Shakespeare's King Henry VIII:
Drama Versus History

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

Portrait of King Henry V from the late 16th or early 17th century. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

King Henry VIII was the first English monarch to publish a book with his Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Written as a response to Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the book earned Henry the title "Defender of the Faith" from the pope.

Shakespeare (with the aid of John Fletcher) wrote Henry VIII near the end of his career. Changing audience tastes and the somewhat sensitive subject matter render it a play much removed from his early histories—and certainly at odds with what we actually know of Henry VIII's reign. It is spectacle mixed with court intrigue and more than a dash of Tudor propaganda. And it is most widely known for being the play in performance that burned down the original Globe Theatre when a cannon shot used as a special effect inadvertently sparked a fire in the Globe's thatched roof.

Shakespeare seems to have relied mostly on his trusty Holinshed's Chronicles for the bulk of the play, with some help from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs to round out the ending. The pervasive influence of Holinshed is even more at the front than usual in Henry VIII; Wolsey is the conniving Catholic power attempting to manipulate a Henry of "gentle nature and great courtesy." As a result, the main thrust of events—unlike the grand struggles of Shakespeare's earlier history plays—is mainly the internal political struggle of a noble king trying to shake free of the deceitful influence of his closest advisors.

Of course, the historical Henry VIII was a much more complicated individual, both as a person and a monarch. Though much of this is beyond the scope of events portrayed in the play, Henry will eventually prove a man driven, for better or worse, by his passions.

Shakespeare's Plot

Henry VIII begins with Buckingham and Norfolk discussing a recent failed meeting between Henry and the king of France. Buckingham seems to blame the king's minister, Cardinal Wolsey, for the cost of the venture. Wolsey, in return, has Buckingham arrested, tried for treason, convicted with the aid of a bribed witness, and executed. Wolsey, already disdained for his taxes levied in the name of the king, is denounced for Buckingham's death by Queen Katherine.

Later, Wolsey hosts a party at which Henry meets Anne Bullen (Boleyn), one of Katherine's ladies-in-waiting. Henry is smitten with Anne and seeks to divorce Katherine, who refuses to submit to the judgment of Wolsey and other church officials.

Things come to a head when Henry secretly marries Anne and later discovers that Wolsey had asked the pope to stay his decision on the divorce until Henry presumably loses interest in Anne. When Wolsey's double-dealing is discovered, the king confronts him and has him arrested. Wolsey falls sick and dies, as does Henry's former wife, Katherine.

In the meantime, Thomas Cranmer, Henry's Archbishop of Canterbury, is arrested as part of a plot by Gardiner, Wolsey's secretary. Cranmer, however, is fully under the king's protection, and is exonerated. Henry then has Cranmer christen his new daughter by Anne, Elizabeth. At the christening, Cranmer foretells a noble reign for Elizabeth and glory for England in her time.

Historical Variances

All of the events portrayed in the play actually happened, and, for the most part, are retold directly from Holinshed. The Treaty of the Field of Cloth of Gold, which is the meeting alluded to in the first act, occurred in June of 1520.The fortunes of Buckingham, Wolsey, Gardiner, and Cranmer are all related factually, as are the deaths of Wolsey and Catherine of Aragon. Sir Thomas More was appointed chancellor in 1529; Anne was wed, crowned, and gave birth to Elizabeth in 1533.

Most of the variances come from the compressed timeline of events, as happens many times in Shakespeare's histories. Whereas the historical events took place over the course of some 24 years, the play presents the events as occurring over perhaps a year or so (and somewhat out of order). As a point of reference, Cranmer's indictment and trial didn't happen until 1544, at which point Anne was already dead some eight years and Henry was married to his last wife, Catherine Parr.

Wolsey was indeed unpopular if not outright resented by many nobles and members of Parliament. While he certainly had a hand in Buckingham's execution, he may not have borne the sole responsibility as portrayed. Also, there's hardly a debate that there was little love lost between Wolsey and Boleyn's family, and Wolsey undoubtedly had little desire to see her as queen. However, the pope's reluctance to annul Henry's marriage had as much to do with the intransigence of Catherine and her nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The pope was caught between competing interests in Henry and Charles, and it was as much his indecision as any actions of Wolsey that led to the cardinal's downfall.


Henry VIII carries the alternate title All is True. And, as mentioned earlier, that is true in the strictest definition of the word; everything described in the play happened. But this is not a tale that should be mistaken for historical record. Shakespeare condenses more than two decades of events into months, rearranging events for the sake of the story in some cases.

The historical Henry was not so nearly as magnanimous or innocent as portrayed in the play. And knowing what we do of subsequent events, it is both understandable that the play would end with Elizabeth's birth while at the same time easily dismissed as Tudor propaganda for all the history that it elides or omits. One could easily imagine a contemporary playgoer thinking to themselves, "but what about that beheading and the four other wives?"

In the end, Henry VIII is a contradiction—a historical myth woven from historical record.


Complete Works of Shakespeare 5th ed. (Bevington, 2009), Essential Shakespeare Handbook (Dunton-Downer and Riding, 2004), Kings and Queens of England (Williams, 2008), NTC's Dictionary of Shakespeare (Clark, 1996), The Rough Guide to Shakespeare (Dickson, 2009)