Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was an extremely dedicated and ardent administrator who held various important positions in Henry VII’s government and in the Roman Catholic Church in England, including Lord Chancellor and Papal Legate. His pluralism however, meant he had difficulty in fulfilling all of his ambitions due to a lack of time. Yet he was obviously a good manager of secular and religious affairs as he continued to stay as England’s second most powerful man for 15 years, which due to Henry VII’s fickle nature was a particularly arduous task. He was particularly criticised for his poor management of the Church as he was in a very rare situation in terms of ecclesiastical power and was in one of the best positions to reform the Church. His domestic policy did not receive as much criticism as contemporaries did not expect him to be a reformer and generally he kept peace and order.
Thomas Wolsey was made Archbishop of York in 1514 and then a Cardinal in 1515. This made him a powerful and influential figure in the Church but when he became a Papal Legate in 1518 he became the most important clergyman in England and then in 1524 he was unusually made Papal Legate for life. This combination of positions gave him absolute control of the Church within England and he could only be overruled in English church affairs by the Pope himself. Rather than taking advantage though of this position in order to run the Church efficiently and also to reform it if necessary, Wolsey was corrupt and used his position to increase his personal wealth. It cannot be said however that Wolsey did not have any good intentions in terms of his administration of the Church as he did have plans for its reform; they were just never implemented due to various reasons including his lack of time to dedicate to them, primarily as a result of his pluralism. It could be argued that he only issued plans to portray his desire to improve the efficiency of the Church.
Firstly, Wolsey was successful in his administration of the Church for a number of reasons; the main success and useful reform that was partially implemented was the re-organisation of the dioceses to correspond with population levels. Wolsey made an effort to make sure that the Church served Henry’s interests, though only up until Henry’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Furthermore, he did dissolve some monasteries in order to build a college at Oxford and a school at Ipswich although there is also a negative point regarding this. Finally, in addition he made attempts to try and keep English control of Irish dioceses by appointing English clergyman to position there.
There are a larger amount of negative points about Wolsey’s administration of the Church. Firstly his pluralism was exemplified by the amount of bishoprics and abbotships he controlled which he never visited and only controlled for financial purposes. This included York, which he was Archbishop of for 15 years and did not go there once. He also interfered in many clerical affairs, in order to increase his wealth and influence, including appointments and elections of clergy. He decided to introduce an inheritance tax on wills. He kept bishoprics vacant and took the income from them and he also forced some clergyman to pay him a tribute including the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham. He also appointed friends to bishoprics including foreigners as favours although this was a common practise in Europe at the time.
His attempt to reform monastic constitutions was just the re-issuing of old documents. He did not fully implement his plans to reform the dioceses. His building of the college at Oxford and school at Ipswich has been criticised as self-aggrandisement and wishing to leave a permanent mark of his power in England.
It must be mentioned though that a significant proportion of the clerical taxes Wolsey raised went to Henry’s coffers and some historians argue that Henry wanted Wolsey to be Cardinal and Papal Legate so that ecclesiastical administration would be in line with Henry’s political policy.
In summary he did not run the Church in an efficient method but instead to increase his personal wealth and he blackened the image of what is supposed to be a divine institution. As well as being a corrupt administrator of the Church he did not implement many reforms he promised although he was in an excellent position to be able to implement them and his positive achievements are relatively minor.
Wolsey’s domestic policy is another subject of dispute among historians with G. R. Elton saying “He left no achievement of great note” and that his ascendancy “proved essentially sterile” while others including John Guy have not been so quick as to discredit Wolsey’s domestic management.
Wolsey’s main positive accomplishments included his taxation and ability to raise money for Henry’s never ending spending. He was able to raise nearly one million pounds for the King by using a variety of methods including the very successful land subsidy he implemented four times, clerical taxation, “loans” and the old tax of fifteenths and tenths. Unfortunately as is the case with so many of Wolsey’s achievements there is a negative reverse side to them. The loans he extracted from various people were supposed to be repaid but they never were and this increased resentment against taxation from people.
This was also strengthened by the amount people had to pay from the land subsidy. In 1525 there was a taxation disaster named the Amicable Grant, which due to the high amount of forced tax it implemented, caused unrest and revolt in various areas of England and which Henry had to apologise for and blamed Wolsey for. Also Wolsey was not particularly successful in attaining the sums of money Henry wanted for his invasions of France from Parliament. Although criticism of Wolsey cannot be too harsh as it is the pressure of Henry’s continual costly desire to attack France that led to him designing the Amicable Grant and also in being forced to request grants from Parliament that he knew would not be possible. Wolsey did a successful job in fiscal management but was never able to make the Crown run at a profit because of Henry’s restarting of offensive campaigns against France.
Secondly Wolsey introduced a scheme he named “Impartial Justice”. This he did by increasing the prominence of Equity law over Common law as it was more efficient, did not favour the rich as much, was cheaper, more flexible and did not produce scenarios where guilty defendants would be left on the technicalities of precedents. Wolsey increased the number of cases in prerogative courts, which used Equity law, particularly the Court of Star Chamber where the number of cases per annum increased by 1000% during Wolsey’s tenure as Lord Chancellor. Wolsey also set up the Court of Requests which was a court particularly common among poor members of the population as it was cheaper for them to take their case there. Wolsey himself regularly sat as a judge in these courts and he did make sure that the nobility were punished and that the lower classes received better justice.
This was partly due to Wolsey’s own roots as a son of a butcher and also because of his dislike of the nobility. This dislike though led him sometimes to be excessive in his punishment of nobles. Wolsey also made sure if the cases involved him though that they went to his favour so therefore he was not always impartial in his judgement. Also the prerogative courts were not able to handle the increased workload and became clogged up and slowed down therefore losing the advantage they had over common law courts. Wolsey also alienated a large number of Common law lawyers by decreasing their business. In the end although Wolsey did improve the legal system for a while it was not a long term improvement and he set up no measures for the new system to continue after his lifetime.
Wolsey’s attack on enclosures is also touted as another show of his protection of the poor. Wolsey instigated commissions to investigate the problems of enclosures which were not legal. They ended in bringing 222 cases to the courts against offending landlords of which 182 were successful and many land owners were punished mainly by fining. This did give Wolsey support from the farmers who had lost jobs due to enclosure and it increased the nobility’s antipathy of Wolsey. If this was the end of the matter then it would have been very successful but in fact Wolsey’s concern for the poor was shown to not be very strong as when Henry required money in 1523 for a campaign in France Wolsey agreed to reverse his policy and to absolve guilty landlords so that he was able to raise a subsidy of ï¿½151,215 from Parliament.
Wolsey’s other main triumph domestically was to retain power for so long. He was able to do this by keeping other councillors’ and nobles’ access to Henry limited and making sure that he had control of the day to day government. He sabotage plans such as the Eltham Ordnance by drawing up the plan at the wish of Henry to reform his household but then making sure it never progressed into implementation as it would have decreased his monopoly of access to Henry. Wolsey also made sure that he gave Henry the credit for successful policies and took the blame for those that were not as productive.
Again Wolsey suffered from a combination of a lack of perseverance and time in pursuing his domestic policies as he did suggest political reforms which would have been quite useful in 1519 and 1525 but they were not implemented.
In general Wolsey’s domestic administration was more successful than that of ecclesiastical affairs. The degree by which it was more productive is not particularly large though as Wolsey’s domestic policy was not particularly groundbreaking or spectacular. Wolsey was a keen and proficient administrator domestically and he was mainly expected to keep law and order and the status quo which he was relatively successful. The only major unrest was caused by the Amicable Grant which Wolsey was forced to try because of Henry’s intense wish to attack France. This is unfortunately a major problem for Wolsey as he was not given the free reign that A. F. Pollard describes, of having “prime-ministerial” powers, all the time and some of his unpopular decisions were because of Henry’s fervour for war. Wolsey’s domestic policy was also dominated by a desire to keep power to himself and make sure the nobles understood he could punish them and they could not hurt him, which they were not able to do until Anne Boleyn’s faction succeeded in bringing about Wolsey’s downfall in 1529.
Wolsey was guilty as well of taking advantage of his secular power in increasing his income by making sure nobles gave him “gifts” but to a lesser extent than in the Church as there he could implement new taxes for himself which he could not do in the secular realm. This in a way shows less corruptness on his part domestically than ecclesiastically.
Wolsey has been more harshly criticised for his failure to reform the Church and his blatant profiteering there than in his domestic administration which was relatively successful in a short term point of view but made no major long term mark on history.