Sunday, 5 April 2015


                                     Died, beheaded, beheaded
                                     Self-slaughtered, burned, survived

It was as dangerous to be chief adviser to Henry VIII as it was to be married to him. Of the six men who served in this capacity only one avoided an unpleasant death and he came within a few hours of sharing the fate of the others. For this king loyalty was a one-way street. He was insanely profligate with talented servants and this makes the chronicle of the Six Thomases more revelatory of the second Tudor's reign than the well-worn, over romanticised saga of the Six Queens. Join me over the next few Mondays as I retell a truly appalling story.

1. Thomas Wolsey - The Unkindest Cut 

When the 17 year-old Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509 the 36 year-old Thomas Wolsey was well established as one of the minor denizens of the court. He was a royal chaplain and had already come to the attention of the new king. Unlike the other close attendants of Henry's penny-pinching, pragmatic, killjoy of a father, Wolsey was an extrovert who loved life and the pleasures it had to offer. Henry, unconsciously seeking a replacement father figure but one who would support his passion for what a later, equally resplendent, monarch would call 'la gloire', lost little time in appointing Wolsey his almoner, with a seat on the Council. For his part, Wolsey had had plenty of opportunity to observe the fun-loving prince, the party animal, whose head was stuffed with images of Arthurian adventure. While his conciliar colleagues tut-tutted about young Henry's extravagant ambitions, Wolsey knew that the path to promotion was, as his biographer, George Cavendish pointed out, to 'satisfy the king's mind'. During the early 'Camelot' years of the reign Wolsey helped to set the tone of conspicuous consumption, assuming the role of benevolent, indulgent uncle to the king and his inner core of gallants. But Wolsey was very much more than an ambitious yes-man. He was an administrative genius, with a head for detail and a capacity for hard work. In 1515, after a 'cabinet reshuffle' had removed some of the greybeards from office, Wolsey was raised to the position of Lord Chancellor and in the same year he achieved international status as a cardinal.

For the first half of the reign king and minister worked together to make Henry's court a centre of Renaissance splendour competing with the capitals of rival monarchs and they elbowed their way into the decision-making councils of Europe. In 1518 it was Wolsey who presided over the international conference which agreed the Treaty of London. All this was no mean accomplishment. Lavish display was an important element of 16th century politics and diplomacy and Wolsey, like his master, was a natural theatrical extrovert who travelled in the utmost pomp, kept lavish court at York House and Hampton Court and staged magnificent events of which the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) was the most spectacular. Wolsey's enemies (of whom there were a growing number) were not slow to point out that his splendour rivalled the king's but Henry was not moved to jealousy. He regarded the cardinal's magnificence as a complement to his own - as long as it suited him. By the mid-1520s it no longer suited him.

The glory days were over. England's royal egotist was approaching middle age and problems were piling up. Years of extravagance had emptied his treasury. His wife had not provided him with a male heir and was now extremely unlikely to do so. He had been humiliated in diplomatic exchanges with the Emperor Charles V. Added to this was the beginning of religious unrest which would lead to the Reformation. Henry and his minister tried to solve the financial problems by imposing a new tax, euphemistically called the Amicable Grant (1526). The result? Riots, leading to a government climb-down. Protestors  could not blame the king (that would have been treason), so they blamed Wolsey. On the heels of this unpleasantness came the king's Great Matter. In the effort to gain a papal annulment of Henry's marriage, Wolsey - royal councillor and Catholic cardinal - was caught in the middle. There is no need to rehearse again the protracted negotiations which led, eventually, to the break with Rome. The important point for Wolsey was that he had failed to 'satisfy the king's mind'.

In the breaking of Wolsey we observe for the first time that ruthlessness and ingratitude Henry displayed in disposing of people who deserved better of him. First of all, he embraced public opinion. Under normal circumstances the king cared not a whit what anyone thought of his policies but when it suited him he could 'discover' and 'share' the discontent of his people. Wolsey was the butt of alehouse jokes up and down the country. Religious tracts published abroad denounced him as the symbol of all that was wrong with the church. At court political rivals, led by Anne Boleyn's family, were ready to go on the offensive against the overmighty upstart. Knowing that the move would be popular, Henry made Wolsey the scapegoat for the policy failures of the reign. An old statute of praemunire was pressed into service by cunning lawyers who accused the cardinal of exercising papal jurisdiction in opposition to royal law, a crime punishable by forfeiture of all the goods of the accused.

There was no showdown between king and minister. Another feature of Henry's dealings with sacked servants was his refusal to confront them personally. His preferred and cowardly tactic was to remove his favour and allow the victim's enemies to do their worst. The Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk were sent to retrieve the Great Seal and eject Wolsey from his office of Lord Chancellor. Wolsey was ordered to take himself to his archdiocese of York while Norfolk cobbled together evidence of yet more heinous crimes. Pilate-like, Henry washed his hands of blood guilt. He would allow the law (based on perjured evidence) to take its course. Fate absolved Henry of this final betrayal, for Wolsey died on his journey south to face trial, on 29 November 1530.

During the cardinal's last weeks he received occasional messages from the king via various agencies assuring him of his majesty's continuing goodwill. Were these stratagems designed to keep Wolsey sweet as long as he could be useful over the divorce? Was the king hanging onto his options as to which faction to support? Or could it be that his conscience was troubling him? If he was feeling twinges of guilt, it was, for him, a rare experience and one which would not trouble him in the years that followed.
* * *

Further reading:
G. Cavendish, 'The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey', R.S. Sylvester and D.P. Harding, eds., Two Early Tudor Lives, New Haven, 1962
P. Gwyn, The King's Cardinal, London, 1990
D.M. Head, The Life of Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk, Athens, Georgia, 1995
J. Guy, Tudor England, Oxford, 1988
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court, Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next week:  2. Thomas More - The Making of a Catholic Martyr 

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