Wolsey and the Church

The state of the Church before the reformation, why it was so important for Henry VIII to secure his succession, the impact of the arrival of Anne Boleyn at court, why Wolsey fell from power.

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The condition of the Church

Before the Reformation in England, the Roman Catholic Church was the spiritual basis of daily living. The overwhelming majority of ordinary people worshipped without fundamental criticism of the Church. The Humanists wanted to see the Roman Catholic Church retained, but improved by the removal of abuses. Unlike the new Protestant faith that blieved the Roman Catholic Church had many flaws. They were known as heretics.

In the early days of Henry VIII's reign, the humanists were optimistic that the "proven abuses" in the Church would be addressed. John Colet and Sir Thomas More (1516 he wrote Utopia) wanted to cleanse the Church of its abuses and make it into a more effective institution by returning to true faith. The proven abuses are lack of knowledge from the lower clergy; financial abuse (indulgences); simony (buying or selling a Church office); nepotism (making church appointments to members of your own familly); church services relied on pomp and ceremony; religious houses were rich institutions that failed to use their wealth to support education and charitable purposes.

The most significant Protestant critic of the Church in England before 1529 was William Tyndale, a humanist and scholar. His impact was limited, not one memeber of the nobility became Lutheran, all noblemen remained loyal to the Catholic Church before 1529.

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Continuing support for the Roman Catholic Church

The Church had many loyal defenders during the years leading up to 1529 who followed public lead given by the King. Henry VIII's response to Luther's 95 Theses was to write a defence of the seven sacraments at the heart of the Catholic faith. The pope demonstrated gratitude and awarded him the title of Fidei Defensor (Defenfer of the Faith). Further evidence that Catholicism was flourishing in the 1520s was the way in which ordinary citizens were leaving sums of money to religious causes ranging from Church building to private masses. The chuch was fixed in the heart of local communities providing protection against evil and the way to salvation, services from baptism to the Last Rites, and eduction. The Richard Hunne case outrged public opinion in London, however it does not show that England was ripe for religious reformation. The anticlerical ideas were localised in urban communities with higher number of educated people that had access to new Protestant ideas from Europe. Many humanists were optimistic that Wolsey would introduce effective church reforms in the spirit of Erasmus. In 1519, he announced he would summon a legatine Counsel to overhaul the Church. Wolsey planned to reform the lifestyle of the regular clergy and set up 13 new English bishoprics. Far from reforming the Church, the Papal legate actually undermined it by paving the way for dissolution of the monastries (Thomas Cromwell's policy 1536). Between 1524 and 1529, he dissolved 30 religious houses to found new colleges at Ipswich and Oxford.

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The King's "Great Matter"

The first duty of royal marriage was to secure the succession. Catherine of Aragon had several miscarriages, and one surviving daughter, Princess Mary born in 1516. By 1527, Henry VIII had an acute succession problem and had decided he needed to annul his marriage to Cathrine of Aragon. He had no prospect of a legitimate son because Catherine was 42 yas old. Henry had an illegitimate son, Henry duke of Richmond, by mistress Bessie Blount; but no legitimate son to secure the Tudor accession. There was no precedent for a female ruler in England. His marriage to Catherine of Aragon now had less political value than in 1509 because the Spanish-Imperial alliance had been replaced after 1525 with pro-French foreign relations. Wolsey drew up the League of Cognac 1526 as anti-imperialist stance after Charles V's sweeping victory over France at the Batlle of Pavia.

In the meantime, Henry had become infatuated with Anne Boleyn who coyly refused to become his mistress. After returning from France, she was a highly-skilled courtier.

Henry interpreted the absence of a male heir as God's intervention. He became convinced that by marrying Catherine of Aragon he had broken the law of God from the Old testament and that Pope Julius II had been incorect to give the 1509 dispensation.

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The King's "Great Matter"

Henry VIII an accomplished Biblical scholar found a passage in the book of Laviticus ( Leviticus 20:21- "If a man marries his brother's wife, they will die childless.") that confirmed his judgement. Henry recruited Richard Wakefield the reader in Hebrew at Oxford University, to give his opinion on the passage. Wakefield advised that "chidless" meant "male childless" in Hebrew texts. However verses in Deuteronomy contradicts Leviticus, saying that a man had the duty to marry his dead brother's wife.

Once Henry decided to proceed with the annulment, known as the great matter, he presumed that swift success was guaranteed. He consulted his chief minister, then asked him to liaise with the Pope and secure the annulment. Wolsey told the King it was ver straightforward, that the Pope hadto declare the dispensation as invalid and that there were many precedents for such an annulment. The Pope owed Henry a favour for his interventionand defence against Luther. This decision is a watershed in the reign of Henry VIII. Wolsey made the Great Matter public in May 1527 when he summoned Henry to appear before a stage-managed legatine court to address issues concerning the salvation of the royal soul. The search for annulment was now firmly in the public opinion.

Catherine of Aragon was a devout Catholic and opposed the annulment from the start, for

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The King's "Great Matter"

Her daughter would be declared as illegitimate and herself as a royal mistress. Her overt, sustained opposition (backed by the argument that she was a virgin when she married Henry VIII) was a key reason for Henry's failureto secure the annulment and Wolsey's ultimate fall. Catherine was popular in England, and was seen as the victim of Henry's lust. Their marriage had been happy and politically successful, therefore she came to beleive that her husband's eyes were being filled with evil thoughts and ill-advised by his advisors especially Wolsey. Many at court, jealous, shared her judgement. There were other reasons for his failure to secure the annulment. Henry VIII had been undiplomatic in asking the Pope to agree that the previous Pope had acted illegally. More importantly the Pope was not free to make such decisions because he was a prisoner of Charles V (Catherine's nephew). Wolsey realised he had to rely on a succession of individual missions to Rome by William Knight, Stephen Gardiner and Edward Foxe. These proved ineffective because they did not understand the intricacies of papal politics. In 1528, there was intense activity and speculation over the annulment. The King's frustration grew especially when an outbreak of sweating sickness caused the King to flee the capital. The Pope breifly escaped from Charles V, during that time he sent Cardinal Campeggio to hear the case for annulment. Wolsey and the King realised they were only playing for time. Henry then tried to persuade Catherine to enter a nunnery. Catherine refused to contemplate such a resolution.

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The King's "Great Matter" (final part)

On the 18th July, Pope clement recalled the case to Rome. As proceedings went against the King and his minister, so their foreign policy unravelled. On 5th August 1529 France made peace with the Holy Roman Emperor at Cambrai so ending any slight hope Wolsey nursed of being able to influence the Pope.

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