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With what success did Wolsey carry through his domestic reforms in the period up to 1529?
Wolsey was a fortunate man and with some success carried through the domestic reforms. He usually had the aim to achieve greater power and more control. In this essay I will study how successful Wolsey actually was and why.
Wolsey became Lord Chancellor in 1515, which gained him the most important office of the State. He was also at the very centre of government. Living so close to West Minster and the Royal Courts of Justice gave Wolsey the opportunity to parade around and demonstrate the power he had as Henry VIII’s chief minister and leading chairman.
Wolsey managed to retain the king’s favour and was therefore with some success able to carry through his own domestic reforms. He certainly didn’t want many people influencing the king and so kept and eye on the gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. Henry VIII used the Privy Chamber as Henry VII had done but rather than being alone he liked to be surrounded by gentlemen of his own age. These men were extremely close to the king and could exercise considerable influence. By 1518 Wolsey became concerned by this and so placed his own man, Richard Pace to be gentlemen in audience of the King.
After this he seized his chance and expelled many of the minions for bad influence or sent them to do jobs away from the centre of power. Wolsey had managed to keep his power by encouraging the King in his pleasures and therefore had his chance to strike again, this time with the suggestion of reforming the government. Henry interested in this willingly agreed. Wolsey managed to expel the ‘minions’ with such success that he had no need to carry on reforming. This suggests that Wolsey tried to maintain sole influence over the King. I think that because Henry wasn’t a great deal interested, Wolsey had a better chance of success and having had the power to persuade the king also helped him to succeed.
In 1526 Wolsey also proposed to reform the royal household, the Eltham Ordinances were introduced. Theses were designed to give Wolsey as much control as possible over those close to the king and reduce the size of the Privy Chamber. Wolsey was successful with this as the amount of people went from 12 down to 6. He managed to remove his chief enemy, William Compton, and replace him with Henry Norris. Wolsey also devised a council attendant on the king but made sure they were always busy elsewhere. Wolsey was successful in reforming the household and this is shown by the things he managed to do. The changes were meant to cut costs but once he had achieved his objectives and removed the people who may influence the king he had no reason to proceed.
Wolsey’s greatest impact was in legal reform. In 1516 he put forward a reforming plan which was intended to end the corruption in the legal system and provide cheap and impartial justice. This reform was a success in that he exposed and punished many individuals. He based the centre of his work with the court of the Star Chamber. Wolsey made this court very popular and the evidence to prove this is that it had 120 cases per year, which was 10 times the annual total Henry VII had in his reign. Wolsey was successful as he put the Earl of Northumberland into prison for corruption of the court and in 1517 he sent a royal chancellor, Sir Robert Sheffield, to the tower for being an accessory to a crime. Respect for Wolsey increased because of this, but enemies were also made. A quote from Wolsey to the King shows how successful he was and how much power he did have to exercise.
‘And for your realm, Our Lord be thanked, it was never in such peace or tranquillity: for all this summer I have neither of riot, felony, nor forcible entry, but that your laws be in every place indifferently (fairly) ministered, without leaning in any manner.’
The letter goes on to say how successful in reforming the laws in the Star Chamber but also that he had some power over the King as he writes how he is going to deal with the two men rather than asking what he should do. He explains that people will understand the new law of the Star Chamber.
Wolsey also had some success with the Court of Chancery as he managed to increase the work. Wolsey has been credited with making a major contribution to English law through his decisions, which created precedents. He managed to establish a permanent judical committee dealing with cases brought by the poor, who he favoured, which created enemies of richer people. Wolsey wanted to see courts available for the poor and weak, since they stood little chance against the rich and strong in common law courts where large sums of money was required to succeed. Yet within these courts many honest people were put on trial. A contemporary source, the Chronicle of Edward Hall dated 1526 explains how Wolsey letting the poor people have a court led to innocent people being punished.
‘The poor people perceived that he punished the rich, then they complained without number, and brought many an honest man to trouble and vexation.’
Here I think Wolsey achieved his objectives and also achieved successfully reforming the Court of Chancery.
Wolsey managed to reform administration and finance with some success. He built up the Kings affinity in each locality by appointing the kings’ servants or his own to key country positions. In local government he gained his ‘centralising drive’ with some accomplishment as the local officials responded more rapidly and efficiently to royal instructions. Wolsey wanted to have control in every sector and with the reformations he did manage to achieve his objectives with many successes.
It is said that Wolsey made an important contribution to Tudor finance. He managed to develop the tax, which is now known as a subsidiary. Wolsey also changed the inadequate fixed rates and yields for a flexible system based on accurate valuations of taxpayers wealth. This proved very successful as people were only paying what they could afford. Wolsey wasn’t able to manage parliament well, which was probably because of his temperament and the impossibility of winning taxation for wars that had already happened.
This domestic policy did create enemies and for this reason it was quite unsuccessful in the early 1520s. Wolsey soon lacked humility and lost some ability of being able to persuade, so economic benefit for the crown was little and people became hostile. Wolsey demanded the ‘Amicable Grant’. It was a non-parliamentary tax, but it did not prove successful as he had hoped. It led to rebellion in East Anglia and many other places just refused to pay. This was a huge failure for Wolsey as the rebels won and the Amicable Grant was abandoned.
Wolsey was also relatively unsuccessful when he tried to change the law about enclosures. He saw them as a ‘moral evil’ as many Tudor commentators had done. Unfortunately Wolsey saw the enclosures as the landowners being greedy and didn’t see them as a long term economic change that was producing inflation. Yet he did still try to be an economic reformer. A letter to Wolsey from the Bishop of Lincoln in September 1528 explains how badly villages have been affected for the worst by the enclosures.
‘Your heart would mourn to see the towns, villages, hamlets, manor places, in ruin and decay, the people gone, the ploughs laid down, the living of many honest husbandmen in one mans hand, ht common in many places taken away from then poor people.’
The Bishop of Lincoln in the letter also explains how he is supporting the reformation and how the people pray for it.
‘Never saw people so glad as they are now, hoping the King and Wolsey will see reformation made. They pray for the King and your Grace everywhere.’
With the enclosures I think Wolsey was seeing only what he wanted to see and since he favoured poor people only saw in favour of them, this is why this domestic reform was unsuccessful. Although, he did prove himself to be energetic and well intentioned, even if he did fail.
Wolsey did come up with other ways to carry through his domestic reforms. One of the ways was to reform the church. He was the most powerful churchman in England and so in 1519 he said he was going to reform the clergy. He wanted to improve both church and state when he was dealing with political enemies at court in that year. This plan was not very successful as he made plans but nothing really became of them. There were great demands for reforming clerical life and Wolsey knew this, he also knew that the privileged status of the clergy was resented.
Wolsey wasn’t terribly successful in reforming the church and he said that he may not have paid enough attention to it. He said, ‘If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King…’ This suggests that he didn’t pay enough attention it, as he would have liked. However, he did pave the way for what happened in the 1530s, as he was involved in all aspects of the church. Churchmen became used to orders and enquiries from the crown, but the disadvantages of this was that their independence was reduced and therefore it became harder to re assert in time of a crisis.
In conclusion, Wolsey did carry through some of his domestic reforms with some success. The only reason some of them weren’t successful is because of how he reacted in certain situations, for example the enclosures. Wolsey was a very powerful man and knew how to persuade the King, and this was usually how he achieved success, the people that got in the way were his enemies. Even though he did have some failures he did carry on, but usually for his own interest, to gain full power. In certain ways he did improve things for others, he especially tried to improve things for the poor. I think this is because he used to be poor himself and so wanted to make a better life for others. Overall Wolsey did carry through domestic policies with some success, even if he was trying to fulfil his own objectives.