Thomas Wolsey was born in Ipswich, c1475. His beginnings were not auspicious. After he rose to power, jealous courtiers claimed his father had been a butcher; Wolsey’s own servant and eventual biographer, George Cavendish, said merely that Wolsey was “an honest poor man’s son.” Whatever the truth of his father’s work, they were a poor and unknown family and it was Wolsey’s brilliance and hard work which led him from Ipswich to become ruler of England in all but title.
He was educated at Oxford and took his degree at 15, a formidable achievement. He then became a fellow of Magdalen College and was ordained a priest in 1498. Given Wolsey’s vast accumulation of wealth in later years, some of which was acquired by suppressing almost 30 monasteries, many historians and biographers have questioned his religious vocation. His contemporaries were equally skeptical. But in his early career, Wolsey was neither ostentatious nor grasping. And the only indication we have that he was fast and loose with money is this – appointed bursar of Magdalen in 1499, he was forced to resign when officials learned he had misapplied funds to a construction project without their approval. This was hardly scandalous. Wolsey shortly thereafter became chaplain to Archbishop Deane of Canterbury. This position was short-lived and, in 1503, he was made chaplain to Sir Richard Fanfan, the deputy lieutenant of Calais. It was this appointment which marks the beginning of Wolsey’s political career.
Fanfan spoke highly of Wolsey to King Henry VII and, upon his death in 1507, the old king chose Wolsey to be his chaplain. The old king’s opinion of Wolsey was high enough that he appointed him dean of Lincoln shortly before his own death in April 1509. The death of Henry VII provided Wolsey with an opportunity that any brilliant, ambitious man would have seized. Unfortunately for Wolsey, he was not a courtier of noble blood; such gentlemen considered royal favor and intimacy as their birthright. They were not inclined to look kindly upon Wolsey as he now became fast friends with their new king, Henry VIII.
Wolsey was smart, energetic, and confident. These were qualities he shared with the 18 year old Henry VIII. And Wolsey was a particularly shrewd judge of Henry’s character; this, more than anything else, was the reason he succeeded so brilliantly – and for so long – at managing a notoriously mercurial king.
Henry VIII’s ascension was viewed as the dawn of a new age by his contemporaries. Not only was it the beginning of a new century, it was also the beginning of the Renaissance in England. The printing press, first developed by Gutenberg in the mid-15th century, was now a fixture of most European cities, including London. This not only allowed the free exchange of ideas across the continent, it also encouraged that exchange. For the first time in human history, physical distance was not a significant barrier to communication.
And so we must make certain allowances for King Henry VIII. His people were becoming more educated and consequently more assertive. They did not question his divine rights, but – especially in the later years of his reign – they did question his decisions.
In the early years of his reign, Henry allowed Wolsey to make most of the decisions. Henry had appointed Wolsey royal almoner a few months after his coronation. And it was easy for Wolsey to flatter the new king into allowing him more and more control over the boring business of state. Henry was an intelligent man, but he was like most kings in that he preferred the pleasurable aspects of rule to the routine of business. It was easy enough to let Wolsey hear petitions, or advise him on matters of state, or to talk with foreign envoys and report back to him. And as Wolsey did so, Henry’s reliance upon him grew. And it was in 1513 that Wolsey had his greatest foreign policy success, and it did much to solidify his bond with the young king.
Henry had long wished to make his mark upon European affairs. This was partly youthful bravado. He was young, brash, strong; he wished to stride upon the world stage and make his fellow monarchs (particularly the new king of France) take notice. Henry had married his brother’s widow, Katharine of Aragon; she was the Catholic daughter of the rulers of Spain, and cousin to the Holy Roman Emperor. When Pope Julius II needed aid against the French in 1513, Henry seized the chance to prove his worth. But of course it was Wolsey who must organize and implement the king’s grand – and vague – plans. And he did so with aplomb. Henry’s campaign against the French was a resounding success. Victories at Therouanne, Tournai, and the battle of the Spurs made Wolsey untouchable at court – and indispensable to his king.
Pope Leo X (who succeeded Julius) soon made Wolsey bishop of Lincoln, archbishop of York, and cardinal. And in December 1515, when William Warham resigned from the position, Wolsey was made Lord Chancellor of England. His greatest ecclesiastical ambition was achieved when Leo made him a special papal representative with the title legate a latere. (Wolsey’s accumulation of ecclesiastical offices led his contemporaries, and later historians, to argue that he yearned to be the first English pope. There is certainly cause to think Henry – especially when seeking his annulment from Katharine of Aragon – liked the idea. Wolsey himself showed no particular desire to leave England.) These titles – along with lesser ones – allowed Wolsey to amass great wealth and soon his fortune was second only to the king’s. This did not go unremarked upon by Henry’s jealous courtiers. But Wolsey was merely following tradition; few, if any, Tudor statesmen did not enrich themselves while in office.
From about 1515 to 1529, Wolsey controlled the English state. Certainly he was ultimately dependent upon the will of the king, but he managed the increasingly temperamental Henry as well as anyone could. As Lord Chancellor, Wolsey governed the state of England; as legate, he governed the church in England. Such complete control of the mechanics of political and religious life would never be achieved by another English statesman.
But of course Wolsey must fall. Once he had achieved all that he could, there was nothing for him to do but fail.
The primary cause of Wolsey’s fall would be his inability to settle the king’s ‘Great Matter’. Henry initially sought an annulment of his marriage to Katharine because she had not produced a male heir. He was later spurred by his love affair with Anne Boleyn. Henry justified his actions by a belated realization that Katharine’s prior marriage to his older brother, Arthur, made her later marriage to him incestuous and thus unlawful. Of course, he conveniently ignored the papal dispensation which had made their wedding legitimate in the eyes of the church. In Henry’s new interpretation of religious law, papal dispensations were all well and good, but they could not trump the actual words of the Bible. This was merely the philosophical cover for what he believed would be a political decision. The pope had no cause to refuse his request for an annulment; Henry – and Wolsey – expected it to be granted relatively quickly.
But they did not reckon on the interference of Katharine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Family pride and, more importantly, dynastic ambition (Katharine and Henry’s daughter Mary was considered a potential wife for either Charles or his son Philip) made him hostile to Henry’s plans. And Charles was quite literally in charge of the pope.
And so Henry’s desired annulment, far from being speedily approved, was not so hastily declined. The pope was not eager to anger Henry, or Charles. He prevaricated. He commissioned experts to debate Henry’s petition. He requested documents. He sent emissaries to England and back. Meanwhile, the months passed and Henry’s patience grew thin. He pressed Wolsey; Wolsey pressed the pope. But Wolsey also considered the end result of the annulment. For the annulment meant Henry’s certain marriage to Anne Boleyn and the ascendancy of her family, the Norfolks. This great aristocratic house had long disliked Wolsey and connived against him. Like the other nobles, they felt their natural place was at the king’s side as his trusted advisers.
Wolsey had no great affection for Katharine of Aragon and, like any good Englishman, he wished for a male heir to the throne. If Henry was determined to have a new wife, well enough – but why not a foreign princess? A match that could enrich England and widen its sphere of influence? When Wolsey contemplated Henry’s future bride, it was not the odious Norfolk’s niece that he imagined. This meant that he did all he could to facilitate the annulment from Katharine whist trying to pry him from Anne Boleyn. He was not successful at either task. And his machinations against Anne earned him her open scorn and enmity. They both recognized that as one influence waned, the other waxed; it was merely a question of whether the king’s romantic passion would overcome his long reliance upon Wolsey.
And here we must consider Henry’s opinion of Wolsey, after two decades of service. The king was not unaware of gossip about his chancellor. Wolsey’s wealth was vast; he had illegitimate children; he traveled with a retinue of hundreds. He served his king well, but he had prospered in that service. And perhaps his vanity was not becoming to a priest? Henry might have dismissed gossip against Wolsey before. But now he was in love, – truly in love for the first time in his life – and the object of that passion was the one who shared the gossip. The Cardinal was old, inept; he hated her; he did not obey the king’s will, but rather his own ambitions. And so on.
In the end, Wolsey failed. The endless debates, commissions, letters, – they all ended as they began. The papa dispensation that had allowed the marriage in 1509 was valid; Henry and Katharine were legally wed. On 24 June 1529, Wolsey had presciently remarked, “The Pope has refused all the concessions, relying on him, I had promised the king…. And that will be my ruin.” But Henry was uncharacteristically generous in Wolsey’s fall. On 9 October 1530, he was indicted for Praemunire, which essentially meant that Wolsey supported papal connivance against his monarch. A week later, he surrendered the great seal and his chancellorship; on 22 October, he confessed his guilt. But now the king was merciful. With his confidante brought low and his ultimate authority demonstrated to all, Henry refused imprisonment for Wolsey, and allowed him to retire to his archbishopric of York. Ironically, Wolsey had never visited York since his investiture fifteen years earlier. And he was destined to never reach it this time.
The trip to York – complete with a retinue of hundreds, for Wolsey wished to make his arrival as splendid as possible – moved so slowly that Wolsey had time to send ill-considered correspondence to Rome. These letters were reported to the king. Mercy had been offered once, but not again. On Friday, 4 November, Wolsey was arrested and ordered to return to London and certain imprisonment. He escaped the fate his enemies had planned for him.
You can read Tudor chronicler Edward Hall’s account of Wolsey’s fall at Primary Sources.
Wolsey is usually remembered with opprobrium. His two most famous protégés, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, both remarked upon him in speeches to Parliament after his fall. More denounced Wolsey in particularly colorful terms, and this can either be interpreted as blatant self-interest or genuine disgust at Wolsey’s machinations. For his part, Cromwell demonstrated bravery and loyalty by defending his former master. Of course, a decade later, both More and Cromwell would be dead – executed at the whim of Henry VIII.
Wolsey was the last of his kind, – the great ecclesiastical statesmen that had flourished throughout medieval Europe. He had mostly operated within the confines of existing government structure, and must of his administration was a continuation of Henry VII’s government. Parliament met only once from 1515 to 1529, but this, too, was not unlike the reigns of Henry VII and Edward IV. Wolsey’s unpopularity with Parliament, and the common Englishman, stemmed mostly from unexpectedly heavy taxation. Henry VIII had inherited a full treasury from his notoriously thrifty father. He had also executed his father’s two chief tax collectors on trumped up charges upon his own ascension. The English people thus had reason to believe their new king would be less of a financial burden than his father. But they had not reckoned upon Henry VIII’s martial ambitions. Initially successful, they were increasingly lengthy, costly, and unsuccessful. And it was Wolsey’s task to find the funds for the king’s ambition. He did so with enthusiasm, and some degree of fairness; even as he pushed for more money, Wolsey also organized the tax system into a more transparent and equitable operation. Henry received his money and he used Wolsey, as always, as his scapegoat.
Wolsey’s influence upon English justice was slight, but he began a series of welcome changes that would later be continued under his protégé Cromwell. He remade the Star Chamber into a court with fixed rules, and he was adamant that those rules were not broken by the mighty. He openly boasted to the king when unruly nobles were brought into line; certainly this did not endear him to courtiers either. Wolsey also sought to reform the practice of enclosure, one of the more egregious sins against England’s peasantry. His influence upon the English church was mostly negative. Wolsey’s vanity led him to establish a certain independence of spirit with regard to Rome. He did not consciously encourage separation from Rome, but he did not actively encourage their involvement in the English church. Put another way, one could argue that the English church was more nationalized than its European counterparts. And this independence would ease the way into its eventual acceptance of the king as its supreme head, rather than the pope. Wolsey also began the process of suppressing various monasteries in an attempt to consolidate his own wealth. This would be the blueprint which Cromwell (with Henry’s approval) would follow after the break with Rome.
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