The Career of Thomas Wolsey
‘Never the Master, Always the Servant.’
How Accurate is this Statement in Regard to Wolsey’s Conduct of Foreign Policy 1513-29?
“Had I but served God as diligently as I have served the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.” Cardinal Wolsey c.1472-1530
Here Wolsey himself professed his obedience to Henry VIII, but historians of the previous century and a half claimed that between 1513 and 1529 foreign policy was governed entirely by Wolsey, some suggesting that Henry gave only perfunctory approval to his decrees. Modern historians dispute this, the king’s aspirations and decisions being of fundamental importance. The matter remains unsettled however, regarding the extent of Wolsey’s influence and manipulation.
Contemporaries argued that Wolsey was effectual ruler, “Alter Rex” during particularly the mid 1520s, his palatial home eclipsing Henry’s in political importance. Wolsey was clearly very cunning; he won Henry’s favour by shrewdly encouraging him to enjoy leisure activities and leave the mundane politicking to him – exploiting the mistakes of his predecessors. Cavendish declares, “Thus the almoner ruled all those that ruled before him”. However, Wolsey's desperation to gain Henry’s esteem is evidence merely of the need for Henry’s approval – as Wolsey clearly appreciated. Henry intervened less in politics before 1529 than he did afterwards, but as Peter Gwyn recognises; this was only due to his sincere satisfaction and comprehension of Wolsey's loyalty. From 1512 Wolsey climbed the political ladder very swiftly; utilising the opportunity of the French invasion to exceed Henry’s expectations and impress the king with prizes in Tournai and Therouanne. By mid 1514 Wolsey was receiving all the king’s important business affairs, and exploiting Henry’s need for an authoritative chief servant fully Wolsey admittedly used his persuasion to gain himself numerous offices – Dean of Lincoln, Bishop of Tournai, Bishop of Lincoln and Archbishop of York. Although Warham still held the most senior church office, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Wolsey had won himself Lord Chancellorship by 1518, making him head of the legal system. However Wolsey's ascendancy was resultant from Henry’s appreciation of his talents, by the time of the treaty of St. Germaine-en-Laye with France in 1514 Randell recognises Henry’s apparent disinterest with routine diplomacy, “He was still keen to win glory, but was content for someone else to arrange it for him.” His connections with the Papal authorities brought about suspicion that he had tied England to Roman foreign policy, such as Pollard’s insinuation that Wolsey considered his duty to his spiritual master over that over the king – In 1518 he was appointed ‘Legatus a latere’, a position he was guaranteed for life in 1524. Scarisbrick however discredits Papal loyalty, acknowledging Wolsey's disregard for Papal instruction as frequently as it was adhered to. Although England and the papacy had common interests, it was merely coincidental for the Pope’s wishes to be followed, and the king himself had the same attitude to Wolsey towards the pope. Henry wanted to become ‘Defender of the Faith’ and did so, in 1521, and there is more proof that it was he who encouraged Wolsey to pursue the office of Pope than vice versa. As Palmer asserts, “Wolsey was no more or less a servant of the Papacy than Henry himself.” Wosley required the position of ‘Prince of the Church’ (gained 1515) because he had not won such approval from the Papcy as he had from his royal master. He did not wish to rival Henry’s authority by becoming ‘Prince of the State’ because he was assured of Henry’s support. Although Wolsey bragged of being “author of the peace” at the Treaty of London in 1518, and despite evidence for him formulating his own policies by 1517; as Gwyn defends – he was winning glory for his master. Scarisbrick recognises Wolsey's desire to become arbiter of Europe, but his dependence upon Henry is undeniable. As Randell recognises, Wolsey often hid things from Henry and considered ways in which he could put things to him in order to provoke a desired response, to push contenders away and get away with more than he officially should. Vergil even suggested that Wolsey bribed Henry with gifts to distract him whilst he was making demands and to gain further favour. All these efforts, however, merely emphasize Wolsey's dependence upon the king and his desperation to maintain his support. Randell suggests that Wolsey made independent decisions – often trivial but sometimes-major ones, but Henry could and sometimes did intervene. Wolsey always needed to appear to be implementing Henry’s decisions even if it was not always strictly the case. Skelton and Palsgrave, authors of articles in the House of Lords December 1929 attacked Wolsey's arrogance and misrule during parliament and regarding matters of foreign policy, alleging he bestowed himself excess authority and wrongfully excluded other councillors from attending court, but evidence suggests that they were pursuing a ruthless campaign to get him dismissed. Although, as Guy points out, up until 1927 “more than the details were left to Wolsey” Henry was nevertheless broadly responsible throughout all matters of foreign policy.