsey’s shoulder. Queen Katherine begs her husband to reconsider the taxations that the Cardinal has implemented, as it is making his subjects suffer. The king agrees, and Wolsey publicises the decision as his own in order to boost his popularity. After questioning Buckingham’s main accuser, the Lord’s Surveyor, the king calls for his trial to take place.
Act 1 Scene 3 - ‘This night he makes a supper, and a great one’
Lord Sands and Lord Chamberlain discuss the odd behaviour of nobles since their return from France, disapproving of the continental fashions they have adopted. Sir Thomas Lovell arrives, on his way to dinner at the Cardinal’s house. The three men make their way there, discussing their host’s generosity.
Act 1 Scene 4 - ‘By heaven, she is a dainty one’
Sir Henry Guildford welcomes the guests to Wolsey’s house. Sands flirts with and kisses Anne Boleyn. A cannon marks the entrance of new guests (probably the point at which the Globe burnt down in 1613) and the king and train arrive disguised as masquers. The king dances with Anne and also kisses her. The Cardinal sees through the monarch’s disguise and the two men exit into another room.
Act 2 Scene 1 - ‘If the Duke be guiltless/Tis full of woe’
Two gentlemen discuss the trial of Buckingham, who has been found guilty and sentenced to death. They blame Wolsey for Buckingham’s downfall. Buckingham enters, with a guard on each side and an axe before him (the sign of a condemned prisoner). He makes a speech to the people about his innocence, before being led away. The men gossip about the king and Katherine’s possible divorce.
Act 2 Scene 2 - ‘I must leave her’
Lord Chamberlain is concerned that Wolsey is taking the nobles’ possessions in a bid for power. Norfolk and Suffolk join him, and ask of the king. Norfolk accuses Wolsey of persuading the king to obtain a divorce. The king meets with the Pope’s envoy, Campeius, who Wolsey has arranged to arbitrate the separation. Settled on divorce, the king orders the envoy’s commission to be delivered to Katherine.
Act 2 Scene 3 - ‘I would not be queen’
Anne discusses her pity for Katherine with her old attendant. The Lord Chamberlain arrives and announces that Henry has given Anne the title of Marchioness of Pembrokeshire.
Act 2 Scene 4 - ‘I desire you do me right and justice’
Katherine is put on trial by the king. She begs him to take pity on her, as both a foreigner and a woman, and asks what she has done wrong in their twenty years of marriage. She requests a delay so that she can receive counsel from Spain, but Wolsey pushes for an immediate trial. Katherine accuses Wolsey of unjustly influencing the king and leaves. The king defends Wolsey, but is persuaded by Campeius to delay the trial in her absence.
Act 3 Scene 1 - ‘Cardinal sins and hollow hearts’
Cardinal Wolsey and Campeius arrive at Katherine’s apartment and request a private meeting. She says she has a clear conscience so they can conduct their meeting in public. The men claim they have come as peacemakers but she accuses them of being corrupt and taking pleasure in her predicament. Katherine regrets ever coming to England.
Act 3 Scene 2 - ‘This paper has undone me’
Norfolk announces that the king has learnt something that will put Wolsey out of favour: the Cardinal has attempted to delay the divorce proceedings until the king’s infatuation for Anne had passed. But he is too late; the pair are already married. Wolsey enters, worried that the king has not replied to his latest correspondence. The king shortly follows with papers that reveal the wealth Wolsey has illegally accumulated, as well as a letter that Wolsey wrote to the Pope meddling in the divorce proceedings. Wolsey knows his downfall is inevitable. Cromwell enters weeping at Wolsey’s position, and announces that Sir Thomas Cramner is the new Cardinal and Anne is the new Queen.
Act 4 Scene 1 - ‘Such joy I never saw before’
Two gentlemen watch the procession in the street making its way from the queen’s coronation. They are joined by a man who saw the service and describes how delighted the crowd were with Anne’s beauty and goodliness. The three discuss the king’s new favourites, including Cromwell who has been made Master of the Jewel House.
Act 4 Scene 2 - ‘A blessed troop’
Katherine, now known as the Princess Dowager, has fallen ill. She learns of Wolsey’s death from her gentleman usher, and together they discuss his faults and virtues. Katherine falls asleep and has a vision of six dancers dressed in white and exchanging garlands. Her attendants tell her that such visions mean she is close to death. Capacius arrives, an ambassador of Katherine’s father, sent on behalf of King Henry. She asks him to deliver a letter to the king, reminding him of her humility and instructing him to look after their daughter.
Act 5 Scene 1 - ‘He’s a rank weed’
Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, meets with Sir Thomas Lovell in the middle of the night. Lovell is in a great rush: he explains the queen is in labour and may die. Gardiner replies that the kingdom would be safer if she were to die, along with Cramner (now archbishop) and Cromwell. The king meets with Cramner and warns him about his enemies. He has heard lots of rumours against Cramner but he trusts his integrity. The king gives Cramner a ring that will signify his support if needed, and the archbishop weeps in gratitude. The birth of a baby girl is announced.
Act 5 Scene 2 - ‘Embrace and love this man’
Cranmer arrives late to the Council but is made to wait outside. When the Lords let him in they explain they cannot make their grievances against him while he is also a member of the Council. Therefore they will have to put him in the Tower and strip him of his title. When they give him no alternative, he shows them the king’s ring. Henry, who has secretly been watching from above, enters and scorns the men for their cruelty, urging them to trust Cramner. At the king’s request, Gardiner and Cramner reconcile, and the archbishop leaves to baptise the royal daughter.
Act 5 Scene 3 - ‘the youths that thunder’
A large group of people have come to see the christening, and the porter attempts to keep them from blocking the way. The Lord Chamberlain enters and announces the incoming procession.
Act 5 Scene 4 - ‘the maiden phoenix’
Cramner’s speech at Princess Elizabeth’s baptism predicts her future greatness. He says that the whole world will mourn her when she dies a virgin. The king is thrilled with this ‘oracle of comfort’ and everyone leaves to celebrate.
An Epilogue notes that a play can never please everyone: some came to relax and sleep but were woken by the trumpets; others came to hear the city abused but that never took place. Nevertheless, women will have enjoyed the portrayal of good Katherine and when the ladies clap, the men must follow.