When All Is True: Knowing/ Not Knowing Law and History in Henry VIII In the last scene of The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight,1 Cranmer’s prophecy provides Elizabeth’s father with knowledge of the future not available at the play’s ostensible chronological cut-off point in 1533; nor, because of the legal arrangements Henry left, was this future imaginable when Henry died in 1547. The panegyric delivered from the perspective of 1613 is a utopian evaluation of the Elizabethan past and the Jacobean present which the stage Henry receives as an “oracle of comfort” (V.4.66), and the flattery will become obvious enough to all present to call for Cranmer’s prefatory affirmation that the words he utters are all “truth” (ll. 15-16); less obvious in this context of apparently uncomplicated praise is that the prophecy builds on facts that culminate a series of real historical ironies and legal reversals that represented major defeats for Henry and his plans for the future. Henry learns here that Elizabeth will reign, but that she will die childless (thus extinguishing the direct line of succession with which he was obsessed); the second major piece of information Cranmer provides is buffered by linguistic evasions that neatly sidestep the problem of revealing the name of Elizabeth’s Stuart successor and the ultimate triumph of the Scottish line that Henry had passed over when he laid out his dispositions for succession in his last will and testament. That Cranmer is presenting Henry with knowledge that later historical developments would turn out to defeat his will is a situation of de facto irony, but though the audience knew quite well before it entered the theatre that Henry had laid out very different plans for ruling from the grave, it seems doubtful to me that this irony could have been easily recognized in performance. This raises a question pertinent to the domain of literary theory about the relationship between an audience’s extra-theatrical knowledge and textual manipulation of that knowledge as the fore-known is reworked in an imaginative context, but I will address this question only very briefly, and only insofar as I wish to point out links or analogies between the epistemology of performance and the issues of time and knowledge embedded within the script. These I see as coming not only from the specific questions of history and law that furnished plot material for the four “trials” dramatized in the play, but also as influenced by other legal and historical examples that, after 1529, made for numerous areas of epistemological uncertainty in England. Henry VIII had intended to provide a non-contestable succession and hence a clear and—at least inside England’s borders—peaceful future for his subjects, but his matrimonial politics left a record of historical ironies that created in turn a series of legal crises—some, but not all, of which were later rectified by the hind-sight of awkward and quasi-apologetic statutory revisions.
Henry VIII is enormously preoccupied with time. Cranmer’s prophecy is not the only point at which the future is either projected or hinted at,2 but I will come back to this later on; for the moment, I would like to consider Henry VIII’s relation to the past. In addition to itself being a depiction of the past, the play is also very often about depicting the past: recounting, examining, interpreting it. And though the past is commonly considered a known or knowable fact, the play reveals again and again that the past is unsure, subject to different interpretations, and holds unknowable secrets.3 The opening conversation between Norfolk and Buckingham about the Field of the Cloth of Gold begins innocently enough as an admiring account of its regal marvels and the “Order [that] gave each thing view” (I.1.44), but gives way at half point to criticism of the violation of the old order represented by the upstart butcher’s son Wolsey (“a keech,”[l. 55] “not propp’d by ancestry” [l. 59]) and his role in arranging the meeting between the courts of England and France. Within six lines the word “order” thus turns into a heated linguistic fulcrum as it takes on its other English meaning for those nobles who resent being “order’d” by “this butcher’s cur” (l. 120): “All this was order’d by the good discretion/ Of the right reverend Cardinal of York” (ll. 50-51). Norfolk describes the glitter of the kings’ encounter, “All was royal;/ To the disposing of it nought rebell’d” (ll. 42-43), but this is shortly revealed to be untrue: Buckingham contests it indeed since Wolsey, rather than Henry, was the organizer. Buckingham’s outrage at the economic strain the nobles have been obliged to bear for the display of “these fierce vanities” (l. 54) is exacerbated by its political pointlessness since, even as they speak, the pact between France and England has already been violated. Buckingham reveals too that Charles V’s recent trip to England, ostensibly to visit his aunt, in reality veiled his purpose of bribing Wolsey to undermine the Anglo-French peace treaty. The revelation of animosity between Buckingham and Wolsey quickly sketches in the picture of factionalism historically true of court circles under all the Tudors, but Buckingham’s loyalty to Henry himself would seem proved by the rhetoric with which he expresses his indignation at Wolsey’s “corrupt and treasonous” (155) behaviour and its insult to the honour of “the King our master” (l. 164). In none of the chronicles does Buckingham appear, as here, intentioned to denounce Wolsey for treason, so that the arrival of the guards with the king’s warrant for his own arrest for treason is Shakespeare’s ironic addition. But it is also theatrically perplexing since—if Buckingham is guilty4—the total lack of conspiratorial talk breaks the early modern stage convention that, either through soliloquy or through privileged fourth-wall eaves-dropping as plots were hatched and motivations explained, gave audiences access to fuller information than that available to most of the characters on stage. On the other hand, Buckingham’s reaction contains the play’s strongest indication that the accusations against him, that are later made to seem so weak, may indeed be founded, since the Duke already knows—without having been told—that the accusation has been made by his surveyor.
Metonymically linking the so-called “Amicable” Grant with the question of Buckingham’s treason, the second scene also recounts the recent past and makes clear that though someone knows the facts, a single version of them remains elusive. The metonymy also contrasts Henry’s inconsistency in dealing with the question of treason, a point I will return to later. Buckingham’s trial and execution took place in 1521, but Shakespeare went to Holinshed’s entries for 1525 to retrieve the tax issue. The tax question has no plot significance after this scene; neither, obviously, did it have to be included from simple chronological necessity. Extracted from its historical sequence and having in the plot economy no consequence, Shakespeare’s insertion of the Amicable Grant thus provides a relatively free discursive ground that exposes the difficulties of arriving at supposedly objective facts or discovering truth in public forums, particularly when political questions are mediated by political experts. Henry does not seem at first to be one of these experts. If true, Henry’s claims of complete ignorance about the tax are an admission of his administrative ineptitude, but the appearance of ignorance clears him from willing responsibility in a fiscal procedure that was without Parliamentary approval and therefore was not legal, shifting that responsibility squarely to the cardinal.5 Wolsey’s defense that “others tell steps with me” may or may not vaguely glance at Henry, but it elicits Katherine’s heated retort that focuses entirely on Wolsey’s culpable knowledge, without addressing that of the king’s:
No, my lord,
You know no more than others, but you frame
Things that are known alike, which are not wholesome
After Henry orders that the tax be rescinded and pardon be sent to those who had not paid it, Wolsey’s aside that the pardon should be “nois’d” as coming through the cardinal’s intercession is a theatrical demonstration of how knowledge of political truths can be distorted for the public’s consumption, and through it the audience has been sent an obvious sign of Wolsey’s deviousness; but though this is an unmistakable signal about Wolsey, it does not automatically exculpate Henry or dispel doubts about how much he really knows. If Henry is telling the truth, this scene shows through the interventions of Katherine, Norfolk, and Wolsey that the King is the only major figure at court who knows nothing of the tax. It is possible, but it strains credulity.
The play starts therefore with two consecutive scenes in which the possibilities of multi-vocal evaluations of “facts” are revealed. From here on it is largely constructed on the process, implications and/or results of trials of major figures of Henry’s time; but, though trials exist to establish an official version of truth, the play begins by exposing in non-judicial contexts how difficult it can be to arrive at ideas of truth about the past untinged by ambiguity or multiple interpretations..
Henry VIII’s imaginative rescripting of the past leaves many critics uncomfortable with its status as a history play. Certainly the play challenges the idea that history can recover a reliable, unequivocal, or totally truthful narrative about the past. One reason for this, as Cranmer’s prophecy partially illustrates, is that time removes closure from the narrative: subsequent events can alter the interpretation of earlier ones. In 1533 the birth of a girl, rather than a boy, represented personal disaster for her parents, and a political crisis for the country; by 1613, Elizabeth’s birth had acquired a different significance. One of the points I wish to make in this essay is that the narrative distortions that have disturbed the play’s position in the history genre seem to me to stem from the historical example of rethinking and rewriting the certainties of the past that was set by Henry himself, who—as long as he was alive—was quickly seconded by the legal acrobatics of Parliament as it passed the legislation necessary to accommodate his changes in heart and mind and turn his will into law. But it is also relevant that the play was written long after his death and after the death of the last direct heir of his body, ten years into the reign of a king whose line had been ignored by the provisions of Henry’s will.
Henry VIII’s determination to rewrite the history of his marriage to Katherine was made possible by passage of the Act of Appeals (March-April, 1533), which—at least in England—cleared the obstacle of Katherine’s appeal to Rome from the legal path that finally led to the annulment decreed in May, 1533, by Cranmer’s ecclesiastical court. Henry’s marriage to Anne had already taken place before this annulment was procured, although exactly how long before was muffled over in the chronicles. In reality Henry and Anne were secretly married on January 25, 1533, but Holinshed discreetly fixed an earlier date:
And herewith vpon his returne, he married privilie the ladie Anne Bullongne the same
daie, being the fourteenth daie of November, and the feast daie of saint Erkenwald; which
marriage was kept so secret, that verie few knew it till Easter next insuing, when it was
perceiued that she was with child (p. 777).6
Given Elizabeth’s birth in September, 1533, the tactic served to make the legitimacy of the baby’s conception a matter of historic record, in addition to making an honest woman of Anne. Whether in the months that passed between marriage to Anne and annulment from Katherine Henry was legally a bigamist or—since he claimed that the marriage had never been valid—a newly-married bachelor is a point that passed in official silence. Parliament’s role was to address the legitimacy of children from the Boleyn marriage and assure their right to succession, which it did in the First Act of Succession (1534):
And also be it enacted by auctoritie aforseid that all the issue hade and procreate, or
hereafter to be had and p[ro]create, bytwene your Highnes and your seid moost dere
and entyerly beloved wyfe Quene Anne, shalbe your lawfull childerne, and be
inheritable and enherit accordyng to the course of inheritaunce and lawes of this Realme
the ymperiall Crowne of the same. (25 Henry VIII. c.22)7 Two years later, Henry’s “moost dere and entyerly beloved wyfe Quene Anne” was found guilty of adultery and beheaded for treason. The law’s sentence against her was, like a great deal of Parliament’s most important legislation after 1530, an act of compliance with Henry’s determined will. Anne had failed to produce the inheriting son expected of her, and Henry’s passion for her had, after so many years of ardent desire and courtship, quickly burnt itself out once the legitimation of marriage was achieved. On May 17, 1536, Cranmer, in his ecclesiastical court, pronounced the nullity of the marriage, based on the impediment deriving from Henry’s earlier liaison with Anne’s sister Mary. As G. R. Elton points out, “Thus the stories, so hotly denied when they were used by Catherine’s supporters to argue against the Boleyn marriage, were in the end allowed to serve the new situation” (1977, p. 252). Elton also points out that the legal inconsistency of the charge of adultery, in a marriage adjudicated never to have been legal, disturbed no one. Thus Anne—judged in one court to be an adulteress and in another never to have been a legal wife—was beheaded on May 19. Within twenty-four hours of her death Henry and Jane Seymour were formally betrothed, and their marriage was celebrated on May 30. These developments in Henry’s matrimonial history obviously changed the significance of the First Act of Succession: the act meant to assure England’s future had become a potential danger, but to undo its earlier legislation Parliament apparently felt that it needed to find and put on record a legitimizing rationale. The rationale was perhaps that found by Cranmer’s ecclesiastical court—the invalidity of the marriage on the basis of affinity caused by Henry’s earlier liaison with Mary Boleyn—but the statute does not specify the logic at its base. The first paragraph of the statute 28 Henry VIII c. 7 thus finds objectionable “c[er]tayne articles and clauses concernyng the ratification of your said unlawfull mariage betwene your Highnes and the said Lady Anne and the lymitacion of your Succession to the issues of your body had by the said Lady Anne. . . which clauses and articles be nowe become of late so dishonorable and so far distaunte from the due course of your com[m]on lawes of your Realme, and also so moche ayenst good reason equitie and good consciens, that they cannot be tollerated to contynue and endure without great perill and dyvysion hereafter. . .” (S. R., III. 656). The same clause had already established that, in view of the “unlawfull mariage,” Elizabeth’s succession would clearly be “ayenste all honour equite reason and good consciens if remedye shulde not be p[ro]vyded for the same.” Rewriting the legal past was a necessary step for smoothing over the present and mapping out the legal future. Parliament expressed its gratitude that Henry, “notwithstandyng the great and intollerable perilles and occasions which your Highnes hath suffred and susteyend,” had acquiesced in marrying again “at the moste humble peticion and intercession of us your Nobles of this Realme” (p. 657). Jane, unlike Anne, was not pregnant at the time of her marriage to Henry, but “for her convenient yeres excellente beautie and pureness of flesh and blode is apte (God willyng) to conceyve issue by your Highnes.” This likelihood necessitated that neither Elizabeth nor Mary should be Henry’s legal issue, so that the “remedye” Parliament enacted was the bastardization of both. Mary’s illegitimacy was not specifically addressed, though it was implicit in the Act of 1534, but in the Act of 1536 both she and Elizabeth were explicitly declared, in separate paragraphs but in parallel formulae, “illegittymate.” This act also conferred on Henry the right to name his successors “by your letters patentes under your great seale or ells by your laste Will made in wrytynge and signed with your moste gracious hande” (p. 659).
In the Third Act of Succession (1543/4), Elizabeth was restored to a place in the line of succession after Edward and Mary, though the statutory illegitimacy of both of Henry’s daughters remained. In paragraph 7 this act also excluded “forreyne Powers” from succeeding (S. R., III. 957), a provision that technically excluded Henry’s Scottish relatives—who, in any case, remained unmentioned in Henry’s last will and testament.8 Of the many ironies in Henry’s personal and political life, certainly one of the major ones is that Henry, who was so anxious in the last twenty years of his life to insure the legitimacy of his successors, should have been responsible for legal measures that, in different ways, clouded the legitimacy of three of them.9
Henry’s pre-marital passion for Anne was intense and determined, but his purpose in seeking annulment from Katherine was beyond anything else dictated by his concern for England’s political future based on his knowledge of England’s recent political past. His own Lancastrian father had consolidated his claim to the throne through his marriage with Elizabeth of York, but the two separate challenges to the legitimacy of the first Tudor king mounted by Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck had demonstrated that fifteenth century uncertainties over succession were not terminated either by Henry VII’s accession or by his political marriage. Henry VIII meant to avert the renewal of such internal divisions in the country by providing England with a son. Henry eventually got his son, though not by Anne. But by then the Defender of the Faith had broken with the faith he had defended, and the split in the country the desired son presumably ought to have avoided was instead assured through religious differences that outlived all the Tudors.
Perhaps uniquely among Shakespeare’s English history plays, Henry VIII was not likely to have been, even for the most illiterate member of the audience, anyone’s sole source of information either about Henry’s willful temperament or of many of the events during and after his reign—including, among other things the variety of legal difficulties and ironic developments that, even before Henry died, complicated the history of the succession that Henry so fervently wished to direct. And thanks to the audience’s knowledge and memory, Henry VIII occasionally suggests more than it strictly says. There are several points in which the play reminds the audience that the future would bring ironic surprises and tragic reversals. (Consider, for example, Anne’s fearfulness at the end of II.3 [“it faints me/ To think what follows”] and the repeated dangers felt for Anne’s life in Act V as she is giving birth to the child that turns out to be a girl. III.2 contains a number of such arch reminders: the repeated emphasis on Thomas Cromwell’s future “safety” as Henry’s servant; the reminder of the importance of Thomas More’s “conscience,” and the obvious double meaning in Henry’s reproof of Wolsey: “I deem you an ill husband and am glad/ To have you therein my companion” [ll. 142-3].) About religion, though, the play is noticeably circumspect. In Cranmer’s prophecy eighty years of tumultuous religious change are quietly addressed in only half a line: “God shall be truly known” (V.4.36). By anticipating the Privy Council’s actions against Cranmer in the 1540’s to 1533, and thereby ostensibly cutting off at Elizabeth’s birth, the play operates in a selective time frame that theoretically blocks from view the historical bloodshed—much, though not all of it, for religious causes—that came later. I would suggest, though, that by choosing at all to dramatize Gardiner’s plot against Cranmer the play manages to remind the audience, without apparently saying so, that Cranmer’s difficulties with his Catholic enemies were not over. With Henry’s dramatically drawn-out maneuver to save Cranmer the play officially demonstrates the power of Henry’s will, as well as a unique instance of his mercy; but since Cranmer’s martyrdom under Mary was one of the better known stories in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, the play also reminds the audience of Cranmer’s on-going historical difficulties with his Catholic enemies—difficulties only temporarily laid to rest here by the force of Henry’s will. The audience with access to the whole of Cranmer’s story knew what awaited him in Mary’s reign: liminally, then, the very act that dramatizes the overriding effect of Henry’s will also suggests its legal and chronological limits.
Cranmer’s “trial” in the Privy Council only barely gets under way before it is truncated by Henry’s partisanship for his useful friend, but the episode recalls the play’s earlier depiction of the legal procedures against Buckingham in several ways. One of these is the obvious contrast between Henry’s interest in Cranmer in Act V and his refusal, at the conclusion of his examination of Buckingham’s surveyor in I.2, to exercise the mercy of his royal prerogative in the Duke’s favour:
he is attach’d,
Call him to present trial; if he may
Find mercy in the law, ‘tis his; if none,
Let him not seek’t of us. By day and night,
He’s traitor to th’ height.
This scene alters the pre-trial process recorded in Holinshed—who got his details from Polydore Vergil—where it is Wolsey alone who, “boiling in hatred against the duke of Buckingham, & thirsting for his bloud” (p. 657), both procures the witness and examines him: “This Kneuet being had in examination before the cardinall, disclosed all the dukes life. . . . The cardinall hauing thus taken the examination of Kneuet, went vnto the king, and declared vnto him, that his person was in danger by such traitorous purpose, as the duke of Buckingham had conceiued in his heart, and shewed how that now there is manifest tokens of his wicked pretense; wherefore, he exhorted the king to prouide for his owne suertie with speed. The king hearing the accusation, inforced to the vttermost by the cardinall, made this answer; If the duke haue deserued to be punished, let him haue according to his deserts” (pp. 657-58). On stage, as in historical fact, it was normal praxis for a king to examine informants, so the public would see nothing strange in Henry’s role here. But Holinshed stresses Wolsey’s maliciousness as well as Henry’s reluctance in proceeding against the duke (“inforced to the vttermost by the cardinall”), so that the substitution of Henry for Wolsey alters the dynamics of the inquisition as it appears in Holinshed, and this choice is problematized by two other choices: (1) omission of Buckingham’s incriminating letters and (2) the contrast between Henry’s leniency in dealing with the rebellion in Kent and his harshness with Buckingham. In the chronicles, part of the numerous accusations contained in the indictment read against Buckingham involved letters the Duke had written to the monk, and these were produced as evidence against him at the trial: “Maister Ihon Delacourt . . . his owne hand writyng layde before hym to the accusement of the duke.”10 What remains of the chronicles in the play are unverifiable “words” and “speech” the surveyor claims to have overheard between the duke and his son-in-law:
Surv. First, it was usual with him, every day