Thomas Wolsey was a medieval English cardinal and statesman. Born at Ipswich on the East Anglian coast, probably in 1475, he was educated at Oxford and ordained into the clergy in 1498. Within ten years he had become chaplain to the first Tudor king, Henry VII from where his career really took off, becoming Bishop of Lincoln, the Archbishop of York and a Cardinal.

Due to the close marriage of church and state he was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1515 and pursued a number of legal and administrative reforms. When Henry VIII took over the Crown he made Wolsey his leading adviser and left him in charge of the day-to-day running of government. Wolsey's ambition was to make England one of the Great Powers of 16th Century Europe and even had aims of one day becoming Pope. A number of errors of judgement in foreign policy put something of a brake on his plans and his high taxation policy at home didn't help to endear him to the merchants and noblemen of England.

When Henry's pleas to the Pope for a divorce from Katharine of Aragon were unsuccessful, it was Wolsey who was despatched to Rome to argue the king's case. However the Pope was at that time being almost held ransom by the King of Spain who also happened to be Katharine's nephew, and Wolsey failed to gain Papal approval for the divorce. Upon his return to England his failure was not treated lightly by the king: Wolsey was impeached and his property forfeited. Arrested on a charge of high treason, he died while travelling to London in 1530.

Cardinal Wolsey


   Thomas Wolsey, according to Sir Winston Churchill, "successfully held in his grasp an accumulation of power that has probably never been equalled in England"1 for some fourteen years. As a Cardinal, papal legate and Lord Chancellor he had the King's ear above all others and enjoyed a flamboyant income and lifestyle, which was much resented by his contemporaries. He practiced pluralism (the holding of multiple Church offices solely for the income they bring) on an almost ludicrous scale: he didn't visit his diocese of York until he had fell from favour with the King in 1528.

   Hailed as a genius, he eventually paid the ultimate price for failing to satisfy the execution-happy Henry VIII: death. However, until this point, such was his domination over the affairs of England that we can almost regard it as a prelude to the formative period of Henry's reign. You are unlikely to pick up a book on King Henry VIII without finding one or numerous chapters detailing the exploits and background of the Cardinal.

His early years

   The son of a butcher in Ipswich, Wolsey was born in 1472. He entered the royal service in 1507 under Henry VII as the King's chaplain and went on to be Henry VII's almoner. By 1513 he was one of leading councillors of the King, and showed great ability and intelligence in organizing the logistics for the war with France, which greatly enhanced Henry's reputation and image. In this year he was made Bishop of Tournai, and then in 1514 Archbishop of York. In 1515 he became Lord Chancellor and Pope Leo X made him a Cardinal. He never attained the title of Archbishop of Canterbury, much to his chagrain, because he was outlived by William Warham.

   By the time of him being made Lord Chancellor, no other man was left in the King's confidence. Henry himself was, according to contemporary George Cavendish

"young and lusty, disposed all to mirth and pleasure and to follow his desire and appetite, nothing minding to travail in the busy affairs of this realm"

   Hence it suited him to have a man to whom he could delegate the day-to-day running of the state, so long as he could trust this man completely (for the King was by no means a fool.) Wolsey filled all important positions with his friends and allys, and although all final decisions rested with the King, the government of the realm in the period of Wolsey's climax of power (1515-29) bears the unique stamp of his personality.

Wolsey and the Star Chamber

   The Star Chamber was the judicial arm of the King's Council. Wolsey was not a reformer of institutions, but he was a zealous exerciser of them - the Star Chamber, often chastened for its harshness, was at least an equitable court. When a soldier from Calais sent his wife to complain of mistreatment at the hands of the Lord Deputy of Calais, she received a full hearing. The court prosecuted nobles and gentlemen without relent, and this only added to the growing hatred of these classes for the Cardinal.

   Perhaps the most notorious case was the prosecution of the Duke of Buckingham, but it did serve to silence the nobility. Indeed, the recent history of England being noted, it is remarkable that the history of Henry VIII's reign is not the history of a turbulent nobility, but of England in Europe. The Duke of Buckingham was seen as a potential threat to the Tudor dynasty in case he was seen as a more likely candidate to ensure the peace of the realm than Mary Tudor upon Henry's death, and he was executed on a trumped-up treason charge in 15212.

   Wolsey boasts of his efficacy in the Star Chamber to the King -

"And for your realm, our Lord be thanked, it was never in such peace nor tranquility; for all this summer I have had neither of riot, felony , nor forcible entry, but that your laws be in every place indifferently ministered, without leaning of any manner."

   Contemporary Sir Thomas Smith said of the Star Chamber that under Wolsey it -

"took great augmentation and authoritie"

Wolsey and foreign policy

   The European scene was an interesting one in the early 16th Century, but not one in which England was a first-rate power. The two major powers of Europe as of 1519 were France and Spain, ruled by Francis I and Charles V respectively. Charles V had numerous possessions all over Europe - the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands and Austria to name a few. England was therefore important to Charles because English ships could disrupt his communications with the Netherlands, and important in general as a bargaining chip to the main powers.

   It is very hard to differentiate the foreign aims of the King from those of Wolsey. Wolsey has oft been accused of trying to align himself with with the Papacy overly because of his own ambition to one day be Pope. Wolsey quickly changed his country's allegience during the Habsburg-Valois wars, it is charged, along with the Pope. This view, first proposed at the start of the 20th Century, was generally discounted by later historians, who stressed as well that Wolsey's influence over the King was not absolute.

   The first diplomatic achievement of Wolsey's ministry was the peace with France in 1514, which it must be admitted was advocated heavily by Pope Leo X. Princess Mary was betrothed to the aging Louis XII of France and the pension provided by the Treaty of Etaples in 1492 was renewed. However, Louis died a year later and in 1515 the young and ambitious Francis I ascended to the throne of France. Peace throughout Europe now looked highly unlikely - the young King would no doubt want to war with Charles V, and conflict between himself and Henry looked likely3.

   Wolsey and Henry managed to secure for England a prominence in Europe which its wealth or population scarcely justified. In the Treaty of London in 1518, twenty powers agreed to perpetual peace, among them Spain, France and England. While this treaty can be seen as a display of high-minded and unrealistic ideals, it did secure England 600,000 crowns for the return of Tournai to the French. It seems Wolsey did have some idealism in his character and was influenced by the humanists such as Thomas More and Erasmus when they called for an end to war in Europe. However, after 1521, it seemed this idealism was often blotted out by his master.

   As the third of three major powers, England could tip the balance in the favour of either France or Spain. Despite the lavish meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (located in no man's land) in 1520, it was with Charles that England decided to side. This commited them to an invasion of France if Spain undertook one, and indeed they did in 1523. Had England opted for neutrality, Henry would have had little opportunity to prove his bravery in battle and look important, which is what he liked doing best.

   The Duke of Suffolk crossed the channel, and was persuaded by Charles V to march on Paris. They were assissted in their war effort by French traitor the Duke of Bourbon, but both the Spaniad and the Frenchmen proved unrealiable allies for the English, and Parliament began to grow disenchanted with the war.

   While Henry demanded wars, it seems that Wolsey mainly aimed to be involved in European affairs as a third party between warring factions. He sought prominence as the arbitrator of nations, as shown in the Treaty of London and his encouragement of the League of Cognac against Charles in 1526. It is somewhat anachronistic to see this as vanity or meddling: the more influence the prestige the Crown of England had, the better. Both Wolsey and Henry at least agreed on this. A Venetian ambassador said of Wolsey -

"Nothing pleases him more than to be called the arbiter of the affairs of Christendom"

The fall of Wolsey

   Wolsey's first failure was in the field of foreign policy - in 1525, after the Battle of Pavia, France was at its lowest point. Henry wished to lead an army into France himself and finally make good on his title of "King of France." Charles, who had captured Francis I at Pavia, did not favour the disembering of France - rather, he wished to seek peace and chivalry with the French King and then send him back to his dominions. Wolsey tried to extract the money for England to go into alone from the people of England, and although he succeeded in getting Parliament to agree, when commissioners were sent to collect the tax there was almost open rebellion. It has been remarked that this demand for money (called an 'Amicable Grant') was one of the harshest the English had ever faced.

   Forced to accept a pension of 100,000 crowns a year from Francis, Henry was furious. Charles went on to snub Wolsey by breaking down a marriage agreement he had negotiated earlier, that of Princess Mary to himself. Henry was bitterly dissapointed by the breakdown of this scheme, as he was desperate to get a male heir to succeed himself. Things went from bad to worse after the Sack of Rome in 1527 - now the Pope was under Charles V's thumb, how would Wolsey possibly secure the Pope's agreement to allow Henry VII to divorce Catherine of Aragon, Charles' aunt?

   Henry blamed Wolsey for these failings, as did his mistress Anne Boleyn. Anne said to the King, according to George Cavendish, a servant and admirer of Wolsey -

'Sir,' quod she, 'Is it not a marvellous thing to consider what debt and danger the Cardinal has brought you in with all your subjects... there is not a man within all your realm worth five pounds but he hath indebted you unto him by his means. There is never a noblemen within your realm that if he had done but half so much as he hath done but we were well worthy to lose his head. If my Lord of Norfolk, my Lord of Suffolk, my lord my father, or any other noble person within your realm had done much less than he, but they should have lost their heads or this.'

   It is suggested that a clique of nobles manipulated Anne, who then manipulated the King. It is not beyond belief that she would be this pliable - her anger over the divorce case is likely to have been vitriolic. For their part, the nobles hated Wolsey because he was a base-born knave with power and control which they were jealous of. Wolsey was stripped of his wealth under an obscure statute of 1392, and he submitted to it lest an Act of Attainder take away his head. He was allowed his liberty, but after it was discovered he was writing letters to the Pope against Henry VIII (Wolsey hoped the Pope would excommunicate Henry, and he could restore himself to power in the rebellion which would follow) he was sentenced to death. He died in Leicester before he could be executed in 1530.

~ Notes ~

1. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Vol. 2, Sir Winston Churchill (London, 1974).

2. Buckingham led an armed force into Wales to collect rent from his tenants despite the King ordering him not to do so - however, the reason behind the army was that Buckingham treat his tenants so badly he needed an army to face them. For this reason he was unlikely to be able to lead an armed rebellion against the King as his father had against Richard III in 1483.

3. The chief beneficiary of this was Henry's sister, Princess Mary - her brother had promised her that as her first marriage was to be diplomatic, her second should be for love. Hence she married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.


The Tudor Years, Edited by John Lotherington (Hodder & Stoughton, 1994)
Peace, Print & Protestantism: 1450-1558 by C. S. L. Davies (Paladin, 1976)
England and Wales under the Tudors by Sinclair Atkins (Hodder & Stoughton, 1975)
Disorder and Rebellion in Tudor England by Nicholas Fellows (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001)
Tudor Rebellions by Anthony Fletcher (Longman, 1968). For those interested in the topic of disorder in Tudor England, this is perhaps the best general work.
Henry VIII by M. D. Palmer (Longman, 1971)
Henry VIII and the Reformation in England by Keith Randell (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993)

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