Historically, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, archbishop of York, was virtually in charge of England at the beginning of Henry’s reign. The king preferred living in the countryside and hunting to the tedium of leading. Wolsey fell out of Henry’s favor when he failed to secure a papal dispensation for Henry’s divorce, because Pope Clement VII showed his allegiance to Catherine’s nephew, Charles V of Spain. In his conversation with More, Wolsey reveals his role as the go-between for the English king and the pope in Rome. Wolsey must juggle the needs of the state with those of the Church, and after Wolsey dies, his successor must bear the burden of Henry’s disapproval.
Although King Henry appears in the play only once, he is constantly present in the thoughts and the speech of the other characters. When Wolsey announces Henry’s offstage return from his visit with Anne Boleyn, in Act One, scene two, he establishes Henry’s role as a man whose uneasy conscience needs to be satisfied. Wolsey (and later Cromwell) bears responsibility for assuaging Henry’s conscience when he has deliberately done something sinful. In a way, Henry’s behavior accounts for Wolsey own questionable conduct, including Wolsey’s attempts to threaten and cajole More into agreement. Henry’s actions are responsible for More’s persecution. Henry’s absence from most of play implicates the characters, such as Wolsey, who enact Henry’s persecution of More. Though Henry is responsible for More’s persecution, Wolsey’s willingness to accomodate Henry’s hypocrisy makes him just as guilty as the king.
Cromwell and Chapuys personify the devious and duplicitous characters necessary to remain in Henry’s good favor. Consequently, they also personify the kind of groveling that More cannot stand. They are political and calculating, and they couch their performances in a falsely deferential tone. Cromwell, for instance, insincerely calls himself More’s admirer. He makes the same claim later in the play, even as he attacks More.