Exhuming Henry VIII's Court: The Tudor Household on the Jacobean Stage

Exhuming Henry VIII’s Court: The Tudor Household on the Jacobean Stage

Gaywyn Moore

Doctor of Philosophy, KU Scholar Works: University of Kansas, October 26, (2011)


The Jacobean plays that perform Henry VIII and his court struggle with Henry’s paradoxical image and his troubling legacy of discarded advisors, wives, and heirs. Sir Thomas More, Thomas Lord Cromwell, When You See Me, You Know Me, and King Henry VIII offer Henry VIIIs that contribute to the historical process of memorializing the king’s, and his household’s, legacy. The four plays together provide the overall impression of a disordered house with a divided master–the ideal Renaissance prince and the willful tyrant. In both cases, intemperance marks his character. Henry VIII’s admirable characteristics include a generosity of funds and friendship that leaves the realm vulnerable to foreign influence and threatens the financial and spiritual health of his subjects. Henry’s ruthless discarding of wives and advisors, and even heirs, presents a household in such disarray that the governance of the country becomes a haphazard division of labor between Henry’s feuding favorites and his own willfulness. By the early seventeenth century, Henry’s easily recognizable image has acquired some tarnish, and the stage offers clashing images of Henry as both the mythologized Bluff Prince Hal and the brooding tyrant who ruthlessly disposes of lords, wives, and heirs.

Henry’s rotating lords and advisors, depending on which side of the schism they were on, generate continuing fears of foreign powers influencing, usurping, or undermining English autonomy. Foreigners and those who encourage them threaten English identity and subvert the Crown’s authority. The plays that feature Henry’s queens explore a schism in queenship that begins at the moment of England’s breach with Rome. and Henry VIII investigate different models of queenship for those who must hold the office after Anne Boleyn. These plays provide fluctuating Jacobean representations of the royal family-as-household, staging the fissures in Henry’s household as part of a larger conversation about the queen’s role in the commonwealth and spiritual health of England. Henry’s heirs provide a particularly effective vessel for bypassing the many paradoxes of Henry’s reign; whether hero or villain, his virtuous and still developing children will be able to clean up the mess of religion and bodies Henry left as a legacy.

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