King Henry VIII: The king, while he gives his name to the play, is not a prominent character except in the final act, when he intervenes to save Cranmer. For most of the remainder of the play, he does little more than stand by while Buckingham, Katherine and Wolsey are brought low and die. The king is revealed as noble in nature but as credulous and inattentive to the affairs of state, allowing malicious and self-seeking people to manipulate him. He believes potentially false witnesses against Buckingham, and believes in the integrity of Wolsey against the advice of the clearer-sighted Katherine. He also goes along with his advisors on the matter of divorcing Katherine – though it must not be forgotten that he engineered the advice in the first place because he wanted to marry Anne. He does take a silent yet powerful small part in Wolsey’s fall, delivering Wolsey’s own incriminating evidence into his hands and effectively letting Wolsey fall into a hole he has dug for himself.
It is in the plot against his friend Cranmer that the king finally comes into a fully active role. Cranmer is genuinely innocent, and this may be the factor that prompts the king to intervene when he has not done so with the other ‘victims.’ He gives Cranmer his ring, putting him under his royal protection, and listens to the council meeting that threatens to ruin Cranmer. He rebukes the council members for their infighting and makes them reconcile with Cranmer. Finally, he invites them all to the baptism of Elizabeth. The king believes that producing Elizabeth was his greatest achievement, and this is certainly his role in the grand purpose of the play, which is to celebrate Elizabeth and her successors.
Cardinal Wolsey: The king’s chief aide and holds the office of Lord Chancellor. A butcher’s son, he has risen to his powerful position through cunning and ruthless ambition. He is a great schemer, arranging an alliance with France before the play begins (at the Field of the Cloth of Gold), and then dealing with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, behind King Henry’s back.
Buckingham accuses Wolsey of making and breaking alliances without the king’s authority and for his own ends, and of extorting money and lands from the nobles. Wolsey is disliked not only by the nobles but also by the Gentlemen, Katherine, and the common people. The king is one of the few who cannot see through him. Wolsey’s duplicity and ambition is plain even to the audience, as when he puts about a rumor that he was responsible for the abolition of the unpopular tax, when it was he who engineered the tax.
However, it can be argued that Wolsey is never disloyal to the king. He sees nothing wrong with pursuing his own interests while pursuing the king’s best interests: “. mine own ends / Have been mine so, that evermore they pointed / To th’good of your most sacred person and / The profit of the state” (Act 3, scene 2, lines 171-4). He engineers the king’s divorce from Katherine, but he does so at the king’s request. He also manages to gain a kick-back for himself: by bringing about the fall of Katherine, he insults her nephew, Charles V of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, who has failed to help him in his ambition to be Pope.
Wolsey’s downfall begins when it emerges that Wolsey has built up massive wealth and has been bribing the Pope. But Wolsey’s fatal error, as he himself recognizes, is to oppose the king’s marriage to Anne. The king finds out that he was trying to delay the Pope’s decision on the divorce from Katherine until the king got over his infatuation with Anne. This would have left the king free to marry Wolsey’s choice, the sister of the French king. A French marriage would have cemented the alliance with France that Wolsey arranged. In terms of the purpose of the play, which is for Henry’s and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth to come to the throne, his standing in the way of their marriage is reason enough why he has to go.
Wolsey is not completely villainous. He shows kindness and generosity to his servants, ensuring that Gardiner and Cromwell are promoted. And he is renowned for his lavish hospitality, though this is a dubious virtue in a churchman. After his fall, he finds redemption and self-knowledge. He recognizes that he has brought about his own downfall, and achieves humility and serenity. In response to Cromwell’s question about how he is, he says, “Never so truly happy, my good Cromwell; / I know myself now, and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience.” As Griffith tells Katherine, “His overthrow heap’d happiness upon him, / For then, and not till then, he felt himself, / And felt the blessedness of being little.”
Cardinal Campeius: An envoy from the Pope, sent to England to examine the matter of the king’s divorce. It is never made clear whether Campeius supports or opposes the divorce, and the question becomes irrelevant when the king goes ahead with the divorce apparently without considering Campeius’ view. Campeius becomes an ally of Wolsey, joining him in visiting Katherine after she has been cast off by the king. Again, it is not clear what his motives are during his visit, but he joins Wolsey in urging her to submit herself to the care and guidance of the king. Presumably, that means she must take part in the divorce proceedings. She refuses and curses the cardinals, accusing them of wanting to betray her. After Wolsey’s incriminating correspondence is revealed, Campeius flees England without taking leave of the king, suggesting that his loyalty is more to Wolsey and the Pope.
Cranmer: A bishop who becomes Archbishop of Canterbury after traveling around the colleges of Christendom gathering opinions on the legality of the king’s divorce from Katherine. Cranmer is a pioneer of the new Protestantism, which Elizabeth I would later make the official religion of England. Gardiner, whose loyalty is to Wolsey and Catholicism, spreads rumors that he Cranmer is a heretic and plots his downfall. The king finds out and gives Cranmer his ring, so that he can appeal to his protection at his trial by the council. Cranmer is a man of integrity and humility, and does nothing wrong. The king saves him from the council, and makes the hostile council members embrace him. Cranmer forgives Gardiner and baptizes the baby Elizabeth, making a speech about the great future that awaits her.
Gardiner: Bishop of Winchester. At the beginning of the play, Gardiner is Wolsey’s secretary. Wolsey assigns him to the king with the understanding that his loyalty will remain with Wolsey. Because of Gardiner’s loyalty to Catholicism and Wolsey, he dislikes the Protestant Anne Bullen and bears a grudge against Cranmer, plotting to bring about his downfall. He attacks Cranmer viciously at Cranmer’s trial. The king intervenes to save Cranmer, and makes Gardiner embrace him as a friend, which Gardiner does.
Bishop of Lincoln: The Bishop of Lincoln advises Henry to divorce Katherine.
Duke of Buckingham: A noble and courtier. Before the play begins, Buckingham had attended the lavish event in France (historically, named the Field of the Cloth of Gold), which was organized by Wolsey. Seeing the event as a colossal waste of money and a pointless vanity on Wolsey’s part, Buckingham has grown to resent Wolsey for his greed, ambition and undue influence over the king. Buckingham also feels angry with Wolsey for extorting money from the nobles to pay for the event.
Wolsey gives the order to arrest Buckingham on charges of treason. At his trial, Buckingham is accused of plotting to gain the throne after a friar told him that he had a claim to the throne if the king died without an heir. We never learn whether there is any substance to Wolsey’s accusations of Buckingham, but he is sentenced to death partly on evidence given by suspect witnesses, and is executed.
Duke of Norfolk: A courtier, noble and member of the council. At the beginning of the play, Norfolk has a tolerant attitude towards Wolsey, and urges Buckingham to show restraint in his criticisms of him. But then Wolsey engineers Buckingham’s fall, breaks the alliance between King Henry and Charles V, and makes the King doubt the legality of his marriage to Katherine. Norfolk realizes how dangerous he is, and he meets with other lords to scheme against him. After Wolsey falls, Norfolk is promoted to earl marshal. He takes part in the plot against Cranmer, but the king intervenes to save Cranmer.
Duke of Suffolk: A courtier, noble and member of the council. After the fall of Wolsey, Suffolk is promoted to high steward. He is a member of the council that tries Cranmer, but the king intervenes to save Cranmer.
Earl of Surrey: A noble and courtier, and son-in-law of Buckingham. Surrey is angry at Wolsey for engineering Buckingham’s downfall and wants to bring him down.
Lord Abergavenny: A noble and courtier, and friend of Buckingham, who is taken to the Tower at the same time Buckingham is arrested.
Lord Sands: A noble and courtier. Sands attends Wolsey’s party and flirts with Anne Bullen before the king meets her.
Lord Chancellor: A noble and courtier who presides over the council that tries Cranmer.
Lord Chamberlain: A noble and courtier. Wolsey steals some horses belonging to him. He is a member of the council that tries Cranmer.
Sir Henry Guilford: A noble and courtier. Guilford welcomes the guests at Wolsey’s party.
Sir Thomas Lovell: A noble and courtier.
Sir Nicholas Vaux: A noble and courtier who escorts Buckingham to his execution.
Sir Anthony Denny: A noble and courtier.
Brandon: The sergeant-at-arms who is sent to arrest Buckingham.
Cromwell: A servant of Wolsey. Cromwell is devoted to his master and weeps after Wolsey’s fall. Wolsey tells him to go and serve the king without ambition and with only the interests of God, the truth and his country at heart. Cromwell takes his advice. As a member of the council that tries Cranmer, Cromwell defends Cranmer against Gardiner’s hostile attacks.
Dr Butts: The king’s physician. On the day of Cranmer’s trial, Dr Butts sees that the Doorkeeper is keeping Cranmer waiting outside the door with the servants – even though Cranmer is himself a member of the council. Dr Butts sees this and realizes the depth of malice that Cranmer’s enemies hold against him. He fetches the king, and together they watch the council proceedings against Cranmer from a nearby window. The king intervenes, saves Cranmer, and makes the other council members reconcile with him.
Griffith: An attendant of Queen Katherine. Griffith speaks kindly of Wolsey to Katherine, prompting her forgive Wolsey before she dies.
Capuchius: An ambassador from Katherine’s nephew, King Charles V of Spain. After the divorce, Capuchius brings Katherine words of comfort from the king, who is concerned for her in her illness. Katherine gives him a letter to take to the king asking him to look after their daughter, Mary, and her servants after her death.
Doorkeeper of the council chamber: The Doorkeeper, evidently on the instructions of those plotting against Cranmer, keeps Cranmer waiting outside the council chamber door with the servants on the day of his trial – even though Cranmer is himself a member of the council. Dr Butts and the king see this and realize the depth of malice that Cranmer’s enemies hold against him.
Surveyor: The former overseer or manager of Buckingham’s estates and thus an ex-employee of Buckingham. The Surveyor is asked by Cardinal Wolsey to testify against his former master at Buckingham’s trial. The Surveyor had been recently fired by Buckingham because of complaints against him from tenants. Hence, the Surveyor holds a grudge against Buckingham and may be an unreliable witness – a fact that Katherine points out, only to be ignored.
Gentlemen: Ordinary people who eagerly congregate at important royal events, such as the execution of Buckingham, Anne’s coronation, and the baptism of Elizabeth. Their comments add an important dimension to the play, showing the views of people other than those who inhabit the rarified atmosphere of the court.
Katherine: Henry VIII’s first wife and queen at the beginning of the play. Katherine is Spanish by birth and is the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V of Spain. Before marrying Henry, Katherine had been married to his brother, Prince Arthur.
Katherine is far more clear-sighted than the king. She begs the king to repeal the unpopular tax that Wolsey levied without the king’s permission, arguing not only on grounds of compassion for ordinary people but also because she sees the potential unrest that will come from the tax. She sees, while the king does not, that Buckingham’s Surveyor is a suspect witness against his former master because Buckingham had fired him. She also sees through Wolsey when the king is completely under his spell.
On each of these issues, she is outspoken and will not be cowed into submission. In particular, she refuses to submit to her ‘trial’ and divorce, which she sees as illegitimate, and answers those who arrange the divorce for the king with a biting sarcasm and a strong instinct for self-preservation. Katherine knows that she has been a loyal wife to the king for twenty years, loves him till the end, and cannot understand how she could be cast aside so cruelly. In reality, she is rejected because she failed to give birth to a male heir. After the king divorces her, she is known as princess dowager. One she accepts that the divorce is inevitable, she appears to lose her fighting spirit, grows sick and prepares for death.
Since it was Wolsey who first introduced doubts into the king’s mind about the legality of his marriage, Katherine forms a hatred of Wolsey that endures until her just before her death, when her attendant, Griffith, speaks kindly of him. Katherine is moved by his words to forgive Wolsey. Also before her death, she has a vision of spirits offering her a garland, symbolizing the eternal happiness she will find in heaven, and, in a typically selfless act, she sends a letter to the king asking him to look after her servants and their daughter, Mary.
Anne Bullen: Anne (the historical Anne Boleyn) is the king’s second wife and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. While the historical Anne was strong-minded, intelligent and played a part in the political and religious direction of the nation, the Anne of the play has little to say and her only outstanding quality is her beauty. When the king meets her, she is a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. He is immediately struck by her beauty. During his divorce from Katherine, he seems to have her in mind for his next wife. Anne feels sorry for Katherine during the divorce, and tells one of her ladies that she would not want to be a queen or even a duchess. But no sooner has she said this than the king makes her Marchioness of Pembroke and afterwards, she marries him and is crowned queen. We have no idea what changed her mind, as all this action takes place offstage. Anne does not speak onstage after her conversation with the lady. Her main role is to give birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I.
Old Lady: An attendant of Anne Bullen. When Anne tells her that she does not wish to be a queen or even a duchess, the Old Lady accuses her of hypocrisy, as any woman would want wealth and high standing.
Patience: An attendant of Queen Katherine.
Elizabeth: Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I, is not listed in the dramatis personae because, being a baby, she has no lines to speak. She is, however, a potent force in the play, the grand purpose of which is to celebrate her birth and glorious reign. In order to ensure that she is born, King Henry has to divorce Katherine and marry Anne, the mother of Elizabeth. Everything and everyone who stands in the way of this destiny must be removed or neutralized – Katherine, Wolsey and, to a lesser extent, Gardiner. At the end of the play, Cranmer baptizes Elizabeth and makes a speech predicting her great success as a ruler. He also praises her successor (James I) as her worthy heir.
Prologue: The Prologue introduces the play, saying that it will feature true stories of the downfall of powerful people and that it will awaken the audience’s pity.
Epilogue: The Epilogue speaks to the audience after the end of the play. He says that the play cannot have pleased everyone in the audience, but is likely to please good women, who will approve of the portrayal of a good woman (Katherine), and that their men will have to follow in their applause.