The Rise and Fall of Wolsey

Thomas Wolsey

Advancing noiselessly as the light of the rising sun, the Word of God, given to the common people by Tyndale, began to work, laying the foundation for the Reformation. While there were martyrs who would yet give their lives before England fully accepted the principles of the Reformation, there were signs that the old faith no longer enjoyed the popular favor it had in the past. Many of the crucifixes that stood along the roadways were pulled down, and images of saints were found destroyed. Though there were a few arrests made and the perpetrators of these acts hanged, in most cases they remained unknown.

At this time, the most powerful man in England, second only to the king, was Thomas Wolsey, archenemy of the Protestant faith. Born in Ipswich and educated at the University of Oxford, he was ordained a priest in 1498 and was made chaplain to the English king Henry VII. With the accession of young Henry VIII to the English throne, Wolsey began to acquire even greater power and wealth. Wolsey and Henry became close friends, or as close as one could be to a king.  Possessed with unlimited ambition and a shrewd understanding of international affairs, he combined these attributes with his earlier religious training to dominate both the secular and spiritual aspects of English life. In 1511, he received his first major secular appointment when he was made a privy councilor. By 1515, he had been made Lord Chancellor of England, giving him virtually control of both foreign and domestic affairs for Henry.

Though Wolsey raised royal authority in England to a new height, in doing so he incurred many enemies. In the popular mind, Wolsey, as the executor of policy, was responsible for the imposition of heavy taxes to pay for England’s wars, which combined with his pretentious display of personal wealth made him unpopular with the common people. He power over the king made him unpopular with Parliament and the nobility of England at a time when there was increasing resentment against the clergy.

While his power was increasing in the secular world, Wolsey also rose rapidly in the church, becoming bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of York in 1514, a cardinal in 1515, and a papal legate in 1518. After being made a legate for life in 1524, he wielded power over the church in England comparable to his secular power as chancellor. He aspired to the throne of the papacy and made an alliance with Charles for his support, only to have the emperor break his word. Twice Charles broke his promise and Wolsey saw another become pope in his place. A man as proud and powerful as Wolsey could scarcely pardon such an affront. A plan began to form in Wolsey’s mind; and though it might convulse all of Europe in the process, he saw an opportunity to avenge himself on Charles.

Catherine, the queen, was also the niece of Charles the emperor. Wolsey knew that Henry had harbored secret doubts about the lawfulness of his marriage to Catherine and that the king was less favorably disposed towards her than he had been in the early years of their marriage. Taking advantage of the king’s intense fear of having no heir to the throne and the apparent hopelessness of obtaining one by Catherine, Wolsey saw the means of breaking the alliance between Henry and Spain and at the same time humiliating the emperor by having his aunt removed in disgrace from being the queen. In all of his planning, Wolsey did not see that his scheme would result in his own downfall and the fall of the papacy in England.

Going to the king in private, he pointed out to him that the salvation of his soul and the welfare of his kingdom were in jeopardy. Three days later, he again approached the king and told him: “Most mighty prince, you cannot, like Herod, have your brother’s wife. Submit the matter to proper judges.” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 3, 375. The fact that Charles V had previously objected to an alliance with Princess Mary, the daughter of Catherine, on the grounds that she was the issue of a forbidden marriage helped to influence the king; and the pope was approached and asked for his blessing in granting Henry a divorce. The divorce would not have cost Clement VII so much as a second thought, had it not been that he greatly feared the emperor, Charles V, whose armies surrounded him.

Wolsey made it clear to Clement and his cardinals that if the divorce were not granted, England was lost to the papacy. The fact that Charles’ armies were at that minute in retreat before the French armies gave courage to Clement, and he allowed himself to be persuaded that Charles was as good as driven out of Italy. On June 8, 1528, the pope issued a commission empowering his nuncio Campeggio to declare the marriage between Henry and Catherine null and void. A few days later he signed a decretal by which he himself annulled the marriage. This document he entrusted to Campeggio, instructing him to travel by slow stages, delaying as long as possible his arrival in England. If the emperor were finally beaten, the decretal was to be made public and acted upon; but should Charles recover, it was to be burned.

At last, to the great joy of the king, Campeggio arrived in England with the bull dissolving the marriage. His conscience at rest, the way was opened for Henry to contract another marriage. And so, while the newly acquired Scriptures were separating England from the bondage of the papacy, the papal decree was serving to bind the realm even more tightly.

Eight months passed, however, before Campeggio opened his commission to consider the propriety of Henry’s proposed divorce of Catherine. On the way to England he had been overtaken with messengers from the pope with new instructions. The tide of war had changed and the armies of the emperor had triumphed. Campeggio’s instructions, therefore, were to try to persuade Catherine to enter a nunnery. Should he fail in this, he was not to decide the case but to refer it back to Rome.

Campeggio approached Catherine, but she refused to cooperate. He was left with the unhappy task of trying to convince Henry to abandon his plans for a divorce. The king became irate and asked if this was how the pope kept his word, repaying his faithful service of the past. Campeggio responded by showing the king the bull annulling the marriage, but nothing the king could say could prevail upon the legate to part with it.

After a series of delays, on June 18, 1529, a commission was opened and both the king and queen were cited to appear. The hearings lasted for about a month. It was believed by everyone that on July 23 a verdict would be announced. On the appointed day, the hall was crowded. The king himself slipped into a gallery adjoining the hall so that unobserved he might watch the proceedings. Slowly Campeggio arose. The silence grew intense. The moment was great; the fate of the papacy in England was at stake. Speaking, the nuncio adjourned the hearings until the 1st of October. The words fell on the crowded room with a stunning effect, but none were more shocked than was Henry. Clearly he saw that he was being played for a fool by the pope and that Clement cared nothing for his welfare or for the peace of his kingdom.

Henry VIII

Of the two men who had incurred his anger—Clement and Wolsey—Wolsey was the first to feel the king’s wrath. The cardinal’s fall from favor was quickly apparent to the courtiers who were not slow to hasten to the king with additional proofs of Wolsey’s willingness to sacrifice England for the papacy. There was scarcely a nobleman at court whom Wolsey had not offended; and wherever he looked, he saw only hostility. The prospects abroad were no better, for he had used both Charles the emperor and Francis, king of France, for his own purposes, plunging Europe into war.

In 1529 Wolsey's enemies succeeded in having him tried and convicted of violating law Act of Praemunire, which forbade holding a foreign court in England. Though the Commons threw out the charges, the process was moved to the King’s Bench where it was not likely to end so favorably. Wolsey pleaded guilty and was accorded the king’s pardon. However, he was ultimately divested of all his official posts and honors except for the archbishopric of York, to which he retired.

Using his position in York as a base from which to begin a second upward career, he opened secret correspondence with the pope. The knowledge of this communication became known in court and it was believed that he was intriguing against his sovereign both at home and abroad. These suspicions were strengthened by the magnificent enthronization which he was preparing for himself at York. The day was fixed for the august ceremony when his fortunes reversed, never more to change. Suddenly the Earl of Northumberland arrived at Cawood Castle, Wolsey’s residence with an order for his arrest on charges of high treason.

On his trip he proceeded as far as Leicester where he fell ill. By the time he had reached the abbey where he was to lodge, night had fallen. There Wolsey died on November 29, 1530. Rarely has a career climbed to such splendid heights, to end so quickly in such utter defeat.

As for the king, he was completely disgusted. Two years had been worse than wasted in dealing with Clement, for which he now had nothing to show. Charles and Clement were now fast friends, and Henry was left without a single ally on the Continent. More than that, he had been bitterly humiliated at home. The realization came to him that he had but two courses from which to choose. He must either abandon the idea of a divorce or withdraw his case from the jurisdiction of Rome. The first he would not do, but the second was a course that required much consideration.

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