The part Cardinal Wolsey played in the divorce proceedings concerning Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon has divided historians. There is little conclusive evidence that proves one way or another that Wolsey tried to sabotage Henry’s desire for a divorce or that he was actively campaigning for it. However, there seems to be a general agreement that Wolsey was not happy about the whole divorce situation. There could have been both religious and practical reasons for this.
As a Roman Catholic, Wolsey would have been brought up to support the whole concept of marriage and family. It is almost certain that he shunned the whole theoretical idea of divorce for this reason. However, Wolsey was also a very practical man and he believed that very few in England would tolerate the humiliation of Catherine so that Anne Boleyn would became queen. Did Wolsey fear some sort of public disorder at the removal of a queen many in England held in great affection? There can be no doubts that Anne knew of Wolsey’s feelings towards her and Wolsey was certainly aware of Anne’s meddling in political affairs even before she was queen. Wolsey had much to lose if Anne became queen and much to gain if Catherine remained as queen. Catherine essentially kept out of politics and this suited Wolsey well. If Anne became queen Wolsey would have faced a loss of power and authority – he possessed both while Catherine was queen.
Henry blamed Wolsey for slowing done all the proceedings surrounding the divorce. Wolsey was blamed for the failures surrounding the visit to England of Cardinal Campeggio who was sent to England by the Pope to give a Papal input into the proceedings. A man who had vast amounts of energy when it came to increasing his huge wealth did lack a lot of his characteristic energy when it came to the divorce. Wolsey changed his mind over who should have the final say in the proceedings. Initially he believed that all matters could be settled in England with a Papal input – hence the visit of Campeggio. However, he then changed his mind and stated that only the Pope could make a final decision. Was this done out of his belief that the matter was so important that it could only be sanctioned at the top? Or was it because Wolsey knew that the whole bureaucracy of the Papacy would delay and delay any decision and that as a result Henry would lose interest in Anne?
Those historians who believe that Wolsey actively pushed for the divorce claim that Wolsey knew that his whole future depended on Henry divorcing Catherine and marrying Anne. Letters that Wolsey wrote to his contacts in the Papacy clearly urge that the matter should be speedily dealt with. Between 1528 and 1529 Wolsey sent many letters to the Vatican. While not supporting the divorce at a personal level, it is claimed that Wolsey did all that he could at a professional level because he knew that his position was at risk if he did not get a result. Wolsey had spent many years becoming the most powerful non-royal in the land and he had got used to the many luxuries that he had in life. Was he really willing to give these up for the matter of a divorce?