Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 5, Scene 2 | Summary



Cranmer rushes to arrive promptly for the meeting, but when he reaches the council chamber he is made to wait until called for. The king's physician, Doctor Butts, sees him and remarks in an aside he will tell the king about this malicious act. The doctor and Henry VIII appear at a window above. Henry is appalled and angry that the council has been so disrespectful of Cranmer.

The council send for Cranmer, and the Lord Chancellor (Sir Thomas More) accuses him of heresy, referring to some of the ideas Cranmer has been teaching. Gardiner calls these ideas a contagious sickness, and says they must prevent societal uproar. Cranmer protests he is loyal to the king, and he has worked for good. He tells the council his accusers should accuse him openly. The council intend Cranmer to be imprisoned in the Tower, and then be brought to trial as a private citizen. Cranmer thanks him sarcastically, and says it is clear Gardiner will be both judge and juror. He says his own undoing is his love and humbleness as a churchman. After giving the accusers one more chance to be merciful, Cranmer presents the king's ring. He says now the king, who is noble and virtuous, will judge him instead of the cruel counselors.

Then the king enters angrily. Gardiner immediately tries to flatter him, and Henry accuses Gardiner of being a flatterer and a cruel man. The council make attempts to appease the king, but Henry is adamant they have treated Cranmer badly, and says they have misused their power. Henry commands reconciliation between Cranmer and Gardiner, and asks Cranmer to be his new daughter's godfather.


This scene breaks the pattern of accusation-trial-death that has become so familiar. Cranmer is accused, and the gears are set in motion for his downfall. He is tried before the council, and he defends himself. But this time the accused has a final card to play: the king's favor. In each of the other cases, it is the withdrawal of the king's favor that puts the nail in the coffin. In fact Henry VIII seems unusually clear-headed here. He sees right through Gardiner's flattery, and comes in at just the right moment to save the day (from Cranmer's point of view) with dramatic effect. And he gleefully humbles the rest of the council as he asks Cranmer to be godfather to his new daughter.

Why did Thomas Cranmer have the unwavering support of Henry VIII (and the suspicion of the other Church leaders)? The king's motivations for favoring Cranmer are not thoroughly explained in the play, with little more than a passing mention in Act 3, Scene 2, but history provides more information. Early on, Thomas Cranmer developed a theological case for Henry's divorce, as well as for the idea that the king of England should be the head of England's church. Cranmer encouraged Henry VIII to talk to non-Catholic theologians in Europe, who had less restrictive views on divorce. After the events recounted in this play, Cranmer loyally continued to assist Henry as the king cast aside wife after wife, a rather unsavory role for a well-intentioned clergyman. And Cranmer's theology continued to grow more and more in line with Protestant theology throughout Henry's life.

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