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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1259

Cardinal Wolsey is the most powerful figure at court during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. During Henry VIII’s reign, however, Wolsey becomes too aggressive in his dealings with the nobility. He is of humble stock and lacks the advantages of family and ancestral office, causing the nobility to resent him deeply. Apart from his own innate abilities, he owes much to the king, who is willing—up to a point—to allow him to handle many affairs of state. Unscrupulous in seeking his own ends, Wolsey ruthlessly removes all obstacles in his climb to power.

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One such hindrance to Wolsey’s ambitious designs is the duke of Buckingham. Accused of high treason through the cardinal’s machinations, Buckingham is brought before king and court for trial. Queen Katharine, speaking in Buckingham’s defense, protests to his innocence. Moreover, she argues against the cardinal’s unjust taxes and informs the king of growing animosity among his people caused by Wolsey’s continued position as his adviser. Wolsey, in his turn, produces witnesses—among them Buckingham’s discharged surveyor—who testify to Buckingham’s disloyalty. The surveyor swears that, at the time of the king’s journey to France, the duke sought priestly confirmation for his belief that he could, by gaining favor with the common people, rise to govern England. In his long and persistent testimony, the surveyor plays upon earlier minor offenses committed by Buckingham, and he climaxes his accusation with an account of the duke’s assertion that he would murder the king to gain the throne.

In spite of Katharine’s forthright protestations against Wolsey and her repeated contention that the testimony against Buckingham is false, the accused man is found guilty and sentenced to be executed. The duke, forbearing toward his enemies, recalls the experience of his father, Henry of Buckingham, who was likewise betrayed at trial by a servant. Henry VII restored the honor of the family by elevating the present duke to favor. One difference prevails between the two trials, the duke states: His father was unjustly dealt with, but he himself has had a noble trial.

Fearing reprisal from Buckingham’s son, Wolsey sends him to Ireland as a deputy; then, incensed and uneasy because of Katharine’s open accusations against him, Wolsey pricks the king’s conscience with questions regarding his marriage to her. He reminds the king that Katharine was the widow of Henry’s brother before she married Henry. Wolsey furthers his cause against Katharine by arousing Henry’s interest in Anne Boleyn, whom the king meets at a ball given by the cardinal.

Wolsey’s plan in securing a divorce for Henry is supported not only by the king’s evident trust in Wolsey but also because the male children born to him and Katharine have all either been stillborn or died shortly after birth. Consequently, Henry has no direct male heir to the throne. He feels keenly about this and strongly desires such an heir.

The cardinal’s final step to be rid of Katharine, his chief adversary at court, is to appeal to the pope for a royal divorce. He arranges a trial for Katharine to prove that her marriage to Henry is against Holy Writ and therefore sinful. Katharine appears in her own defense, insisting that her marriage to Henry is just and proper. Wolsey again resorts to perjured witnesses. Requesting counsel, Katharine is told by Wolsey that the honest and intelligent men gathered at the hearing are already of her choosing. Cardinal Campeius, sent from Rome, supports Wolsey’s stand.

In speeches of magnificent dignity and honesty, Katharine denounces the political treachery that has caused her so much unhappiness. Later, however, after being expelled from court and sequestered in Kimbolton, Katharine will feel compassion for Wolsey when she is informed that he has died in ill repute. She will also demonstrate her steadfast devotion to Henry in her death note to him. Altruistic to the last, she makes as her final request to the king the maintenance of the domestics who have served her faithfully. Her strength to tolerate the injustices she has endured lies in her trust in a Power that, she says, cannot be corrupted by a king.

Ambition overleaps itself in Wolsey’s designs for power. His great pride causes him to accumulate greater wealth than the king. The cardinal also uses an inscription, Ego et Rex meus, that subordinates the king to the cardinal, and he has a British coin stamped with a cardinal’s hat. These, among many other offenses, are of little importance, however, when compared with Wolsey’s double-dealing against the king in the divorce proceedings he has instituted. Wolsey fears that Henry will marry Anne Boleyn instead of seeking the royal alliance in France that Wolsey desires. Wolsey therefore writes to the pope, asking him to delay Henry’s divorce. His letter is delivered by mistake to the king, and Wolsey is confronted with the result of his own carelessness. He responds in a way that demonstrates the tenacious character of ambitious climbers. Although he realizes that his error will be his undoing, he attempts unsuccessfully to ingratiate himself once more to the king.

Wolsey cannot save himself. Although he could instigate the unseating and banishment of subordinates, and he could even maneuver to have the queen sequestered, he fails to realize how fully he has alienated himself from Henry. Repentant that he has not served God with the effort and fervor with which he has served the king, Wolsey leaves the court a broken man. He is later arrested at York to be returned for arraignment before Henry, but he is saved the humiliation of a trial when he dies on the way to London.

Henry appoints Cranmer archbishop of Canterbury, and the new archbishop sucessfully engineers the king’s divorce. Shortly afterward, Henry secretly marries Anne Boleyn. After Wolsey’s death, Anne is crowned queen with great pomp. Cranmer now becomes Henry’s chief adviser. Jealousy and rivalry, however, do not disappear from the court with Wolsey’s downfall. Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester, sets out to undermine Cranmer’s position with the king. Accused as a heretic, Cranmer is summoned to appear before the council, but Henry, trusting his favorite, gives him his royal signet ring before the trial. Overcome by the king’s kindness, Cranmer weeps in gratitude.

Standing behind a curtain near the council room, the king hears Gardiner’s charges against Cranmer. Gardiner commits Cranmer to the Tower, later to stand trial, and states that the council is acting on the pleasure of the king, whereupon the accused man produces the signet ring and insists upon his right to appeal his case to Henry. The nobles realize that they have acted unwisely, and when the king appears before them, they become abjectly penitent. Henry takes his seat at the council table and, after condemning the assemblage for their tactics in dealing with Cranmer, brings about a reconciliation, imploring those present to be motivated in the future by unity and love. He asks Cranmer to be godfather to the daughter recently born to Anne Boleyn. At the christening, Cranmer prophesies that the child, Elizabeth, will be wise and virtuous, that her life will be a pattern to all princes who know her, and that she will be loved and feared because of her goodness and her strength. He says, furthermore, that she will rule long, and that every day of her reign will be blessed with good deeds.

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