On November 29, 1530, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was in the king’s favor for most of his life, died at Leicester Abbey around the age of 57.
From 1515 to 1529, Wolsey had a profound influence on King Henry. He was an extremely dedicated and ardent administrator who held various important positions in the government and in the Roman Catholic Church in England, including Lord Chancellor and Papal Legate.
Henry VIII’s ascension to the throne was viewed as the dawn of a new majestic age in England. Wolsey was always by the king’s side, always ready to dispense knowledge and wisdom to his sovereign, always ready to cater to Henry’s every whim. He wanted to play a significant role in England’s politics and help usher the country into an era of stability and prosperity. Wolsey fawned over the new king and flattered him to the utmost, and soon Henry noticed him.
A few months after his coronation, the king appointed Wolsey royal almoner. Young Henry was an intelligent, well-educated, and clever man, but like most monarchs, he preferred the pleasurable aspect of his rule to the ordinary routine of state affairs which had to be conducted with dignity and skill. The king was well disposed towards Wolsey and eagerly delegated the major responsibility of running the government to the competent man. Henry allowed Wolsey to make most of the decisions.
Cardinal Wolsey was known for being an efficient administrator, both for the Crown and the Church. He was made Archbishop of York in 1514 and then a Cardinal in 1515. Fortune’s wheel was spinning in Wolsey’s favor again: he became a papal legate in 1518, and, in 1524, his appointment as papal legate was renewed for life. It seemed that God smiled down on Wolsey and blessed his career in the Church, making him feel as if he were standing near the golden gates to paradise while still being on earth. Indeed, he became the most important clergyman in England, and all his positions gave him absolute control of the Church within the kingdom. Soon afterwards, King Henry appointed him Lord Chancellor.
The king trusted Wolsey so much that he would allow him to do things that he wouldn’t ordinarily permit his other subjects. Wolsey became fully responsible for England’s foreign policy and had near-complete control of England’s state affairs. Even though England had meager resources and was not in a position to generate sufficient funds for constant military training of royal armies and shipbuilding, Wolsey still succeeded in creating a consistent, pragmatic, and flexible foreign policy. A clever man by nature, Wolsey comprehended that Henry’s much-desired foreign policy – to obtain the crown of France – was unrealistic because England’s resources were small compared to those of other nations, and he managed to delicately balance on the thin line between his sovereign’s desires and real possibilities.
Wolsey allied England with powerful countries to ensure that the country’s security and interests were protected. Famous events such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 added to the prestige of England abroad. Treaty of London of 1518 (a non-aggression pact between the major European nations) was his greatest success, binding twenty countries together in peace, including Burgundy, France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, the Papal States, and Spain.
Despite being Chancellor and controlling the country’s foreign policy, Cardinal Wolsey failed to develop England’s overseas trade and to ensure that royal revenue increased at the same rate as the king’s spending, because his knowledge of finance was poor. In the early 16th century, the economy was changing (the so-called Price Revolution which refers to the high rate of inflation that occurred during this period across Western Europe), but Wolsey didn’t comprehend the complexities behind this change.
Thomas Wolsey was quite successful in his administration of the Church. The reorganization of the dioceses to correspond with population levels was his main success and a useful reform. He endeavored to ensure that the Church served Henry’s interests, and these aspirations were explained by his strong sense of loyalty to the king. He dissolved a number of small monasteries in order to build Cardinal College at Oxford and a school at Ipswich because of his desire to increase the educational level of priests to counter the spreading Lutheran teachings, but contemporaries thought that their creation was meant to leave a permanent mark of Wolsey’s power in England. Wolsey also attempted to try and control Irish dioceses by appointing English clergyman to position there.
There are also many negative points about Wolsey’s administration of the Church. There were too many bishoprics and abbotships which he controlled but never visited. Most of them were controlled by him for financial purposes, and he didn’t know what was happening in them. Such bishoprics included York, which he was Archbishop of for 15 years and didn’t go there once.
Unfortunately, being selfish and greedy like any sane man in power, Wolsey sought to increase his wealth and, thus, channeled some of his energy into clerical affairs, including appointments and elections of clergy. For the purpose of personal enrichment, he kept bishoprics vacant and took the income from them, and he even made up his mind to introduce an inheritance tax on wills. Furthermore, Wolsey took advantage of his secular power in increasing his income by making nobles present him with expensive gifts.
Geoffrey Moorhouse characterizes Thomas Wolsey in the book “The Pilgrimage of Grace”:
“Arrogant by nature, he [Thomas Wolsey] was also greedy for emoluments of one sort and another, a lucrative Church appointment here, the acquisition of property there. He built palaces, including Hampton Court, and in these he entertained extravagantly with an entourage which far outnumbered that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who would attend royal pageants with seventy servants, whereas Wolsey always turned up with 300 or more. Like many another priest he fathered children and saw to it that his son was promoted to one valuable benefice after another, despite the fact that he was not even old enough to be ordained. On the other hand, mindful of his own background, he had much sympathy for the poor in any struggle they had with the rich (who regarded him as an upstart) and he appointed commissions to look into the vexatious matter of enclosures; though it did little good, because it did not address the real problems of rural poverty, he had illegally created hedges and walls pulled down and open fields restored. His greatest achievement at home was to overhaul the legal system and provide it with a sound bedrock on which later reforms could be built.”
Cardinal Wolsey’s main triumph was to retain the king’s high favor until 1529, for so long, in spite of having a swarm of enemies. He achieved that by keeping other councilors’ and nobles’ access to Henry limited and by ensuring that he had the sole control of the daily state affairs.
His fate was sealed when he failed to accomplish the annulment of King Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, controlled the pope at the time, especially after the Sack of Rome in 1527. It is possible that Anne Boleyn and her faction conspired against Wolsey and persuaded King Henry that the cardinal was deliberately slowing proceedings. The pope decided that the official decision regarding Henry’s first marriage would be made in Rome, not England, but that was not what the king wished.
King Henry supposed that Wolsey, as “Legate a latere” (a papal legate of the highest class) had the significant influence in Rome and could convince the pope to grant him his annulment. Consequently, Henry probably believed the Boleyns, and Wolsey fell out of the king’s favor. On the king’s orders, Wolsey was stripped of his offices and property, including the magnificent Hampton Court. At first, he was permitted to remain Archbishop of York, so he journeyed to Yorkshire for the first time in his life. When he arrived in North Yorkshire, he learned that he had been accused of high treason and commanded to return to London. A distressed Wolsey set out for the capital, but he fell ill on the journey and passed away soon.
Just before his death, Cardinal Wolsey reputedly spoke these words:
“I see the matter against me how it is framed. But if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”