The prologue tells the readers that this is not a play meant to make one laugh, but a sad tale, meant to make one weep. In addition, we are told to think of the characters in this play as if they are actually living.
Act 1, Scene 1 Setting: London, the royal palace
The Dukes of Buckingham and Norfolk and Lord Abergavenny discuss the recent peace between England and France and the meeting between King Henry VIII and the French king (the historical "field of the gold cloth" is the event they speak of). England, however, as the lords say, has gotten the lesser end of the truce thanks to the bad advice of Cardinal Wolsey, the primary adviser to King Henry. The men all continue to bad mouth Wolsey when the cardinal and his train pass by, Wolsey telling his secretary that he shall do something to sabotage Buckingham. After Wolsey's departure, Buckingham continues to (deservedly) slander the cardinal, even accusing him of working with the French king against the English in order to receive payment for himself. At this point, Brandon enters with a sergeant to arrest Buckingham of treason and deliver him to the Tower of London, along with Lord Avergavenny. Brandon names several other men involved with the plot, and Buckingham is sure that Wolsey has paid off his surveyor in some way. Buckingham is then led off to prison.
Act 1, Scene 2 Setting: The council chamber
King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey prepare to hear the deposition from Buckingham's surveyor when Queen Katherine and the lords arrive. The queen informs Henry that the commons are up in arms because of high taxation (claiming that Wolsey is responsible) cast upon them because of the wars in France. Wolsey denies all of these charges against him, and the king, who is outraged about the taxes but believes his counselor's innocence, orders him to disband said taxes. The cardinal then orders his secretary to tell the people that it was he, not the king, who has revoked the taxes (a plot to make himself look better in the eyes of the commons). Buckingham's surveyor is then brought in, and he tells of the supposed plots of his former master: Buckingham claimed that, if Henry died without issue, he himself would claim the throne; he would take revenge upon Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas Lovell; and that he would have done the deed his father would like to have done to Richard III and stabbed him to death. The surveyor claims that Buckingham's dreams of the crown came from a prophesy spoken by a monk. Queen Katherine, is skeptical and brings up the fact that he had been dismissed from Buckingham's service for not properly doing his job. Henry, however, has heard enough and orders Buckingham to be brought to trial.
Act 1, Scene 3 Setting: The royal palace
The lord chamberlain, Lord Sandys and Sir Thomas Lovell discuss several topics about the English shunning French influence. They then talk of the festivities that are to be held at Cardinal Wolsey's house before departing.
Act 1, Scene 4 Setting: York place
The lords and ladies all arrive at the cardinal's house for the banquet and are mingling when a foreign party arrives masked and dressed as shepherd's. One of the members of this party is King Henry, and the party dances with certain ladies present - Henry with Anne Bullen. Wolsey suspects that the king is one of those present and picks him out. The king reveals himself and exchanges tender words with Anne. All present then set off to dine.
Act 2, Scene 1 Setting: A street
Two gentlemen speak of the fate of Buckingham. The duke was found guilty of high treason and condemned to death based on the testimony of his surveyor and several others involved. It is widely believed that Cardinal Wolsey has orchestrated this entire situation. The gentlemen also talk of how hated by the people the cardinal is (as much as Buckingham is loved) and how the cardinal will send away from court any man who finds favor with King Henry (as he has already done to the Earl of Surrey, who was sent to Ireland on the cardinal's advice). Buckingham is led by as a prisoner and informs the people that he is set to be executed. He gives them and his captors friendly words of advice not to trust certain people and is led off. The two gentlemen then discuss how Wolsey has put in a bad word with the king against Queen Katherine as revenge against the Holy Roman Emperor (Katherine's nephew) for not awarding him a certain bishopric. Katherine's misfortune is lamented by the gentlemen who then depart.
Act 2, Scene 2 Setting: The royal palace
The Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk and the lord chamberlain discuss the cardinal's deceitful behavior in creating a rift between the king and queen (although Suffolk seems to know that the king has become infatuated with Anne Bullen). When the two dukes attempt to approach the king with certain matters of state, he rebukes them and only becomes happy when Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius, an agent sent from Rome to help with the situation involving the queen, enter and are greeted kindly by him. They then discuss preparations for Katherine's trial and Gardiner (the king's new secretary whom Wolsey has set up in the position) is sent with a certain document to her. Campeius tells Wolsey of the rumors going about that he sabotaged the career of the king's previous secretary, Doctor Pace, and Wolsey simply tells his fellow cardinal that Gardiner was a better man for the job. The men then set off to Blackfriars for Katherine's trial.
Act 2, Scene 3 Setting: The queen's apartments
Anne Bullen and an old lady discuss the woes of Queen Katherine and talk of what it would be like to be a queen, a position Anne claims she would never accept. The Lord Chamberlain enters bringing tidings from the king and informs Anne that Henry has awarded her with the title of Marchioness of Pembroke, which also includes an income of a thousand pounds per year. Anne is grateful for the king's kind gift and knows not what to say. After the chamberlain departs, the old lady teases Anne about how she shall soon be Queen of England.
Act 2, Scene 4 Setting: The court at Blackfriars
Katherine is brought before King Henry to plead her case, and she delivers a lengthy lament on how she has always been a faithful and loving wife to him. When Wolsey intervenes, the queen chastises him and says she will not accept him as a judge, being that she feels he is her enemy and is responsible for creating this trouble between she and the king. Katherine then departs from the court, despite being called back. After the queen's departure, Wolsey asks the king if he would clear him from all the charges that Katherine laid on him. Henry excuses the cardinal from all offenses and claims it is his own conscience that urges him on. He claims that his marriage to Katherine is not legitimate, being that Katherine was previously married to his elder brother and, in addition, his daughter Mary is illegitimate. It is for this reason that he has approached several religious officials about a divorce from his wife. Cardinal Campeius says that Katherine must be present to answer these accusations, and the king believes that the cardinals are attempting to trick him. He wishes his adviser Thomas Cranmer were by his side and departs.
Act 3, Scene 1 Setting: The queen's apartments
Queen Katherine and her women sing sad songs and lament her situation when Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius enter to persuade the queen to have no fear as to her situation. The entire scene consists of Katherine lamenting her position and saying she does not have any friends in England that will plead her case for her, while the cardinals attempt to convince her that they are there to support her. In the end, Katherine goes with them to accept her fate.
Act 3, Scene 2 Setting: The king's apartments
The lords talk of how they will cause Wolsey's downfall in the eyes of the king, when Suffolk tells of how the king got a hold of a letter Wolsey sent to the pope, urging him not to grant the king a divorce so that he could not marry Anne Bullen. Carninal Campeius has already returned to Rome to provide further evidence against Wolsey in the king's eyes. Also, Cranmer has returned to England and has helped the king achieve his divorce from Katherine, and the Chamberlain announces that Henry has already married Anne; they await her coronation. Cardinal Wolsey is seen talking with Thomas Cromwell about a letter he had given to the king about a suggested marriage to the Duchess of Alencon. The cardinal tells of how he does not approve of the king's marriage to Anne and how he hates Cranmer, one of the favorites of the king, as the lords watch him in his ramblings. At this point, the king enters and tells the lords that the packet he received from Wolsey was (accidentally on the part of the cardinal) an inventory of all of the lavish expenses the cardinal has built up. When the king approaches the cardinal about his loyalty (not divulging the information in the papers he has already looked over) Wolsey claims that he is forever faithful to him. King Henry plays along with Wolsey's lies and hands him both the inventory and the letter that was meant for the pope and departs. Wolsey looks over these papers and knows that he is completely undone. The lords then enter and inform the cardinal that he must give up his power and submit himself to the king. Wolsey says that he shall do no such thing without written notification, and a long argument erupts between the two sides where the lords name several of the cardinal's offenses that have caused his downfall. They further inform him that he must give up all his lands and possessions to the king and depart. Wolsey laments his fall from grace, and Cromwell enters with news from the court: Sir Thomas More has been created Lord Chancellor; Cranmer has been created Archbishop of Canterbury; and King Henry has married Anne Bullen. Only the latter of these announcements upsets the cardinal. He advises Cromwell at length to be faithful to the king and he shall win his favor before the two depart.
Act 4, Scene 1 Setting: A street in Westminster
Two gentlemen await the procession of Anne's coronation to pass by and discuss certain topics, namely how the former Queen Katherine has been officially divorced and now lies sick. Anne's coronation procession passes by in grand fashion as the gentlemen watch spell-bound. After the procession passes a third gentleman enters and describes Anne's coronation before the men depart.
Act 4, Scene 2 Setting: Katherine's apartments (at Kimbolton)
Katherine lies sick in her room with her usher Griffith and her gentlewoman Patience. She is informed that Cardinal Wolsey has died after he was arrested. After Katherine criticizes Wolsey's malicious way of life, Griffith tells of some of the good things that he accomplished, and Katherine cannot help but pity the cardinal. Katherine then has a strange vision in her dream. She awakes in a frenzy, and Lord Capuchius arrives with greetings from the king. Katherine gives him a letter to take back to Henry begging him to take good care of their daughter Mary and her other ladies. Capuchius agrees to do this, and Katherine lays down to her final resting place.
Act 5, Scene 1 Setting: The royal palace
Gardiner and his page encounter Sir Thomas Lovell. Lovell informs Gardiner that Queen Anne is in labor and may die during the birthing process. Gardiner wishes the child well but wishes Anne dead. He also expresses his hatred for Cromwell and Cranmer, who are both highly influential advisers to the king. Lovell says it would be difficult to push them from their positions of power, but Gardiner informs him that he and the other lords have summoned Cranmer to the council board to accuse him of several crimes. Gardiner departs and the king and Suffolk arrive. Lovell informs the king that Anne is on the point of giving birth but may not survive herself. Cranmer is then ushered in, and he and the king have a private conference. The king informs Cranmer that he has many enemies who are making grievous accusations about him and that, until he can be proven innocent, must stay in the tower. Cranmer humbly denies the accusations against him, and the king believes him. Henry than tells Cranmer to face his accusers the next morning and gives him his ring to vouch for his innocence on all matters. Cranmer departs and an old lady enters to inform Henry that Anne has given birth to a daughter. The king orders Lovell to give the old lady a hundred marks and departs, with the old lady wanting a higher amount.
Act 5, Scene 2 Setting: Outside the council chambers
Cranmer arrives at the council chambers and is forced to wait outside like a common page. Doctor Butts, the king's physician, sees this and informs the king. Henry is irate that a man of such standing should be made to wait. Cranmer is finally admitted and is immediately accused by his peers of spreading heresies about the realm. Gardiner is the primary accuser while Cromwell seems to be the only one who defends Cranmer. The two sides continue to quarrel before it is decided that Cranmer should be thrown in the tower until further notice. Cranmer, who had been defending himself all along, shows the councilors the king's ring (a sign of his support) and the men immediately know that they have done wrong by making these accusations upon so honorable a man. The king himself then enters, condemns flattery (after Gardiner immediately attempts to flatter him) and severely chastises the councilors for forcing Cranmer to wait at the gate like a stable boy and wrongfully accusing him of many crimes he is innocent of. Henry orders the councilors to make peace with Cranmer, which they all do. He then tells Cranmer that his newly born daughter must be baptized, and they all depart.
Act 5, Scene 3 Setting: The palace courtyard
Several lower class citizens talk of the tumult that is being caused over the christening of Princess Elizabeth before the Lord Chamberlain chides them for their laziness.
Act 5, Scene 4 Setting: The palace
The king and all the lords gather for Princess Elizabeth's baptism. Cranmer prophesies that Elizabeth will be a highly respected figure in England but will die a virgin, without an heir to her crown, but, nonetheless, will be sincerely mourned. Henry thanks all for joining him and sets off to see Queen Anne.
The chorus tells the audience that the main goal of this play was to show the virtues of good women, and the play ends.