At the outset of the play, Henry VIII is firmly under Cardinal Wolsey's thumb and reliant on him completely. This leads him to make decisions based on Wolsey's recommendations and manipulations. King Henry VIII is a surprisingly underutilized titular character, coming across as fickle and shallow in many of his relationships. While Wolsey is his most trusted advisor in the beginning, when he is revealed to have been deceiving the king, Henry VIII abandons him and gives his favor to Cranmer. Change is a constant theme in his reign, from the changing of advisors to the changing of queens. Little time is spent on the motivation for all this change, though there are suggestions that Henry is driven by his desire for a male heir—something that never actually materializes. The fickleness evident earlier in the play stabilizes by the end, when Henry protects Cranmer from accusations brought against him by the king's council and facilitates peace between the disagreeing lords.
When the play begins Cardinal Wolsey enjoys the king's trust, symbolized by the king's purse, even though many people of the court, including Queen Katherine, are critical of Wolsey's actions. With this status he has the power to get rid of Buckingham, who has spoken out against him, and influences Henry's decision to divorce Katherine. However, Wolsey's ambitions undo him. While the king wants to marry Anne Bullen after divorcing Katherine, Wolsey would prefer Henry VIII marry the French king's sister as a political match. Wolsey's manipulations surrounding the divorce and the communication with Rome, as well as dishonestly using the resources the king has given him for personal advancement, eventually lead to the king discovering his treacheries. After being stripped of his power, he repents and dies in a monastery, having sought God in his last days as he realizes he has prioritized personal gain over love of God, which has led to his ruin.
Katherine is stubborn and righteous and from the outset speaks out against Wolsey and his influence. When the king falls in love with Anne Bullen and wants to divorce Katherine on the grounds their marriage was not lawful in the first place, Katherine pleads her case before the court with passion and accuses Wolsey of exactly what he will repent of later in the play—valuing his power more than his spiritual office. Throughout the play, before and after the divorce, Katherine is firm in her belief she has done no wrong and the king has been unjust in his treatment of her. She resists the attempts of Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius to make her more compliant with the divorce proceedings; and she actively refuses to participate in them. It is only at the end of her life, after she is estranged from the king, that she finds it in herself to forgive Wolsey, after hearing of his repentance before his own death.
Buckingham is an avid critic of Wolsey and one of the first people in the play to fall because of Wolsey's machinations. A surveyor formerly in his employ testifies against him, which convinces the king of Buckingham's treachery. Buckingham is put on trial and sentenced to death, much to the sorrow of many at court and the common people. He meets his death with dignity, and forgives those who have wronged him, though he maintains his innocence of the charges.
Anne Bullen is an attendant to the queen, who catches the eye of the king at a banquet given by Cardinal Wolsey. Anne is an intelligent, sympathetic young woman who expresses pity for Queen Katherine's plight, even though she becomes Henry VIII's next wife in Katherine's place. Anne occupies an almost mythical presence in the story due to her status as the mother of the future Princess Elizabeth I, whom she gives birth to near the end of the play. Those who observe her continually comment on how good and beautiful she is—and that certainly something great for England will come of her, meaning Elizabeth I.
Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, well liked by the king, appears late in the play after Wolsey's fall from grace. Despite the fact that Henry VIII favors him, he is not well liked by others at the court, and they conspire against him. Initially it seems Cranmer, like Buckingham, Wolsey, and Katherine before him, will be next in the line of people the king abandons. However, Cranmer is not abandoned by the king, who takes pains to let Cranmer know he is under investigation and must report to the council. When Cranmer is treated badly by the council, many of whom have conspired against him, the king intervenes, rebukes the council for their actions, and forces all to make peace. Later, Cranmer christens the Princess Elizabeth I and prophesies the glorious future of England, even alluding to the later King James I.