Wolsey was born in Ipswich in 1472 to a working class family. He was a talented scholar who progressed from being the Rector of Limington in 1500 to being Henry VIII’s highest advisor by 1514. Giustininani, the Venetian ambassador at the time, talks of Wolsey’s “vast ability”. Qwyn also says Wolsey, “combined both enormous ability and unstoppable determination.” He progressed to Lord Chancellor, ruling the state and Legate, ruling the church enabling him to make many new policies. These included judicial and church policies, as well as social policies and finance.
Wolsey felt that wrongdoing had to be punished wherever it was to be found, no matter who committed the crime. This meant that Wolsey’s judicial policies affected both the rich and poor alike. This made Wolsey many enemies in high places due to his prosecution of nobles. An example of this is the prosecution of Sir William Bulmer for illegal retaining or Sir Robert Sheffield being fined ï¿½5330 for opprobrious words. Wolsey also got rid of Henry’s closed friends, the minions as he felt they had more influence on Henry than he did. Wolsey replaced the minions with his own men but these reforms were abandoned, as Henry got bored of Wolsey’s men. His attitude to nobles can also be seen in the execution of the Duke of Buckingham in 1521. Wolsey aided Henry in his fear for over mighty subjects who may oppose the monarchy. By doing this Wolsey did manage to keep Henry’s throne secure.
Wolsey succeeded Warham and became Lord Chancellor in 1515. He ruled over two courts of law, the Court of Chancery and the Court of Star Chamber. The Court of Chancery was Wolsey’s personal court and was based on equality. Unlike common law courts, the Chancery was prepared to recognize that a man owning his own land had legal rights. The Courts of Star Chamber was made up of members of the council and was regularly used by Wolsey to dispense justice. The Star Court was a success as Elton says, “the court commanded great popularity because it offered remedies for grievances and complaints not catered by the regular court.” He also says, “It could not be intimidated by the strong or bribed by the rich.” Wolsey managed to investigate and prosecute crime and corruption on a very efficient scale. It is estimated that during the fourteen years Wolsey was Lord Chancellor over 9000 cases were brought before the two courts. Both rich and poor cases were brought to the courts, although this may not just be on moral grounds. P.Gwyn claims, “he had no choice, Henry wanted him to be Lord Chancellor, and that being so, it was not for Wolsey to refuse.”
Wolsey also re-established the council in the north following suit from Richard III and Henry VII. The idea was to represent the central government in the north of England. The council in the north was aimed to protect the poor while dealing with land disputes, enclosure and rock renting.
Wolsey became Lord Chancellor in 1515 and began the difficult task of improving the situation of the treasury. Unfortunately this was not so successful, Elton says, “Wolsey’s greatest weakness lay in the realm of finance, he could neither make do with the existing revenue nor effectively increase it.” Henry had wasted a lot of money on extravagance and foreign policy and the treasury was in bad state. When Wolsey became head of finance the current tax was called the ‘Fifteenth and Tenth’ dating from 1334. In order to secure more money Wolsey called for a subsidy which was past through parliament and was described by S.J Guy as “a flexible approach designed to maximize receipts.” Taxpayers throughout the country were assessed on oath by local officials and supervised by national commissions. This was successful in increasing the treasury and S.J Guy said, “Some counties were paying eight times as much as the fifteenth and tenth tax.” The subsidy became known as the ‘Tudor Tax’ and between 1513 and 1529 the subsidies rose to about 322,000.
Although, in the long term the situation in the treasury got worse when war broke out against France in 1522. Wolsey introduced a policy of forced loans to raise money using the excuse of war. He compiled a document assessing goods of incomes of individuals and took loans from those with money. These loans bought in about 350,000 but they caused resentment, as Henry himself did not go to war with France.
In 1523 more money was needed for the expedition to France. Wolsey went to parliament and demand a subsidy of four shillings the pound, which would have given him ï¿½800,000. After a stormy and prolonged session, parliament granted two shillings in the pound spread out over a number of years. Edward Hall said that in the commons there was ” a marvellous obstinate silence” Elton and Gwyn oppose each on whether Wolsey was successful or not. Elton claims it was not a successful plea to parliament, as he doesn’t get al the money he desires. Gywn thinks it was “a model for all future Tudor acts” as it taxed 90% of households and Wolsey negotiated well considering he had already asked for a subsidy in 1522.
In 1525 Wolsey tried to impose another levy called ‘the Amicable Grant’ to supplement the revenue by an arbitrary forced loan for all men with goods and property. Elton claims the collectors were far too busy collecting the 1522 and 1523 subsidies to collect a new levy. Also, Elton says there was, “no prospect of loan-money being repaid.” The amicable Grant was supposed to help war with France and to exploit Pavia by raising 500,000 from the laity alone. It was not a success; there were rebellions in Kent, London and East Anglia where 20,000 men came out to protest. Even Wolsey said, “the people grudgeth and murmureth and speaketh cursedly among themselves.” The people were not rebelling against the king, but against Wolsey and Wolsey was forced to drop the policy. Henry was angry as he had no money to follow up Pavia and this would go against Wolsey as his position became unstable later on. P. Williams sums up the whole event as the, “only time in the century a Tudor monarch had been confronted and defeated by his subjects,” therefore, it was a failure for Wolsey’s domestic finance policy.
Just as he headed finance as Lord Chancellor, he ruled the church as cardinal and legate. Wolsey wished to reform the church but he himself was not a great example to set. He embodied pluralism being the Archbishop of York, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Durham, Winchester and Abbot of St Albans. He also embodied absenteeism, simony, by selling dioceses to Italians and Nepotism, especially when concerning Thomas Writer, his illegitimate son. It is believed that before Wolsey began his reforms the people were rather excited at the prospect, at the time Fox said, “This day I have truly longed for even as Simeon in the Gospel desired to see the Messiah.” The reforms included revising the statutes for the Benedictine and Augustine order and supervising the remaining religious orders. They also included reducing archdioceses and interfering in legatic elections.
In some ways Wolsey abused his power as legate a lactere in the church by forcing bishops to sign their revenues to him and having long vacancies when bishops die to take their profit. Wolsey also closed a number of monasteries and nunneries. Historians argue about whether Wolsey’s religious policies were successful or not. Elton claims that at Wolsey’s fall he only managed two things for the church, to lessen its allegiance to Rome, and in this way, to weaken it past hope of recovery. Differently, Gwyn claims that, “by in large, Wolsey’s rule was beneficial,” as he created a centralized authority in the church. Guy also says that the church was, “Wolsey’s most equivocal achievement.”
Wolsey had more success with his economic and social policies. Socially, he felt he should do something about the problem of enclosure. He felt the land should all be handed back to the tillage. In 1517 Wolsey sent out commissioners to investigate extent of enclosure since 1488 and then to report back to the Court of Chancery. 264 cases were bought to court and a number of peers, bishops and knights were caught. Alton describes the investigation as, “a very impressive piece of administrative enterprise.” In the end the anti-enclosure policy was dropped, as it was not practical to carry out, so it did not affect the country much. Unfortunately it was a continuation of Wolsey’s policy to hit the rich making him unpopular and not helping him personally in the long term.
Wolsey also tried to reduce fatalities to the reoccurring ‘sweating sickness’. In 1518 he directed all houses containing the sickness to display straw outside the house as a sign. Members of an infected were made to carrying a white stick when outside as a side to others to stay away. Economically he tried to organise the country after a bad harvest in 1518 to fix the price of poultry, and investigate the lack of other meats in London. In order to clear up the streets he purged vagabonds, criminals and prostitutes in 1519. Wolsey also licensed beggars and sent the sick on the street to hospitals.
Between 1515 and 1529 Cardinal Wolsey had vast responsibilities in the English court. He was chief advisor to the king and basically had the last word below the king on finance, religion and law. It appears that Wolsey had strengths and weaknesses. Elton claims that foreign affairs and the judicial system came first with Wolsey and church reform and finance were definitely last. Wolsey was successful with short-term domestic issues, such as social and economic problems but less successful with long term problems like church and finance. By closing down a few monasteries and distancing the church from Rome he weakened the church. This made it less able to stand up to the problems it would later face, after his fall. Wolsey also did not have much success with money, he was not very thrifty and ambitious foreign policies always left the treasury low. Elton sums it up writing, ” He tried to do the work of ten men, and not surprisingly failed.”
The Kings Cardinal – P.Gwyn
England under the Tudors – G.R Elton
Early Tudor Government – S.J Gunn
Star Chamber Stories – G.R Elton