Thomas Wolsey ( 1471-1530 )

Thomas Wolsey was the son of a butcher in Ipswich who made his way through Oxford before gaining the support of Sir Richard Nanfan, treasurer of Calais, to obtain employment as King Henry`s almoner. But ambition drove Wolsey to seek the friendship of those around the king. These included the Bishop of Windsor, the Privy Seal, who spoke well of Wolsey in the kings hearing.  Wolseys` opportunity to impress soon arrived when he was despatched to the Emperor Maxmillian who was in Flanders. In an incredible journey, for those days, Wolsey went from Richmond at noon,  to London (4pm), Gravesend (7pm), Travelled all night to catch the morning packet ship from Dover and arrived, via Calais and Paris, before Maxmillian in the evening. Having obtained what was required he returned by night and was back in Richmond just three days and a few hours after leaving. Henry, on seeing him, asked why he had not started out on his journey, to which Wolsey replied that he had returned and placed letters from Maxmillian in Henry`s hand. He had made his mark and his fortune.

Before going with Henry to France Wolsey had been set to arranging matters, such that the king was pleased to see his small army well accoutred and supplied. In the battle of the Spurs the English quickly vanquished their foe and Wolsey was promptly rewarded - made Bishop of Tournay, and of Lincoln and archbishop of York when they returned. His cup was truly filled shortly after as Francis I of France sought to conciliate England and demanded Wolsey be appointed a Cardinal, receiving the title Cardinal  of St Cecilia beyond the Tiber. His hat was brought by an envoy from Rome in November 1515. Finally, Warham fed up with Wolsey`s ambition resigned and Wolsey was immediately made Archbishop of Canterbury. . As well as being Lord Chancellor he was also Archbishop of York, Bishop of Lincoln and Bishop of Durham. This made Wolsey very wealthy and enabled him to build grand palaces such as Hampton Court.

Made a papal legate, Wolsey was now Lord Chancellor of England and primate, ruling both church and state. There seems to be some doubt that Wolsey's main ambition was to become Pope. In 1515, Pope Leo X made him a cardinal but Wolsey also had many enemies and he never became the head of the Catholic Church. During the very protracted negotiations to secure the papal approval of Henry`s divorce, Wolsey came very close to achieving that goal when it was an option he considered to remove Clement VII.

His career in full flow, money flowed into his coffers from home and abroad and in no time he was yielding to his dominant vices -  ostentation and pride. When appearing in public for example, he was preceded by two of the tallest  (and comeliest) priests he could find, each bearing a large silver cross, one for his Archbishopcy and the other for Papal Legate. It is said that he had more than 500 servants including several titled lords, and he personally dressed in scarlet velvet and silk, with matching hat and gloves. His shoes were embroidered with gold and silver, inlaid with pearls and precious stones. To some people it seemed that a kind of papacy was being created in England.

He was well advised of all that went on through a network of spies in every quarter. There was little that happened at Court that he did not know about within hours. 

 "Wolsey - a man of more than suspected morals, double hearted , faithless to his promises, oppressing the people with heavy taxes, and exceedingly arrogant to everybody- Wolsey soon became hated by the people of England."

thus wrote D`Aubigne in his History of the Reformation. Wolsey`s overbearing mien encouraged the priests and clerics to push the boundaries against heresy and were given the chance to test their power when laws were passed in 1513 that any cleric charged with theft or murder should be tried by the secular courts. Representations to Henry "Touch not the Lord`s anointed" said Wolsey, were quickly rebuffed - "Therefore know you well that we will maintain the right of our crown."  Finding they could not overpower the Parliament ( or the king) the clerics once again turned their gaze towards easier prey and the catch all `Lollards`. For Wolsey this episode served to confirm to him that the church needed to be modernised and reformed; the perceived excesses seen to be  dealt with. If this work was to progress it would be better that the church itself dealt with it, rather than leave it to secular forces to carve it up willy nilly. As the demand for a divorce materialised Wolsey also saw the danger that England and Rome could go their own ways; thus he had the nigh impossible task of trying to serve two masters and to preserve papacy in England.

For a number of years Wolsey reigned (not too strong a word) supreme and delivered good service to the King Henry through his undoubted diplomacy.  Described as a `political artist` Wolsey was a man who dealt with the `today` issues and did not dwell long on future possibilities; his greatest asset was his capacity for work and the ability to handle many disparate issues at the same time.

A balanced view of Wolsey and his policies is given by Mandell Creighton, Bishop of Peterborough, in Cardinal Wolsey, Macmillan & Co, London 1895; excerpts follow:

"Taking England as he found her, he aimed at developing all her latent possibilities, and leading Europe to follow in her train.  Starting from the existing state of affairs, he made England for a time the centre of European politics, and gave her an influence far higher than she could claim on material grounds. Moreover, his far reaching schemes abroad did not interfere with strict attention to the details of England’s interests. His foreign policy was to promote English trade, facilitate the union of Scotland, keep peace at small expense, prepare the way for internal reorganisation, and secure the right of dealing judiciously with ecclesiastical reform. Wolsey’s plans all hung together and he used each advantage which he gained as a means of strengthening England’s position for some future undertaking. He had a clear view of the future as a whole; he knew not only what he wished to make of England but of Europe as well. He never worked at a questiou from one motive only; what failed for one purpose was made useful for another. All that was best, and all that was worst, in Wolsey sprang from this exceptional attitude towards statecraft, which he practised with enthnsiasm, - not in the spirit of cold calculation.  When he was restricted to the small matter of the divorce his hand lost its cunning. He was, though he probably did not know it, fitted to serve England, but not fitted to serve the English king. He had the aims of a national statesman, not of a royal servant.

Wolsey’s misfortune was that  he owed his introduction to politics solely to royal favour, and conld not obtain any other warrant for his position. For good or evil England was identified with her king, In Henry VIII there was a vivid and  dominant character who could be petulant and cruel; an absolute monarch whose will would be done, or he would want to know why  There was no option, what Henry desired was to be obtained regardless of cost - whether in money or people. Force majeure therefore Wolsey`s political life depended on the king’s goodwill. Henry was to him a symbol of all that was best and most intelligent in England. Wolsey`s deviations from his own policy in obedience to the king were not more degrading or more inevitable than are the calculations of the modern statesman about the exact limits of the field of practical politics.  There is nothing intrinsically base in Wolsey’s subservience to the royal will than in the efforts of modem statesmen to bid against one another for an opportunity of carrying out what they think is the will of the people.

In his general conduct of politics Wolsey was true to his principles, and though occasionally thwarted, he still pursued the same ends. The matter of the divorce was sprung upon him, and it would have been well for Wolsey’s fame if he had retired rather than involve himself in the unworthy proceedings to which it led.  Wolsey regarded the divorce as a great national advantages ; he knew that it would be well for England if Henry VIII. left a son; he did not like the political influence of Katharine [ who was the aunt of the new Emperor Charles V}; and he saw that Henry was not happy in her company.  Not even Wolsey could foresee the king’s obstinacy and tenacity of purpose, the depth of meanness to which he would sink, and to which he would drag all around him. Wolsey found himself powerless to resist. "

 His fall was rapid, from being a great personage with a princely entourage he was humbled, persecuted  and harried. He was replaced by Stephen Gardiner as the king`s secretary and foreign policy handed over to generally incompetent lords with no experience, little political awareness and outdated ideas. His enemies wasted no time and presented  a writ of praemunire on the grounds that his acts while legate were contrary to statute. He wanted to retire to the see of Winchester but was `advised` to go to his Archbishopric of York (because it was furthest from London and the king). He did good work among the parishioners there, spending time with them and holding many confirmation sessions for the children. Ere long he lost his college at Ipswich, and that at Oxford was reduced in size and renamed Christ Church. He was obliged (coerced) into handing over the Great Seal. His only hope in the gloomy future was the zeal of Thomas Cromwell, now a member of parliament, who managed to buy off some of Wolseys persecutors with `pensions` from the see of York.  Eventually the writ of praemunire against him was dropped.

 But even in retirement at Southwold Wolsey was not left in peace nor allowed to prepare for his inauguration as Archbishop of York. Here he was visited by the Earl of Northumberland and arrested for high treason on 4 November  (on an allegation that he was intriguing with foreign Courts ). But there was no haste to bring him to London and so began a broken journey through the town of Cawood where the populace appeared in his support, through Pomfret where he was lodged in the abbey. From there to Doncaster and Sheffield Park and guest of the earl of Shrewsbury for some eighteen days. Here he was met by Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower, accompanied by twenty four soldiers. Kingston was a good man and reluctant perhaps to do his duty - to formally take Wolsey into custody and conduct him to the Tower. But Wolsey knew what was in store and told him to get on with his task. Thus with mind more agitated and bodily sufferings increased following  unskillful treatment by an apothecary for dysentery, Wolsey had all the appearances of a dying man. He reached Nottingham and on the Saturday night was so ill that the party stopped at Leicester Abbey on the 27th November 1530, where Kingston had to carry him upstairs to bed. Through Sunday his condition worsened  and he died shortly before eight o`clock in the morning of 29 November 1530, a broken and dejected man. He lies buried at the abbey.

18/07/2011

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