Cardinal Wolsey acquired great power during the reign of Henry VIII. Wolsey’s power extended to both legal and religious issues and effectively gave Wolsey the opportunities to influence just about most decisions in the kingdom. While he had the support of Henry VIII and while ‘all was well’, Wolsey was the most powerful man in the kingdom seemingly with unlimited power.
“It has often been maintained that Wolsey was in practice a dictator.” (Randall)
While this may not be the C20th version of a dictator, there can be little doubt that Wolsey amassed huge power. However, this power barely affected the majority in the country as they had been brought up to do as was required. When this broke down as in the Pilgrimage of Grace (after Wolsey’s death) the state took the appropriate action. Those who would have been at the sharp end of Wolsey’s power were those men and noble families that had instinctually considered that they had a right to be involved in decision-making at the highest level. If any of the senior nobility crossed Wolsey – if only by making a comment about his less than noble background – he pursued them with vigour and financial ruin was the ultimate weapon Wolsey could use. He also used the law courts – which he dominated – to enforce his wishes. This power and the fear of what might happen if an individual crossed Wolsey, ensured that few challenged the Lord Chancellor.
“By the early 1520’s an established fact of political life in England was that you did not incur the cardinal’s displeasure if you held any aspirations for the future.” (Randall)
For a number of years Henry gave Wolsey what seemed like a free hand to run the country. This would have fitted in with the way Henry believed a country should be run. He believed that the people did not want to see their king engaged in matters of state all the time (as Henry VII seemed to do) but wanted him to act like a king – hunting, jousting, displaying manly qualities etc. Wolsey had done what he could to encourage such a belief. Henry also believed that it was perfectly acceptable to leave men to run the country on his behalf once he had briefed them on policies. These would be men he could trust, who would work for the king with total loyalty. Such a belief gave Wolsey the freedom he needed. Here was a king who only involved himself in matters of state when he felt the need to do so and who was prepared to allow men to govern on his behalf. However, for ‘men’ Wolsey read ‘man’. His huge work rate and his ability to get things done – as in 1513 with the expedition to France – was sufficient proof to Henry that he was right. Wolsey was a safe pair of hands who took care of the nation while the king could engage in other activities.
In religious terms, Wolsey’s title as ‘legatus a latere’ made him the most powerful religious figure in England. When he gained this title for life, the only way of defeating any ecclesiastical decision Wolsey made was to make a direct appeal to Rome. This had two problems. First, it was an extremely difficult process to carry out with little or no guarantee of success. Second, Wolsey, who would not be likely to look on such a move with charity, would quickly know the person who made the appeal. While the whole ecclesiastical body gave Wolsey great scope to act, he kept his work on two fronts – appointments to offices and the levying of fees for services. Wolsey gave himself the right to appoint anyone he wished to any ecclesiastical position when it became vacant. He either appointed his own men to these posts when they became vacant or gave them to the highest bidder. Wolsey also claimed that as ‘legatus a latere’ he had the right to decide on all cases of inheritance when disputes. Few were willing to argue with the cardinal over this point. This gave Wolsey the opportunity to make great sums of money as he introduced what was essentially a 10% inheritance tax on all his decisions.
One area that gave Wolsey great power was his capacity to carry out huge amounts of work. He worked tirelessly to find out as much as he could about the great noble families of England and Wales. He wanted to know about their financial status; whether they could really be trusted; whether they were the legitimate holders of whatever title they had etc. This required him to put in a great deal of work and Wolsey was not lacking. This knowledge also enhanced his power as he found out about a noble family’s weak points and could exploit these accordingly. To do this he employed men to spy on noble families. These spies were well rewarded and seemingly loyal to their master. However, the unscrupulous nature of Wolsey and his use of the law as he interpreted it, made him many enemies