Two stories dominate Henry VIII: the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's powerful advisor, and Henry's quest to divorce Queen Katherine, who has not borne him a male heir, and marry Anne Bullen (Boleyn).
First, the duke of Buckingham questions Wolsey's costly staging of a failed meeting with the French king. Wolsey arrests Buckingham and accuses him of treason; testimony from a bribed witness leads to Buckingham's execution. Queen Katherine takes a stand against Wolsey. Wolsey gives a party at which Henry meets Anne.
Henry falls in love with Anne and seeks to divorce Katherine, but Katherine refuses to be judged by Wolsey and other church officials. The king secretly marries Anne and then has her crowned queen. Meanwhile, Henry discovers Wolsey’s treachery against him. Wolsey, arrested, falls sick and dies. Katherine also sickens and dies.
Cranmer, the new archbishop of Canterbury, comes under attack, but receives the king's support. Anne gives birth to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth. Cranmer prophesies marvelous reigns for her and her unnamed successor, James.
Early printed texts
Henry VIII was first published in the 1623 First Folio as The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eight (F1) and that text is the source for all modern editions. It is sometimes referred to as All is True on the basis of early references to the play.
The copy of the Second Folio (1632) reproduced here is a particularly interesting one. Formerly of the English college in Valladolid, Spain, it bears the certificate of Guillermo Sanchez, a censor for the Holy Office, or Inquisition. As part of their work, the Holy Office routinely blotted out offensive passages from books. In Henry VIII, a number of words and phrases are so censored. The ending of the play, with the description of the birth of Elizabeth I in terms echoing descriptions of the Virgin Mary, comes in for some particularly heavy marking.
Picturing Henry VIII
As part of an NEH-funded project, the Folger digitized thousands of 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century images representing Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these images show actors in character, while others show the plays as if they were real-life events—telling the difference isn't always easy. A selection of images related to Henry VIII is shown below, with links to our digital image collection.
For more images of Henry VIII, see our digital image collection. (Because of how they were cataloged, some images from other plays might appear in the image searches linked here, so always check the sidebar to see if the image is described as part of a larger group.)