Wolsey Serves as Lord Chancellor and Cardinal

Wolsey helped England become a European power, transformed the legal system in England so that the rule of law applied to all, except the king, and, after failing to use his position as cardinal to secure an annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, set in motion the king’s rejection of the pope’s authority and the establishment of Protestantism as England’s primary religion.

Summary of Event

Next to King Henry VIII, Thomas Wolsey was the most influential man in England for a period of approximately twenty years. At the time that Henry succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, Henry VII, in 1509, Wolsey, ordained a priest in 1498, already had achieved national prominence. After serving as a chaplain to Henry Dean, archbishop of Canterbury, Wolsey became Henry VII’s personal chaplain in 1507. The new king was well aware of Wolsey’s abilities and wasted no time in securing his services, appointing him royal almoner (distributor of alms, or charity) in 1509. Wolsey, Cardinal Thomas
Henry VIII
Catherine of Aragon
Boleyn, Anne
Charles V (1500-1558)
Clement VII (1478-1534)
Leo X
Francis I (1494-1547)
Henry VIII (king of England)
Leo X
Francis I (king of France)
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)
Adrian VI
Catherine of Aragon
Boleyn, Anne
Clement VII
Wolsey, Cardinal Thomas

Wolsey’s rise to both ecclesiastical and secular power was rapid. In 1514, he was consecrated bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of York and, in 1515, was made both a cardinal by Pope Leo X and lord chancellor of England by King Henry.

As lord chancellor and the king’s top adviser, Wolsey formulated a complex foreign policy designed to make England the chief power broker of Europe. Skilled in utilizing a combination of diplomacy and military force, Wolsey attempted to play against each other the two main European challengers for supremacy, France and the Holy Roman Empire, to the benefit of his own nation.

Wolsey had demonstrated his acumen in geopolitics in 1513 by organizing the king’s successful victory over the French in what is known as the Battle of the Spurs Spurs, Battle of the (1513) . With the almost simultaneous triumph against the Scots at Flodden Flodden Field, Battle of (1513) Field, England was secure at home and a power to be reckoned with on the Continent.

With Wolsey heavily influential in shaping national and international policy, England shifted steadily between alliances with France, led by King Francis I, and the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V of the Habsburg royal family. Wolsey organized consecutive meetings for Henry with the two continental rulers in 1520, including an opulent three-week session with Francis, known to history as the Field of Cloth of Gold Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) . The meetings resulted in a treaty of friendship with France, a treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor a month later, and Charles and Henry agreeing to forsake any treaties with France for two years.

Neither European power could take England for granted. For example, after initially maintaining neutrality in the war that began in 1521, England entered against France in 1523. Yet, with Wolsey continuing to provide diplomatic and military guidance, by 1528 England was supporting France against the Holy Roman Empire.

Wolsey’s international efforts on behalf of Henry required considerable revenue, and the lord chancellor had mixed results finding the necessary money. He succeeded in acquiring from Parliament a continuing subsidy in 1513 and engineered a major administrative success in 1522 with a new assessment of the nation’s wealth, which produced an additional 255,000 pounds. Wolsey’s efforts in 1523 to raise money for the war with France elicited a substantial sum, though less than Wolsey had urged. One of his largest failures in securing funding occurred when he sought an “amicable loan” from the nobility in 1525 to further the nation’s military effort against France, a reaction at least partly attributable to the nobility’s resentment of Wolsey.

As lord chancellor, Wolsey was the most influential member of the king’s Privy Council. In that role, he sought to further the king’s welfare, not that of the nobles. One of his most significant and far reaching domestic efforts was to transform the judicial system, extending the authority of the star chamber (the king’s council functioning as a court) over the nobility. When the star chamber was faced with a flood of cases, Wolsey delegated the handling of many cases to local courts staffed with Wolsey’s appointees, thus bringing the nobles throughout England more firmly under royal control. Another Wolsey innovation was the court of requests, which was charged with handling suits involving the poor.

Cardinal Wolsey also was the leader of the church in England. His appointment in 1518 as papal legate a latere, that is, the pope’s personal representative, established his preeminence over the archbishop of Canterbury as well. Of special interest to both Henry and Wolsey was England’s monastic system, which Henry viewed as too independent financially and politically. Anticipating the later, large-scale dissolution of the monasteries, Monasticism;England Wolsey suppressed close to thirty monasteries, using their revenue to create two new colleges—one at Ipswich, which did not long survive its founder’s own fall, and another, Cardinal’s College at Oxford, which did survive, although as Christ Church College. Catholicism;England

Wolsey’s ecclesiastical stature led him to entertain some hope of being elected pope on the deaths of Leo X in 1521 and Adrian VI in 1523. In each case, the anticipated and necessary support from Charles V did not materialize. Had Wolsey been elected pope, he almost surely would have granted Henry his desired annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Wolsey’s downfall was the result of his inability to obtain a papal annulment of Henry and Catherine’s marriage. Henry’s reasons for seeking the annulment included Catherine’s failure to produce a son who would survive to prevent future dynastic conflict, growing fear that God was thus punishing Henry for marrying his brother’s widow, and the king’s passion for Anne Boleyn. Divorce;Henry VIII and
Divorce;Anne Boleyn and

By 1527, Charles V had extended military control over Rome and, therefore, over Pope Clement VII. The fact that Charles was the nephew of Queen Catherine, along with periodic military conflicts between Henry and Charles, ensured that the pope would have little freedom to decide in Henry’s favor.

Wolsey convened a secret ecclesiastical hearing on May 17, 1527, to address what became known as the “King’s Great Matter King’s Great Matter[Kings Great Matter] .” Failing to resolve the issue, Wolsey turned to Rome, but Pope Clement sent Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, the bishop of Salisbury, to try the case with Wolsey. However, the pope withdrew Campeggio in July, 1529, suggesting alternatives unacceptable to Henry, such as merely taking Anne Boleyn as a mistress with the pope’s promise to legitimize any children from the union or having the king’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond, wed Henry and Catherine’s daughter, Mary.

Within three months of Campeggio’s departure, Wolsey was charged, because of his status as papal legate, with violating the ancient Statute of Praemunire, which outlawed direct papal jurisdiction. His real crime, of course, was his failure to secure the annulment. He was stripped of most of his positions and possessions, with the exception of the archbishopric of York. However, the king did not keep Wolsey long in Yorkshire. The fallen statesman was arrested on November 4, 1530, the victim of Anne Boleyn’s campaigning against him, and accusations (generally believed based on faked evidence) of treasonably conspiring with Francis I. Falling ill on his journey to the Tower of London, Wolsey died en route at Leicester Abbey on November 29, 1530, where he was buried.


Cardinal Wolsey is often viewed, as in Samuel Johnson’s poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated” (1749), as an exemplar of how far and fast mortals can fall when they put their hopes in earthly power and success. Moralists like to quote Wolsey’s supposed deathbed admission that had he served God as well as he served Henry, he would not have died in lonely disgrace. In reality, Wolsey’s significance far transcends such moral stereotypes.

Wolsey helped to make England a major international power. The path that he helped to steer would be firmly secured in the next generation with the long and successful reign of Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Wolsey also helped to unify the nation under royal rule by diminishing the legal and political independence of the nobility. He also helped to set in motion the suppression of English monasteries that would accelerate after his death.

Finally, Wolsey’s failure to secure Henry’s desired annulment played a decisive role in the king’s decision to reject the authority of the pope and establish himself as head of the Church of England, thus extending the Protestant Reformation from the continent to England and permanently changing the nation’s main religion.

Further Reading

  • Belloc, Hilaire. Wolsey. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1930. A classic account of Wolsey intended to establish character and motives rather than present exhaustive details.
  • Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey: Two Early Tudor Lives. Edited by Richard S. Sylvester and Davis P. Harding. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962. Valuable for the first-hand knowledge Cavendish had as a personal attendant on Wolsey.
  • Ridley, Jasper. Statesman and Saint: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, and the Politics of Henry VIII. New York: Viking Press, 1983. A reexamination of two consecutive lords chancellor within the context of the king’s political demands.
  • Weir, Alison. Six Wives of Henry VIII. 1992. Reprint. New York: Grove Press, 2000. A detailed study of Henry’s wives, including Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, which draws heavily on primary sources.
  • Wilson, Derek A. In the Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Considers six key men in the political world of Henry’s England, including Wolsey.

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

June 5-24, 1520: Field of Cloth of Gold

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I