|Cardinal Thomas Wolsey|
Just as the young Henry was a pious Catholic and a good and loving husband to his Queen Katherine, so too he was a conscientious king. He had been ill prepared for kingship. His father, Henry VII had not shared many royal duties with him, but assuming the throne Henry was determined to learn the art of kingship and was very involved in strengthening the new nation both politically and militarily. While his father, Henry VII, was the king who actually began the English Navy, it is Henry VIII who is called “The Father of the English Navy” as developing a strong fleet was one of his chief priorities. England’s ally at the time was—due to the marriage with Katherine—Spain and their chief enemy was France. That would shift later in Henry’s reign but Henry was anxious to preserve the one remaining foothold England held in French territory—the port of Calais—and wanted a navy for both defensive and aggressive action with France. He was politically astute as well and knew that he needed to curb the power of the old noble families if the Crown was to be strong enough to unite England into a modern nation state. Two centuries of war—the first in France in the Hundred Years War and the second in England with the Wars of the Roses had left the old nobility depleted with many families having been extinguished by death in battle and Henry wanted to take talented men from among the gentry and raise them into the nobility both to replenish the peerage and to be a force in Parliament against the old nobility who wanted to preserve their power from the Crown. In addition to expanding the peerage Henry realized he could use the gentry and the townspeople as a political force to balance out the staid old families and he often turned to the House of Commons, giving them increased power.
At this point we need to look at a rising star. The Church was a fertile field of talented men from the middle classes who could perform royal service in addition to their ecclesiastical duties. Most of the ministers of his father, Henry VII, were bishops. Thomas Wolsey came from a prosperous family in Ipswich. His enemies circulated the story that his father had been a butcher but the family seems to have been—like the Boleyns—a wealthy merchant family just below the nobility. Indeed some sources indicate that Robert Wolsey, Thomas’ father, had fought and died in the battle of Bosworth Field where Henry Tudor—father to Henry VIII—had defeated Richard III and seized the crown for the new dynasty. Wolsey had had a distinguished career at Cambridge before becoming chaplain to Archbishop Deane of Canterbury and later to a wealthy knightly family, the Nanfans. From there he was taken into the service of Henry VII. At the accession of the new king, Henry VIII, Wolsey was made royal almoner and a member of the Privy Council, what today we would call the King’s “Cabinet.” Wolsey was about eighteen years older than the young king. He was a hard worker who paid minute detail to the most miniscule of tasks and who indeed seemed to enjoy work to an unhealthy degree. He was also politically savvy knowing just who was “in” and who was “out” and how to move the chess pieces in the royal game. Moreover, while he had his strong opinions he tailored them to suit the King. Little by little Henry began entrusting Wolsey with more and more responsibilities. And all ran very well. And the better it ran, the more Henry let Wolsey run things. By 1520 Wolsey was the de facto ruler of England.
Wolsey was not all about serving the King—he had his own ambitions as well. He wanted to be pope and Henry would lobby for him in the 1522 election after the death of Leo X. In 1514 Wolsey was named Bishop of Lincoln but held the post for only several months before being named Archbishop of York, the second most important churchman in the realm. While still holding York, he was made Prince Bishop of Durham in 1523 and then several years later Bishop of Winchester—the wealthiest diocese in England. He held all three sees until his death. In 1515 Henry used his influence in Rome to have Wolsey made a Cardinal.
Wolsey arranged an elaborate pageant to welcome the Cardinal’s Hat to England. In those days, the Pope sent the Hat to the new Cardinal, the prelate ordinarily did not go to Rome to receive it. The Hat was met with an entourage in Dover where it had come by ship and then was escorted in a State Procession to Westminster where it was place on the altar—as was the King’s Crown before his coronation—until the ceremony in which Henry, acting as a papal ablegate, placed it on the new Cardinal’s head.
Wolsey loved pomp and in particular loved the pomp of office. He was not much given to the work of his ecclesiastical offices however and never visited any of his dioceses, entrusting their administration to vicars and suffrage bishops. But he gave great attention to the King’s work and he found that the King’s work went more efficiently if he could keep the King out of it. More and more he pushed Henry aside from the duties of government, encouraging him to go hunting, to make royal progresses around his kingdom, to entertain and to be entertained while he, Wolsey, attended to the work of government. He met regularly with the King and explained everything and was assiduous in carrying out the King’s directives and preferences. He often steered the King to his own (Wolsey’s) policies but usually to the King’s credit. When, for example, Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor, the widowed Queen of France, returned to England and married Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, without Henry’s permission, Henry was furious with the couple and Brandon’s life was at stake. You need to keep in mind that marriages to princes and princesses of the blood were State matters—and had implications for foreign policy. Brandon could have been tried for Treason for marrying the King’s sister without the King’s permission, but Wolsey smoothed it over and settled Henry’s temper, though at some considerable financial cost to the newlywed couple.
Wolsey’s assuming the day to day governance of the country freed Henry from responsibility and that was not good. With Wolsey’s capable administration, Henry’s only task was to entertain himself. Henry began to live for pleasure. He became lazy and self-indulgent. Once trim and athletic, he began to gain weight. He also became, as slothful people often do, mercurial, temperamental, given to mood swings. England ran just fine but the King was becoming useless and undisciplined.
Wolsey, meanwhile, having the reins of government securely in his hands, was doing well for himself. Holding virtually all power in England made him a man whom others courted. Gifts and bequests came his way from people anxious to be in his good graces. Moreover, he saw lands and titles that drew greater wealth and which he could, given his position, appropriate to himself. As said before, he took on several dioceses as well as various abbacies and other church offices that had good salaries. He acquired—by purchase, seizure, or gift—estates that provided handsome rents. He built for himself handsome residences, most notably York Place and Hampton Court. He seized various small monasteries and convents and moved their monks or nuns to larger ones, confiscating the properties with which he endowed schools and even a college—Cardinal College—at Oxford. (It would later be renamed Christchurch.) His administration was good for England and better for himself. For the King, however, it was deleterious.