The Role of Wolsey in Tudor Government

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  • The Role of Thomas Wolsey in Tudor Government (c1472-1530)
    • Relationship with Henry VIII
      • As long as Wolsey was able to fulfil the King's wishes, he remained in power.
        • Wolsey did not usurp power from the King, he was only allowed to wield it for as long as he remained useful.
        • Wolsey's contemporary critics used his social background to accuse him of undermining power of member of the traditional nobility & gentry.
          • e.g. Duke of Buckingham, merely because he resented him.
            • Buckingham was executed because he seemed to be plotting treason and raising a private army.
        • It was only from 1527 when Wolsey failed to give Henry his divorce from Catherine of Aragon that his position came under threat.
      • Wolsey had rivals for his power, particularly from gentlemen in the Privy Chamber.
        • 1519- Wolsey expelled the 'minions' from the household who had too much influence with the King
        • The Eltham Ordinances in 1526 can also be seen as an attempt to control the Chamber as a rival source of power.
    • Failures
      • Wolsey's personality and ambition led to criticism.
        • His grand schemes were too ambitious
          • He encouraged cases to brought to the Star Chamber, this led to a backlog that Wolsey, distracted by war and diplomacy, failed to clear.
        • Used his power & position to prosecute personal feuds.
          • Sir Robert Sheffield, Speaker in House of Commons in 1512, had been critical of Wolsey.
            • Wolsey sent him to the Tower of London and fined him £5,333 for 'opprobrious words'
        • Wolsey managed to upset the group in Parliament that he needed support from, the landed nobility and gentry
          • 1523- Wolsey had to reverse his policy on enclosure as part of a deal with parliament.
            • Tended to represent the interests of the landed elites.
          • Also mismanaged the financial crisis of 1522-23, haranguing Parliament in an attempt to get a higher rate of taxation from them, before turning to the non-parliamentary Amicable Grant.
      • Wolsey held many Church offices
        • Was not only the Archbishop of York, also Bishop of Lincoln and Tournai
        • Used the profits of his offices to live in grand style.
          • His household numbered 500 men, almost as big as the King's, and his building at Hampton Court was so magnificent that contemporaries called him an 'alter rex'- another King.
    • Successes
      • Wolsey's main contribution was his organisational abilities.
        • Allowed Henry first to afford foreign war, and then play international peacemaker.
        • Introduced a new form of taxation, the subsidy.
          • Allowed the King to collect more taxation from his subjects.
      • As Chancellor, Wolsey attempted legal, social and economic reform.
        • Attempted to improve the administration of justice by prosecuting in Star Chamber local officials who were accused of corruption.
          • 1519- Prosecuted a prominent member of the Cheshire Gentry, Sir John Savage, on suspicion that he had been using his local influence to protect his son from murder charges.
            • Wolsey's aim was to teach Savage 'The New Law of Star Chamber', Savage was pardoned, but he lost many of his local offices and had to pay a fine of 4,000 marks to the Crown.
          • More generally, Wolsey used the Star Chamber and Court of Chancery to encourage ordinary men to seek justice for their grievances.
            • Led to huge increase in the workload of these Courts.
            • Wolsey launched a national enquiry in 1517-18 to investigate the practice of illegal enclosure by landlords.
              • On the basis of this enquiry, 264 landlords were prosecuted and 188 verdicts were reached.
    • Summary
      • Wolsey was the son of an Ipswich Butcher and was clearly very intelligent from a young age as he went to Magdalen College, Oxford.
        • He then embarked on a career in the Church.
          • In this period, advancement through a career in the Church was a common method used by those from the lower ranks in society to rise.
      • By 1509 he had become Almoner (a distributor of money to the poor) of Henry VIII
        • Due to being under the patronage of Richard Fox, Wolsey became a member of the King's Council that same year.
      • Wolsey was a clever administrator and rapidly rose further because he pleased the King by coordinating the war effort against France (1512-14)
      • Wolsey became very successful in Tudor Court very quickly.
        • 1514- Wolsey was made Archbishop of York
        • 1518- Wolsey received the title of 'Legate a latere' from the Pope
        • And then in 1515 the Pope made Wolsey a cardinal, followed by being appointed as Lord Chancellor of England
          • This put Wolsey in charge of England's judicial system .
      • Wolsey's career rise was entirely dependent on the King's will.
        • From 1525, Wolsey's relationship with Henry had begun to unravel, especially once Wolsey was unable to secure the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
        • By 1529, Wolsey had fallen completely out of favour with the King as he had outlived his usefulness.
          • Wolsey was accused of praemunire, stripped of his possessions and banished from Court
            • He died a year later, on his way to trial.


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