Wolsey became Henry VIII’s leading councillor in 1515 after he demonstrated his enormous ability and single-minded determination during the French campaign of 1513 – 1514. According to Scarisbrick it was Wolsey who shaped this campaign, and also where he proved his competence to Henry. If this is correct, then perhaps it could be said that this foreign policy aim was pursued with very little success, as in 1514, at the end of the campaign, England had gained little of importance – Tournai was captured, but it was a town of no significant economic or strategic importance and little fighting to celebrate – the only “battle” was a skirmish embellished by Henry in the hope of obtaining a degree of reflected glory. However, it must be remembered that at this point Wolsey was not a major player in the political scene – “the war in which he [Wolsey] proved his organisational genius by handling the commissariat so ably was not of his own making but something which, as a lesser servant of the king, he was required to support” (Scarisbrick)
During the initial period of Wolsey’s influence, 1514-1518, one clear aim can be discerned: to keep peace with as many people as possible and to increase English prestige abroad. The securing of the Treaty of Etaples in 1514 was one method employed to do this. This was the treaty that ended the war against France. It involved Henry’s sister marrying Louis XII, the French King, the restoration of the French pension, England was given Tournai and the French agreement to prevent the Duke of Albany from going to Scotland to claim the throne there. This was a great diplomatic success, and one that Wolsey took, and was given, credit for. It was the first time an English Princess had become Queen of France, and provided a valuable alliance with France for a while. The restoration of the French Pension was also welcomed eagerly as the French campaign had cost a great deal. The English retaining Tournai was a displeasure for France because of its strategic position within the Netherlands. Finally, the Duke of Albany presented quite a threat to peace and security against Scotland as he had a claim to the throne which could rival Henry’s sister’s, Margaret, and he was also a senior French admiral, therefore his suppression was beneficial to the peace with Scotland.
All this evidence would indicate that Wolsey was very successful in his pursuing of peace with France and Scotland and prestige in Europe. However, the results of the treaty were short lived – Louis XII died a few months later in January 1514 and Mary remarried, losing Henry his only marriageable “pawn”, Louis was succeeded by Francis I, a young and ambitious king who was reluctant to renew the French alliance with England and Tournai proved so difficult to fortify it was basically forgotten within months of its capture. Therefore, although apparently successful, it was very short-lived success (although to be fair, not through fault of Wolsey’s)
However, in the aim of containing French power Wolsey failed miserably: with Francis’s succession came a new rivalry between England and France, and France’s power was in no way curtailed satisfactorily.
Only one year later, in 1516, Ferdinand, ruler of Spain also died leaving in his place a young Charles V. This was a disaster for Wolsey’s foreign policy – After the French capture of Milan he had attempted to construct an anti-French coalition by concluding an Anglo-Spanish treaty with Ferdinand and made peace with Maximillian, Holy Roman Emperor. The ascension of Charles ruined the first part of this: he was a young, ambitious ruler and decided instead to make peace with Francis at Noyon. Maximillian also decided to make peace with France. Obviously, Wolsey’s anti-French policy was therefore ruined, and he was forced to seek peace with France, leading to the Treaty of London. Blatantly, this was not what Wolsey had been seeking, but in terms of keeping peaceful relations with as many other countries as possible, this clearly was successful.
In October 1518 an Anglo- French peace treaty was signed, while at the same time a representative of the Pope was sent to England in order to mobilise a campaign against the Ottomans. This papal initiative was taken over by Wolsey and extended it to become a treaty of universal peace and friendship known as the Treaty of London. It was signed by many of the most important leaders in Europe including Francis I, Maximillian, Charles I and the Pope, and it was hailed as a great moral, political and diplomatic triumph, engineered by Wolsey. Surely a glorious moment for Wolsey – his aim for peace was spectacularly pulled off, he had successfully and skilfully pressurised France into an alliance while remaining on good terms with everyone else as well. However, the treaty has been criticised for being merely an exercise in egoism for Wolsey – the Treaty did not last and was seen by many as an empty gesture of self-advertisement. Nevertheless, as Scarisbrick points out “..Wolsey’s evident desire to parade himself, nor his use of dubious methods, [does not] prove that the whole project was fraudulent”
The death of Maximillian in 1519 resulted in Charles V becoming the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. Since he had barred the formation of an Anglo-Spanish alliance, Wolsey therefore had to secure England’s position with France instead, to ensure England had an ally and was not diplomatically isolated. Therefore the costly extravaganza of the Field of the Cloth of Gold was held – apparently a meeting between the two leaders, Francis and Henry, but in reality a display of their wealth in an attempt to outdo the other. At the same time it was an opportunity for Wolsey to discuss matters with Francis. However, Wolsey was a realist and could see by now that if they were dragged into a war with Spain on France’s side, as was promised in the Treaty of London, they would not emerge victorious. He therefore conducted secret meetings with Charles and they decided to launch a ‘Great enterprise’ against France in 1523, in the treaty of Bruges. This is a success in that it supports Scarisbrick’s theory that Wolsey’s aim was to create peace through unbalance of power: he would support the stronger side in order to prevent the weaker one from doing anything.
Therefore, in the period of his power between 1521 and 1525, Wolsey’s foreign policy aims obviously changed, and became much more aggressive. By declaring war on France, Wolsey was attempting to derive as much advantage out of the situation as possible: he tried to enable Henry to become the king of France. At the same time, he wanted to safeguard the cloth trade with the Netherlands, increase English prestige in Europe and to back the winning side in the Habsburg-Valois conflict.
In August 1523 an army was sent to France in an attempt to take Paris with the support of the Duke of Bourbon. It did not work: Bourbon was unable to gather enough support for a three pronged attack to work and Charles’s troops managed little either. The English troops therefore withdrew. A success? Obviously not. Wolsey changed his policy to aggressiveness for unknown, but clearly unsound reasons and it did not pay off as it led to a break down in the allies’ relationship.
In the final period of his power, Wolsey’s aims changed once more: to reduce the power of the emperor, to support the Pope and attempt to get a divorce for Henry and Katherine, to keep England as a main player in Europe, to keep peace and maintain good relations with Charles and be the mediator between France and Spain.
After the failure to reap any benefits from Charles after helping to secure the victory over France, Wolsey performed a desperate volte-face and allied with France in the Treaty of The More, despite the Anglo-Habsburg dynastic ties, the importance of safe guarding cloth trade and hostile public opinion. In 1526 he joined the anti-Habsburg League of Cognac. However, when Charles’s troops captured Rome it ruined chances of an easy divorce, economic warfare erupted in 1528 badly affecting England’s cloth trade, France was defeated at Landriano in 1529 and both the Pope and France made peace with Charles, it all led to England being completely isolated. The treaty of Cambrai was really Wolsey’s last effort in foreign policy, and it was not a good one. Charles V confirmed his dominance in Italy, Francis I got his sons back, the Pope got Florence and Ravenna, and England got nothing. The Pope broke off negotiations for divorce and these were never to be resumed.
So in order to answer the question. Wolsey’s aims in foreign policy must be determined. These can mainly be seen to be to increase English prestige abroad and to avoid war. Was English prestige abroad increased? Not really is the only sensible answer. The French campaign in 1523 succeeded in nothing – when Charles eventually defeated the French he recorded in his diary that ‘the king of England does not help me as a true friend should; he does not even help me to the extent of his obligations’. Clearly, Charles did not regard England highly – he did not even reward her for her role in the defeat of France. In fact, by 1529, England had gained very little and had in fact lost a lot – they gave up claims to French territory, didn’t even join the League of Cognac as a full member, lost the trust of most other European rulers and incurred huge debts doing so. Although the French pension of ï¿½20,000 was reinstated, it nowhere near covered Henry’s debts. Also, Henry’s divorce was no more likely than before. In fact, it can safely be concluded that in his aim for increased prestige in Europe, Wolsey’s foreign policy was a failure – by 1529, England was no longer even a mediator in the Habsburg-Valois conflict, let alone a main player herself.
Another view however, as held by Pollard, was that Wolsey’s foreign policy was very much dictated by the Pope: “England was tied to the Papacy not out of any loyalty to a divine institution but because Wolsey was always wanting something from it”
As Scarisbrick points out “he [Wolsey] sought peace for the severely practical reason which he constantly repeated, that war was the quickest way to lose money” But was he successful? Most of the time, the answer must be yes. Only at two points during his time in power was England ever on the brink of war, and for most of the fifteen years, England was the successful mediator in the Habsburg-Valois conflict. A good example is the Treaty of London, which Wolsey engineered, whose aim was to provide peace for the whole of Europe. However, Scarisbrick also says “Between 1514 and 1528, when Wolsey was in charge, England was on the brink of war twice. Therefore, his policy failed because it was unrealistic and perhaps even self-contradictory”
Another view however, as held by Pollard, was that Wolsey’s foreign policy was very much dictated by the Pope: “England was tied to the Papacy not out of any loyalty to a divine institution but because Wolsey was always wanting something from it” Because of this Wolsey followed local Italian politics “without regard for her [England’s] own interests and in response only to his own devouring ambition” This would explain the rather nefarious policies and recurrent Volte-faces Wolsey carried out, but it would also infer that England’s foreign policy at this time was entirely Wolsey’s, which is rather an aberrant view, and one which most eminent historians would disagree with.
Therefore, in conclusion, it was with little long-term success that Wolsey pursued his foreign policy – whilst rewards like Tournai and ephemeral diplomatic prowess were good at the time, he achieved little of any long-term eminence, which surely shows that he was not very successful.