Cardinal Wolsey portrait

Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VII’s relationship

What relationship did Henry VIII have with Cardinal Wolsey? Clearly Henry was the master while Wolsey was his servant. But was Wolsey a very independent servant who worked to serve his master but spent far more time developing his own wealth and power? Did Wolsey’s ability to convince Henry that the king just had to do as he wished (hunting and jousting) and leave government to him, cloud the master/servant relationship?

While Wolsey was very good at manipulating others, it does seem that this was less true with regards to Henry VIII. The king was not a fool and it was be untenable to think that Wolsey could fool Henry for the fifteen years he was chief minister. Henry obviously trusted Wolsey for much of this time and believed that he was his servant. There is, in fact, little to contradict this in terms of their relationship – the king was clearly willing to give Wolsey his independence just so long as he served his master. While Henry decided on policy, he put his trust in Wolsey to carry it out.

Wolsey and the Church

Wolsey did recognise that his position in the land depended entirely on Henry. Even though he held the highest of Papal positions outside of the Pope as legatus a latere, Wolsey realised that this counted for nothing if the King disputed it. Therefore, even in ecclesiastical issues where, in theory, Wolsey was all but supreme, he trod very carefully. The one time that both men fell out led to the Cardinal doing all that he cold to placate the king.

In 1528, a new abbess was needed for a nunnery in Wilton, Wiltshire. Henry had decided that the position should go to one of his courtier’s relations. Wolsey thought otherwise and appointed someone else. Henry was livid, as a royal wish had been ignored. Henry sent three letters to Wolsey demanding an explanation. It was only on the third that Wolsey realised just how difficult his position was. He claimed that he had not fully understood the instructions or letters of the king and sent his profuse apologies. Just one year later, Wolsey was relieved of all his government positions.

How did Wolsey gain so much power?

If there was a classic master/servant relationship, how did Wolsey get so much power? The answer seems quite simple. Henry knew that Wolsey was a very competent man who had many talents. Above all else, he got things done. In these circumstances, Henry let Wolsey develop his own wealth and power base simply because they did not threaten Henry. Henry could remove Wolsey. Wolsey could not remove Henry. The whole issue of a noble rebellion against the king led by Wolsey was a non-starter as Wolsey was not from noble birth – his father had been a butcher – and no noble would follow someone born into such a low social position such was the hierarchical structure of society in Tudor England. Ironically, Henry almost certainly used this to his advantage. He never fully trusted many noble families and he used Wolsey as a tool to keep a very close eye on them via his excellent spy network. In this sense, Wolsey was very keen to please his master as he developed what was effectively a hatred of those noble families that looked down on him.

Wolsey maintained his relationship with Henry for fifteen years. This could have only happened if the king believed that he needed Wolsey – and there is little doubt that he did, if only for Wolsey’s exceptional ability. At the time, some believed it was the result of Wolsey putting a magical spell on the king! The writer Polydore Vergil described how Wolsey managed to persuade Henry to follow a course of action that he wanted. Wolsey would introduce the matter at a very causal level while in conversation with the king. He would then give Henry an impressive gift of some description. While Henry was admiring the gift, Wolsey would then state more clearly what he wanted – while the king was distracted by his new present. However, it does seem likely that this method was going to fool the king for fifteen years. The strength of the relationship does seem to lie on the simple fact that Henry greatly valued the ability of his junior partner.

The relationship between Wolsey and Henry VII breaks down

The relationship broke down when Wolsey failed to get Henry an annulment to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It is generally accepted that as ‘legatus a latere’, Wolsey had told Henry that getting the Papacy to agree to the required annulment would be easy such was his influence in Rome. When the annulment failed to materialise, Wolsey left himself open to attack – and there were many who wanted to attack Wolsey. One such group was the Boleyn clan who wanted to see Anne married to the king as soon as was possible. It is thought that the Boleyn’s told Henry that Wolsey was deliberately delaying any Papal decision so that the king would tire of chasing Anne Boleyn and return to Catherine. Henry was desperate for a male heir and he had already made up his mind that Catherine had been cursed and could not give birth to a male heir. Therefore, marriage to Anne was an immediate requirement.

Henry used the law against Wolsey who was accused of praemunire – exercising Papal powers in England that were at the expense of the king or his subjects. This was not a new law concocted by Parliament to get at Wolsey – the law came into being in the C14th. The punishment if found guilty was imprisonment at the king’s pleasure and confiscation of all property. As soon as Wolsey became ‘legatus a latere’ he must have known that such a charge could be levelled at him. However, it seems that he was blinded to this by the sheer status and power the title gave him. Wolsey was exiled to York where he wrote many letters to Henry pleading his case. Though he lived in comfort while in York it was nothing like the splendour of his lifestyle at Hampton Court and York House. Wolsey was rearrested in 1530 and ordered to London. He could only have feared the worst and in poor health died at Leicester on his journey to London. Wolsey died on November 29th 1530.

“Henry (was) soon to regret that he had allowed himself to be persuaded to destroy the servant who was better able to carry out his wished than was anyone else then available to him.” (Keith Randall)


August 2007

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