York Minster, Wolsey's Cathedral
as Archbishop of York
And let us remember too that Henry was far more complex a character than a lust driven maniac who abandoned his wife in favor of a woman who seduced him in order to make herself queen. Henry was in a genuine dilemma. England had been torn by dynastic struggles and had only enjoyed peace under the Tudors for about forty years. With no son to succeed him, the wars could break out again. There were several scions of the Plantagenet house who had far stronger and more legitimate claims to the throne than he. His father, Henry VII, had been King only because he defeated the usurper Richard III (who himself had seized the throne by murdering his nephews, the “Princes in the Tower) who held rightful claim. Lean and hungry Plantagenets were just waiting for some sign of Tudor weakness—and a woman, Henry’s daughter Mary, inheriting the throne was just such a sign—to plunge England back into civil war.
Henry had been a good king. He built on his father’s successes (and thrift) to fashion a modern nation-state out of the quagmire of feudal holdings that had been medieval England. Granted England was not as strong—yet—as France or Portugal, much less Spain, the greatest world power of the day, but Henry was the laying the foundation of an Empire that would two centuries later become the greatest empire of its day. Henry built up the navy his father had begun. He summoned Parliament and sought its counsel, making both the nobility and the commons feel that they held a stake in this new nation. He built up a strong central government, ennobling capable men with land, titles, and income to serve as a governmental bureaucracy that extended royal control over every aspect of English life. He used his judiciary to make sure that justice reached down to the lowest in the land as well as upwards to the greatest. All were under the King’s protection and all were under his law. The one aspect of English life that Henry could not seem to get beneath his control was the Church. It wasn’t fair. Ferdinand and Isabella ruled the Church in Spain. In France, the king had the Church firmly within his grasp. But Henry felt that he had no way to make the English Church subject to his will. When the Church refused him his demands that it annul his marriage to Queen Katherine—it only proved his point that there were two sovereigns in England: himself and the Pope. And Henry, devout Catholic as he was, would have no one share his power.
Now among Henry’s faults was, as I had pointed out in an earlier posting, his tendency to leave the day-to-day ruling of his realm to very capable administrators, to his Lord Chancellors. The greatest of the Lord Chancellors was Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York. Wolsey was a powerful man. He not only was the King’s chief minister, he was papal legate in England. That is to say that he held sufficient power in England to rule the Church in the Pope’s name. As long as Wolsey was his chief minister, Henry could get what he wanted out of the Church. But when Henry wanted an annulment of his marriage to Queen Katherine—well, that was beyond Wolsey’s jurisdiction and he could not get that for the king. In the crunch, when he really needed control over the Church, Henry could not grasp it. He was not King in England—the Pope held all the cards. And Henry was not one to let that situation last.