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Thomas Wolsey

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Wolsey, THOMAS, Cardinal, Archbishop of York, b. at Ipswich, the usually accepted date, 1471, being probably three or four years too early; d. at Leicester Abbey, November 29, 1530. His father, Robert Wulcy (or Wolsey), was a man of substance, owning property in Ipswich, but it is not known that he was a butcher as commonly reported. The cardinal himself always wrote his name as “Wulcy”. He was educated at Oxford, where he took his degree at the age of fifteen, winning the title “the boy bachelor”. About 1497 he was elected fellow of Magdalen, and after becoming M.A. was appointed master of the adjoining school. The father of three of his pupils, the Marquis of Dorset, presented him the rectory of Limington in Somerset in October, 1500. He had been ordained priest at Marlborough (March 10, 1498) by the suffragan of the Bishop of Salisbury. He also received other benefices, and became one of the domestic chaplains to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Dean. On the archbishop’s death (1503) he became chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, who, perceiving his remarkable talent for administration, entrusted him with his financial affairs and introduced him to the notice of King Henry VII. When Sir Richard died in 1507 Wolsey became one of the court chaplains, and was befriended by the influential Bishop of Winchester, Richard Fox. He shortly acquired the livings of Redgrave in Suffolk (1506) and Lydd in Sussex (1508), and about this time the king began to employ him in the diplomatic service; it was probably then that he made the well-known journey into Flanders and back as special envoy to the Emperor Maximilian with such rapidity that when he returned on the third day the king, believing he had not yet started, rebuked him for remissness. As Master of the Rolls his grasp of practical affairs enabled him to initiate reforms which greatly accelerated the business of the Court. On February 2, 1509, he was made dean of Lincoln, and on the accession of Henry VIII, which happened shortly after, he received an assurance of the continuance of royal favor in his appointment as almoner. During the next year he supplicated for the degrees of B.D. and D.D., and obtained the additional livings of St. Bride’s, Fleet Street, London, and Torrington in Devonshire, as well as a prebend in Hereford cathedral. On February 17, 1511, he became a canon of Windsor and soon after registrar to the Order of the Garter.

By 1512 he was exercising marked influence in political affairs and his share in the royal favor was already attracting the dislike of the old nobility. In foreign and domestic business alike the king followed his counsel and daily entrusted more power to his hands. Fresh preferment continued to pour in on him. He became successively dean of Hereford (1512), dean of York (1513), dean of St. Stephen’s, Westminster, and precentor of London. He began to keep some state and when he accompanied the king to France in June, 1513, he was followed by a train of two hundred gentlemen. He was present through Henry’s successful campaign, and at the king’s request the pope named him Bishop of Tour-nay; but he never obtained possession and later on surrendered his claim to the bishopric for an annual pension. Instead he was appointed Bishop of Lincoln the papal bulls being dated February 6, 1514, and he was consecrated at Lambeth palace on March 26. In the following September he succeeded Cardinal Bainbridge as Archbishop of York, and on September 10, 1515, was created cardinal with the title “S. Caecilia trans Tiberim”, receiving the hat in Westminster Abbey on November 18. A month later (December 24) he became Lord Chancellor of England, and had thus attained at the early age of forty or thereabouts the highest dignities, spiritual and temporal, that a subject could hope for. His power with the king was so great that the Venetian Ambassador said he now might be called “Ipse rex” (the king himself).

Of Wolsey’s foreign policy only the main lines can be indicated. His first efforts were to lead the king back to his father’s policy of an alliance with France in opposition to Ferdinand of Spain and the Emperor Maximilian. But the French conquest of Milan at the battle of Marignano in 1515 checked this scheme, and led Wolsey to make new treaties with Maximilian and Ferdinand. After Ferdinand’s death the cardinal’s policy entered on a new phase, calculated to meet the entirely new situation. Ferdinand’s successor, Charles V, now held Spain, the Indies, Sicily, Naples, and the Netherlands with reversion of the duchy of Austria. Rivalry between the two young monarchs, Francis and Charles, thus became inevitable, and Wolsey saw the advantage which England would derive from the sense each had of the value of the English alliance. At this time the pope was endeavoring to raise a crusade against the Turks, and Wolsey adroitly succeeded in effecting a universal peace to which the pope and emperor as well as Francis and Charles were parties. Under cover of this peace Wolsey pushed forward his favorite policy of alliance with France. A treaty with France was carried through by the cardinal himself and the other councillors were only called in to approve what had already been settled.

But in January, 1519, the situation was again changed by the death of the Emperor Maximilian and the consequent contest for the imperial crown. When Charles was duly elected emperor the rivalry between the houses of Habsburg and Valois was accentuated. Instead of three powers—Maximilian, Francis, and Charles—Wolsey had now only two to reckon with and to play off against each other. He determined on a policy of neutrality with the view of giving England the decisive power in guiding the destinies of Europe. Meetings between Henry and both the rival monarchs took place; he met Charles at Canterbury and Francis at the celebrated Field of the Cloth of Gold. But a second meeting with the emperor followed immediately and Henry’s personal predilections were in favor of an alliance with him rather than with France. Still Wolsey persuaded the king that the neutral policy was the most profitable, especially when war actually broke out. Both parties to the war were soon willing to accept England‘s mediation, and Wolsey conducted a long conference during which his conduct was more diplomatic than honest, and before the conference was over he signed a secret treaty with the emperor which provided for an offensive and defensive alliance against France. This was a new policy for him to adopt, and it is clear that in this treaty his own wishes were overborne by Henry’s desire for a new war with France, and it was not till two abortive campaigns had disillusioned the king that Wolsey was again able to resort to diplomatic measures. This treaty with the emperor was, however, of importance in Wolsey’s own life as it opened up the way for his possible election to the papacy.

The death of Leo X (December 2, 1521) gave the emperor an opportunity of exercising his influence in Wolsey’s favor as he had promised, but the imperial influence was not in fact brought to bear and Wolsey received very few votes. During the year 1522 the alliance with the emperor continued, and Wolsey was occupied in raising large sums of money for the proposed war against France, becoming thereby still more unpopular with the nation. The new pope, Adrian VI, died on September 14, 1523, and again Wolsey was a candidate for the papacy. The English ambassadors at Rome were confident that the united influence of Charles and Henry would secure his election, but again Charles deceived him and Clement VII was chosen. The new pope not only confirmed his legateship for life, but gave him the Bishopric of Durham in addition to his Archbishopric of York. Upon this Wolsey resigned the See of Bath and Wells which he had held in commendam since 1518. It does not seem that Wolsey personally was particularly anxious to become pope, though doubtless he would have accepted the position had he been chosen. On the election of Pope Clement he wrote, “For my part, as I take God to record, I am more joyous thereof than if it had fortuned upon my person”, and Anglican historians, such as Bishop Creighton and Dr. James Gairdner, accept this as representing his genuine feelings. The alliance with the emperor, which had always been against Wolsey’s better judgment, did not survive the events of 1523. Henry could not make war again for want of means and Charles now distrusted him; so Wolsey reverted to his original idea of alliance with France, but he was not able to do much until 1525, when the defeat and capture of Francis at the battle of Pavia made the dominant power of Charles a danger to all Europe. In face of this peril Henry reluctantly made a new treaty with Francis. It was a bold policy for Wolsey, for, having incurred the jealousy of the nobility by his power, he had aroused the hostility of the people by financial exactions, and he provoked the enmity of all by the extravagant pomp with which he surrounded himself on all his public appearances. He could rely only on the king’s favor, and he knew that to lose this was complete ruin. Just at this critical juncture the king raised the question of the divorce from Queen Katharine in order that he might marry Anne Boleyn. This personal matter “widened into unexpected issues and consumed Wolsey’s energies till it led to his fall” (Creighton, p. 150). Wolsey did not wish Henry to marry Anne, but he was not averse to ridding himself of Katharine’s adverse political influence, for her sympathy with her nephew the emperor caused her to dislike Wolsey’s French policy. So he lent himself to forward the king’s wishes. The first steps were taken in his own legatine court, apparently with the idea that if this tribunal pronounced against the validity of the king’s marriage the pope would confirm the sentence. But Katharine learned of the king’s plan and prepared to defend her rights. As she could count on the sympathy of both pope and emperor the king despatched Wolsey to persuade the French king to bring sufficient pressure to bear on the pope to counteract the influence of Charles. The scheme was to deliver the pope from Charles V, who had sacked Rome, in the hope that Clement’s gratitude would induce him to favor the king with regard to the divorce.

The history of the divorce question has been treated of under the articles Pope Clement VII and Henry VIII; it will suffice here to note Wolsey’s attitude. When he returned to England he heard for the first time of Knight’s embassy to Rome, and thus learnt that he no longer enjoyed the king’s complete confidence. And though Anne Boleyn and the king, realizing that he might yet be useful, treated him with friendliness and consideration, he realized that in Anne he had a serious political rival. When the pope appointed Cardinal Campeggio to try the case in England with Wolsey, the English cardinal soon learnt that the matter was entirely in his colleague’s hands. All Campeggio’s efforts to avoid holding the trial at all having failed, the court sat at Blackfriars on June 18, 1529. Before this Anne Boleyn, regarding Wolsey as responsible for the long delay, had set herself to bring about his fall. The failure of the trial rendered this possible, and during August and September he was kept at a distance from the Court and was known to be in disgrace. In November a bill of indictment was preferred against him, and on November 19 he had to surrender the great seal of England. On November 22 he was forced to sign a deed confessing that he had incurred a praemunire and surrendering all his vast possessions to the king. On November 30 judgment was given that he should be out of the king’s possession and should forfeit all his lands and goods. He remained at Esher through the winter, disgraced, though not without occasional messages of kindness from the king. His health, which had been bad for many years, now failed seriously. In February he received a general pardon, and the possessions of his archbishopric were restored to him, except York House, which he had to convey to the king. He was then allowed to retire to York, where he spent the last six months of his life in devotion and a sincere effort to do his duty as a bishop. Though he had been worldly and his private life had not been stainless, he had always been a Catholic. His last days were embittered by the news that the king intended to suppress the two colleges, at Ipswich and Oxford, which he had founded with such care. The former perished, but Christ’s College survived, though not in the completeness he had intended. He was in residence at Cawood near York, preparatory to being enthroned in York minster, when, on November 4, commissioners from the king came to arrest him on a charge of high treason. Slowly and as an invalid he travelled towards London, knowing well what to expect. “Master Kingston, I see the matter against me how it is framed; but if I had served God as diligently as I have done the king He would not have given me over in my gray hairs.” The end came at Leicester Abbey where on arrival he told the abbot, “I am come to leave my bones among you”.

He died unregretted by any save his immediate attendants, yet he had given his life unselfishly to the interests of his country, and no Englishman has ever surpassed him in the genius with which he directed both the foreign and domestic relations of England, so as to make each undertaking help his great design of making her the center of European politics. His foreign policy, though planned on great and heroic lines, was severely practical. Its object was to help English trade and to maintain peace, to secure union with Scotland, and to effect judicious ecclesiastical reforms. He looked for a European settlement of the difficulties that beset the Church and desired England to take the leading part therein. His failure was owing to the selfishness of Henry. The question of the divorce not only led to the fall of Wolsey, but withdrew England for generations from European politics and made her, not the leader that Wolsey had dreamed of, but a nation apart.


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