Cardinal Thomas Wolsey: in favor of the fickle Henry VIII for years

Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Trinity College, University of Cambridge (c. 1585–1596)

King Henry VIII’s ascension to the English throne was viewed by many people as the dawn of a new glorious era in England.   Henry was perceived as a paragon of majesty, extravagance, culture, and Renaissance humanism, or it was how Henry positioned himself despite the fact that the Tudor court was far behind the continental royal courts in a cultural aspect at the time.

Thomas Wolsey had started his career during King Henry VII’s reign: Henry VIII’s father had appointed him royal chaplain in 1507.  Wolsey was lucky that Henry VII aimed to restrict the power of the nobility, willing to extend his favor to those who were educated and talented but had humble origins.  After Henry VIII had inherited the throne, Wolsey always remained by the king’s side, ready to share with his sovereign his knowledge and wisdom, while catering to the egocentric Henry’s every whim and fulfilling most of his desires.  Wolsey strove 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 monarch and flattered him, and soon Henry noticed him, although Henry VIII’s policies, character, and views about the monarchy differed drastically from his father’s.

A few months after his coronation, Henry VIII appointed Wolsey royal almoner in 1509, which allowed Wolsey to have a seat on the Privy Council and a chance to accomplish prominence.  It was when he started to establish personal rapport with the young monarch.  Young Henry was an intelligent, well-educated, and clever man, but he preferred the pleasurable aspect of his life over the routine and everyday management of state affairs, which had to be conducted with dignity and skill.  His father was a brilliant administrator and ruled the country well and with a firm hand, but Henry craved to enjoy the extravagance of life that had not been available to him in the lifetime of Henry VII who had been strict, frugal, and ascetic.  Wolsey’s rise to power can be explained by the young king’s wish to channel his energy into other activities, and as young Henry was well disposed towards Wolsey, he delegated the  responsibility of running the government to this competent man.  Therefore, Henry allowed Wolsey to make most of the decisions.

Wolsey turned out to be an efficient administrator, both for the Crown and for the Church.  He was appointed Archbishop of York in 1514 and then a Cardinal in 1515 by Pope Leo X, which made him more privileged compared to the rest of other English clergy.  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 the Almighty smiled down upon 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.  When William Warham, Henry VII’s old advisor, resigned as Lord Chancellor in 1515, most likely under pressure from the monarch, King Henry appointed Wolsey his Lord Chancellor.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, unknown artist

The king trusted Wolsey so much that he would allow him to do things that he would not ordinarily permit his other subjects.  Wolsey became fully responsible for England’s foreign policy and had almost 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 and politically astute man, Wolsey comprehended that Henry’s much-desired foreign policy – to obtain the throne of France and having his second triumphal Agincourt – was unrealistic because England’s resources were small compared to those of other nations, and because the English kings had a very shaky claim to the French crown at best, or in other words did not have it at all given the existence of the Salic law in France.   Wolsey managed to delicately balance on the thin line between his sovereign’s desires and real possibilities.

Cardinal Wolsey in the Showtime’s series ‘The Tudors’

Wolsey established England’s alliances to ensure the protection of the country’s security and interests.  Illustrious events such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 added to the prestige of England abroad, although Henry later was inclined to ally with Emperor Charles V against King Francois I of France.  The Treaty of London of 1518 (a non-aggression pact between the major European nations) was Wolsey’s another great diplomatic success, binding 20 countries together in peace, including Burgundy, France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, the Papal States, and Spain.  Nonetheless, 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 did not comprehend the complexities behind this change.

Thomas Wolsey was successful in his administration of the Church.  The reorganization of the dioceses with respect to the population levels was his main accomplishment in a religious area.  He endeavored to ensure that the Church served Henry’s interests, his aspirations explained by his strong sense of loyalty to the monarch.  Wolsey dissolved a number of small monasteries to build Cardinal College at Oxford and a school at Ipswich due to his desire to increase the educational level of priests to counter the spreading Lutheran teachings.  Yet, his enemies and contemporaries thought that the creation of these institutions served to leave a permanent mark of Wolsey’s power in England, and such nasty rumors circulated throughout the realm.  Wolsey attempted to control Irish dioceses by appointing English clergymen to Irish ecclesial positions.

There are also negative points about Wolsey’s administration of the Church.  There were many bishoprics and abbotships, which he controlled but never visited.  Most of them were used by him for financial purposes, and he did not know what was happening in them.  Such bishoprics included York: he was Archbishop of York for 15 years and did not go there often.  Wolsey had a selfish and greedy facets of his character, just as many other man in power had.  Wolsey sought to increase his wealth: for example, for the purpose of personal enrichment, Wolsey kept bishoprics vacant and took the income from them, and he even made up his mind to introduce an inheritance tax on wills.  Furthermore, Cardinal Wolsey took advantage of his secular power in increasing his income by making nobles present him with expensive gifts, which irritated the peers of the realm.

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.”

Tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey at Leicester Abbey

The fate of Cardinal Wolsey was sealed when he failed to accomplish the annulment of King Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to let his sovereign marry the woman he was obsessed with – Anne Boleyn.  Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V, controlled the Pope, especially after the Sack of Rome in 1527.   It is possible that Anne and her faction conspired against Wolsey and persuaded King Henry that the cardinal was deliberately slowing proceedings and negotiations with the emperor. The Pope decided that the official decision regarding Henry’s first marriage would be made in Rome, but that was not what the monarch wished.

King Henry supposed that Wolsey, as “Legate a latere” (a papal legate of the highest class) had significant influence in Rome and was capable of convincing the Vatican to grant him his divorce.  Consequently, Henry could have believed the Boleyns, and Wolsey fell out of the royal good graces.  Upon the king’s orders, Wolsey was stripped of his offices and property, including the magnificent Hampton Court Palace, which came into Henry’s ownership. At first, Wolsey was permitted to remain Archbishop of York, so he journeyed to Yorkshire.  When he arrived in North Yorkshire, he learned that he had been accused of high treason and instructed to return to London. A distressed Wolsey set out for the capital, but he fell ill on the way back and died soon thereafter.

Just before his passing, 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.”

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was in the royal favor for most of his life, breathed his last at Leicester Abbey on the 29th of November 1530 at the age of 57.  Wolsey’s main triumph was to retain the capricious monarch’s high favor until 1529 – for years in spite of having a lot of enemies constantly working to destroy him.  He achieved it by keeping other nobles’ access to Henry limited, and by ensuring that he had the sole control of the daily state affairs.  You need to have quite a talent to attaint such political feats and survive for so long in the court of King Henry VIII!

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x