When All Is True: Knowing/ Not Knowing Law and History in



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No, Sir, not I”, quoth the Bishop of Rochester, ‘ye have not my consent thereto.’ ‘No! Ha’the!’quoth the king, ‘look here upon this, is not this your hand and seal?’ and showed him the instrument with seals. “No forsooth, Sire’, quoth the Bishop of Rochester, ‘it is not my hand nor seal!’ To that quoth the king to my Lord of Canterbury: ‘Sir, how say ye, is it not his hand and seal?’ ‘Yes, Sir’ quoth my Lord of Canterbury. ‘That is not so’, quoth the Bishop of Rochester, ‘for you were in hand with me to have both my hand and seal, as other lords had already done; but then I said to you, that I would never consent to no such act, for it were much against my conscience; nor my hand and seal should never be seen at any such instrument, God willing, with much more matter touching the same communication between us.’ ‘You say truth’, quoth the Bishop of Canterbury, ‘such words ye said unto me; but at the last ye were fully persuaded that I should for you subscribe your name, and put to a seal myself, and ye would allow the same.’ ‘All which words and matter’, quoth the Bishop of Rochester, ‘under your correction, my lord, and supportation of this noble audience, there is no thing more untrue.’19

Rochester’s was a highly visible role in Katherine’s defense; in the years after Blackfriars, until he was executed for treason in 1535, he published seven tracts in defense of the marriage, was convicted of misprision in connection with the Holy Maid of Kent affair (see Hall, fol. ccxxiii[v] and Holinshed, p.791), defied the terms of the First Act of Succession, and refused to subscribe to the oath of the Act of Supremacy (see Holinshed, p. 792). In view of Fisher’s defense of her cause, Katherine’s protest to Wolsey that she is “Shipwrack’d upon a kingdom where no pity,/No friends, no hope, no kindred weep for me” (III.1.149-50) is not accurate; but without naming names, Shakespeare accommodated the truth elsewhere in the understanding of real-politik expressed in Katherine’s rhetorical question:


can you think lords,

That any Englishman dare give me counsel?

Or be a known friend ‘gainst his highness’ pleasure

(Though he be grown so desperate to be honest)

And live a subject?

(III.1.83-87)


The elderly bishop who appeared on the scaffold erected on Tower Hill in 1535 was neither the first nor the last of Katherine’s defenders to provide the obvious answer to what it meant to operate “’gainst his highness’ pleasure.”

Katherine’s majestic exit from the tribunal at Blackfriars was not entirely the dramatic surprise it appears in the chronicles and in the play. By the end of April 1529 agents for Katherine’s nephew Charles V had already lodged a petition that the cause be revoked to Rome, and in her appearance at Blackfriars on June 18 Katherine had requested that her refusal of the papal legation’s jurisdiction in England, together with her intention of appealing directly to the Pope, be recorded and notarized. The tribunal of June 21 began with the announcement that her request was overruled,20 and it is after this point of order that Hall and Holinshed begin their descriptions of the day’s events—a beginning altered in turn by the play, with Henry’s order to dispense with the reading of the commission from Rome:


What’s the need?

It hath already publicly been read,

And on all sides th’authority allow’d;

You may then spare that time.

(II.4.2-5)
This is a brief , but remarkable, addition to the sources. It is certainly a sign of Henry’s eroded patience, but it is also a sign immediately readable in the theatre that Henry is directing proceedings in this ecclesiastical court. I would also suggest that the addition holds somewhat more subtle criticisms of Henry’s legal position as well, since two points are to be noted in the king’s affirmation that the commission’s authority is “on all sides . . . allow’d”: one is the historically known untruth of that affirmation as far as Katherine’s “side” is concerned, a repudiation of authority she repeats twice in this scene; the other is the ironic postscript added to the trial a few months later, when on October 9 the charge of praemunire—the illegal exercise of foreign jurisdiction on English soil—was brought against Wolsey in the King’s Bench. The legal pretext was furnished by Wolsey’s operating in England as Rome’s legate a latere, an office he had exercised in England—obviously with Henry’s consent—since 1521. But the real reason underlying this charge was his loss of Henry’s support when he failed to procure Henry’s divorce either in Rome or through the legatine court over which he had presided in England—a court whose “authority,” only a few months earlier, had clearly been “allow’d.” The play tinkers with the sources making graft and corruption, rather than failure to free Henry from Katherine, appear as the principal reason for Wolsey’s fall, but the historical importance of praemunire is recalled two scenes after the divorce trial:
Lord cardinal, the king’s further pleasure is,

Because all those things you have done of late

By your power legative within this kingdom

Fall into th’compass of a praemunire;

That therefore such a writ be sued against you,

To forfeit all your goods, lands, tenements,

Chattels and whatsoever, and to be

Out of the king’s protection. This is my charge.

(III.2.336-44)
Praemunire was a legal weapon of uncertain scope and definition, which was part of its terror and efficacy, and Henry used it to cow not only Wolsey. With legal actions initiated in 1530, Henry found in praemunire the legal instrument by which he forced the entire English clergy into submission, an action that was an important preliminary to the revolutionary legislation that separated the church in England from that of Rome in 1534. The accusation started out as an indictment of the church for having accepted Wolsey’s “illegal” legateship, but by 1531, when Parliament enacted its Pardon of the Clergy, the charge had become more comprehensive: the church was—after paying a hefty price—being pardoned for having exercised the Pope’s jurisdiction in the ecclesiastical courts. Giving Henry the affirmation that Rome’s commission to the legatine court is “on all sides . . . allow’d” strikes me therefore as another of the play’s telegraphic reminders of Henry’s talent for adjusting legal “facts” to his convenience.

Katherine never meant her cause to become what it did become, a case testing the legal limits of international church versus national state authority. But Katherine stymied Henry and Wolsey by pushing her right to have her cause heard under international ecclesiastical law. So Henry shed his chancellor and outmaneuvered Katherine by changing England’s relation to the internationalism of ecclesiastical law. It was a revolution, but the king and Parliament declared that they were simply resuscitating old rights that had lain buried under centuries of Rome’s oppressive yoke: England had always been sovereign—it was Rome that had introduced novelty, and England was now only reasserting what had always been its ancient right.



Because of its chronological limits on Henry’s reign and its final flattering leap forward into James’s, Henry VIII eliminates from view decades of traumatic change and uncertainty in English history that might have had difficulty getting past the intervention of censorship; yet if it thereby avoids any direct dealing with the most terrifying aspects of Henry’s reign, the play nonetheless holds out brief reminders that what happened later was already known. And it is through this area of the “already known” that the text suggests ironic comparison with the version of history being represented, as it invites at times a double vision of events through the different optics of the past being represented on stage and the future extending beyond it—a future known, when the play was first presented in 1613, to have held unsuspected reversals for many: Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer—and in the end, Henry himself. Henry removed a number of long-standing certainties from his subjects, but he did so within the forms of law: Henry waited years for his divorce before he seized on the fact that the laws that bound him to the past and dictated the present could not only be interpreted, but could also be—less expensively and more immediately—re-written or invented. Henry used the law to redefine the past and to attempt to direct the future, but though he garnered successes on the past it was the future—that of the two most interested him—that escaped Henry’s script. By 1613 it was obvious that Henry’s reign had brought important legal and religious change to England; but it was also obvious that his personal dynastic hopes and plans, that were largely responsible for these coming into being, had failed. The epistemological uncertainties of Henry’s reign were in Elizabeth’s reign more narrowly political ones deriving from her own very different brand of marital politics: certainly everyone in the public would have been old enough to remember the anxiety caused by Elizabeth’s refusal to name her successor until she lay dying, and although James was not an unexpected choice after the death of his Catholic mother obviated the religious problem, his accession was, as Alan G. R. Smith points out, “an explicit breach of Henry VIII’s will and thus, by implication of the statute on which it was founded.”21 Like the relationship between church and state, or Katherine’s virginity, or the number of months perceived to elapse between Anne’s marriage to Henry and the birth of Elizabeth, or the validity of Henry’s marriages and the legitimacy of his children, Henry’s will proved to be yet another “fact” of history subject to second thoughts and revision. Cranmer’s prophecy over Elizabeth in the play’s final scene constructs the theatrical illusion of a non-problematic—and patriarchally sponsored—genealogy that, however James privately felt about Henry’s memory, was politically useful to the first Stuart King of England. But if the genealogical links between Henry and James are made to seem smoother than they were in fact, other aspects of Henry’s relationship to the law are shown for much of the play to be ambiguous, unstable, or untrustworthy. While he lived, the historical Henry found the law a useful instrument for implementing his will, and the play mirrors this truth. With the help of his cooperative Parliaments, Henry succeeded in covering the changes in his private thoughts and affections by rewriting the legal interpretation of the past, but his attempt to write the future failed: and the accession of the Stuart line was—literally—the crowning irony in the history of Henry’s dynastic obsession. Only later history, well beyond the knowledge available to the audiences of 1613, would reveal the unsuspected failure of the Stuart line as well.
Barbara Irene Kreps

University of Pisa



1 The play’s title in the First Folio. Henry Wotton’s reference to the play as All is True in his letter describing the fire at the Globe has given rise to perplexity about the title, firmly radicated now that Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor have chosen to displace the Folio title in their 1988 Oxford edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. All references in this essay are to the Arden King Henry VIII, ed. R. A. Foakes (London and New York: Methuen, 1964; rpt. Routledge, 1991), and following standard practice I refer to the play with the shortened title Henry VIII. (Given this plethora of titles for the play, the irony of “All is True” probably escapes no one.)

The last scene may have been written by Fletcher rather than Shakespeare: V.4 is one of the six scenes (I.3, 4; III.1; V.2,3,4) about which Cyrus Hoy produces the most convincing arguments to date concerning the possibility of Fletcher’s part in the play’s authorship. (See his “The Shares of Fletcher and his Collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon,” Studies in Bibliography 15 [1962], 71-88.) There is still no clear consensus among Shakespeare scholars about either single authorship or collaboration, however, and my own essay has nothing to add to that debate. The point I wish to make here is that, if Fletcher did indeed write the final scene, the prophecy represents an epistemological maneuver on history that I shall be considering along with others in the play where Shakespeare’s authorship is considered much surer. Given the lingering uncertainties of authorship and my own emphasis here on legal history and audience reception, I usually refer to “the play” rather than to its author (or authors).



2 Numerous critics have addressed the relationship of the Henrician past and the Jacobean future-present. See W. M. Baillie, “Henry VIII: A Jacobean History,” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979), 247-66; Alexander Leggatt, “Henry VIII and the Ideal England,” Shake. Survey 38 (1985), 141; Judith Doolan Spikes, “The Jacobean History Play and the Myth of the Elect Nation,” Ren.D. (n.s.) 8 (1977), 117-49; David Bergeron, Shakespeare’s Romances and the Royal Family (Lawrence, Kan: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1985), pp.203-22; Paul Dean, “Dramatic Mode and Historical Vision in Henry VIII,” S.Q 37 (1986), 186; Stuart M. Kurland, “Henry VIII and James I: Shakespeare and Jacobean Politics,” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987), 209-10; Peter Rudnytsky, “Henry VIII and the Deconstruction of History,” Shake. Survey 43 (1991), 54-55; Ivo Kamps, Historiography and Ideology in Stuart Drama (Cambridge: University Press, 1996), pp. 104-12.

3 Pierre Sahel calls attention to the frequency of indirect discourse and the importance of rumour and reporting in the play. See his “The Strangeness of a Dramatic Style: Rumour in Henry VIII,” Shake. Survey 38 (1985), 145-51.

4 On this and other uncertainties and contradictions, see Lee Bliss, “The Wheel of Fortune and the Maiden Phoenix of Shakespeare’s King Henry the Eighth,” ELH 42 (1975), 1-25.

5 For varying interpretations of Henry’s part in the Amicable Grant, see G. R. Elton, Reform and Reformation (London and Melbourne: Edward Arnold, 1977), pp. 90-91; J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press), pp. 138-39; Neville Williams, Henry VIII and His Court (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p. 97; D. M. Loades, Politics and the Nation, 4th ed. (London: Fontana Press, 1992), pp. 158-60; John A. F. Thomson, The Transformation of Medieval England (London and New York: Longman, 1983), pp. 38, 249-51; John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 86-88.

6 Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles . . . Now Newlie Recognised, Augmented, and Continued . . ., reprint 1807-08 ed. (New York: AMS Press, 1965).

7 Statutes of the Realm (1817), III. 473. Hereafter referred to within the text as S. R.

8 For a series of reasons, Henry’s relations with Scotland deteriorated throughout the early 1540’s; war between the two countries was declared in 1542, with the Scots being routed at Solway Moss in November. The English made brutal incursions again in 1544 and 1545—partially because of Scottish resistance to Henry’s plans to marry his son Edward with the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. The marriage plans thwarted, Henry avoided any mention of the Stuarts in his will, skipping over their precedence by representative primogeniture, naming instead his younger sister Mary’s descendants as next after his three children, should these die without heirs of their body. See Mortimer Levine, Tudor Dynastic Problems 1460-1571 (London: George Allen & Unwin; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1973), pp. 72-75.

9 One result was the muddle created at the death of Edward VI with the Dudleys’ attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne. From the pulpit of Paul’s Cross, Nicholas Ridley preached on July 9, 1553, that neither Mary nor Elizabeth could succeed, since the Acts of Parliament that had bastardized them had never been repealed. Though the Protestant congregation heard him out without enthusiasm, Lady Jane was not without support, and as Loades points out, “research has only recently uncovered the tracks which they were so quickly forced to hide” (see Loades, pp.239-40). One of the first Acts of Mary’s Parliament in 1553 was to repeal the Henrician legislation that had denied the lawfulness of her parents’ marriage (S. R. IV.201). Unlike Mary, Elizabeth never addressed the question of bastardy. On various problematic aspects of the will’s legitimacy and its implications for the Stuarts, see Loades, pp. 204-34, 287-91; Scarisbrick, pp. 488-94; Guy, pp.196-99; Elton (1977), pp. 331-32, and also his England Under the Tudors (London: Methuen; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1955[rev. 1965]), pp. 269-70, 280-84, 370-71, 474; Mortimer Levine, The Early Elizabethan Succession Question 1558-1568 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 99-162.

10 Edward Hall, The Vnion of the two noble and illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke . . . (London, 1550), fol. lxxxvi. John Bellamy refers to the role of Buckingham’s letters at his trial in The Tudor Law of Treason (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 149.

11 See John Walter, “A ‘Rising of the People’? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596,” Past & Present 107 (May 1985), 90-143.

12 The phrase originates with Vergil: “Tum ille partim ulciscendi se cupiditate incensus, partim praemio ductus . . .” which Denys Hay translates “Partly fired by a desire for revenge, partly led on by bribes.” See Polydore Vergil, The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil : A. D. 1485-1537, ed. and trans. Denys Hay, Camden Series, Vol. 74 (London, 1950), p. 271. Hall and Stow, unlike Vergil and Holinshed, did not mention Wolsey as having any role in bringing Buckingham to trial, and in their simpler versions they expressed no doubts that Buckingham was guilty. Vergil, however, had been imprisoned in the Tower, thanks to Wolsey, and his resulting hatred of the cardinal everywhere colours his reportage. His Anglica Historia was published in Henry’s reign, so of course Buckingham’s guilt was not to be questioned but, because of his own experience, Vergil could not avoid leaving an ambiguous account that accuses Wolsey of malice and personal vindictiveness in setting a trap for Buckingham by suborning Knevet to testify against the duke. Holinshed relied heavily on Vergil as he wrote his section on Buckingham, and calls attention to his own addition:
These were the speciall articles and points comprised in the indictment, and laid to his charge: but how trulie, or in what sort prooued, I haue not further to say, either in accusing him or excusing him, other than I find in Hall and Polydor, whose words in effect, I haue thought to impart to the reader, and without anie parciall wresting of the same either to or fro.

Sauing that (I trust) I maie without offense saie, that (as the rumour then went) the cardinall chieflie procured the death of this noble man, no lesse fauoured of the people of this realm in that season, than the cardinall himselfe was hated and enuied. Which thing caused the dukes fall to be pitied and lamented, sith he was the man of all other, that chieflie went about to crosse the cardinall in his lordlie demeanor, & headie proceedings (p. 661).



13Scarisbrick, p. 189.

14 Though Bishop Fisher argued that the doubt had been added by Henry VII, Henry Ansgar Kelly suggests that “forsan” had been inserted at the insistence of Katherine’s mother Isabella, “because in her view the statement of consummation was not true.” See his The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), p. 97. Scarisbrick discusses the importance of “forsan” in the argument about the impediment of public honesty incurred by the promise to marry, as opposed to the carnal affinity of marriage, on pp. 187-96, and Kelly responds to this on pp. 30-37and passim.

15 Chapuys wrote to Charles V in 1529 of Henry’s taunting Katherine in private that her virginity did not matter, “You are not my wife for all that, since the bull did not dispense super impedimento publicae honestatis.” As Kelly points out, once the trial was under way, “This is the closest that Henry would come to admitting the queen’s virginity” (pp. 129-130).

16 Betty Travitsky’s excellent article “Reprinting Tudor History: The Case of Catherine of Aragon,” Ren. Q. 50 (1997), 164-72, compares the textual changes that throughout the sixteenth century overtook the frequent reprintings of Vives’s Instruction of a Christen Woman; she shows how these reflect the dangers felt in dealing with Catherine’s political fortunes after the divorce, and then demonstrates how textual alterations and re-admissions at the end of the century rehabilitate Catherine, signalling that she was no longer felt to be a dangerous topic.

Phyllis Rackin’s observations on the relationship between “historiographic writing” and truth are pertinent: “Historiographic writing no longer had a direct, unequivocal relation with historical truth. Alternative accounts of historical events and opposed interpretations of their causes and significance now threatened each other’s credibility. . . .” (Stages of History: Shakespeare’s English Chronicles [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990], p. 13.



17 Judith Anderson presents evidence in Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984) that Shakespeare seems to have read the 1592 edition of Stow (see pp. 136-42).

18 John Stow, The Annales of England faithfully collected . . . (London, 1592), p. 913 (emphasis mine). Cavendish’s account slightly differs from Stow in wording, but not about Katherine’s clear assertion of her virginity prior to marriage with Henry.

19 George Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge & Sons, n.d.), pp. 101-102.

20 On these events see Kelly, pp. 59-86; Scarisbrick, pp.222-25.

21 The Emergence of a Nation State (London and New York: Longman, 1984), p. 380. On the legality/illegality of the succession see F. W. Maitland, The Constitutional History of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968): “if statutes on such a matter had any validity, the succession was probably illegal” (pp. 281-82); and Sir David Lindsay Keir, The Constitutional History of Modern Britain Since 1485 (London: Adam and Charles Black, 9th ed., 1969): “Henry VIII’s will, statutory though its force was, had little effect either on the governmental system of Edward VI or on the succession to the throne” (p. 103).



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