Henry VIII - Production Notes

Last Update: 30 October 2004
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Source: Masterpiece Theatre (PBS)
Story Synopsis
Henry VIII ascended to the throne as a lithe, handsome seventeen-year-old
and died after an extraordinary thirty-eight year reign, an embittered, obese
The rest of Europe looked on in amazement as Henry, desperate for a male
heir, cast aside the older, but loyal, Katharine of Aragon for a series of
marriages with wives who are probably better known for the way their
lives ended than they lived -- the determined temptress Anne Boleyn,
the pious yet tragic Jane Seymour, the outcast Anne of Cleves, the
adulterous Katherine Howard and finally the devoted Katherine Parr.
This tale of Henry VIII depicts the sexual intrigue, betrayal and rivalry that
existed within his court, in a reign notable for its political and religious
upheaval, violence and corruption.
Episode One
It's 1509, Richmond Palace: the deathbed of Henry VII. The King summons his
second son, seventeen-year-old Henry and gives his final words of wisdom to
the future King. 'You will take your brother Arthur's widow Katherine for your
wife. Most importantly, have a son. A male heir. That is the most important
thing you will ever do as a King.'
Two decades later, a woman gives birth to a baby boy. It transpires that
the baby is Henry VIII's, following a brief affair. Ever mindful of his father's
last words, Henry demands that Cardinal Wolsey legitimizes baby Henry
Fitzroy and gives him the succession. Wolsey warns the King that such an act
would be 'political suicide.' With his daughter Mary, by Spanish wife Katherine
of Aragon and the all-important alliance with Spain, Henry is finally convinced
that his only option is to keep trying for a son with his wife and forget the
existence of his infant namesake.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Buckingham -- a Plantaganet and claimant to the
throne -- is leading a revolt against the King. He vows that since Henry's
only heir is illegitimate, he himself will 'take down Henry Tudor and reclaim
the throne.' A crowd of powerful nobles gathers excitedly around him,
one of whom is a spy. The spy reports back to Wolsey.
Relations become increasingly strained between Henry and his subjects, as
well as with his wife. Following a number of miscarriages, Henry is desperate
to have a legitimate son yet finds the sight of Katherine ever more
unbearable as she continues to fail him.
When Buckingham attempts to meet with his cohorts to declare war on the
King, he is met with deathly silence in the woods. A horse eventually arrives
bearing one of his lieutenants. His throat is slit. As more and more of his
army emerge dying and drenched in blood, Henry reveals himself. This
war is over before it has even begun.
Katherine is devastated by news of her husband's barbaric treatment of
Buckingham's troops, not to mention the horrific torture the Duke was
subjected to. Is this the man she married? 'If you gave me a son, these
people would not rise against me,' he retorts.
The King and Queen later enter a vast ceremonial hall to preside over the
aristocratic engagements of England. Among the couples are Henry Percy
and Anne Boleyn, recently returned from the French court. From the moment
Henry sets eyes on the strikingly beautiful, quick-witted Anne, he is transfixed.
He will not allow her marriage to go ahead and instructs Wolsey to forbid the
union. Anne is incensed. Wolsey has made an enemy of her for life.
Unable to keep Anne from his thoughts, Henry summons her to court as a
lady-in-waiting to Katherine. It also transpires that Anne's sister Mary is
pregnant, maybe with Henry's child, following a passionate affair with him.
Despite Henry's desperate attempts to woo her, Anne is determined not
to suffer the same fate as her sister. Anne is given her own rooms at
court and rumors start to circulate about the king's fascination with this
fiery and arrogant new beauty. Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop of
Canterbury Thomas Cramner are concerned -- Henry has never been so
infatuated with a woman ...and a Protestant at that. Anne is steadfast.
'I want Percy back,' she spits angrily at the King. 'He is engaged to
another by arrangement of his family,' he sneers. Anne is resigned to
her fate. Yet she will sleep with the King on her own terms. 'Never
give a man something without securing your own interests first,' she
tells her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.
As Anne keeps the King at arm's length in spite of his numerous letters and
gifts, Katherine is advised of her lady-in-waiting's powerful hold over her
husband. Pacing about the court like a caged animal, Henry finally snaps
and begs Anne to take him as her lover. She hints that she would make a
good Queen who would bear him sons. Katherine's fate is sealed. Henry
uses the fact that Katherine did not come to the marital bed as a virgin,
having already given herself to his brother, as divine proof that God has
rendered her infertile and sets the wheels in motion for an annulment.
Wolsey is fearful that this will 'separate England from the rest of
Europe' and begs him not to cast the Queen aside. But Henry is
resolute. He will have Anne -- and a son -- whatever the cost.
Katherine declares that she will fight to keep her position and a bitter war
within the court begins. During the trial, Katherine gives a moving performance.
The Pope will not let the decision happen in England and the trial is postponed.
Henry is furious that he does not have the result Wolsey promised him and,
encouraged by Anne, orders Wolsey to leave court.
As Henry sinks into desperate despair, Cromwell has an idea -- get rid of
Catholic Katherine and bring in a new Church, a church Henry would head.
This Act of Supremacy would leave him free to make decisions independently
of Rome. The Church of England is formed, much to the anger and disgust
of the people of England, who loved Katherine. With this proof that she
is not just another passing fancy, Anne finally relents. Before long, Anne
and Henry are married. Katherine, meanwhile, is stripped of all power and
banished from London. Princess Mary is declared a bastard.
Soon after, Anne gives birth to a baby girl, Elizabeth. Henry is devastated -- he
needs a son. The Seymour family begins to plot. 'If Anne Boleyn doesn't give
Henry what he wants, his eye will wander and we want you to be in the front
line,' Edward Seymour tells his sister Jane. Jane is horrified at the suggestion.
Meanwhile, the tide is turning against Anne, both inside court and out. People
are interpreting Anne's delivery of a girl as a sign that she shouldn't be Queen.
Some even go so far as to accuse her of being a witch who has put their
King under a cursed spell.
Henry is once again taking mistresses. Anne has suffered two miscarriages
and the future of her reign looks bleak. A violent confrontation ends in the King
raping his wife. Their relationship is now in tatters, a situation that causes great
joy in the Seymour household. It becomes clear that the King has eyes for
Jane. Anne, he has now realized, is 'a nightmare' -- everything the gentle,
pious Jane isn't.
Anne has yet another miscarriage. Comforted by her brother George, she
is unaware that Cromwell's spies, in particular George's bitter and jealous
wife Lady Rochford, are watching her. At the end of his tether, Henry
interprets Lady Rochford's tales as proof that Anne is sleeping with her
brother. 'Get rid of her -- your life depends on it,' he orders Cromwell.
It is decided that Cromwell will find evidence of adultery on Anne's part.
Men are tortured into confessions of intimacies with the Queen. Norfolk
advises the Boleyns that they must distance themselves from her and he,
himself, will sit in judgment on his niece. Anne is doomed and anyone
siding with her is as well.
Meanwhile, Henry has become besotted with Jane. Jane is resistant to his charms
although she is more than aware that she is being primed as Anne's replacement.
Anne is now alone in the Great Court of the Tower of London, being tried
before a jury of her peers, one of whom is her former fiancé Henry Percy,
now Earl of Northumberland. She is adamant that she has never been
unfaithful to her husband. Her plea of innocence falls on deaf ears.
The verdict is delivered: guilty.
Carpenters prepare the execution site as Anne's belongings and portraits
are removed from the palace and replaced with those of Jane Seymour.
Surrounded by her ladies in waiting, Anne calmly prepares herself for death. A
desperate Henry offers his wife a chance to save herself, giving her the
option of an annulment. If she accepts, this would make their child,
Elizabeth, a bastard. Anne would rather die then allow that to happen
to her daughter. And so, a roar goes up as Anne leads her procession
to the scaffolding to a barrage of vile insults from the vast crowds.
Henry sets off for a day of hunting with the Seymours, desperate to be
as far away as possible from the events taking place at the Tower of
London. As if by instinct, he stops to look back just in time to see a
distant plume of smoke, followed by the delayed sound of cannon fire
signifying the end of Anne's life. Remorse and fear overwhelm him and
he begs God for forgiveness.
Episode Two
It is the day after Anne Boleyn's execution; Henry VIII weds Jane Seymour.
A backlash of violence has erupted throughout his country as a result of the
dissolution of the Catholic Church. Raging battles plague the country. Hundreds
are being tortured and slaughtered by Henry's own soldiers while churches are
burned to the ground.
Finally, the massacre stops. Total devastation prevails. Dogs scavenge among
corpses while a group of volunteers pick their way through the chaos. One such
volunteer, Robert Aske, a former soldier of the King, is enraged by the atrocities
around him. Publicly voicing his opinions, he receives huge cries of support.
With a mass of horses and armed Pilgrims dressed for battle, Aske travels to
London for a battle against the King. On discovering his former lieutenant
has raised twenty thousand troops against him, Henry rages at Cromwell. The
idea of the dissolution was to increase his popularity and put an end to Catholic
corruption. Instead it has achieved the complete opposite. Furious, Henry
demands a meeting with Aske. Jane chooses this moment to announce that
she is pregnant and Henry's dark mood is transformed.
The King and Aske meet. The atmosphere is tense as Aske lists his demands
on behalf of the wronged. Agreeing to them all, Henry demonstrates that he is
not harbouring any ill will and invites Aske to join him at a banquet with his
knights that evening.
Aske returns to York after the banquet fully expecting a hero's welcome. Instead
the disgruntled Duke of Norfolk and his henchmen await his arrival. Aske is
tortured and his corpse hung from the Gates of York. A triumphant Norfolk
returns to the King, securing his place by Henry's side once more.
The anticipation that Jane may be carrying the male heir to the throne consumes
the court. Jane, however, is preoccupied with two more pressing issues. First,
she is determined to reinstate relations between Henry and Mary, his first
daughter, and invites her to court for a meeting with her father. The meeting
is successful -- Henry accepts Mary back, much to the dismay of the other courtiers.
Secondly, Jane is furious with Henry for his treatment of Aske. Yet he is in no
mood to answer to a mere woman. He rages back at her, reminding her that all
he wants from her is a son -- not her opinions or her meddling. His violent
outburst causes Jane to fall heavily, sending her into premature labor.
The physicians struggle to cope and after three days, Jane gives birth to a healthy
boy, Edward. Elated, Henry rushes to his Queen's bedside to thank and
congratulate her. But she is dangerously ill, slipping in and out of
consciousness. The physicians can do nothing. Queen Jane is gone.
Henry slumps into a deep depression and ages dramatically in the subsequent
years, gaining a great deal of weight and suffering from the riding wound to
his leg. With much convincing, Cromwell finally brings the King around to the
idea of another marriage with Anne of Cleves. Holbein, the King's preferred
portrait artist, is sent to Germany to paint her. Henry likes what he sees in
Holbein's portrait and agrees to the marriage. Norfolk becomes increasingly
concerned about the power Cromwell could gain if this match turns out to be a
On meeting his future wife, Henry is disgusted by her appearance. Desperate
to call off the engagement which Cromwell has made impossible to break,
Henry pleads with Norfolk to find a way out. Norfolk has a plan and sets off
to pay a visit to his niece, Katherine Howard. Unaware that he has
interrupted Katherine while making love to her betrothed, Francis Dereham,
Norfolk sizes her up and is very pleased by what he sees. He is convinced
the King will be taken with this 15-year-old beauty too.
Five months into Henry's unconsummated marriage to Anne of Cleves,
Cromwell and the King's lawyers are still unable to find an 'out.' The
marriage could be dissolved but at great financial cost and embarrassment
to Henry. Henry's fury at being trapped in this way seals Cromwell's fate.
Cromwell walks to his execution to the familiar jeers of hatred from the
gathered crowds.
And so, Norfolk presents Katherine to Henry. Her youth and beauty captivate
him and he wastes no time in proposing. Norfolk is delighted -- his
power is secure and Henry is the happiest he has been in years.
But the wedding night is a disaster. Henry is impotent, and Thomas
Cramner discovers Katherine has not come to the marriage a virgin. Her
lack of sexual pleasure results in open flirtations with the younger male
members of the court. Norfolk and Lady Rochford are terrified by what
her behavior could mean for them, particularly her flirtations with
handsome courtier Thomas Culpeper. Their only safety net is the birth
of a son and heir, but both are painfully aware of Henry's impotence.
They hatch a plan using one problem to solve the other: 'The King
wants a son, but is unable. Katherine wants a lover, who is able...'
But the plan is destined to fail. Cranmer witnesses the Queen leaving
Culpeper's room. Immediately informing the King, Henry's utter
devastation sparks a violent rage in him. He confronts her, stripping
her of all titles and possessions. Cranmer is delighted.
Katherine's lovers Culpeper and Dereham are arrested and face execution.
Katherine prays that she be killed soon so she can join Culpeper in death.
The 17-years-old's beheading is met by muted, embarrassed silence from
onlookers -- the death of this poor young girl is too much even for this
bloodthirsty crowd. At the moment of her death, Henry falls to his knees,
praying for forgiveness. This once great King is a broken man. Humiliated,
rejected, diminished. A broken-hearted Henry banishes Norfolk and Lady
Rochford from court forever.
Eighteen months pass and time is not kind to Henry. His only companion
is food and he looks old and frail. He has been introduced to Katherine
Parr and is impressed by her intelligence, modesty, and virtue and
approaches the subject of marriage, admitting he is close to death
and in need of a companion. But Katherine is promised elsewhere
and reveals her betrothal to Thomas Seymour.
Edward Seymour persuades his brother, Thomas, to let Katherine marry the King,
convincing him she is more of an attractive prospect when she can bring
all the land and revenue of a widow to a marriage. He agrees and
consents to her marriage with Henry.
Katherine soon grows to love the King and makes it her mission to
repair relations between Henry and his children. Both Elizabeth and
Mary agree to a meeting, but the excitement of reconciliation is too
much for Henry and suddenly, unable to speak, he clutches his chest
and falls to the floor, gasping for breath.
Upon his deathbed, Cranmer is present and has a mountain of paperwork
for Henry to sign. He manages to sign two of the death warrants with
difficulty. When attempting to sign the third -- for the Duke of Norfolk --
his strength fails him and he lapses into unconsciousness.
Prince Edward is called to his father's bedside. Henry asks of Edward what
the most important thing is to be a successful King. Naturally, Edward's
answer is to have a son. Henry objects. 'For you to be successful as a
King, you must first be successful as a man.'
Moments later, King Henry VIII is dead.
An Interview with the Screenwriter
Cast Comments
Frivolous Bits
Story Synopsis


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