Henry VIIIth (1586)

The Court of Henry VIIIth

The play “Henry VIIIth” or as it was originally entitled “All Is True” is actually one of Shakespeare’s earliest historical dramas derived largely from Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland & Ireland” (1587) with some material from Hall’s “Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster & Yorke” (1548). Additional details no doubt provided from Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” (1563). Some experts (E.K. Chambers and A.L. Rowse) have concluded that the work, as in many other cases, was completed towards the end of Shakespeare’s life in collaboration with the playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625). Inevitably both the Shakespearean scholars and renowned academics, Chambers and Rowse were in error on this score as with many others. A record from Edward Alleyn mentions the tiring room having a “Harry the VIII gown and a Cardinal’s gown” from a much earlier time. It is highly doubtful that a first performance date of 29th June, 1613 was accurate under the circumstances

which links it to the fire at the Globe. As Edmund Howes records in his update to Stowe’s Annales (1615):

“Upon St. Peter’s Day last,  the playhouse or Theatre called the Globe, upon Bankside near London, by negligent discharging of a peal of ordinance, close to the southside thereof, the thatch took fire…the house being filled with people to behold the play, viz of Henry the Eighth”.

Other accounts are available naming the play “All Is True” by Sir Henry Wootton and the merchant, Henry Bluet describing the fire at the Globe as well as its’ cause. It is more likely that the play was commissioned and played before Queen Elizabeth Ist, the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIIIth because of its’ complimentary nature towards the Tudor monarch. Since Edward Alleyne mentions the costume as early as the 1580’s or 1590’s. Samuel Rowley’s play “When You See Me, You Know Me” published in 1605 and 1613 contains similarities to “Henry the Eighth” but the numerous references to the name of “GOD” suggests it was written before the Act to Restrain Abuses, which prevented playwrights from mentioning the word of God in their plays.

It is more likely that the play was commissioned and played before Queen Elizabeth Ist, the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIIIth because of its’ complimentary nature towards the Tudor monarch. The play also works towards the birth of Elizabeth and the potentiality of her future reign, praising the marriage of Anne Boleyn. It is highly unlikely that the play would have been written during the reign of James the First. Authoritative Oxfordian proposals suggest it was written shortly after the Earl of Oxford was awarded a £1,000 annuity by Queen Elizabeth c. 1586. Henry Wotton’s account of the fire in a letter (Reliquiae Wottonaie pp. 425-6) during the performance of Henry VIIIth in 1613 was not actually recorded until 1685 and it is not certain from the document whether Wotton had actually been there as a spectator or simply reporting the event from earlier accounts. The play exemplifies the end of an era, the beginning of the Tudor dynasty – Protestant Reformation as well as the climactic birth and baptism of the soon to be Virgin Queen. It stands to reason therefore and perfectly plausible that the play had been composed earlier since it echoes the institution of the Stuart dynasty and the end of the Tudors. I suspect a year or two after the failure of the Spanish Armada (1589-90) would have been a more auspicious time for staging this play, that is at the height of Elizabeth’s national popularity and more importantly within her lifetime.

King John and Henry VIIIth are self-contained historical dramas and not really part of the interconnected and highly cross-referenced historical plays featuring the Plantagenet and Tudor royal lineage. While they only briefly touch upon the major issues that identify them historically, for example whilst Henry VIIIth was popularised for having six wives, not all of them are featured in Shakespeare’s own play and he portrays the autocratic and bombastic Henry in a rather more favourable light. Only in many later dramatic versions do we see the apparently vulnerable Henry correctly portrayed as a ruthless, lecherous and avaricious individual. Perhaps because the author was after all living in the shadow of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth Ist and did not wish to offend her royal majesty lest his own head met the block. Similarly, the historical importance of the Reformation and counter-Reformation is only briefly dealt with. Therefore, we can safely assert that the truth of history was heavily biased towards the ruling aristocracy in Shakespeare’s plays. And yet according to the evidence provided by historians, many people presume that Shakespeare himself was not of noble birth. So where, one might ask did Shakespeare derive this burning interest and preoccupation, not only with English History, but with the history of the Greeks and Romans?

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Website: www.qudosacademy.org

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