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Thomas Wolsey rose from being the lowly son of a butcher, through various posts in the royal service, to become Lord Chancellor in December 1515, and remained at the pinnacle of the King’s service until his fall in October 1529. To stay in power for so long, it needs to be established whether he spent his time as a ‘servant’ to the King, or as a authority in his own right. Historian G.R.Elton stated that, ‘He had lasted so long because … he knew how to promote himself, and for most of the time, he knew how to keep henry satisfied.’ Elton’s words indicate what I believe are the two main factors in studying Wolsey’s ministry – how he served the King, and how much he did for himself.
It is my opinion that Wolsey, despite his plentiful policy in areas of little interest to the King like social and governmental reform, remained so prominent in the King’s service due to his ability to serve the King, allowing Henry to live life as a young ‘Renaissance Prince.’ The King also felt relatively safe giving such power to Wolsey, as he didn’t pose a threat to his throne in the way that some nobles or those of royal blood may have posed.
However nature of the relationship between Henry and Wolsey was unusual, as it was not like the archetypal master-servant relationship. In some of his letters to Wolsey, Henry signed off as ‘your loving friend and master,’ or referred to hims as ‘father’ in the spiritual sense of the word. George Cavendish, a contemporary, and Wolsey’s butler said “The king displayed a most loving disposition towards him, especially as he was most earnest and readiest among all the council to advance the King’s mere will and pleasure.” The friendship seemed to work both ways, and although it has been suggested that Henry took Hampton Court by force, I am in agreement with most historians that Wolsey gave it to Henry as a gift. To judge the extent to which Wolsey did serve his ‘master,’ it is necessary to analyse Wolsey’s work, and discover the true aim behind each of his major areas of policy.
In studying Wolsey’s domestic policy, one must establish Henry’s role in this area, and in particular, what he wanted done and how much of it he was willing to do himself. As Henry was not the first son of his father Henry VII, he had not received the same royal training that his older brother Arthur had done, thus he had never really developed an interest in royal domestic affairs. While Henry VII chose to rule the country himself, Henry VIII saw ruling his country as delegating jobs to other people so he could live a youthful life, spending time hunting and enjoying himself with other men of his age. His lack of interest in day-to-day administrative affairs left a void to be filled, so the arrival in the his service of someone who not only excelled in the field, but was willing to serve his every need seems to have been the main reason for the King to keep Wolsey. As Lord Chancellor, Wolsey was effectively head of the legal system.
However, as I established previously, Henry’s interest in fields such as this was limited, so he gave Wolsey power to do what he pleased (but he did have to approve Wolsey’s reform before it was implemented). Wolsey became a contriver of many policies of reform in the legal system, notably with his personal service in the Court of Chancery, increasing the administering of law of equity as opposed to common law, and with his revision of the role of Star Chamber in 1516, so that it would dispense justice and oversee fairness in the legal system. The question we need to ask is how much of this was done for the King, and how much did Wolsey do of his own accord, as arguments can be established for either opinion.
By sitting in on the Court of Chancery, Wolsey was taking on a lot of unnecessary extra work, and his enforcement of equity (which was seen as dangerously close to Roman Law) is evidence to suggest that Wolsey allegiance may not have only lain with Henry, but with the Pope as well. However, Wolsey himself had little or no legal training, and the work he carried out was rather early in his ministry, which suggests that is ultimate aim was to please the King by offering him exciting new plans of reform to keep him happy. Also, the work he carried out in Star Chamber was demanded of him by Henry. It is my personal opinion that Wolsey’s needed to maintain the King’s interest and appear as though he was working directly to serve the King, and this seems to have been his main priority, as this was the key to remaining in the King’s favour.
Wolsey’s background lay in religion rather than in law, so it seemed that anything policy he would implement would be more likely to reflect his own personal desires, rather than as a service to the King. In 1514, he was made Archbishop of York, and in 1518, he was promoted to Papal Legate (a position which was conferred on him for life in 1524), effectively making him the most powerful man in the church. The important question is that when serving the Pope in England, would he be acting for himself (and the Pope) or his master, the King? Wolsey’s first major policy in the church was the defence of ‘Benefit of Clergy.’ In the 1515 Parliament. This itself was a bold move for Wolsey, as he had only recently been given power, and to defend something that both King and Parliament didn’t approve of meant losing popularity. Nevertheless, Wolsey knelt to Henry to assure him that his power was totally unthreatened by the church.
This evidence suggests that Wolsey may not have necessarily wanted to do everything that the King wanted, and he seemed to have some power of refusal over the King himself. In the church, we also witness Wolsey’s collection of offices, wealth and power, which we can hardly regard as a service to the King. His offices included Bishop of Durham and Winchester, Abbot of St Albans (one of the richest abbeys in England), as well his previous offices as Archbishop of York, Papal Legate and Lord Chancellor, providing examples of pluralism.
He even charged clergy to carry out duties which he could not fulfil, in a gross example of non-residence. He derived a huge income from all of the above while maintaining power, placing him in a unique position, and freeing him up to serve the King in other ways. One third of land in England belonged to the church, and this seemed to be the one of the few aspects of the church that Henry himself was displeased with, thus it can be said that the dissolution of 30 monasteries between 1524-9 would have theoretically been done for the King. In practice, Wolsey kept a great deal of the revenue from the monasteries, diverting it to his school in Ipswich and his college at Oxford.
Social reform was one of the areas of domestic policy that least concerned the King, so it seems likely that most of Wolsey’s action in this field would not be in service to the King. His attempt to reduce the injustice of ‘enclosures’ and ‘engrossing’ via the Enclosure Commission of 1517-9 was clearly of little consequence to the King, and was more likely to be an area of policy where the King gave Wolsey freedom to implement his own policy. The fact that Wolsey carried out policies for which there is little evidence of any involvement on Henry’s part suggests that Wolsey may have been more than just a servant to Henry.
Wolsey’s immense activity in financial policy corresponds with Henry’s desire for money to carry out foreign expeditions against the French. The Act of Resumption of 1515, the Subsidies of 1513-5 and 1523, the Forced Loan of 1523 all reduced his popularity, but managed to quench Henry’s desire for money. However, Wolsey was seen to go one step too far to please his master in 1525, in asking for the Amicable Grant, while the forced loan of 1523 was still being collected. The country reached a state of near-rebellion, and more serious disturbances occurred in London, East Anglia and Kent. It was at this stage when the relationship between Henry and Wolsey faced its first major attack, and Henry blamed the whole fiasco on Wolsey to save himself. Wolsey himself had largely been opposed to his attempts to raise extra revenue for the King, yet he had been acting as the King’s servant, doing his bidding. To Henry, Wolsey was to act as a scapegoat in situations where things went wrong.
The other area of domestic policy in which conflict arose between Henry and Wolsey was in the Eltham Ordinances of 1526. Wolsey had been struggling to eliminate those who may have influenced the King. In 1518, he had attempted to expel Henry’s ‘minions’ or ‘young favourites,’ but his ‘governmental reform’ as he called it, was reversed by Henry, indicating some tension, but more importantly indicating to Wolsey that he could not consider overpowering the King. It was in the Ordinances of 1526 that Wolsey again went too far. In another bout of governmental reform, he was able to reduce the number of ‘Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber’ from 12 to 6, and he removed enemies such as William Compton, the ‘groom of the stool.’ The resultant lack of advisors around Henry angered him, and he was well aware that Wolsey was the cause of his seclusion.
Wolsey had emerged as a competent organiser during the 1512-3 French campaign, and also organised the peace with France in 1514, proving himself to Henry as effective in diplomacy as well. Clearly, Henry was a king who sought glory, and was full of dynastic ambition. He wanted England to be as influential in European affairs as it had been in the time of Henry V. His jealousy of his French rival, Francis I meant that he would be seeking alliances against his traditional opponent. Wolsey on the other hand was a man of humanist tendencies, sought glory in diplomacy through his desire to become the ‘peacemaker of Europe.’ The Venetian Ambassador at the time stated that “Nothing pleases him more than to be called the arbiter of the affairs of Christendom.” In 1516, Henry wanted to renew his campaign against the French alongside the new leader of Spain, Charles V, but Wolsey managed to convince him to join a coalition against French action in Italy instead.
Henry clearly trusted Wolsey sufficiently to trust his advice in this are, indicating that he held more importance than that of just a servant. One aspect of Henry’s personal policy is also revealing at this stage as to his relationship with Wolsey. In 1518, Pope Leo X was expressing some concern as to the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, and sent cardinals around Europe to organise a unification of Christendom against them. Henry used his desperation to his advantage, refusing entry to Cardinal Campeggio, the embassy, unless Wolsey was made ‘legate a latere’ (papal legate), to which the Pope agreed. In this action, Henry can be seen to have depended somewhat on Wolsey, as he was essential to Henry in maintaining some degree of control over the church in England. Wolsey, seeing an opportunity to fulfil his personal aims, took diplomatic control of the Pope’s mission, and turned it into an international peace conference of more than 20 countries in London.
The resultant Treaty Of London was signed in October 1518, and served as a great achievement for Wolsey. It not only brought together the great powers of Europe in a ‘universal and perpetual peace,’ but also put England at the centre of European affairs. More importantly, Wolsey had not needed to compromise the wishes of his master to achieve his role of peacemaker, as the treaty also allowed England’s standing in Europe to improve, which was one of Henry’s major priorities. Wolsey carried out more diplomacy to serve the King two days later, in an Anglo-French treaty in which a marriage between the Dauphin and Henry’s daughter Princess Mary was proposed. Henry was getting his most important desires fulfilled, and foreign affairs seemed to be going exceptionally well for Henry and Wolsey, until the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian, which saw Charles V become the new emperor, and imminent conflict between the newly strengthened Charles and Francis I, would see the destruction of the glorious Treaty of London.
In 1520, Wolsey’s service to his King in foreign policy continued, and faced with both sides of the conflict courting the support of England, he organised the splendorous meeting between Francis and Henry at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, which would have seemed like the beginning of a grand peace between the two countries. However, Wolsey had to sacrifice his role as peacemaker to appease Henry’s desire to benefit from the inevitable war, and at the Treaty of Bruges in August 1521, Wolsey served the King’s cause further by providing the possibility that Charles may marry the 8 yr old Princess Mary who Henry desperately wanted to marry off. The war itself provided no real success for England, and only further marginalized England as a minor power in Europe. Against Wolsey’s desire, Henry wanted to fight on during 1523, and Wolsey was obliged to carry out his duty, in the way that any ‘servant’ would, and England only met further wartime embarrassment.
Despite Henry’s hopes of campaigning in 1524, Wolsey managed to convince Henry otherwise, and in the following year, Wolsey took the bold step of instigating a peace with France, and the Treaty of the More was signed in August 1525, and now, a force to face the might of Charles had begun. Wolsey began to slip back into his comfortable role as peacemaker, orchestrating the League of Cognac between France and the Papal States (Wolsey made England abstain from joining, so that England remained peaceful). Another Wolsey-organised treaty was made in April 1527 between France and England in the Treaty of Westminster, which declared perpetual Anglo-French peace, promised Francis’ second son to Princess Mary and threatened Charles with war if he didn’t join the peace. England was back at the forefront of English politics, thanks to Wolsey’s redemption from Henry’s war failures. However, this grew inconsequential, and just as Wolsey done what Henry wanted in foreign affairs, Henry’s desire for divorce grew urgent.
Wolsey could reasonably expect to stay in power as long as he kept carrying out the King’s wishes, and despite his unpopularity and court faction working against him, it is clear that his inability to get Henry his divorce led to his downfall. Henry’s new love Anne Boleyn managed to convince Henry that Wolsey had no use any more – he couldn’t get a divorce and he hadn’t secured the King’s succession. In general, his ‘service’ was no longer required, and historian John Guy concludes that “Wolsey was destroyed because he had become a liability in the eyes of the king and was expendable. This has fundamental implications for reassessing his relationship with Henry.” Guy is correct is saying that this sheds new light on the nature of the relationship between the two men, and suddenly, Henry’s regard for Wolsey as a ‘loving friend’ became trivial.
This essay has been able to establish that the majority of Wolsey’s policy was executed in service to the King. Wolsey may have acted for his own interest in certain areas such as the church and social reform, but this was only because of Henry’s lack on interest in the fields, and the trust that he placed in Wolsey’s service. I am therefore able to conclude that theoretically, Wolsey was the ‘King’s Servant.’ However, I say theoretically, because although Wolsey was a servant to Henry in his actions, the image created by the word seems to extreme for Wolsey.
I believe that the relationship between Henry and Wolsey was strong and full of friendship when Wolsey did what was required of him. In reality, everyone in the kingdom was a servant to the King, and many people wanted to serve him more to gain more influence. In light of this, although he was a servant, it appears to me that the word ‘servant’ underestimates the immense of power that he had, despite the fact that the power was given to him by the King, and many other more complimentary words can be used to describe the importance of Wolsey to the King. Nevertheless Wolsey, as a minister, remained a servant to Henry throughout his time in power, and devoted the majority of his policy to the King’s service.