This realm of England is an Empire . . . governed by one supreme head and king, having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same.
These words in the Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1553 underlie the dramatic treatment of Henry VIII in John Heywood’s The Play of the Wether and John Bale’s King Johan. 1 That the plays were written within a few years of one another may give some political insights for the period, but I am primarily concerned with the way these impersonations arise in a literary and dramatic context, and the theatrical values they embody. Though the argument for neither play is simple, I am assuming as a working hypothesis, that Heywood’s play was written not long before Shrovetide 1533, and printed later in the same year, and that one version of King Johan was in existence by about 1536, though the extant text can be dated in part as late 1538, and in another part as after 1560. While I shall deal with a number of historical events and interpretations, for which I must gratefully rely upon the work of several eminent historians, I am aiming my comments at dramatic aspects of the two characterizations which have, I think, been neglected.
I. The Play of the Wether
The overriding intention of Wether is reconciliation. If it was written before Shrovetide 1533, it occurs after Sir Thomas More gave up the Chancellorship in May 1532, having lost the battle for power in the third session [End Page 239] of the Reformation Parliament (January–May 1532), and before his arrest over the Oath of Succession in April 1534. This was a time when his writings against heresy were most vigorous, especially the Confutation of Tyndale Part 2: indeed it appears he had very little else to do. 2 After a period in office in which he had pursued heretics with exceptional zeal, there is every chance that he was more and more vulnerable, especially as he persisted in speaking out. It seems likely that he significantly overplayed his hand. 3 Richard Marius, his biographer, describes him as “loquacious, argumentative and righteous,” and the editors of his Collected Works note his “exasperated and savage authoritarianism” at this time. 4 Moreover, Henry VIII’s move away from Rome continued as he married Anne Boleyn in January 1533, and, through Parliament, ensured the Act in Restraint of Appeals.
It might seem that More had little ability to restrain himself over heretics: “I hate that sort of men so utterly that unless they repent, I want to be as hateful to them as anyone can be since as I contend with them more and more I vehemently fear what the world will suffer from them.” 5 The tone of his condemnation of heretics was insistently vituperative, however pure the underlying faith. Thomas Hutton was described as “the dyvyl’s stynkyng martyr”; Richard Bayfield was “well and worthely burned in Smythfelde” and John Tewkesbury burned “as there was never wretche I wene better worthy.” 6 Thomas Cromwell’s scrutiny in January 1534 of William Rastell, Heywood’s brother-in-law, who printed both More’s polemical writings and also Heywood’s plays, and More’s subsequent letter to Cromwell suggest that his writings were being closely watched. Perhaps More was seen as a threat by Cromwell and the king, but equally he may have been so eminent that his opposition could not be tolerated. Either view might have led to his initial inclusion in the Act of Attainder against the Nun of Kent in February 1534. The chronicler Edward Hall described More as a “foolishe wyseman or a wise foolishman,” and added: “undoubtedly he, beside his learnyng, had a great witte, but it was so myngled with tauntyng and mockyng that it semed to them that best knew him that he thought nothing to be wel spoken except he had ministred some mocke in the communicacion.” 7
Thus More, by temperament, belief, and action was exposed because what he was and what he did would not be likely to produce safety and security in volatile times. It is apparent that he himself was...