Why was Thomas Cromwell able to make such extensive reforms in Government, when Cardinal Wolsey had achieved so little?
Several reasons can account for the fact that while Cardinal Wolsey made very little change in the system of Government during his fifteen years as Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell greatly modernized the machinery of it, even to the extent that Elton describes it as “revolutionary.” He reformed what used to be a very medieval style feudal system, where it was easy for one person to dominate, such as Wolsey, into a modern government, based on a bureaucracy, organized by capable people following specific rules and procedures.
The best way to approach this argument is to realize that both men were working at very different periods in history; one before the colossally impacting break from Rome and one after. Their personalities, aims and goals were also very dissimilar, therefore affecting their priorities while holding such significant positions of power. One could even go as far as saying that Cardinal’s Wolsey’s time did not lend itself to reform and this could explain why it was a relatively stagnant period of Tudor history in terms of reform in Government.
Wolsey was very much more interested in gaining a power base and wealth for himself more than anything else. Henry was happy to let him do this since he was an extremely intellectual and talented politician and orchestrated situations for him whenever he needed, allowing Henry to get on with hobbies he enjoyed like hunting and jousting. Therefore, he (Wolsey) often appointed his “own men” into the Government and those who could best afford the high prices he desired for appointments. In this way, a feudal system existed; extremely inefficient, ineffective and corrupt. This did benefit Wolsey however as nobody else was allowed to get the King’s ear and carry too much, if any influence over him.
Cromwell on the other hand, wished to modernize Government as can be seen by his steps to improve the administration of it so that no one person would be able have full control of the system, bringing it forward into a more modern democracy. His appointment of only those men who were intelligent enough to deserve those positions built up its strength, as each of these men were more than able to hold their own if the need arose to defend their status. Historians agree that he did not work solely for his own gain, unlike Wolsey and this would have allowed him to achieve many more reforms in his time. For example, his reform of the Privy Council into a largely disorganized one made up of around 100 men who lacked any kind of commitment, to a small base of about 20 hardworking men who had very specific roles and functions has been argued by Elton as being Cromwell’s most important legacy because it survived well throughout the Tudor period. Both Wolsey and Cromwell were highly competent and skilled men but it was clear that Cromwell had a bigger desire to modernize the Government system.
However, we must not assume that Wolsey achieved nothing in terms of reform as some significant changes were made, especially in the area of law and order. Civil law being brought into the courts meant that the justice system was not overflowing with bribery and corruptness like it was before, and the poor had a better chance of accessing a fair trial. Although, Wolsey did seem to have a genuine interest in achieving justice, he used the system on many occasions to get revenge on those who had ill treated or disrespected him in the past. An example of this is his pursuing of his old enemy Bishop Standish through the courts. Therefore, these reforms were not that significant.
Also, the system overflowed with cases (around 9000 cases during Wolsey’s tenure), which meant that since the structure of the judicial system had not changed, people had to wait much longer to be heard, and since Wolsey tended to take on too much work on himself by sitting personally in the Star Chamber for example, the efficiency did not increase. Even his plans to prevent poor people being taken advantage through the process of enclosure lapsed after he realized that he needed the money and agreed to grant an amnesty to it in 1523 (partly also due to the fact that he was concerned that revolts would arise). Cromwell on the other hand, passed a statute to face this problem. The point to note is that Wolsey did not seem to put too much importance in modernizing the Government greatly; his own gain was much more important to him.
We must realize however, during Cardinal Wolsey’s time that one of the few things that he and the nobility agreed on was the fact that Government should be small and not trespass too much on other people’s lives. The classic feudal view was that the King and his advisers should concentrate on law and war rather than get too involved in domestic affairs, which is exactly what was done before Cromwell’s arrival. Randall sums this up by saying that “there was little contemporary disappointment that Wolsey did not do more.” Therefore, Wolsey cannot be seriously blamed for leaving the Government when he died as a very much medieval one.
Before the break from Rome happened, there was no burning need to reform how the country was run in the localities and make sure the King’s wishes were being upheld as opposed to the situation Cromwell faced in 1533. We can see this through the way that during Wolsey’s fifteen years of power, Parliament was called only a few times, because it was not necessary. When it was called, for example in 1523, it was only to raise a tax for the pending war with France rather than to represent the people and help govern the country. This can be compared to Cromwell’s much more frequent use of the institution to help the Reformation seem less dictatorial to the people. The fact that reform was not necessary during Wolsey’s time is very important in explaining why it was so ill-achieving.
The number of jobs that Thomas Cromwell had could explain why he was interested in and had much more access to various areas of Government, holding the positions of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal Vice Gerant in spirituals and Principal Secretary of the Council. With this, he was able to create Courts such as the Court of Augmentations and Court of First Fruits and Tenths, needed to manage Henry’s money from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Being Chancellor of the Exchequer enabled him to make one his other very significant reforms: improvements to the financial side of Government.
By assigning certain amounts of money and heavily auditing each Council/Department of Government, Cromwell cut down on the corruptness that used to be so prevalent. This point again emphasizes how in his time, reform was necessary in order to stabilize the country and ensure that the King’s wishes were being upheld, being after the break from Rome. Cromwell hence preferred to stick to domestic policy and involved himself only very little with foreign policy, unlike Wolsey. Wolsey was an extremely talented negotiator, and used these skills for example during his stage management of the Field of the Cloth of Gold; his fifteen years in power was also the most active in terms of foreign policy in the whole of Henry’s reign.
In terms of financial reforms as well, Wolsey had few successes. The Amicable Grant in 1525 faced so much opposition that it had to be dropped completely, even creating a backlash against Wolsey by Henry, who was most probably using him as a scapegoat. Even the Eltham Ordinances of 1526 cannot be argued to have been fully for the purpose of cutting down the cost of the courts although this was a result of it; John Guy argues that one of Wolsey’s aims was to neutralize opposition to him in the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. Judging by his personality, this does not seem too far fetched. Wolsey’s reforms in the Church were also very insignificant; his plans to cut down the corruptness and abuse that was occurring were not finished and only reforms along traditional lines occurred. This could have been because even though he held easily the highest position within the Church with the exception of the Pope, he was forced to work for Henry’s interests. This can be compared to Cromwell’s work in the Church, which needed extremely tough measures if royal supremacy was to be achieved.
In order to achieve this, Cromwell set about strengthening local and national Government, understanding that Wales, Ireland and Calais would also have to be dealt with. Appointing Roland Lee, the Bishop of Coventry as Head of the Council in Wales, brought law and order to the area and when Parliamentary representation was extended to Wales in 1536, this became one of Cromwell’s greatest achievements. Similar organization of administration was done in Calais and in Ireland, although it was much less successful here. Several Courts were also set up such as the Court of Wards and the Court of Requests to deal with fines and to enforce the many Acts that came through following the break from Rome. The point to note here, is that these changes and reforms were necessary at this period in time; the country would have possibly broke down into instability otherwise without his use of Parliament and Courts in order to improve finances and administration (though the Reformation was a very piecemeal one).
We cannot strongly argue that whether Wolsey or Cromwell was better than the other, not only because they were working at different periods of time, but also because even Cromwell’s reforms were not long lasting. Since they required his very personal network of patronage and skill, many of the Courts that he created decayed after his death and Smith concludes that it is very dangerous to argue that Cromwell created some kind of Revolution. It was more the concepts he created that outlived him, such as the greater power and influence given to Parliament, the secularization of Government and uniform law.
To answer the question of why Cromwell was able to make such extensive reforms when Wolsey did no such thing, I would say that Cromwell’s reforms must not be exaggerated and Wolsey’s must not be underestimated. Both men were very personal to Henry and served him to the best of their ability at the time, in their own circumstances. Particularly the difference in situation regarding the break from Rome would have led Cromwell to make sure that the King’s unit ran throughout the country, whereas Wolsey didn’t need to. It can be mentioned here, that Wolsey was behaving like a typical medieval politician, working for his own wealth and gain, and concentrating much more on foreign policy.