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Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, PC (circa March 1471-1475 – November 28 or November 29, 1530), born Thomas Wulcy in Ipswich, Suffolk, England, was a powerful English statesman and a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.


Early life

He was a son of Robert Wulcy of Ipswich (1438 – 1496) and Joan Daundy Wulcy. His father is reported by various later sources as a butcher but this is not certain. Wolsey was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford and then headed the Magdalen College School before becoming a personal chaplain, first to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then to the governor of Calais where he met Henry VII. In due course he became Henry's personal chaplain before being appointed the Dean of Lincoln.

Summit of his career

When Henry VIII became king in 1509, Wolsey's affairs prospered. He became Canon of Windsor, Berkshire in 1511, the same year in which he became a member of the Privy Council. His political star was in the ascendant, and he soon became the controlling figure in all matters of state. In 1514, he was made Bishop of Lincoln, and then Archbishop of York. Pope Leo X made him a cardinal in 1515, with the Titulus S. Caecilae. In 1520 he organised the Field of the Cloth of Gold (near Calais) to try and make peace with France. In 1523, he was made Prince-Bishop of Durham. Wolsey loved display and wealth, although it is generally accepted that, as the King's principal servant, such things were necessary to present a good image to foreign diplomats and kings. He lived in royal splendour in his palace at Hampton Court, which was made the seat of Henry VIII after his fall. There is a theory that his long-term ambition was to become Pope, although much evidence discredits this. The idea that he aligned English foreign policy to that of the Papacy does not explain why he was often involved in wars in continental Europe, even if they were not on behalf of the Papacy. There is also the fact that he never attempted to build up support in the Papal Curia, which was necessary to obtain the Papal Tiara.

Around 1525, Wolsey used his powers as papal legate to dissolve abbeys in Oxford and Ipswich to establish his own university colleges. The college in Oxford was originally named Cardinal College, but was renamed King's College after his fall. Today it is known as Christ Church.

Wolsey's family

He was married to Joan Larke (born circa 1490) of Yarmouth, Norfolk. The marriage produced a son, Thomas Wynter Wosley (born circa 1528) and a daughter, Dorothy (born circa 1530) who lived to adulthood. Thomas married and produced children, though no known record remains of Dorothy. See Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XV :

Wolsey's fall

Cardinal Wolsey spent his great abilities as a statesman and administrator mainly in managing England's foreign affairs for Henry VIII. Despite his many enemies he held Henry VIII's confidence until Henry decided to seek a church annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

The reason for the annulment request was complex; his marriage to Catherine had produced no sons that survived childhood, leading to threats of a power struggle after his death. His daughter, Mary, was, at the time, considered unable to hold the country together and continue the Tudor dynasty (England had not until then had a reigning queen, except arguably for Empress Matilda). Henry VIII became convinced that their inability to have a male heir that survived childhood was due to his marrying Catherine, who was the widow of Arthur, Prince of Wales. Arthur was his older brother, causing Henry VIII to consider the marriage contrary to Biblical rules. Henry VIII further believed that the formal permission for his marriage to Catherine received originally from the Pope was invalid because it was based on the presumption that Catherine was still a virgin on her first husband's death. Henry claimed that was not the case, and thus, the papal permission and the ensuing marriage were invalid.

Catherine disputed the fact and insisted that she had been a virgin when she married King Henry. The fact was that he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn and believed a second marriage would provide a much desired male heir. However, because Queen Catherine was opposed to the annulment and a return to her previous status as Dowager Princess of Wales the annulment request became a matter for international diplomacy, with Catherine's nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, threatening the pope if his aunt's marriage to Henry was annulled. Wolsey, aware of the diplomatic complexities and facing a physical threat to his own life should he grant the annulment himself, the case being that the Pope was reluctant to grant the annulment, was slow in arranging the request. This delay angered the king and made Wolsey an enemy of Anne Boleyn and her friends at court.

Wolsey's fall was sudden and complete. He was stripped in his government office and property, including his magnificently expanded residence of York Place, which Henry chose to replace the Palace of Westminster as his own main London residence. However, Wolsey was permitted to remain Archbishop of York. He travelled to Cawood in North Yorkshire to become popular among the villagers as he had become disrespected and not trusted. But shortly afterward, he was accused of rape and ordered to London by the Earl of Northumberland. In great distress, he set out for the capital with his personal chaplain Edmund Bonner. Wolsey fell ill and died on the way, at Leicester on November 29 around the age of 55. "If I had served God", the cardinal said remorsefully, "as diligently as I did the king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs."

In keeping with his practice of erecting magnificent buildings, Wolsey had designed a grand tomb for himself, but he lost it, just as he had lost Hampton Court. Wolsey was buried in Leicester Abbey (now Abbey Park) without any monument at all, and Henry VIII considered using the impressive black sarcophagus for himself, but Lord Nelson now lies in it, in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Historical view of Thomas Wolsey's career

Wolsey is unpopular among some historians for his ambitious quest for power. However, no historian can deny Thomas Wolsey’s remarkable rise to power from humble origins, his high level of intelligence and organization, or his extremely industrious nature, fueled by a driving ambition for power. His rise coincided with the ascension of the new monarch Henry VIII, who brought policies and a diplomatic mindset that were completely different from those of his father, Henry VII.

Rise to power

Wolsey's rise to power can be seen in two stages. The ultimate position he attained was Lord Chancellor and Cardinal in 1515, becoming Henry VIII’s first minister, enjoying great freedom and often depicted as alter rex (second king). The first crucial stepping stone in Wolsey’s ascent was in 1509, when he first came to the attention of the new king and appointed to the post of Almoner, giving him not only the opportunity to create a rapport with Henry and show off his intellectual muscle, but also giving him a seat on the council, beginning his political career. Wolsey essentially reached this peak through sheer intelligence and intuition, first by getting his name known in intellectual circles, resulting in his talents being singled out and recognized by important men such as Sir Richard Nanfan, who recommended Wolsey to King Henry VII. Much to Wolsey’s betterment, Henry VII distrusted the nobility and deliberately sought to favour those from more humble backgrounds for positions of prominence, and so, being the son of a butcher may have influenced Wolsey’s appointment to Royal Chaplain. In this position, Wolsey was secretary to Bishop Fox, who encouraged Wolsey’s career, recognizing Wolsey's innate ability and dedication and the fact that Wolsey always took on more work than was necessary, never backing down from tedious tasks, and thus, bringing him to the new king’s attention after the death of Henry VII and the rise of Henry VIII in 1509. Without completing this first objective and coming to Henry’s attention through determination, and despite Wolsey’s ability to please him, he would never have advanced in politics. Henry would have simply chosen someone else.

Another crucial aspect of Wolsey’s ascension can certainly be attributed to the character of Henry VIII. Henry VII was a calculating and administrative financier with a very passive outlook in foreign policy, feeling that a war would only wreck the national finances. He held the nobility in low esteem, taxing much of their wealth and property and very infrequently bestowing titles. On the other hand, Henry VIII did not want his reign to be hindered by displeasing the nobility, who essentially controlled Parliament and would be the deciding factor in whether he could fulfill his quest for war with France. As well as inheriting a stabilized economy, Henry also inherited his father’s counsellors, who were cautious and conservative, advising the king to be an administrator like his father. Henry understood that in his venture for popularity he would need to restock his council with like-minded, war-mongering individuals, so that he could unite the nobility behind him in an invasion of France to gain the glory and honour of the French crown, emulating his idols Henry V and the legendary King Arthur, among others. For the early years of his reign, these counsellors were Bishop Fox and William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and they acted like a couple of schoolmasters, nagging Henry to spend more time at the court and less time gallivanting with his noble chums, playing tennis, jousting, and composing songs and sonnets to woo the ladies of the court. However, it was the King’s Almoner, Thomas Wolsey, who urged otherwise. The more the bishops scolded Henry to apply himself, the more Wolsey persuaded him to do the contrary, which delighted Henry and caused him to have great affection and love for Wolsey, who was put in high favour and given greater amounts of responsibility. When it came time for Henry’s annual clearing out of the council, Wolsey was exempted.

Furthermore, it should be noted that it is a tribute to the distractible nature of Henry VIII that Wolsey was given opportunity to assume such unprecedented responsibility. Under the tight personal monarchy of Henry VII, Wolsey would not have been given nearly as much trust and responsibility. Henry VII oversaw nearly all aspects of government, particularly financial ones in which the king took personal supervision under a method known as ‘household government’. During his reign, he would have had no need for the controlling and ambitious Cleric, thus, Wolsey would certainly never have reached his pinnacle. His rise, therefore, could be attributed to a king who, though in admiration of his father’s efficient governing, was too distracted by the upholding of the majesty and glory of his position in English culture, reveling in follies of war and women, leaving Wolsey alone to work his magic. Moreover, Henry VIII, who,upon attaining his majority, never expected to become king, had little political and governmental tutoring prior to ascending to the throne, and, acknowledging his own inexperience in the field of economy and domestic affairs, was much contented to have someone like Wolsey handle the fundamentals for him.

For a long time, Wolsey was Henry’s like minded fix-it man, and as time progressed, Henry trusted Wolsey more and more. To some extent this could be attributed to Wolsey’s integrity and talent at getting the job done. He often opted to do the tedious tasks shunned by others and was always willing to overstep the boundaries of what his job as almoner entailed, flexing his muscles in both domestic and legal affairs, and foreign policy, leaving a good impression of the king’s counsellors and the king himself. Wolsey knew the risks of climbing the political ladder, and when the king expressed his enthusiasm about an invasion of France, and despite moral and economic reservations, Wolsey was able to adapt to the king's mindset and exploit the war as much to his own benefit as possible. Wolsey, after all, was an opportunist, and, whereas Warham and Fox failed to share the king’s enthusiasm and, thus accordingly, fell from power, this failure allowed Wolsey to fill their places.

The affection Henry had for Wolsey perhaps went further than Wolsey’s ability to get the job done. Henry VIII was known for filling his court with men not only of like mind but also of similar build and presence. It is perhaps no coincidence that Wolsey was a gross, corpulent fellow with a physique Henry would later wholeheartedly adopt. Moreover, both men were greedy, extroverted, ostentatious, and somewhat pretentious creatures, reveling in lavish displays of their wealth and power. This rapport was a vital key in the ascension of Wolsey.

Henry’s ambitions for war were very much linked to the political situation in Europe in the early 16th century. Wolsey greatly exploited those ambitions in the English campaign against France as a means of justification to ensure a victory, leading to his rise. As a man of the church, a viable justification for going to war would be a plea for help from the Pope, which came in 1511 from Pope Julius II, who was beginning to feel threatened by France. This also allowed England to form an alliance with Ferdinand of Spain, and Maximilian, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, giving England strong support, at least in theory. Without this climate of hostility against France, a war supported by strong allies would not have been possible.

The war against France in 1512-13 was the most significant event that permitted Wolsey to effectively show off his talents for organization and military strategy. However, it is crucially linked with the ambitious nature of the King and the political climate in Europe, coupled with papal support, and, without which, a war might not have been possible. Although the first campaign against France was not a success, partly due to an unreliable alliance with Ferdinand, Wolsey no doubt learned from the mistakes of this campaign and, in 1513, still with papal support, launched a joint attack on France, successfully capturing two French cities and causing the French to retreat. The whole charade pleased Henry, who was able to achieve his aims of proving his mettle in Europe and acquire some prestige by chasing after a few Frenchmen, At the centre of it all was Wolsey, his military dynamism at the fore-front, particularly in his ability to keep such a large number of troops supplied and equipped for the duration of the war. Furthermore, to Henry’s pleasure, was Wolsey’s key role in skillfully negotiating the face-saving Anglo-French treaty of 1514 that secured a temporary peace between the two nations, particularly in allowing the French king, Louis XII to marry Henry’s young sister, Mary. It also established England as the victor of this conquest. This allowed England to keep the captured city of Tournai and also receive a hefty pension from France. For his contribution, Wolsey was placed in higher favour, and Henry gave him greater responsibilities and awarded numerous bishoprics, including the very powerful position of Archbishop of York in 1514. As tribute to his successful campaign in France and his fair negotiations for peace, Wolsey was rewarded by both the king and the church, and, in 1515, he became Cardinal Wolsey. To further consolidate his power, he was appointed as Lord Chancellor in the same year.

Nevertheless, despite having won the favour of the king, Wolsey’s ascendancy to chancellor would certainly have been compromised had he not taken care of those within the council who held grudges against this ambitious butcher’s son from Ipswich. Wolsey assertively cemented his name in the council, letting all know of his intentions and overshadowing all objections. Perhaps this is why, under the amounting pressure directed from Wolsey, Warham resigned as chancellor in 1515, leaving the gap open for Wolsey to readily fill. There were a few nobles in the party who did pose a threat to the stability of Wolsey’s position, such as the Dukes of Norfolk and Buckingham, whom he passively ignored, eventually muting their resistance. However, in the case of the Duke of Suffolk, Wolsey attempted to win his favour instead, when the duke was secretly wed to Henry’s sister, much to the king’s displeasure. Wolsey, supposedly, advised the king not to execute the newlyweds, but embrace them. With Suffolk indebted to Wolsey, the cardinal had made the necessary precautions in consolidating his power.

Ultimately, Henry probably could not have afforded to not appoint Wolsey to Lord Chancellor in 1515 out of fear that he may have grow restless playing second fiddle to Warham and may have resigned his services, which had proved to be so crucial both domestically and in foreign affairs, coupled by the strong rapport between the king and Wolsey, as at this point Wolsey had become so rich and powerful in his own right that he didn’t need to be employed in the king’s services. The chancellorship was a means of securing Wolsey’s loyalty to the king first, then the church.


Wolsey’s Foreign Policy 1515-1529

A complex network of constantly changing, intemperate alliances occupied Europe in 16th century. It was an environment of immense hostility between nations, where each nation was continually enforcing her sovereignty and supremacy over other nations in the ruthless power struggle that was foreign policy. Prior to Henry VIII’s accession, England had done well in steering clear of foreign conflicts, while Henry VII was wholly satisfied with his annual pension from France. Henry VIII’s rule broke free from his father’s skepticism towards European diplomacy and sought to boost the minimal influence of this isolated, seemingly uninteresting island nation in the convoluted European scene. Considering the inexperience of the king and his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, and their lack of clear, specific aims, their accomplishments in making England a desirable ally to be sought after by the two pioneers of the European diplomacy, France and Spain, and making England a significant power in her own right, should not be berated. Even the annual French pension was significantly increased. However, Wolsey, for all his ambition and organization, lacked the crucial skills of diplomacy, and, once too often, let England be his king, his allies, and his pope, sacrificing overall gains for England, and thus, ensuring that he was unable to fully satisfy anyone.

Foreign Policy was Henry VIII’s work. It was Wolsey’s task to fulfill his master’s aims, which, to an extent, he successfully accomplished. What Wolsey understood was that, when there was peace between France and Spain, England became isolated, and it was pointless for her to ally with one of the two, as she was considered unneeded. Therefore, it was beneficial for England, in the hope of gaining new territory and influence, that there be continual conflict between the two powers. Between 1515 and 1517, England was very much isolated because of the peaceful relations between France and Spain. Wolsey had to assert English influence through another means, so he conveniently chose peace. The Treaty of London (1518) showed Wolsey as the arbiter of Europe, organizing a massive peace summit involving twenty nations. This put England at the forefront of European diplomacy and drew her out of isolation, making her a desirable ally. This is well illustrated by the Anglo-French treaty signed two days afterwards.

Wolsey may have had ulterior motives, linked with his initial point of devising the treaty. Ironically, it was partly this peace treaty which caused the desired conflict between France and Spain. In 1519, when Charles ascended to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis, king of France, was infuriated. He had invested enormous sums of money in bribing the electorate to select him as emperor, and thus, he used the Treaty of London as a justification for the Habsburg-Valois conflict. Now, Wolsey was able to mediate between the two powers, both of whom were vying for England’s support.

Another of Wolsey’s diplomatic triumphs was the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520). He assiduously organized every detail of this grandiose meeting between the French king, Francis, and Henry, accompanied by some 5000 followers. Though it did seemingly open the door for peaceful negotiations with France, if that was the direction the king wished to go, it was a chance for a lavish display of English wealth and power before the rest of Europe, exhalting her reputation.

With both France and Spain vying for England’s allegiance, Wolsey was given the opportunity to chose the ally which best suited his policies. Wolsey wisely and selfishly chose Charles since, quite simply, England's economy would suffer from the loss of the lucrative cloth trade industry between England and the Netherlands. Furthermore, Henry had closer links with Charles than with Francis because he was married to Charles’ aunt. Since the king had yet to produce a male heir, a marriage between Henry’s daughter, Mary, and Charles would ensure the security and influence of England after Henry’s death. This was also in keeping with his duty to the pope, who was strictly anti-French. This alliance had complete papal support.

Some historians would argue that Wolsey’s foreign policy was influenced by that of the pope, perhaps reflecting his papal ambitions. In some respects this angle of foreign policy was successful. In 1517, Pope Leo X sought for peace in Europe to form a crusade against Turkey. In 1518, Wolsey was made Papal Legate in England, and thus, was able to extrapolate the pope’s desires for peace by organizing the Treaty of London. Whether this pleased the pope personally is another matter. However, it showed Wolsey’s foreign policy in a good light and no doubt drew him closer to Rome.

Similar ties with Rome can be seen in the formulation of the League of Cognac in 1526. Though England was not a part of it, the League was organized in part by Wolsey under papal support. Wolsey’s plan was that the League of Cognac, composed of an alliance between France and some Italian states, would challenge Charles’ League of Cambrai and rescue Pope Clement VII, who had been held captive by Charles in the sacking of Rome. This initiative was not merely a gesture of allegiance to Rome. It was also an act of following through on Henry’s desire for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon, an aspect which was beginning to dominate foreign policy. It was yet another ingenious strategy, devised by Wolsey, in an attempt to please everybody.

Analyzing the failure of Wolsey’s foreign policy is somewhat more complicated, as there are multiple roots and causes involved in its ultimate ineffectiveness. Its partial success is largely attributed to the ingenuity of Wolsey. To one extent, it was not entirely his fault, but could be viewed as the product of a recurring series of unfortunate setbacks. For example, the poorly timed turnover of rulers in Europe greatly diminished England’s influence. Peace with France in 1514 was a true achievement for Wolsey and the king. With Henry’s sister Mary married to the French King, Louis XII, the prospect of perpetual peace was open. However, only a year later, Louis died and was replaced by the young, ambitious, war-mongering Francis I, who had no intention of continuing an alliance with England and became a significant rival to Henry VIII, stirring up tensions. Additionally, Mary decided not to be married off to the new king and married the Duke of Suffolk instead. With great anxiety, Wolsey proposed an alliance with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire against France. But, further bad luck came in the form of the death of King Ferdinand of Spain, England’s closest ally and father-in-law of Henry VIII. He was replaced by Charles V, who immediately proposed peace with France and was soon followed by his grandfather, Maximillian, the Holy Roman Emperor. By 1517, England was diplomatically isolated, and Wolsey’s polices had failed.

Further instances of bad fortune for Wolsey’s foreign policy occurred during the 1522-1523 wars with France. Though it is true that Henry’s aims were drastically overambitious in these campaigns, and the invasion was certainly not as well organized and thought through as the 1513-1514 invasion had been, fate was certainly not on Wolsey’s side. All England’s hopes rested on the disgraced French noble Bourbon leading a revolt that would distract the French defense from the English invasion in August 1523. However, the revolt failed. It was truly unfortunate that it took such a long time for messages to be sent from one country to another. Without any modern communication systems, it required weeks for a message from France to reach England. This, undoubtedly, also played a part in the failed attack. Furthermore, Charles, who had promised to come to England’s aid, wisely decided to stay out of the affair due to a lack of funds. The situation was further exacerbated by bad weather, a feature that was crucial to the English defeat. This was an extremely costly disaster, and parliament had to most begrudgingly raise additional taxes to cover the expenses.

Parliament played a decisive part in burdening Wolsey’s foreign policy. Particularly after the disastrous campaigns of 1522-1523, there was little enthusiasm for war. It had become obvious to many members of the nobility that England’s losses in Europe were outweighing her gains, and they began to distrust and criticize the actions of Wolsey in particular. Wolsey equally disliked parliament and let his resentment show. However, in 1525, when Charles won a decisive battle at Pavia and captured the French king, a realistic opportunity for Henry to seize power of the French crown presented itself. All that stood in the way of victory was parliament, which body ultimately refused to raise any more money by taxation. This, accordingly, led to Wolsey devising the Amicable Grant, which was met with even more hostility, and ultimately led to his own downfall. With no money there was no invasion of France. Charles became tired of his fruitless alliance with England and the “Great Enterprise” crumbled.

The final blow to Wolsey’s foreign policy, ultimately out of his hands and partially just bad luck, was in 1529 when the French made peace with Charles, shattering Wolsey’s ambitions for the League of Cognac. With peace between France and Charles, there was no one to free the pope of Charles’ supremacy. Thus, he would be unable to grant Henry an annulment from Charles’ aunt, Catherine. Since 1527, Wolsey’s foreign policy had been dominated by his attempts to secure an annulment for his master, and, by 1529, his policy had failed.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to ignore Wolsey’s lack of diplomatic experience. Rarely did Wolsey have any clear and concise aims, and, often, what they achieved from their experiences in Europe was more a consequence of the times, rather than Wolsey acting on and following through on his specific aims. Wolsey is often praised as being the arbiter of Europe. However, very often these initiatives for a balance of power were more a consequence of England’s diplomatic isolation, rather than true and honest concerns for peace. For example, The Treaty of London (1518) is often regarded as Wolsey’s finest moment, but it was ultimately an excuse for England to assert some influence in Europe, and its half-hearted aspirations for peace were abandoned within a year. Wolsey more or less endorsed the rejection of the treaty by allying with Charles in 1520 in the conflict against France, snubbing the Anglo-French treaty of 1520.

A further example can be seen in 1525, when England made peace with France at the Treaty of the More, after Charles had abandoned England as an ally. Isolated and in a financial crisis after the wars of 1522-1523, Wolsey felt forced to negotiate with France. This feeble attempt to make the best of a bad situation failed to enthrall France, who then went behind Wolsey’s back and made peace with Charles, shattering all of Wolsey’s ambitions for a papal annulment. Thus, this lax attitude of not following through on policies and treaties directly resulted in the failure of Wolsey’s foreign policy.

Moreover, Wolsey’s inability to have clear objectives in foreign policy is evident in his pointless and fruitless switching of allegiances between France and Charles. This is particularly apparent in 1520 when, in June, Francis and Henry had their first meeting at the lavish Field of Cloth of Gold. This was an extremely costly venture and ended in Henry pledging his eternal allegiance to Francis. However, both before the meeting, in May, and afterwards, in July, Wolsey met with Charles to propose a “Great Enterprise” between the two nations, both against France. This made everything that was ‘achieved’ in June, with France, pointless. This was reiterated in the Calais conference of 1521, which was supposed to have mediated peace between the three nations. However, later that same month, Charles was formally joined in an alliance with England. The Calais conference became null and void. Wolsey’s foreign policy was one of confusion and indecision, where little overall progress was made.

This is equally prevalent in Wolsey’s organizing the League of Cognac in 1526, essentially allying England with France and against Charles. This virtually undermined everything Wolsey had worked on throughout the past decade in improving relations with Charles. Admittedly, relations with Charles had deteriorated anyway. Wolsey would have been much better off withdrawing England from European diplomacy, but he was far too concerned with seeking papal support for Henry’s annulment. Therefore, he underestimated the devastating effects of posing as an enemy to the most powerful empire in Europe. Although no war was fought between England and Charles, the wool trade suffered heavily. England’s principal customers were either from the provinces of Charles’ empire or those surrounded by his territory. As an adversary, Charles ceased trade with England. With little income from the wool trade, tax revenue declined, affecting the entire nation. Wolsey failed to show concern for such domestic qualms as this. The popular resentment his policies had created would ultimately lead to his downfall.

While it was unfortunate that in 16th century England had few reliable friends abroad, Wolsey seemed to have a knack for allying with bigger, more dominant nations who took advantage of England’s vulnerability and Wolsey’s naivete. Admittedly, in 1515, Wolsey was new to the diplomacy game and can be forgiven for handing out vast amounts of money to Maximillian, the Holy Roman Emperor, and to the Swiss, so that he might secure their loyalty to the alliance against the new French king, Francis, with England. Maximillian obviously did nothing to deserve this money. Unfortunately, Wolsey failed to learn from his mistake and, in 1517, when Charles ascended to the Spanish throne and allied with France, Wolsey gave more money to Maximillian, who would only deceive Wolsey by allying with France.

Charles, like his grandfather Maximillan, proved to be a poor ally. By entering into the “Great Enterprise”, England was dragged into the wars of 1522-1523. These wars were a disaster for England. However, the support allowed Charles the upper hand. Charles was plainly an unreliable ally and did not repay his gratitude for England’s effort, most evident in the war of 1523, when Charles refused to come to England’s aid. After his success at the battle of Pavia, in 1525, Charles had no further need for England as an ally and quickly discarded her. By 1525, England was just as isolated as she had been in 1515 and had achieved very little, largely due to the unreliability of Charles.

Wolsey was not a diplomat at heart. In his attempts to please those who at the time mattered, he had a habit of stepping on the toes of those who mattered less. He had an inability to foresee a possible reversal of favour, whereby, those whom he had angered and harboured resentment toward him, could someday have the power to destroy him and his foreign policy. One of the most significant examples is France. France had always been the traditional enemy of England, and in the wars of 1513-1514, England had shown their worth in capturing the city of Tournai. Undoubtedly, this humiliation frustrated the French, but they did not retaliate and simply increased the annual pension given to England, which was further increased in 1518. It must have also aggravated them when, in 1520-1521, England continued to toy with and deceive them at the Field of Cloth of Gold, pledging eternal support, while, in reality, allying with their enemy, Charles. Charles, it must be remembered, had robbed Francis of his desired position as Holy Roman Emperor. Though the English gain of the wars of 1522-23 was minimal, their contribution certainly aided Charles in his defeat of the French, particularly in 1525 at Pavia. Now, after all this, in 1525, Wolsey suggested making peace with France. It is, therefore, no surprise that the French, who must have had enormous contempt toward the English, in 1529, deceived Wolsey by making peace with Charles, dissolving Wolsey’s beloved League of Cognac as well as his hopes for a papal annulment. Furthermore, the French continued to honour the Auld alliance with Scotland, continuing to stir up hostilities much closer to England.

Another instance of long-term resentment can be seen in the relationship between Wolsey and Rome. Despite having loyalties to the papacy, Wolsey was strictly Henry’s servant. Though the Treaty of London was an elaboration on the pope’s ambitions for European peace, it was seen in Rome as a vain attempt by England to assert her influence over Europe and steal some of the pope’s thunder. Furthermore, Wolsey’s initiative for peace prevented the combined crusade of Turkey, which was the catalyst for the pope’s desire for European peace. In addition to this, Cardinal Campeggio, the papal envoy, who represented the pope at the Treaty of London, was kept waiting for many months in Calais before being allowed to sail the channel and join the festivities in London. This was merely Wolsey asserting his authority over Rome. However, Campeggio was still around in 1529 and, by this time, even more powerful. His resentment of this, as well as his resentment for the Treaty of London, was instrumental in the refusal of an annulment, the most significant failure of Wolsey’s foreign policy.

Ultimately, Wolsey’s biggest shortcoming was his failure to acknowledge that, particularly after 1518, England’s influence was seriously declining, and realistically, she could not compete with the formidable strength of France or Charles’ empire. Instead of being the desirable, influential ally who had the upper-hand, England was exploited by her allies, who later discarded her. By 1525, England was once again isolated, and, despite her decade of being at the forefront of European diplomacy, had no material gains from them.


For his fourteen years of chancellorship, Cardinal Wolsey had more power than any other man in English history, beside that of the monarch. As long as he was in the king’s favour, Wolsey had the freedom to reform England how he saw fit, and had his hand in nearly every aspect of its ruling. For much of the time, Henry VIII had complete confidence in him, and, as the king’s interests favoured more towards foreign policy, was willing to give Wolsey a free hand in reforming the management of domestic affairs, which Wolsey indeed had grand plans for. Superficially his reforms were concentrated around carrying out the king’s wishes and enforcing his principle of fair justice for all, no doubt influenced by the Christian ethos he was bound to, as a man of the church. Nevertheless, there were always impediments, obscuring the path of the complete realization of his reforms, whether it was through his own shortcomings or by the action of those who resented Wolsey’s influence over the king.

A good example of Wolsey’s combining of obligations to the king and the sense of moral duty is Wolsey’s devising, with the treasurer of the Chamber John Heron, of the ‘Subsidy’. This was a revolutionary form of tax which was based upon accurate valuations of the taxpayer’s wealth, where one shilling was taken per pound from the income of the taxpayer. This tax, which is the foundation of today’s income tax, replaced the rather inefficient fixed tax of 15ths and 10ths. As a fixed tax, the latter incurred that those who earned very little money had to essentially pay as much in tax as those with a lot. With an income tax the poorer members of society paid much less and their quality of life was greatly improved. Furthermore, with a more efficient form of taxation, Wolsey was able to successfully raise enough money for the king’s foreign escapades, bringing in over £300 000. Wolsey was also able to raise considerable amounts of capital through other means, such as through ‘benevolences’, enforced donations from the nobility, which, in 1522, raised £200 000.

As a legal administrator Wolsey had a good sense of natural justice and was genuinely concerned with opening up justice for all, and stamping out those who attempt to pervert justice, regardless of wealth or social standing. Therefore he reinvented the equity court, whereby the verdict was decided by the judge on the basis of what seemed most fair. Acting as an alternative to the Common Law courts, Wolsey reestablished the position of the prerogative courts of the Star Chamber and the Court of Chancery, which Wolsey was freely able to monopolize. Both courts operated under a system of quick and inexpensive cases, as well as promising impartial justice. Wolsey also established the Court of Requests for the poor, where no fees were required. Wolsey’s legal reforms proved to be immensely popular and overflow courts were required to attend to all the cases. Many high powered individuals who felt themselves to be invincible to the long arm of the law were convicted by Wolsey. For example, in 1515, the Earl of Northumberland was sent to Fleet Prison and in 1516 Lord Burgavenny was accused of illegal retaining.

Wolsey also used his courts to tackle national controversies, such as the pressing issue of enclosures. Wolsey genuinely wished to restore peace to the countryside, which had been thrown into a frenzy over the entrepreneurial actions of landlords, who greedily enclosed areas of land and converting from arable farming to pastoral farming, which does not require as many workers. The Tudors believed that enclosures were directly linked to rural unemployment and depopulation, vagrancy, food shortages and, accordingly, inflation. The Tudors valued stability above all else, and this mass urban migration proved to be a serious crisis for them. Therefore Wolsey conducted national enquires in 1517, 1518 and 1527 into the presence of enclosures. Over the course of his administration he used the court of Chancery to prosecute 264 landowners, including peers, bishops, knights, religious heads, and Oxford colleges.

Furthermore, Wolsey used the Star Chamber to enforce his 1518 policy of “Just Price”, which attempted to regulate the price of meat in London and other major cities. Those who were found to be charging excessive amounts were prosecuted by the Chamber. Moreover, after the bad harvest of 1527, Wolsey had the virtuous initiative to buy up all the surplus grain and sell it off cheaply to the needy. This act of generosity greatly eased disorder and became common practice after a disappointing harvest.

This Christian philosophy of communal righteousness is certainly a product of Wolsey’s position as papal legate for the church in England. He took his job seriously and made marginal efforts for improving the reputation of the church. For example, throughout the anti-clerical mood of the parliament of 1515, he defended the church right to the end, and refused to permit the resigning of the law which diminished the “Benefit of the Clergy”, despite being in the wake of the murder of Richard Hunne by his clergymen jailers. Wolsey was forced to kneel down to the king and assure him that the “Benefit” would be of no threat to his authority.

Moreover, Wolsey was aware of the ongoing corruption in the Catholic Church and he made certain steps to reform its heretical ways. For instance in 1524 and 1527 he dissolved 30 decayed monasteries, where corruption had run rife, and used the income to found a grammar school in Ipswich and Cardinal’s College in Oxford, generously giving something back to the communities which had nurtured him. Furthermore, in 1528, he began to limit the benefit of the clergy, and, in the same year, stood up to Henry by disapproving of his choice of a woman of dubious virtue for the position of Abbess of Wilton. Wolsey had honest concern for the reputation of the Church, however, as in many cases, he was not willing to pursue his reforms to their completion, as that would ultimately threaten his ultimate influence over the king.

A common trend, throughout all of Wolsey’s ventures, is the inability to effectively realize his reforms and make a lasting impact, due to the enormous overall responsibility Wolsey took on. Wolsey’s principal preoccupation throughout his fourteen years as Lord Chancellor was maintaining power. This meant both reducing the influence of others over the king, who may turn Henry away from Wolsey, and refusing to impart lesser responsibilities to others, as this may have jeopardized his overall control. Essentially this paranoia led him to become overrun with the day-to-day problems of running a country, as well pursuing his own initiatives.

Wolsey’s position in power solely relied on keeping good relations with Henry. Therefore it is understandable why Wolsey would have been concerned about whom the king surrounded himself with. The Gentlemen of the Privy, or Minions, were in daily contact with the king, and, due to their youthful, athletic characteristics, were very popular with him. Wolsey grew increasingly suspicious of the minions, particularly after infiltrating one of his own men into the group, and attempted many times to dispel them from court, giving them jobs which took them to Europe and far from the king. Nevertheless, after the failure of the Amicable Grant, the minions once again began to stir up trouble. Consequently Wolsey devised a grand plan of administrative reforms, incorporating the infamous Eltham Ordinances of 1526. This limited the cleverly reduced the members of the Privy from 12 to 6, removing trouble makers such as William Compton. As soon as Wolsey’s influence had been secured he dropped the plan of reforms. Wolsey had no intention of reforming the government if it would compromise his own position of power.

This could also be said for many of Wolsey’s other initiatives, particularly in his quest to abolish enclosure. Despite spending a significant time and effort in investigating into the state of the countryside and prosecuting numerous offenders, Wolsey freely surrendered his policy during the parliament of 1523, in order to win the favour of parliament, in the hope that they would pass his proposed taxes for Henry’s war in France. Consequently enclosures continued to cause trouble in the countryside for many years to follow.

One of Wolsey’s greatest impediments was his lack of popularity amongst the nobles at court and in parliament. There are countless instances where Wolsey, the retched butcher’s son whose unprecedented rise to power and envious wealth was much resented, upset the nobility. Whether their hatred stemmed from Wolsey’s excessive demands for money in the form of the Subsidy or through Benevolences, or through the Act of Resumption (1515), where many nobles were forced to give back lands which the king had given to them as a gift. Or by making the nobility responsible for their crimes, like a mere commoner, through his policy against enclosures and the prosecution of the nobility through the Star Chamber. Or many simply disliked his monopolization of the court and his concealing of information from the council. They were only going to tolerate Wolsey for so long, and, in 1525, when they had endured about as much as they could, it is unsurprising why there was unanimous hostility and rejection to the forced benevolence of the Amicable Grant. If Wolsey had made any prior attempts to nurture a possible rapport with the nobility perhaps they would not have been so unreceptive to his demands. However this was not the case, and mass riots broke out in East Anglia, under the supervision of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, sworn enemies of Wolsey. Henry was quick to denounce the grant, and the king quickly began to lose faith in his chief minister. Wolsey ultimately failed the primary objective of his domestic policy, which was to deliver what the king wanted.

Despite his genuine talent for administration and organization, there were many instances where Wolsey simply overreached, beyond his ability and understanding. A prime example of this was his confused crusade against enclosure. Admittedly the majority of Tudor England knew no better than Wolsey, failing to see that enclosure was not the actual cause of inflation. Ironically inflation was actually the cause for enclosure. Due to the relatively peaceful period which Tudor England had been enjoying since the War of the Roses, the population of the nation had accordingly increased. With more folks demanding and nothing more to supply, the price of food increased. In order to make up for the additional cost of living, landowners were forced to enclose land and convert to pastoral farming, which brought in more profit, as pastoral farming requires fewer workers than arable. Therefore Wolsey’s quest against enclosure was fruitless in regard to restoring the stability of the economy, as he failed to see the big picture. Furthermore, the horrors of enclosures were significantly hyperbolized. In truth there were relatively few enclosures, and, even after Wolsey’s labours, the countryside was still ripe with enclosure. This may have been partly down to Wolsey’s decision to have the J.P’s enforcing the laws of conduct, yet they themselves were the landowners who were enclosing land. In any case, all Wolsey managed to do was agitate a great many nobles.

The same can be said for Wolsey’s legal reforms. By making the fount of justice accessible to all and encouraging more people bring their cases to Wolsey’s courts, the system was ultimately abused. The courts became overloaded with incoherent, tenuous cases, which would have been far too expensive to have rambled on in the Common Law courts. Wolsey ultimately became disillusioned with delivering justice for all, and, in 1528, ordered all minor cases out of the Star Chamber. Once again, the overriding product of this venture was reinvigorated resentment from the nobles and gentry, who had suffered at the impartial hand of Wolsey, and also the lawyers, who regarded Wolsey as stealing their business. The only people who may have respected him were the commoners; however their influence was insignificant in comparison with those who detested Wolsey.

As well as juggling the convoluted matters of state, Wolsey attempted to stamp his influence over the church in England. As Cardinal and, from 1524, having lifetime legateship, Wolsey was continually vying for control over the church. His principal rival was Wareham, the archbishop of Canterbury, which was unlike his control over the state, which was uncontested. Therefore it was understandably more difficult for Wolsey to follow through with his plans for reform; however, considering he was still significantly powerful, he made few attempts to even try to reform the church from within. Despite making promises to reform the bishoprics of England and Ireland, and, in 1519, encouraging monasteries to embark on a programme of reform, he did nothing to enforce either issue. Moreover, he refused to promote others to instigate the reforms for fear of losing his precious influence over the church.

Many historians see Wolsey’s handling of the church as his greatest failure. Wolsey epitomized all that was corrupt and heretical about the church prior to reformation. Wolsey is often seen as quite the hypocrite, condemning the debauchery of corrupt clergymen, yet himself partaking in the crimes of pluralism, absenteeism (he was archbishop of York, yet never visited the city until 1529), simony (for example, even when appointed, Bishops and abbots could not take up their posts unless they had been “confirmed” by Wolsey, at a price), ostentatious display of wealth, sexual relations, nepotism, and ordination of minors (the latter three illustrated through the premature rise to power of his illegitimate son). Wolsey effectively used his position in the church for his own ends, such as awarding bishoprics to those Wolsey sought to keep loyal to the crown, illustrated by the appointment of Cardinal Campeggio to Bishop of Salisbury, in 1524, as a means of securing Campeggio’s role as papal curia for England. This is also an example of Wolsey extorting the money from these bishoprics, which were bequeathed to foreigners, without their knowing it. Wolsey was not a good advertisement for Catholicism, and his depravity made it easier for reformists to condemn the Church and win the public over to the Lutheran ideology. Considering that Wolsey was acting as Papal Legate for England, Wolsey had the duty to uphold the moral values which the pope promoted, as God’s Earthly representative. However, bearing in mind Wolsey’s lecherous reputation, many doubts would have certainly surfaced in the minds of those questioning the pope’s judgment and whether he was an effective figurehead for their faith. These were the doubts which fueled the campaign of the Lutheran reformists.

Wolsey’s greatest fault in supervising the church, and in a sense reflected through his administration of the state, was the belief in absolute supremacy. As papal legate he believed himself to be the uncontested figurehead of the church in England, and he sought to consolidate this power by reducing the number of bishops controlling the church, and populating the remaining bishoprics with bishops under his influence. Effectively Wolsey was ruling as a dictator, which caused cataclysmic problems once Wolsey was removed from power, and the church was left without the leader it was dependant upon, with virtually no influence at all. It is hardly surprising that the reformists were met with very little opposition from the weakened body of the Catholic Church.

Moreover, Wolsey was criticized, particularly by Thomas More, for failing to stamp out the threat of Lutheran heresy, during the 1520s. Despite threatening heretics with reproof and forcing them to recant, Wolsey refused to resort to prison sentences and execution, thus Lutheran ideology spread around the country, paving the way for reformation. Wolsey certainly did not wish for the church, for which he had devoted a good part of his life to, to be destroyed, however his ignorance, in believing that power and influence reigned supreme, made this inevitable.

The greatest criticism of Wolsey’s domestic policy is that considering, apart from the monarch, that Wolsey possessed more power than any other figure in British history, we can only be disappointed with what little he actually achieved. Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s successor, did not have anywhere near as much power, yet he was able to achieve so much, and drastically reform nearly every aspect of administration, in almost half the time Wolsey had. All that can be deduced from Wolsey’s ‘reign’ is a wasted opportunity. Nevertheless, one has to admit that Wolsey was the last of a generation of medieval administrators, who shared the Tudor mindset of fearing change and favouring stability. It is also true that in the political upheaval of the Reformation administrative changes were essential, and Wolsey was not given the opportunity to work in this environment. No doubt Wolsey had the ability to work in this environment, as his reformation of the legal system and introduction of the subsidy were revolutionary initiatives, and both were adopted by later administrations.


  • One of the world's oldest textile manufacturers Wolsey, which was established in 1755, is named after Cardinal Wolsey - the connections being the location of the factory near his burial place at Leicester Abbey and a pun based on their products being largely based on wool.


  • Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey (2 volumes, ©1958) by Charles W. Ferguson
  • The King's Cardinal: The Rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey, by Peter Gwyn, pub 1990
  • The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, by George Cavendish (gentleman usher to Thomas Wolsey)
  • In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, by Derek Wilson, New York, St. Martin's Press, 2001
  • Wolsey, by A. F. Pollard, pub 1929

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