Cardinal Wolsey: An Unprecedented Fall From Grace

Thomas Wolsey

Thomas Wolsey was born in Ipswich in 1473. Born into a poor family, Wolsey’s life seemed set in stone. Make a humble living, perhaps gaining a position as a noble’s servant, produce offspring, and die. But this didn’t happen. Wolsey wouldn’t die an unknown peasant. Instead, Wolsey would become the Archbishop of York, the Papal Legate for England, and the chief advisor to King Henry VIII. However, in 1530 — only 12 years after being appointed as the Pope’s representative in England, 15 years after becoming Lord Chancellor, and 10 years after organising one of England’s biggest diplomatic successes of the 16th century, the Field of Cloth and Gold—Wolsey was dead, surrounded by controversy and on the path to execution. So, why did Wolsey fall from grace and how did it happen so quickly?

Wolsey’s downfall came from a variety of causes, some short-term and others long-term, some regarding his professional actions, others his personal relationship with Henry. These include his inability to secure Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his botching of various domestic and foreign) policies, and personal conflict which arose between himself and the King.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

One major cause of Wolsey’s downfall was his inability to obtain a divorce from for the King, in regards to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his ongoing conflict with the Boleyn faction. Following Wolsey’s reluctance to cooperate with the king during the first legatine trial in 1527 and the subsequent sack of Rome by Charles V in the same year, Wolsey was both unable and unwilling to secure a divorce for the frustrated Henry and as a result of this, had failed to carry out his will. This led to Henry seeing Wolsey as untrustworthy and unreliable. Wolsey found himself stuck in a dilemma. If he went against the king, he risked losing land, titles, and perhaps even his life. If he went against the Pope, he risked losing religious office (as Papal Legate) and influence over the king (which would go to the Boleyn faction) as well as going against his own faith. Indeed, after 1528 — when the Pope had allowed a trial to be held — Wolsey had no excuse to not try for the divorce and thus his failure to do so greatly angered Henry VIII. Perhaps the turning point in Henry-Wolsey relations was the new Abbess at Wilton in 1528. Wolsey directly ignored the King’s wishes in regards to who should be appointed. For the first time, Henry not only saw Wolsey being unable to fulfil his wishes but rather he had directly gone against them. Unless Henry wished to be seen as weak-willed, he had to act. As is evident through James I’s relationship with George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, it was important for a king to display public strength and autonomy, or risk public outcry — seen through the demonization and assassination of Villiers in 1628. Henry knew this and for this reason, he sent three letters to Wolsey, angrily ordering him to obey. After the third, Wolsey folded. By this time, however, their friendship (or at least political relationship) had been fractured. This being said, there is a limit to how much the divorce can be blamed. Wolsey had little real influence over the proceedings and there is little reason to believe that this was the sole cause of his downfall. Overall, however, it is certainly a top contender for the key root of Wolsey’s decline.

Henry VII

These shortcomings regarding Henry’s love life were exacerbated by his failures in both domestic and foreign policy, as Henry VIII’s desire for a powerful, arbiter-like England faded away towards the end of the 1520s. These failures are notable as, without them, Henry may have been reluctant to rid his court of such an able and gifted minister. Wolsey’s domestic troubles had too greatly disturbed Henry’s foreign goals to be ignored. The failure of the Amicable Grant in 1525, which put England on the brink of rebellion, was a sign of Wolsey’s ineptness as a figure of authority and led to an uprising in Lavenham, which posed a palpable threat to royal authority in England. Henry VIII’s desire to be liked by his subjects — something which he did not share with his father, King Henry VII — meant that this failure angered him. Moreover, it meant that his aims in foreign policy (namely conquest and foreign invasion) were stifled. Wolsey had denied the king his greatest desire and thus relations between the two were bound to worsen. Furthermore, Henry and Wolsey both desired England to become an international powerhouse and arbiter of Europe. This dream began to seem impossible due to Wolsey’s inability to successfully fund and maintain an organised army — As is evident the disorganisation and mutiny of Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquess of Dorset’s army in France in 1512. This culminated in England’s limited involvement in the League of Cognac (1526–30) and finally their not being invited (initially) to the League of Cambrai in 1529. Following these foreign and domestic failures, it became clear that Wolsey wouldn’t be able to turn Henry’s foreign dreams (however optimistic) into a reality and therefore Henry would have had little trouble or fear in getting rid of him. This being said, it is unfair to label Wolsey as a diplomatic failure. Indeed, historians such as John Guy have remarked on his ability as a negotiator and it is clear that Henry’s lavish and luxurious desires were far beyond the reach of any politician, however talented. The final straw was the Battle of Landriano in 1529, which saw England lose its place as a strong power in Europe, with any hope of international authority on a major scale dissipating. Wolsey was blamed heavily for this, albeit unfairly, by Henry who accused him of failing him tremendously. It is quite clear that Wolsey’s failures in diplomacy were a big factor in his demise.

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk

On the other hand, it is possible that Wolsey’s downfall came not as the result of a multitude of short-term events, but rather as a culmination of tension between Wolsey and Henry which had been mounting for several years and had led to personal distrust between the two. Certainly, it seems fair to suggest that as Charles sacked Rome, so Henry VIII sacked Wolsey. As Wolsey was now unable to easily secure a divorce, he found himself in a dichotomous situation as he did not want to allow the Boleyn faction — with powerful figures such as Thomas Howard — to have more power over Henry VIII, nor did he want to disobey the Pope, but he wanted to appease the king so that he could retain the authority bestowed upon him. This self-conflict within Wolsey shattered his relationship with the king and worsened what already appeared to be an incompatible alliance; Henry VIII and Wolsey had different, nigh opposite, wishes. Whilst Henry wanted England to gain power through war and conquest, Wolsey thought that England should seek influence through peace and diplomatic negotiation. As a result of this, it was inevitable that the two could not cooperate. Moreover, Henry’s outlandish desires for wealth and land were simply not feasible to fulfil and maintain good relationships with the nobility at the same time. Thus, Henry VIII’s desires, both militarily and monetarily, put Wolsey in an unwinnable position where a falling out between the two was inevitable. However, this long-term incompatibility between the two men is arguably not the main cause as Henry had not done a thing to lessen Wolsey’s power up until his sudden downfall in 1529, following the King’s “Great Matter” — the divorce. Overall, Henry and Wolsey seem two incompatible characters and a break in friendship and trust was inevitable if both kept their conflicting interests. This was certainly a major part of Wolsey’s fall from grace.

Overall, therefore, the answer to the question remains a mystery in many cases. It is likely a mix of various causes, such as the divorce, domestic & foreign policy, and a toxic falling out between the two men.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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