Laughton won an Oscar as the lusty king with a big appetite who went through six wives and countless mistresses.
During preparations for the beheading of Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) the court women gossip, and Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) tells Cromwell (Franklin Dyall) to build more ships to preserve England. Henry says his first wife was clever; his second was ambitious; but his third is stupid. On the same day Anne Boleyn is executed, Henry marries Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). While hunting he hears that he has a son; but the queen died. Henry has chosen several women from his court but none for more than a few days. Thomas Culpepper (Robert Donat) loves Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes). Henry is in a bad mood, because his people want him to marry. He eats sloppily and says there is no refinement anymore. Katherine Howard sings "What Shall I Do Without Love?" which Henry composed. Henry considers a fourth marriage "a victory of optimism over experience."
Henry sends an ambassador to Duchess Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester), and the two fall in love with each other. Henry examines Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves and visits Katherine Howard's room at night. She obeys the king but would refuse the man, because he is married. Anne of Cleves greets Henry; he dislikes her, but Archbishop Cranmer (Laurence Hanray) says the marriage must take place. Henry goes to the royal bedchamber saying, "The things I've done for England." Henry tells Anne they are not married until they are one; but she prefers to play cards and takes his money. She warns him not to chop off her head but agrees to give him a divorce. She will help him marry Katherine Howard. Advisors tell the king the people want him to marry again. Henry is happy with Katherine Howard, bets on sports, and wrestles to show her his virility. Yet she loves Culpepper and agrees with him that love is everything in the world. Culpepper goes to her room at night. Henry cancels death sentences and tells the queen he refused land in Europe to prevent wars. Threatened with the rack, Lady Rochfort talks, and the council informs Henry that the queen has committed adultery with Culpepper. Henry cries before she is beheaded. Anne of Cleves suggests he marry Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg), a good wife. Three years later she is nagging Henry for over-eating, and he says that the best wife is the worst.
Focusing on his personal relationships rather than his politics, this long and eventful reign is portrayed mostly as banquets and bedroom diplomacy. The desires of the flesh are never really satisfied.