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Summary Act 1


The Prologue emphasizes the play’s tenor, which is one of gravity and seriousness. It will be a story of pomp and majesty and of the sudden fall from grace. It will be a story devoid of silly laughter and improbable feats of arms.


The Duke of Norfolk relates unto the Duke of Buckingham, who was too sick to attend, and the Lord Aburgavenny about the peace treaty at Andren where the kings of England and France had met midst pomp and ceremony the likes of which the world hadn’t ever seen. Indeed, Aburgavenny supposes that the ceremony and the cost of regaling oneself in sumptuous finery, have made many an English noble financially insolvent. As if that wasn’t travesty enough, the peace has proven to be superfluous what with the French having currently confiscated English merchant goods in Bordeaux. Presently, Buckingham, Norfolk, and Aburgavenny disparage the Cardinal Wolsey, who had singlehandedly engineered the peace treaty and who, despite his pedigree of no account, has managed to monopolize the King’s trust and confidence at the expense of English noblemen, when the Cardinal, attended by secretaries and casting a disdainful glance at Buckingham, passes by.

Unable to stand it any longer, Buckingham, who had returned the Cardinal’s gaze with a look of equal disdain, tells Norfolk and Aurgavenny of his plan to warn the King of the Cardinal’s corrupt nature, of the Cardinal having received payment from the Spanish emperor who would like nothing better than to have England at odds with France. However, citing the Cardinal’s influence and power, Norfolk advises Buckingham to exercise caution, to go about his business discretely and when the Cardinal least suspects it lest, by rushing headlong and opposing the Cardinal head-on, the Cardinal turns the table on Buckingham.

Alas, the warning proves to be case of too little too late as Brandon, on the King’s authority, which authority was undoubtedly procured by Cardinal Wolsey, arrives with a warrant for Buckingham and Aburgavenny’s arrest. If there’s any consolation to be had, it’s the fact that Brandon regrets his having to put Buckingham under arrest. Presently, Buckingham learns from Brandon that the arrest warrant extends to his—Buckingham’s—associates, including the monk Hopkins, a.k.a. Henton.


The trial of the Duke of Buckingham is about to proceed when Queen Katherine, attended by the Duke of Norfolk, enters the scene to plead on behalf of English commoners who are virtually in a state of rebellion. Norfolk corroborates the Queen’s report, prompting the King to ask about the cause of the commoner’s unrest. Thus, the Queen informs the King that the people will not stand for the tax that has been levied for the imminent wars against France, a tax which Cardinal Wolsey is acknowledged to be the chief architect of. When asked about this, Cardinal assures the King that his role in it is no more or less than the role played by every member of the committee which was authorized by law to levy the tax. Subsequently, seeing as how it’s only good policy to do so, the King decides to pardon every man who has refused to pay his tax.

As the Cardinal employs his secretary to make it seem to the people that the King’s pardon was urged onto by the Cardinal himself, the Queen inquires the King about Buckingham’s fate. Lamenting that such a good man as Buckingham has thoroughly discredited himself, the King urges a surveyor, who has been in Buckingham’s service and who has testimony that incriminates Buckingham of treason, to reiterate his testimony for the Queen’s benefit. The Surveyor proceeds and relates that the Duke of Buckingham, encouraged by a prophecy by a monk named Henton, often confided in his son-in-law the Lord Aburgavenny and the Surveyor himself of how he—Buckingham—will be king someday if the king dies without an heir. The Surveyor relates how Buckingham had often referred to his father’s failed attempt to take Richard III’s life, and that if he were put in the same situation he would have no scruples in doing what he has to do to get the job done. Subsequently, eager to have Buckingham tried, King Henry VIII exhorts for Buckingham’s trial to proceed apace.


The Lords Chamberlain and Sands are disparaging French ambassadors (who are in presence at the English court) and their over the top taste in fashion when they are met by Sir Thomas Lovell who likewise has disparaging words of the French fops. Lovell concedes, however, that their departure will be a sad day for English ladies who can’t help themselves but be captivated by French manners. Somewhat bitter, Sands argues that his plain spoken wooing style should suffice the English ladies once the French have left, compelling Chamberlain to tease Sands about his age. (Sands isn’t exactly a young man.) Presently, Lovell mentions Cardinal Wolsey’s feast which he is going to attend and to which Chamberlain and Sands are invited to as well. They agree that Cardinal Wolsey is the most capital of fellows, and they set out together to the feast.


At Cardinal Wolsey’s, Lords Sands and Chamberlain and Sir Thomas Lovell are welcomed by Sir Harry Guilford. There are many ladies about, and as the feast is about to commence and the seating arrangements made, Chamberlain takes Guilford to task for seating ladies consecutively when the ideal arrangement is to have a gentleman seated between the ladies. To that end, Lord Sands is given a seat besides Anne Bullen, and it isn’t long before Sands flirts with Anne Bullen. By and by Cardinal Wolsey makes his entrance to welcome his guests. Playfully, he scolds anyone who would not be merry in this most merry of occasions when a noise attracts everyone’s attention. A servant reports that the noise is the approach of masked revelers, who are most likely French. The Cardinal urges Chamberlain, who is fluent in French, to welcome the new guests, and he has his servants make preparations for reception of the new guests.

When the new guests arrive, the Cardinal welcomes them through Chamberlain and the dancing begins. By and by, the Cardinal is so impressed with his new guests that he urges them to select a representative on whom the Cardinal will accord every honor. The honor goes to King Henry VIII as he removes his mask to reveal his identity. Everyone is delighted. King Henry inquires about Anne Bullen whom he has danced with and whom he is enamored with and is told that she is one Queen Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting. Presently, the Cardinal leads the King and his guests to an adjoining room for food and repast.  

William Shakespeare