Henry VIII and the Lords of the Council
‘Pastime with good company’ – how the image of ‘Bluff King Hal’ glosses over the harsh realities of life-and-death court intrigues played out among the nooks and crannies of the king’s private apartment.
A king spying on his councillors from 'a window above' is hardly our image of 'Bluff King Hal'. Yet that is what Shakespeare gives us at the climax of his King Henry VIII. The occasion is a plot against Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, hatched by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, and sprung on the Archbishop in the Council Chamber. Cranmer, by his office the highest ranking of the king's Council, is kept waiting at the Council Chamber door, until he is summoned within to be upbraided by his fellow councillors. His plight, however, is spotted by Sir William Butts, the royal physician, who brings the king to witness the humiliation of the archbishop from his secret vantage point. Outraged, Henry muses:
Is this the honour they do one another? 'Tis well there's one above them yet.
He then breaks into the Council meeting to remind the councillors that he is master and that, so long as he pleases, Cranmer shall remain untouched.
This is an early, and rather good, example of the dramatic reconstruction of reality. Shakespeare dates the event twelve years too early; otherwise he follows closely his source, Johne Foxe's Acts and Monuments (better known as The Book of Martyrs); while Foxe himself was drawing on eye-witnesses, including Cranmer's own secretary, who were in a position to know. Shakespeare's audience is thus seeing something not very different from what happened, as historians have begun to realise.
Anyone who has read, for example, the 1982-83 History Today series on 'Faction in Tudor and Stuart England', will find himself at home in Shakespeare's world. For faction, the factional plot, and the show trial are what threaten to destroy Cranmer. As Henry VIII tells him: