Thomas Wolsey's Social and Legal Reforms, 1509-1529

Revision notes about the Social and Legal Reforms of Thomas Wolsey, 1509-1529.

Specifically for Unit F961 Option A Study Topic 3: Henry VIII to Mary I, 1509-58

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1. The Law:
Wolsey became Chancellor in 1515 ­ responsible for running the equity courts (Courts of
Chancery, Star Chamber) and sitting as a judge every morning for about 6 months of the
year. Extended the Court of Chancery over probate (wills) ­ heard 7526 cases.
Workload of Star Chamber grew by almost ten times and here he heard another 1685
cases ­ remained disorganised until Cromwell's reforms.
Suits to the Council had to originate from outside the Crown ­ ended up with masses
of frivolous cases, mainly about property.
Many cases petered out or the Star Chamber sentencing was challenged in other
Wolsey didn't carry out a systematic reform of the law and passed no legislation to do
so, he just tried to improve things within the existing system ­ e.g. he had to deal with
the rising backlog by setting up ad hoc committees instead of actually reforming
procedure he also proposed reform of justice to end corruption and make it cheaper,
and proposed to separate Star Chamber from the Council, but these came to nothing
­ Wolsey's tendency to leave good ideas half finished.
Equity courts worked on the basis of justice rather than precedent ­ depending more
on the opinion of the judge ­ accusations that he was too lenient as he was only
trained as a church lawyer (although he did consult others, see below) ­ undermining
traditional system of justice by drawing in cases that hadn't traditionally been tried
there? (However, the workload of these courts had steadily been increasing since the
reign of Richard III, and Wolsey did start the ball rolling for reform, see below).
Undermined the rich? ­ tried nobles in Star Chamber and passed judgments against
When the workload became too much for the equity courts Wolsey sent work to local
courts, increasing the corruption and confusion of the legal process.
More clearcut Star Chamber ­ regular law terms, records etc.
SC began to produce proper procedures.
Brought about justice against the rich/nobles in SC BUT also left them in possession
of their local lands and influence to keep order ­ not misused against them like H7
with his bonds and recognisances ­ didn't use them to gain power (if he had wanted
this he would have probably just restored the Council Learned of Empson and Dudley,
not the Court of Requests).
Wolsey not ignorant of the law ­ had been involved in the equity courts since 1509 ­
continued to work with Common Lawyers and consult other judges often.
Deterred frivolous cases and saw them through quickly.

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Common Law courts had been becoming too unmanageable, so by transferring more
legal work to the equity courts he began a process of Common Law Court reform
which by the 1540s meant they were fit to take back work from the equity courts.
Lessened the local misuse of justice ­ justice for plaintiffs who had found local courts
controlled by landowners, free legal advice/representation for the poor, supervised
local officials, sheriffs and JPs, making the take oaths of loyalty.…read more

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Restored relatively little land ­ around 3000 acres.
Had to suspend cases for 18 months in 1523 to get the Parliamentary Subsidy
Rising wool prices had led to farmers turning land from grain to wool ­ after 1518
grain prices rose faster leading to farmers turning their land over to grain, which would
naturally halt enclosure ­ action less necessary.
Cases against 264 landowners in Chancery ­ 188 sentences passed (high proportion
for Tudor courts).…read more

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Most other legislation came from private Members about local concerns.
His ways of dealing with epidemics were innovative.
After grain shortage ­ ordered searches for grain and by a Proclamation of November
1527 organised a nationwide response ­ names of those holding surpluses presented
to Star Chamber by January 1528 ­ carried out with unprecedented speed ­ overall
sufficiency was shown and grain was moved where necessary.…read more

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He did attempt to achieve justice and solve certain social ills ­ worked at an impressive pace
using the unwieldy old system of the late medieval state and insisting upon detailed
information and vigorous government action.
Definitely tried to help the poor ­ to help them or undermine rich rivals? ­ influenced by early
Thomas Wolsey's pushing of the old system as far as it would go that Cromwell would be
able to really change things after Wolsey's demise.…read more


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