The Structure of Government and the Role of Wolsey

  • How did Wolsey rise to power under Henry VIII?
  • How did Wolsey maintain his position?
  • Why did Wolsey fall from power in 1529?
  • Created by: alys
  • Created on: 10-01-13 09:09

How did Wolsey rise to power?

Wolsey was born to a butcher in 1473 in Ipswich. When he was 15 he got a 1st Degree from Oxford and went on to become a priest in 1498.

He became the Deane of Canterbury in 1502

Became chaplain of Henry VII in 1507

When Henry VII died in 1509 Wolsey took his chance and became Royal Almoner, being a new and more appealing member of government for the young Henry VIII. His policies were cautious and limited with little opportunies but ministers were aging.

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Wolsey- Circumstance and Positions

  • 1498: took holy orders
  • 1502: Chaplain to Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Brought to attention by Sir Richard Nanfan, lieutenant of Calais
  • 1507: Henry VII made him a chaplain
  • Used on small diplomatic missions to Scotland and the Netherlands
  • Chance: Death of Henry VII
  • 1509: Henry VIII's accession- Wolsey Royal Almoner. Secured a place on the Royal Council
  • Opportunity: Henry wanted to spend his time hunting and in music. Wolsey filled the space.
  • 1512-1513: Wolsey worked hard to organise an army of 12000 to invade France. Did this despite having advised against the war.
  • Wolsey wanted to do the dirty work. Henry's noblemen didn't.
  • Henry wanted him in power.
  • 1514: Bishop of Tournai and Lincoln, later Archbishop of York
  • 1515: Cardinal. Key Turning Point: Lord Chancellor.
  • 1518: Legate a Latere. Authority to reform the Church. Superior to Archbishop of Canterbury.
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How did Wolsey maintain power in the period 1515-1

  • Political relationship with Henry VIII- had to keep Henry's trust
  • Wealth and power
  • Ruthlessness
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Wolsey's Political Relationship with Henry

The key to Wolsey's progress was gaining the trust of the king. After the 1513 French Invasion, Henry trusted Wolsey completely. Wolsey also realised that he had to serve the king loyally and efficiently.

Traditionally, historians view Wolsey as the Alter Rex, the second king, a man with power at court, Henry VIII having limited role in government. Wolsey is master, Henry is Puppet.

Modern assessments of their relationship differ from the traditional view. Modern historians argue that the relationship between the two was nothing more than a political one. Wolsey was an adviser to Henry, but the final decision always rested with the King. Wolsey's downfall was more due to the ego of Henry than his own mistakes.

There were numerous disagreements between the two (appointment of a Wilton Abbess, 1528 & Amicable Grant, 1525. Also failure to solve the Great Matter) but their relationship lasted so long because Wolsey served Henry loyally and efficiently. 

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Explaining Wolsey- Sources and Issues

Assessing Wolsey is difficult due to lack of sources. He did not leave a private archive- few letters and no diaries. Relying on contemporary comments means we have to deal with negative comments from enemies and excessive praise from his friends. 

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How Successful were Wolsey's Domestic Policies?

Some people blamed Wolsey for failing to reform at home. This is not justified because:

  • 16th Century people did not want or expect reform
  • Henry VIII craved foreign glory
  • Aspects of domestiv policy were important to foreign policy (Eg, efficient tax collection and a stable domestic government.

One criticism of Wolsey is that he was too energetic. He was involved in everything. However he took on too much domestic administration, leading to:

  • A backlog of cases in the Court of Star Chamber by 1529
  • Unfinished plans for reform
  • No lasting institutional reform

His passion for work actually made him inefficient.

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Wolsey's Domestic Policies


  • Wolsey became Lord Chancellor in 1515. He also became Cardinal and presided over the Court of Star Chamber, which dealt with people's general issues and individual crimes.
  • Wolsey brought greater justice to the system by helping the poorer people with their issues, instead of favouring those with money.
  • However Wolsey's dealings were not necessarily just because he in fact favoured the poorer people and targeted the nobility. As he came from a poor background, he despised the nobility and used this position for revenge.


  • This is when public land was fenced off for private use such as profitable sheep rearing. It was said to cause poverty and depopulation- flocks of sheep replaced villages
  • Solution: Wolsey launched a national enquiry into enclosure in 1517. Many brought to court had to rebuild houses and return land to arable farming. 260 were brought before the court. This was remarkable as usually few people appeared
  • Success? Failure in the long term- enclosure continued
  • Wolsey more unpopular
  • 1523: Wolsey had to accept all existing enclosures
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Domestic Policies (continued)

Finances: Fifteenths and Tenths and Reform- the Subsidy

Both and fifteenths and tenths and subsidy existed side by side, but the subsidy was Wolsey's greatest financial achievement.

Wolsey favoured the subsidy because...

  • Rejected the fixed rates of fifteenths and tenths. The subsidy was more flexible and based on ability to pay.
  • The new system accurately reflected the true wealth of English Taxpayers: graduated rates of tax placed a bigger financial burden on the rich.
  • Effectively administered: comminsioners were sent to localities to supervise assessments of wealth
  • It raised more money: it was more efficient and more progressive

Between 1513 and 1516 15ths and 10ths raised £90,000 but the subsidy raised £170,000

From 1513 to 1529 Wolsey raised £325,000 in parliamentary subsidies, £118,000 from 15ths and 10ths and £250,000 in loans.

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The Success of Wolsey's Fiscal Policies between 15

Finance caused problems between Henry VIII and Parliament

1523: Wolsey demanded £800,000 in taxation from Parliament:
Problem: loans previously demanded were still being collected amounting to £260,000
Problem: Wolsey was far too brusque with parliament

Result: Opposition 

Wolsey had to accept far less because his fiscal policies caused ruling class hostility. This was seen in the last payments between 1523 & 1525

Problem: Wolsey was placed in the difficult position of accounting for money that has not been paid; this affected expenditure; he could not spend what he did not have.

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The Amicable Grant, 1525

The Situation

The Battle of Pavia: the French army was annihilated. Francis I was held captive by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emporer. Henry saw this as an opportunity to see France available for invasion.

Problem: the coffers were empty
Solution: non-parliamentary tax called the Amicable Grant. Targeted clergy and laity on a sliding scale
Problem: too soon after forced loans and parliamentary taxes of 1523-25

Bigger Problem:

  • Refusal to pay: rebellion erupted across Suffolk and East Anglia
  • 10,000 men marches on Lavenham, highlighting exten and intensity of the oppostion
  • Popular Rebellion

Consquences: The grant was abandoned in May of 1525. Wolsey raised no new taxes after this and Henry began to doubt Wolsey. Wolsey then allied with France because he could not fight them- should have sided with Charles.

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Did Wolsey Carry Out Meaningful Reform?

Hunne Affair

Church being accused of making up charges of heresy murdering a wealthy merchant and convicting him of heresy after his death in order to seize his property. Helped the growth of anti-clericalism and allowed the Catholic Church to cruble under Henry's later attacks.

  • Not true- most remained loyal to the Church
  • However within London the affair did have a big negative impact- temporarily. Reinforced Wolsey's view that parliaments were more trouble than they were worth- another was not called until 1523.

Friar Henry Standish's Attack on the Benefit of the Clergy

The benefit of the clergy allowed the clergy to be tried in more lenient ecclesiastical courts rather than tougher secular courts. Wolsey had to swear to Henry personally that royal authority was superiour to ecclesiastical power. The anti-clericalism generated in 1515 probably accounts for not holding another parliament until 1523. Wolsey had to call it then to get money for Henry's foreign policy. He also had to compromise over enclosure to get the extra cash.

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Did Wolsey Carry Out Meaningful Reform? cont

Ecclesiastical Extravagence

Wolsey did exploit his position to secure his wealth. As Legate a Latere he was able to set up probate courts (church courts dealing with laymen's wills) whose fees enhanced his wealth.

Wolsey let everyone know that he was fabulously rich; Hampton Court sparkled, but then there were his plans for Ipswich School and Cardinal College. Unsuprisingly, such display caused jealousy and resentment and added to anti-clerical feeling.

Wolsey, as Lord Chancellor, Archbishop of York and Cardinal, had great legal, political and ecclesiastical power; but such power brought with it real administrative problems and trouble.

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Why did Wolsey Fall from Power?

The Traditional View of Wolsey:

Wolsey is seen as an unpopularr royal favourite always fighting to retain his hold over the king. The hostile nobility gained revenge on Wolsey when he lost the king's favour over the divorce. The traditional view is that there was a long-term conspiracy against Wolsey that became very obvious during 1528-29. This suggests that Henry was quite weak and easily manipulated by Wolsey and others.

The Revisionist View of Wolsey:

This plays down his unpopularity at court. Gwyn (who has a 'rosy' view of Wolsey) did not try to alienate the nobility or directly harm ambitious young men in order to preserve his influence over the king. He argues that Wolsey was too capable a polititian to offend anyone needlessly and so create enemies. There was no long-term standing conspiratorial group- only a short-term opportunist faction led by the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. They acted on Henry's dissatisfaction with Wolsey over the Great Matter.

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