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Henry's uncle, Ambassador to Urbino, is assassinated by the French and Henry seizes upon this event to plan a war with France to establish his immortal reputation and seize back the title of King of France. More interested in his own ambitions, the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, manipulates the young king to propose a "Treaty of Universal Peace" with France instead. Thomas More, Henry's teacher and a humanist, is in favour of the treaty which further convinces a reluctant Henry to abandon his war plans. A summit is to take place in France, and—against Katherine's express wishes—their daughter Mary is to be betrothed to the Dauphin of France, also still a child. Meanwhile, Henry has a rival to the throne in the Duke of Buckingham, a blood relative to earlier Kings. Buckingham plots to murder Henry and thus grab the throne for himself, letting Thomas Boleyn and the Duke of Norfolk in on his plan. Boleyn's beautiful daughters Mary and Anne prepare to meet King Henry; meanwhile, Henry discovers that Lady Elizabeth Blount, his mistress and one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, is pregnant with his child.
With Thomas More's encouragement, King Henry prepares to meet King Francis of France and sign Cardinal Wolsey's peace treaty. Henry had promised the hand of his daughter, Princess Mary, to the Dauphin of France, which caused strife between Henry and his queen, Katherine of Aragon. In France, Thomas Boleyn maneuvers his elder daughter Mary into Henry's bed in an effort to secure favor for the family. The Duke of Buckingham plots against the King, claiming a better right to the throne than Henry Tudor; but his purpose is betrayed by Thomas Boleyn and the Duke is executed. Katherine of Aragon continues to pray for Henry to give her a live, healthy son, but Henry wrestles with the theological problem of having married his brother's wife, and questions whether his lack of sons could be God's punishment. There is much celebration as Lady Elizabeth Blount gives birth to Henry's illegitimate son, to Katherine's pain. When Henry loses interest in Mary Boleyn after a short time, Thomas Boleyn turns to his younger daughter, Anne, to replace her.
As Cardinal Wolsey has lost his chance to be Pope with King Henry's decision to go to war against France, a new accord with Spain and Queen Katherine's nephew Charles, Holy Roman Emperor, offers him fresh hope. Thomas More is knighted by Henry, and charged with destroying any copies of the Lutheran "heresy" he can seize, obviously paining More (although he, too, considers it heretical). Princess Mary's engagement to the Dauphin of France is broken off in favour of a marriage to Charles of Spain; and Henry's elder sister, Princess Margaret, is to marry the King of Portugal. Charles Brandon, Henry's friend, is made Duke of Suffolk in order to be able to escort her to Portugal. Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn encounters Henry face-to-face for the first time at a masquerade, leaving a distinct impression on him.
As a reward for his denunciation of Martin Luther in his book, the Defence of the Seven Sacraments, the Pope christens Henry "Defender of the Faith", but a brush with death causes the King to seek a solution to his lack of an heir. Princess Margaret reluctantly marries the decrepit King of Portugal, but the union is short-lived; Henry's desire for Anne Boleyn intensifies. Having arrested the King's secretary as a supposed French spy, Wolsey replaces him with his protege, a shrewd commoner named Thomas Cromwell.
King Henry is stunned by a reversal in his alliance with Emperor Charles and forced to look elsewhere for European support, while Anne Boleyn refuses his offer of mistress status, inflaming his desire to marry her. Katherine of Aragon's alliance with Charles and her hatred for Cardinal Wolsey intensify. Charles Brandon and the newly-widowed Margaret Tudor marry secretly, which infuriates the King, and he banishes both of them from court. Henry bestows a Dukedom on his bastard son Henry FitzRoy, but is heartbroken when FitzRoy dies only weeks later.
As King Henry gains in confidence, his displeasure with the way the Catholic church handles his request for an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon grows. As a result, Cardinal Wolsey's position is weakening, leaving him vulnerable to his enemies. Having restored Henry's former alliance with the French King Francis, Wolsey attempts to convene a conclave of the Cardinals in France, beyond the reach of Emperor Charles' influence, to decide on the matter. But the Cardinals refuse to come- on orders from the Pope, who remains the Emperor's captive. In return for securing his return to court and reconciliation with the King, Charles Brandon makes a reluctant alliance with the Duke of Norfolk and the Boleyn family.
William Compton dies of the "sweating sickness" at Compton Wynates, his house in Warwickshire. As King Henry VIII receives positive news of his war against Emperor Charles, the sickness spreads like a wildfire. Henry flees the palace and London, and starts having doubts about the future and his ability to rule the country. Both Anne Boleyn and Cardinal Wolsey are stricken with the disease, but recover. Wolsey sends agents to the exiled Pope asking for him to make a favorable decision on Henry's 'Great Matter' but Clement instead sends his legate, Cardinal Campeggio, to make a final decision in England.
The Pope's legate Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio arrives to hear the case for King Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Cardinal Wolsey intimidates Campeggio: "Let me make certain things plain to you. If you do not grant the King his divorce, papal authority in England will be annihilated!" Wolsey has assured Henry that the divorce will be granted, but the Pope and Campeggio are not so easily swayed. A desperate Wolsey begs Queen Katherine to abdicate the marriage, but she ultimately refuses. Wolsey's enemies circle; Anne Boleyn plants more doubt in Henry's mind about Wolsey, who soon threatens Campeggio both physically and politically. A Legatine Court convenes at Blackfriar's Church, and both Henry and Katherine plead their cases.
The legatine trial on the legitimacy of King Henry's marriage to Katherine continues despite the queen's refusal to attend, but the papal envoy receives notice to return to Rome and place the evidence to the judgement of the Curia. The Pope procrastinates and Henry, goaded by the conspirators Thomas Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk and Charles Brandon, strips Wolsey of his temporal power and properties, bans him from court and instructs him to resume his now sole role as Archbishop of York. Thomas More reluctantly succeeds Wolsey as Chancellor of the realm. Anne Boleyn, encouraged by her ally Thomas Cromwell (the King's secretary), subtly and opportunely asks the king to reacquaint himself with the subject of Lutheranism. Margaret Tudor dies of tuberculosis, and her widower Charles Brandon shows repentance for his infidelity at her deathbed.
Wolsey, now acting solely as the Archbishop of York and living in relative poverty, is repudiated by Anne Boleyn and writes to Queen Katherine instead, trying to gain her support. Thomas More uses his new powers as Chancellor and starts actively persecuting prominent Lutherans- including burning six of them at the stake, to the anger of Thomas Cromwell. King Henry finds his new Privy Counsellors less proficient than Wolsey was in running the country; he threatens to reinstate the Cardinal, spurring Norfolk and Suffolk to find a way to 'end' Wolsey. Henry has also found elements much to his liking in the teachings of Luther, and dispatches Cromwell to canvass various faculties of theology, hopefully to obtain favourable opinions regarding his intended divorce. Wolsey's secret communication with the Queen is uncovered by Cromwell, and he is arrested by Charles Brandon and charged with high treason. His fall from grace now complete, Wolsey laments his decadent lifestyle and commits suicide in a jail cell en route to London. Anne Boleyn engages Henry in a sexual encounter, but forces him to perform coitus interruptus after which a furious Henry storms off.