The play opens with the dukes of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Buckingham discussing the recent meeting between England’s Henry VIII and Francis I of France. The nobles think too much money was spent on ostentatious show and that it did little good for peace. They also believe the conference was arranged by Cardinal Wolsey, mainly to increase his own great power. Like most of the nobility, Buckingham hates the low-born, arrogant cardinal and plans to denounce him to King Henry; but, before he can do so, Wolsey arrives and arrests Buckingham for high treason.
As the king and Wolsey prepare to hear the case against Buckingham, they are interrupted by Queen Katherine, who asks the king to remove a tax which Wolsey imposed upon the people. The king does so and chastens Wolsey, but the sly cardinal makes sure that he receives the credit for removing the tax. When the interruptions are over, the witness against Buckingham is brought in and testifies. King Henry orders that the duke be brought to trial immediately. That evening, however, the mood changes as the king attends a banquet given by the cardinal and meets Anne Bullen, with whom he is immediately smitten.
At the beginning of act 2, Buckingham is found guilty, thanks to Wolsey’s plotting, and goes to his execution. In the meantime more gossip is making the rounds: King Henry is considering a divorce from Queen Katherine. The people also see this as a plot of Wolsey’s, but it actually has its roots in the king’s fear that the marriage (which has produced no sons) is against the will of heaven because Katherine is his brother’s widow—and in the king’s recent obsession with Anne. King Henry makes arrangements for the divorce proceedings to begin; and, in the meantime, Anne learns that the king has given her a high position and a large annual income. The lord who informs her of this, hints that other honors may follow.
At the divorce hearing Katherine accuses Wolsey of turning Henry against her and refuses to submit to the court’s will; she will appeal to a higher authority, the pope.
Quickly now the action begins to gain momentum as Wolsey’s downfall is set into motion: he accidentally sends the king an inventory of his own great wealth among some state papers, infuriating the king. In the meantime, Thomas Cranmer has gathered scholarly opinions that the divorce from the queen is legal. Henry dismisses Wolsey, names Cranmer the archbishop of Canterbury, and marries the Protestant Anne, thus changing the religion of England forever. Anne Bullen is quickly crowned queen, while Katherine, now bearing the title “princess dowager,” lies ill. After learning of Wolsey’s arrest and death, she has a dream which seems to foretell her own death. She makes her final wishes known to those around her and leaves to die.
The action of the play jumps forward in time now: Queen Anne is in childbirth, while Cranmer’s enemies at court are making numerous accusations against him and have him brought to trial on charges of heresy. King Henry still supports Cranmer and gives him a ring as a sign of royal favor which Cranmer is to show the court if his other defenses fail. As Cranmer leaves for the trial, Henry learns that Anne has given birth—but to a girl.
The council tries Cranmer as King Henry watches, hidden from view. Determined to find the archbishop guilty, the council refuses to identify Cranmer’s accusers. Cranmer, seeing that he is being framed, displays the king’s ring, and the king enters to defend his archbishop. The charges against Cranmer are dismissed, and the king requests him to be godfather at the christening of the new princess. The play ends as the child—the future Queen Elizabeth--is christened, and Cranmer predicts a long and happy reign for her and a glorious future for England.