Cranmer enters, hoping he is not late for the Council meeting. The doorkeeper says he must wait until he is called. Doctor Butts crosses the stage, noting that malice is afoot if the Council members are requiring Cranmer, himself a member, to wait outside. Cranmer sees Butts and hopes he will be kind to him. The king and Butts enter at a window above the scene, and Butts tells the king how Cranmer has been forced to wait at the door. Henry is surprised that the Council would be so rude, and he says that there is one above them who will yet judge them--either himself or God. The two stand aside as they watch the Council enter.
Lord Chancellor enters with Suffolk, Norfolk, Surrey, Lord Chamberlain, Gardiner, and Cromwell. They allow Cranmer to enter. The Lord Chancellor says he is disappointed to have heard complaints that Cranmer has been teaching new opinions and ideas around the kingdom, ideas that they deem to be heresies. Gardiner speaks more harshly, saying that they must swiftly deal with such bad behavior or the whole kingdom will become ill and the state will fall.
Cranmer says that he has always taught correct teachings, and he has never tried to disturb the public peace. He says he would like to hear what his alleged accusers have to say. But because Cranmer is a Council member himself, no one can bring complaints against him. So, Gardiner explains that they want to imprison Cranmer in the Tower, thus, returning him to the status of a common man, so those who would accuse him can do it openly and the Council can investigate. Cranmer responds kindly to Gardiner, saying that love and humility serve churchmen more than ambition. Cranmer doubts that Gardiner acts ethically, but he will submit. Gardiner accuses Cranmer of being a Protestant, but Cromwell tells Gardiner to hold his tongue, for he is being too sharp. Gardiner lashes out against Cromwell and accuses him of favoring Protestants. The two men argue viciously until Lord Chancellor stops them.
Lord Chancellor tells Cranmer that he will be conveyed to the Tower, and Cranmer asks if there is not another alternative. A guard enters to take him away, so Cranmer reveals that he wears the king's ring. The members of the Council see they have chosen badly to target Cranmer, not having realized how much he was in favor with the king. The king and Butts exit the window above and come down to the Council.
Gardiner addresses the king and gives thanks for having a king who so makes the church the chief aim of his rule. The king notes how Gardiner is a master flatterer--but he isn't interested in flattery now, and he believes Gardiner has bloody plots in mind. Henry tells the council that he thought they were men of understanding and wisdom, but he sees they are not. It was cruel, he says, to make Cranmer wait outside the Council door, since he is their equal. He had given them the authority to try Cranmer, but some would simply send him to the Tower to rot. The Lord Chancellor disagrees, saying they really did intend imprisonment in the Tower to allow for full investigation of charges against him. The king urges them to trust Cranmer, since he himself does, and tells them all to embrace and be friends.
The king then asks the Council to baptize his young daughter. Gardiner is slow to embrace Cranmer, so the king urges him again. Cranmer weeps, and the king remarks on an old saying--that even if one does malice to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he will still be your friend.
Finally the pattern of false accusations comes to a halt in the failed sentencing of Cranmer. In each preceding act (except Act IV), a character has met his or her demise and is ejected from the court. Cranmer escapes this seeming predestined fate, so it is important to explore the differences in his case.
With each previous fallen character, we see that they may actually have done something wrong (Buckingham may have had designs on the throne, Wolsey seemed to be plotting with Rome about the fate of Henry's marriage and was stealing property) or they may merely have been unlucky (Katharine did not give birth to male children or to Elizabeth). But Cranmer seems to be without possible blame. During all the previous acts, he was offstage traveling from college to college to ask scholars about the legality of Henry's divorce, so he had no role in any schemes. And more importantly, he is in no way positioned to block the birth and eventual coronation of Elizabeth, which has been the background reason for the downfall of all the other characters in this play.
Charity and forgiveness, too, are themes evoked in Cranmer's trial. The king chooses to be charitable to Cranmer and to disbelieve the vicious rumors against him, while Cranmer forgives Gardiner for having desired to bring him down.
Most importantly, we see the king take a genuinely active role in changing the turn of events. When Buckingham fell, the king barely seemed to have been involved; when Katharine was ousted, the king seemed sad but convinced that his advisors were right. With Wolsey, the king reacted against Wolsey's betrayal but was absent for his actual sentencing. But in this scene, the king not only watches from above as events unfold, he has already engineered their conclusion by giving Cranmer his ring to show to the Councilors when they try to take him to the Tower. Thus, the king is brought into the trial and tells the lords to be friends and stop trying to take each other down.
It would seem, then, that the terrible circle of rises and falls in the community of the court has been brought to a close, and now that Elizabeth has been born, the nation can return to calm. Yet Shakespeare's audience would have known that both Cranmer and Cromwell, as well as Sir Thomas More (Wolsey's historical replacement, only mentioned in the play), were executed not long after the events portrayed in Henry VIII.
In reading all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday, I just finished Henry VIII. It was my least favorite of the Bard's plays, seeming to be more a platform to praise Elizabeth I than entertain audiences. In case you're interested in my take, I've blogged about it at: