The Role of Wolsey and Domestic Policies

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Wolsey's Rise to Power

  • Born the son of a lowly butcher in Ipswich in 1473
  • Got a 1st Degree at Oxfird University when he was 15
  • Ordained as a priest in 1498
  • Became Chaplain to Deane, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1502
  • Became Henry VII's Chaplain in 1507
  • He stood out as an effective and efficient administrator
  • When Henry VIII came to power in 1509, he was surrounded by old councillors, who he viewed as his father's men rather than his own. They wanted to follow the same policies that had characterised the reign of Henry VII.
  • Wolsey became Royal Almoner in 1509, which automatically made him a member of the Royal Council.
  • Wolsey worked exceptionally hard over 1512-1513 in organising the expeditionary force to invade France - ensured that the logistics of this complex campaign ran smoothly, allowing an English army of over 12,000 to set sail for Gascony.
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Wolsey's Rise to Power

Over the next years Wolsey was rewarded with multiple offices and titles:

  • 1514 he bacame Bishop of Tournai and of Lincoln
  • Later that year he was made Archbishop of York
  • In September 1515 he became a Cardinal
  • Later in 1515 Henry appointed him Lord Chancellor, the top political position in the royal government

1515 was a key turning point for Wolsey because now he actually held the senior office of state, making it very difficult for other nobles to challenge his decisions.

Being made into a Cardinal also bolstered his power over the Church, although William Warham remained Archbishop of Canterbury and technically the most powerful churchman in England.

In 1518, Wolsey was appointed Legate a latere by the Pope, giving him authority to reform the Church and appoint to benefices. He was now the most powerful man in England.

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Luck or Skill?

Wolsey had been the right man for Henry at the right time and in this respect he was fortunate. Henry VIII grew tired of the inner council made up of his father's men and was on the outlook for someone who could represent his interests and carry out the everyday paperwork of state. Wolsey was that man. He was also willing and able to carry out duties that he knew the King could not be bothered with.

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Wolsey's Political Relationship with Henry

  • Traditional historians view Wolsey as the Alter Rex (second King). This suggests that Wolsey held real power at court, and almost resigns Henry to a passive role within government.
  • Recent historians challenge this, arguing the relationship between Henry and Wolsey was one of political partnership. Henry may have been willing to give Wolsey space and latitude in the early years when the King's attentions were turning to hunting and feasting, but even here the King always made the final decision on key issues.

Henry and Wolsey did not always see eye-to-eye:

  • 1522 when Wolsey proposed a surprise attack on the French navy but Henry thought the plan foolhardy
  • 1528 the appointment of an abbess to the nunnery as Wilton in Wiltshire. Wolsey ignored Henry's instructions regarding who should get the post and was forced to make a grovelling apology.

Cracks began to appear in the relationship from 1525 over the Amicable Grant crisis.

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Wolsey's Wealth

  • Wolsey's enormous wealth served to further his political power and create both awe and envy among other courtiers.
  • Other nobles and councillors could be in no doubt as to Wolsey's pre-eminence in the Henrician government if they visited Hampton Court. His household numbered 500, which was the same as Henry's, while the furnishings and clothes on display were the rival of any royal court.
  • Whenever Wolsey left his palace, he did so as a churchman on his mule but in the midst of  a large and lavishly decked out cavalcade of servants and guards.

Wolsey had the largest disposable income in England, and he was probably 10 times richer than his nearest political rival. His income came from various sources:

  • Multiple bishoprics such as York, Tournai, Bath and Wells, Durham and Winchester contributed to around half of Wolsey's income. Wolsey also became Abbot of St Albans in 1525, which was the richest monastery in England.
  • A large amount came from fees that Wolsey charged in his ecclesiastical courts as well as monetary gifts that he received from clients and patrons.
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  • 1517 - launched national enquiry into enclosed land
  • Enclosure and poverty continued to increase
  • Furthered unpopularity with higher classes
  • Forced to accept all exisiting encolsures 1523


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Star Chamber

  • Allowed anyone to bring their case before Wolsey
  • 120 cases a year
  • Enjoyed championing causes of poor against rich
  • Promoted civil law over common law
  • Natural justice over outdated and unjust

SUCCESS initially but not sustainable.

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Replace fifteenths and tenths with subsidy

  • Subsidy and fifteenths and tenths continued to exist together
  • 1513-1529 - £325,000 in parliamentry subsidies, £118,000 from fifteenths and tenths, loans totalling £250,000

Amicable Grant, 1525

  • Non-parliamentry tax
  • Target laity and clergy
  • Met with violent displeasure
  • 10,000 men marched on Lavenham
  • Abandoned May 1525


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Ecclesiastical Extravagance

  • incomparable wealth

Pluralism, Nepotism and Absenteeism

  • Widely criticised Wolsey
  • Only interested in exploiting the Church for his own wealth
  • Abuse nothing new

Monastic Reform

  • Visitations of monastic houses - inspections
  • Creation of 13 new episcopal sees (bishopric) based on dissolving monasteried

FAILURE because no one was happy with Wolsey, who was gaining lots of wealth, even though he was a man of the Church. He did defend the Church against the King, but weakened it.

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Deliberately kept ambitious courtiers away from Henry - exaggerated

  • Consulted leading nobles on important policy decisions

Purge of the Privy Chamber 1519

  • Expelling rising stars and giving them mundane jobs away from court

Eltham Ordinances 1526

  • Reducing Gentlemen of the Bedchamber from 12 to 6
  • "Cost cutting exercise"


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Polydore Vergil

Humanist Italian

Ongoing feud with Wolsey

  • Lack of favour in Henry VIII's new court - thought it was Wolsey's fault
  • Wanted to spurn Wolsey's hopes of becoming a Cardinal - wrote rude letters to Rome
  • Wolsey condemned Vergil to a spell in the Tower in 1515
  • Did not write nicely of Wolsey
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George Cavendish

Wolsey's house servant and first biographer

Wrote account 30 years after death of Wolsey

Only really useful for the period when Wolsey was cast out by the King

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John Skelton

Henry VII's poet laureate

Mocks Wolsey mercilessly

Writing in satirical nature (popular at time)

Must not take words at face value, moulded it to suit current concerns and play upon flaws and mishaps that occured

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Edward Hall

Contemporary historian

Not close to Wolsey and held no personal grudge

Clearly anti-clerical

Saw Wolsey as epitome of corruption and vice

FRANCOPHOBE - disapproving Wolsey's alliance with France in late 1520's

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