Cardinal Wolsey was Henry VIII’s chief minister for fifteen years. During this time Wolsey seemed to be more concerned about developing his wealth as opposed to ensuring that the country had effective government in place. If Wolsey concerned himself with government reform, there was little opportunity for him to expand his authority, personal power and income. Therefore, any attempt to modernise the government of England and Wales so that both benefited came to nothing under Wolsey and was left to Thomas Cromwell. However, Wolsey’s approach found favour with the majority of the nobility at the time. They believed that the ‘smaller’ royal government was the better that was for them. They had little desire to see government trespass on their lives within the areas they controlled. Therefore, while Wolsey many very many enemies for other reasons, on this one he found that his approach was supported by the bulk of the nobility.


Wolsey had no great love for Parliament. He viewed the House as a place where men set out to criticise him, and in effect, Henry himself. Wolsey saw MP’s especially as rabble rousers. For this reason Parliament was very rarely called while Wolsey was the government’s driving force and he did little to disguise his contempt and dislike for it. Wolsey’s belief in his own power was bound to bring him into conflict with Parliament. The only time that Wolsey recognised its power was when a considerable sum of money had to be raised to pay for Henry’s foreign ventures. This happened in 1523 – but it only served to deepen his dislike of Parliament as it was capable of solving something that he could not. While Wolsey was good at developing his own revenue, he did not have the legal authority of Parliament to raise taxes.


One area that Wolsey did try to reform was England’s legal system. England had mainly used ‘common law’ since the time of William the Conqueror. However, civil law was seen as being more modern and was more favoured in Southern Europe. It was used in the King’s Council when it acted as a court of law. There were many differences between the two but the fundamental one was the common law used precedents as a basis for legal decisions while civil law used natural justice. Common law did force judges to give a reason for their decisions based on past legal cases but it also led to unjust verdicts when no-one questioned the validity of past verdicts. Civil law allowed a judge to come to a verdict based on what he thought was just and fair regardless of cases held years in the past. Wolsey did favour civil law above common law as he believed that justice was better served by civil law. He also believed that civil law gave the common man a better chance of success, whereas the chance of success in a common law court was minimal.


As Lord Chancellor, Wolsey was in charge of the country’s secular legal system. He devoted a great deal of his time to this position but only so that he could further his own interests. Wolsey also used the courts to get back at those nobles who he felt had insulted him by making references to his background. One man who did insult Wolsey was Sir Amyas Paulet. He had put the arrogant young Wolsey in the stocks in an effort to cut him down to size when he arrived at his first benefice. As Lord Chancellor, Wolsey ordered Paulet to court and kept him waiting in daily attendance for five years – he was threatened with having all of his property confiscated if he failed to attend, thereby showing his contempt of Wolsey’s court. Some historians believe that Wolsey made up this story to frighten off potential enemies but even if it has been exaggerated it would certainly have been in Wolsey’s character to have done this.


While it would be easy to concentrate on Wolsey’s desire to gain vast wealth and power, it would be easy to miss out his strong belief in natural justice as was gained, in his mind, through civil law. He knew that the common law courts were controlled by money. Large legal fees made these courts impossible for the poor to access. It does seem that Wolsey was genuinely concerned that the poor should have access to some form of court and as common law courts did not allow for this, he supported civil law courts. It was not that unusual for Wolsey to call into one of his civil law courts a case that had been heard in a common law court and a decision had been made that had offended Wolsey as it had gone against natural justice. He seemed to take particular pleasure if a case had a ‘David and Goliath’ aspect to it as Wolsey was quite happy to use the law courts against over mighty nobles and prosecuted those who enclosed land at the expense of the poor.


When speaking to a senior legal official Wolsey said:


“I counsel you and all other judges and learned men (of the king’s council) to put no more into his (Henry’s) head than law that may stand with conscience; for when you tell him: this is the law, it were well done ye should tell him also that although this is the law, yet this is conscience; for law without conscience is not mete to be given to a king by his council to be ministered by him nor by any of his ministers.”


However, it would be a gross exaggeration to state that Wolsey championed the legal rights of the poor. He almost certainly took up their cause simply as a way of getting back at the nobility that had consistently treated him with contempt because of his background. The poor were a convenient lever to doing this. He also did what he could to ensure that his position was never threatened. In 1526 the Eltham Ordinances were introduced to reform the finances of the Privy Council. These were seen as proof that Wolsey was a reformist whose desire was to see a more modern office administration. However, the ordinances were quickly allowed to lapse as no-one ensured that they were enforced and they left the Privy Council no better off and probably in a worse state. This suited Wolsey perfectly as it ensured that those who could influence the king were discredited and Wolsey was put into a position where he could put his own men into the Council to give it more ‘credibility’.