Henry VIII, government and Parliament


Government in Henry's early and middle years

  • Eric Ives concludes that Henry liked to have an overview of his government but was happy to let others do the mundane work for him, be that his Royal Council or his chosen ministers. So, his style of government varied across his reign, depending on his Royal Council or his chosen ministers.  

  • A complicating factor was Parliament and how it should be used. Before the 1530s, Henry’s view of the role of parliament did not differ from that of his father – its two functions remained: to grant extraordinary revenue and to pass laws. Before 1529, he only summoned parliaments four times – parliament is used in the same pattern as his father. His first minister Wolsey seemed to regard parliament with distaste; only one parliament was called in his time of dominance. Whereas, in the second part of his reign, Parliament was called more frequently due to Cromwell exploiting its legislative power.

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

Wolsey (1514-29)

Wolsey and the end of government by councils

At the start of Henry’s reign, the conciliar approach to government was in place and it lasted from 1509 to 1514. It was stopped because: 

  • Henry became disenchanted with his father’s senior councillors – they did not support a war with France.
  • As he gained more experience in governing, he increasingly wanted to make his own decisions.
  • Henry surrounded himself with like-minded young courtiers.
  • He was impressed by the skills of Thomas Wolsey who effectively managed the French campaign.

Wolsey emerged as the dominant political figure and Henry decided to hand over the main decision-making to him.  

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

Privy Chamber

  • Before 1519, this was one area of government which lay outside of Wolsey’s control and was second most important after the King. 
  • In the early years of Henry’s reign, its role was extended when the King’s ‘minions’ (young courtiers who had Henry’s favour) became Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber. 
  • The ‘minions’ distrusted Wolsey who tried to neutralise their influence by removing them and replacing them with his own supporters in 1519. Some believe that he wanted complete power but others argue that he saw them as unskilled. 
  • But, most managed to recover their positions – the Privy Chamber still had some influence and was the part of government outside Wolsey’s control.  
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Government in Henry's early and middle years

Court of chancery

  • The main court of equality and justice – fairness was applied to cases rather than strictly going by the law. 
  • Wolsey was Lord Chancellor – responsible for overseeing the legal system and court of chancery; he wanted to use the court to uphold ‘fair’ justice. Dealt with disputes over enclosure, contracts and wills. 
  • Became too popular – too many cases so justice was slow. 

Court of Star Chamber

  • Wolsey’s greatest legal contribution. 
  • Had been established in 1487 as an offshoot of the King’s Council. 
  • Became the centre of government and justice under Wolsey. 
  • From 1516, Wolsey extended the use of the Star Chamber to increase cheap and fair justice. 
  • Wolsey also encouraged the use of the Star Chamber for private lawsuits – an area he was successful in. 
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Government in Henry's early and middle years


The 'Tudor subsidy'
It was expected that taxpayers would provide extraordinary revenue (parliamentary taxation) when required – most effectively achieved by raising subsidies. Wolsey didn’t invent the subsidy but he changed how subsidies were collected – rather than using local commissioners to assess taxpayers’ wealth Wolsey set up a national committee which he headed. Caused the raising of taxes to be more realistic. Wolsey used this method to raise money for Henry’s war with France but this amount was insufficient  tried to raise unparliamentary taxation through the ‘Amicable Grant’ of 1526. 

The 1523 subsidy and Parliament's resistance to Wolsey
Many historians believe Wolsey didn’t manage Parliament well – John Guy described him as ‘arrogant and insensitive’.  The 1523 Parliament had been called to grant the subsidy to finance the war with France and its members criticized Wolsey’s financial demands – the atmosphere was very charged. 

The Eltham Ordinances
1526 – Wolsey introduced the Eltham Ordinances to reform the finances of the Privy Council. He pushed forward proposals to reduce royal household expenditure but was actually trying to reduce the number of Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber – an area of government he had no control over. He removed Henry’s Groom of the Stool, Sir William Compton, and replaced him with the more compliant Henry Norris. 

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

The establishment of royal supremacy

The problems in resolving ‘the King’s Great Matter’ led in short-term to the fall of Wolsey and the long-term establishment of royal supremacy. This was later brought about by Wolsey’s successor, Cromwell.  

The 'King's Great Matter'

Wolsey’s biggest challenge came in the late 1520s when Henry decided he needed a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. By the mid-1520s Henry was becoming dissatisfied with his marriage; Catherine, six years older than Henry, was past childbearing age. Princess Mary was the only child who survived so Henry was worried he would die without a male heir. He had become so desperate he considered legalising his ******* child, Henry Fitzroy. By 1527, Henry firmly wanted a divorce as he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn. Anne had made clear that she would not be Henry’s mistress so Henry needed Wolsey to secure a papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Wolsey tried three approaches to secure the divorce: 

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

1. Scriptural arguments

Wolsey drew up a complex line of argument based on the scriptures to justify the divorce in the Catholic Church. He argued that the validity of Catherine’s marriage relied on Catherine’s word that her marriage to his brother had never been consummated. In the Bible, it is a sin to be marriage to your brother’s wife: ‘If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity’. Many theologians believed that this was not the meaning of the scripture; it meant that it was a sin to marry your sister-in-law when your brother was still alive but after his death, you should marry your sister-in-law.  

2. Diplomatic manoeuvres

Wolsey then tried to attack Emperor Charles V, Catherine’s nephew who was unlikely to support a divorce and controlled Italy and the Pope. Wolsey used an alliance with France and the renewal of warfare with Italy to try to distract the Emperor and free the Pope from Charles’ influence. This failed because Charles was too strongly entrenched in Italy to be expelled by France.  

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

3. Legal efforts

Wolsey hoped to side-step the problem of Charles and the Pope by holding the divorce hearings in England and making a judgement as Papal Legate. But, the Pope sent Cardinal Campeggio to England with instructions to delay the hearing and make sure the decision was never reached. Campeggio was unwell, it took months for him to reach England and then he wanted to do everything thoroughly – Wolsey and Henry became impatient. When the court finally met, Catherine refused to recognise the court as a foreigner and Catholic and appealed to the Pope to move the hearing to Rome. The Pope agreed and it became clear that Wolsey had run out of options.  

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

The fall of Wolsey

Henry had lost confidence in Wolsey by 1529 because: he had failed to secure Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon; he had failed to achieve Henry’s aims in foreign policy (England was marginalised and isolated); the Boleyn faction was hinting that Wolsey was delaying a divorce; his reputation and personal ambitions.

Although Wolsey’s fall was sudden, it was not entirely unexpected. He was unpopular for forcing and imposing the 1523 subsidy through Parliament and the Amicable Grant. Former associates had been distancing themselves from him. In October 1529, he was charged with praemunire – working in the interests of the Pope rather than the King and his position as Papal Legate was used against him. Wolsey believed that the King had been influenced by the Anne Boleyn’s supporters at court – there is evidence that Wolsey had been losing control of the court in the late 1520s to Anne’s father, brother and other supporters. It was easy for them to portray Wolsey as a papal official who wasn’t really trying to obtain a divorce. In November 1530, he was arrested and he was soon to be tried for treason, but he died at Leicester Abbey before this could happen. 

The historiography of Wolsey: Contemporary judgements were hostile towards Wolsey; for many years, his standing amongst historians was poor. Recently, historians have described his positive qualities – John Guy depicts him as England’s most gifted administrator for over 300 years. Historians now agree that Henry was in charge but he recognised Wolsey’s huge abilities and often allowed him full control to carry out policies – Wolsey only had independent decision-making when Henry allowed it.  

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

Slow progress on Henry’s divorce, 1529-31 

Why was progress on Henry’s divorce so slow from 1529 to 1531? 

It was very complicated – divorcing a living wife had never been done before. Wolsey had tried and failed – he was replaced by a layman, Thomas More. More was quite different to Wolsey; Wolsey was a skilled politician whereas More was less keen to be pragmatic and do whatever Henry wanted, regardless of the Church and the authority of the Pope. But, his and the work of other ministers brought the goal of securing Henry’s divorce closer. 

Sir Thomas More as Chancellor 

An able scholar – he wrote books, like Utopia, which were popular with the King. He had a reputation for putting his principles before anything else – he had integrity. He held strong humanist beliefs, meaning that he believed in God but was more practical about God. He was critical of aspects of the Catholic Church but thought that the Church could be persuaded to reform rather than taking drastic action against the Church.  At court, More was sympathetic towards Catherine of Aragon due to the King’s treatment of her. He became concerned about the King’s willingness to support reformers as a way of obtaining a divorce – he had a selfish motive. Wolsey had acted flexibly in the interests of his master, whereas More was a man of rigid principles, especially in religious matters. More attacked Lutheran influences within the Church but found his work difficult due to the question of a royal divorce which Henry saw as a central issue.  

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

Domestic policies under Cromwell (1532-40)

  • After the fall of Wolsey, there was a period of conciliar government – only the emergence of Thomas Cromwell brought this to an end. 
  • Cromwell had advanced under Wolsey and rose swiftly after his death – due to his proposal that Henry could secure his marriage annulment by making a break from Rome and placing himself as head of an English Church. 
  • By 1532, he was the king’s chief minister – he never had the influence Wolsey had experienced, but he dominated royal government in the 1530s.  
  • Parliament’s role in government developed as the ‘Reformation Parliament’ was in session – it was called to deal with Wolsey but after his death, it became involved in the King’s divorce and the Church. 
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Government in Henry's early and middle years

The divorce from Catherine of Aragon and its impact on the Church

The divorce and the break from Rome were achieved through statute law (Acts of Parliament) – the supremacy over this over canon law (the law of the Church) was established.  

Exploiting weaknesses in the Church

Cromwell’s task was made easier by the fact that the Church had become weaker: 

  • Weakened by humanist criticisms of Colet and Erasmus  
  • The Church claimed that it had legal supremacy – in 1528 the lawyer St German had stated that English law was superior to canon law. This helped Cromwell’s parliamentary attack on the Church. 
  • Thomas Cranmer and Edward Foxe had complied the Collectanea Satis Copiosa, a collection of historical documents which justified the King’s divorce based on legal and historical principles. 
  • Henry had found expert opinions on his marital situation from some universities across the continent which supported his position. 
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Government in Henry's early and middle years

Pressurising the Pope

Henry and Cromwell continued to put pressure on the Pope in several ways: 

  • 1531 – The clergy were collectively accused of praemunire and fined. This began a sustained attack on the clergy and forced them to acknowledge that the King was the Supreme head of the English Church. 
  • 1532 – Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates. This tried to increase pressure on the Pope by withholding the first year’s income from the office of bishop which the papacy had enjoyed. 
  • 1532 – House of Commons Supplication against the Ordinaries. Tried to increase anticlerical pressure in the House of Commons.
  • 1532 – Formal submission of the clergy to Henry VIII. Caused the resignation of More as Lord Chancellor. 
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Government in Henry's early and middle years

Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn

  • Anne Boleyn forced the issue of annulment – she now agreed to have sexual relations with Henry which meant that she could become pregnant, forcing Henry to take more decisive action. 
  • This would mean that both Henry and the authorities of the English Church would have to openly defy the Pope. This was made easier by the death of William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury. 
  • He was replaced by Archbishop Cranmer who would become the leader of the English Reformation – shows that Cranmer was more willing to defy the Pope than his predecessor. 
  • In December 1532, Anne became pregnant and they married in a secret ceremony in January 1933. According to the Catholic Church, the marriage was invalid.  
  • Archbishop Cranmer annulled Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage in May 1533 and Anne’s coronation followed.  
  • Her child was born legitimate according to English law, but it was a girl so Henry’s problem of succession was not solved.  
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Government in Henry's early and middle years

Acts of Parliament (1533-34)

From 1533 onwards Cromwell passed some measures to achieve the break from Rome and establish royal supremacy: 

  • The Act in Restraint of Appeals – drafted by Cromwell and was based on the evidence in the Collectanea. It declared that the monarch possessed imperial jurisdiction which was not subject to any foreign power (the Papacy) and appeals to Rome couldn’t be made regarding Church court decisions – Catherine couldn’t appeal to the Pope about her marriage annulment. 
  • The Act of Supremacy – gave legislative power to the royal supremacy and basically accomplished the break from Rome. 
  • The Act of Succession declared that: Henry’s marriage to Catherine was void; the succession should be vested in the children of his marriage to Anne Boleyn; declaring that Henry’s marriage to Anne was invalid was treason and an oath should be taken to affirm a person’s acceptance of the new marriage.
  • The Treason Act was tightened so that treason could be committed by the spoken word as well as by a deed or writing.  
  • The Act Annexing First Fruits and Tenths to the Crown - The Annates paid by a bishop to the Pope would now be paid to the king. This increased the financial burden on the clergy and strengthened the royal supremacy.
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Government in Henry's early and middle years

By 1534, the relationship between England and Rome had been smashed to pieces. Royal supremacy over the Church had been created - Henry now had control over the Church in England and religious policies would essentially be made on royal whim. The supremacy had come about largely by the use of the parliament, so Parliament's role as a law-making body had been strengthened. The most important religious policy after these acts was the dissolution of the monasteries which ensured that much of the Church's land was confiscated by the Crown. But, this only benefitted Henry in the short-term as much of the land was sold away, often below the market price, to raise money for the King's foreign policy.

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Government in Henry's early and middle years

The fall of Anne Boleyn

  • Anne was a keen advocate of Church reform and was a clear driving force pushing Henry towards Protestantism. 
  • She had always interfered in political affairs but had always had Cromwell’s backing. 
  • Cromwell had promised Henry a boy but Anne gave birth to a girl, causing relations between Anne and Cromwell to publicly break down. Cromwell now saw his position as insecure and believed his relationship with the King and his life were under threat. 
  • Cromwell started to ally himself with the conservatives who disliked the Queen. They convinced Henry that Anne’s flirtatious manner had led to adultery. Anne’s position was made more vulnerable when Catherine of Aragon died; in the eyes of Catholics, Henry was now a widower and could remarry. They spread rumours about Anne’s adultery. 
  • Adultery for the wife of a monarch was treason – she was executed in 1536. Henry already had his eye on one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.  
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Government in Henry's early and middle years

The fall of Thomas Cromwell

  • By 1540, Cromwell’s influence was declining; the key catalyst was his failure to deal with the King’s marital affairs. 
  • In 1537, Jane Seymour died and Cromwell took this opportunity to try to reconcile Henry with the ‘League of Schmalkalden’ (an alliance of German princes who controlled free cities in the HRE and supported the reformer, Martin Luther) in order to secure the Reformation.  
  • To unionise Henry with this League, Cromwell arranged a marriage between Henry and the German Protestant princess Anne of Cleves.  
  • This was an unahppy partnership because: Henry found her incredibly unattractive and the marriage was not welcomed politically; the German princes didn’t want it and England didn’t either.
  • The marriage was annulled, destroying what remained of Cromwell’s credibility. 
  • This gave Cromwell’s enemies (led by the Duke of Norfolk) an opportunity to plot his downfall. The Duke of Norfolk presented Henry with his niece, Catherine Howard, who was incredibly beautiful. Cromwell was executed for treason in 1540 and Henry and Catherine Howard were married on the same day. 

The historiography of Thomas Cromwell
Many historians see Cromwell as a grubby and unprincipled operator who did the King’s dirty work. Geoffrey Elton argued in 1953 that he was the architect of Tudor government who transformed English government from amateurish and medieval to professional and modern. Few current historians accept this view. 

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Government in Henry's Last Years (1540-47)

  • The conservative revival of 1539 to 1540 caused a form of conciliar government to be restored in which there was a Privy Council with fixed membership, supported by a secretary who kept a record of proceedings. 
  • There are two interpretations of how much power Henry had. Firstly, there are those that contend that Henry was firmly in control. Secondly, some historians see Henry as essentially weak and that he often falls prey to the factions within his court. The power of influence upon his decisions seemed to be continually swayed by his marital issues.  
  • In 1540, power lay with the conservatives in the Council, like Norfolk, Gardiner and Thomas Wriothesley. 
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Government in Henry's Last Years (1540-47)

The execution of Catherine Howard and Henry's marriage to Katherine Parr

  • Norfolk sought the downfall of Cromwell and his own advancement of power when he presented Henry with his niece.  
  • He overlooked the fact that his niece was already sexually active and there were also allegations of an affair between Catherine and her distant cousin Thomas Culpepper. These allegations devastated Henry. 
  • Both Catherine and her Lady of the Bedchamber were executed. Norfolk managed to distance himself from this scandal but was still wounded politically. This was made worse by Henry’s choice to make Katherine Parr his wife. 
  • Katherine was a firm Protestant and shrewd, so posed a threat to Norfolk’s ambitions. He tried to embroil her in a plot of heresy but was unsuccessful. 

Political rivalries and the death of Henry VIII

Political rivalries intensified as the king's health began to deteriorate; who was most influential in the king's last months would be able to dominate his successor. In this battle between Norfolk and Edward Seymour, Seymour could play his card that he was the uncle of Edward, the male heir to the throne. Also, Norfolk's son Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, threatened the throne and was executed. The King agreed to Norfolk's death but he was not executed due to the king's death on 28th January 1547 and the new Council didn't want this, so Norfolk stayed a prisoner in the Tower for the whole of Edward VI's reign.  

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Great resource! Just a suggestion, you've made a typo page 5 for the Amicable Grant under the "Tudor Subsidy" section, should be 1526 not 1925!! :) 



Terrible and pontless



nothing to do with government 



This is an excellent resource. Love it!

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