Henry VIII and The Winter's Tale

Changes in the the sixteenth century

Shakespeare was born just after the middle of the sixteenth century, a century which, in England, was fraught with extraordinary events. It was marked by discord, violence and change, particularly affecting the monarchy and the practice of the Christian religion in England. The tensions between worshippers who favoured a Catholic style of Christian worship, and those who followed the ideas of the Reformation, which brought in Protestant beliefs and practice, affected politics and society throughout the century. These debates rumbled on into the seventeenth century when The Winter's Tale was written. Detail about these controversies can be found in the World of Shakespeare section of this website.

Henry VIII becomes king

Henry VIIIIn 1509, Henry VIII came to the throne. Shortly afterwards, he married his brother's widow. They had seven children, but only one survived – a daughter, Mary.

Henry felt that she could not possibly follow him in the line of succession to the throne:

  • There had not been a queen as ruler of England for 400 years
  • At that time the accession of a woman had led to civil war.

In The Winter's Tale, the importance of a male heir is seen in the comments of courtiers about the young princes Mamillius and Florizel. For example, in the very first scene of the play, Archidamus remarks to Camillo that

‘You have an unspeakable comfort of your young prince Mamillius',

and Camillo agrees that the boy ‘physics the subject';

‘If the king had no son, they would desire to live on crutches till he had one.'

The despotism of Henry VIII and Leontes

The audience of The Winter's Tale would remember their parents' and grandparents' living memories of Henry and make connections with the fear that Leontes inspires in his court:

  • When Henry wanted his own way (a wife who would provide him with a male heir) he went so far as to divorce his first wife and marry a second (Anne Boleyn). In the process, Henry broke with the Catholic church and set up the Church of England, with himself as its head. Everybody had to swear him an oath of loyalty and there were severe penalties for refusing.
  • Such complete power in a monarch is reflected in The Winter's Tale, where both Leontes and Polixenes show that they have absolute power over life and death. (See Divine Right of kings.)
  • When Anne Boleyn failed to produce the heir that Henry wanted, she was beheaded on a charge of treason. It was alleged that she had been unfaithful to the king. The charges were almost certainly untrue.
  • Similar trumped-up accusations are also at the centre of The Winter's Tale, where Leontes' insane jealousy results in the trial, and almost in the execution, of his wife.
  • Eleven days after Anne's execution, Henry married Jane Seymour who produced the longed-for male heir – Prince Edward. Jane would presumably have remained as Henry's well-loved queen, but she died shortly after Edward's birth.
  • Thus the concept of a king remarrying for the sake of the kingdom was a concept familiar to Shakespeare's audience when they witnessed Leontes being urged to remarry to secure his territory. Henry actually married three more times: Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katharine Parr.

Henry died in 1547, and the ten-year-old Prince Edward came to the throne as Edward VI. He was followed by his Catholic half sister, Mary, then Henry's second daughter, the Protestant Elizabeth I.

More on the effect of Protestantism on Shakespeare: Under Elizabeth, compulsory church services were held in English rather than Latin, and a new Book of Common Prayer (i.e. prayers to be used uniformly throughout the Church of England) was introduced in 1559. Throughout his life, therefore, Shakespeare heard the words of the Bible in English and listened to the scholarly and poetical language of the Book of Common Prayer, both of which had a considerable influence on his own written style.

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