This was an important day in the life of Thomas Wolsey, who completed one of the most stellar political rises in England. He became a source of hope for the masses – and an object of hatred from noblemen who were jealous of the success they felt should have been theirs.
Wolsey was born near the bottom of the English social heap: he was the son of a butcher. He rose through the church: from royal chaplain to Bishop of Lincoln, to Archbishop of York, the finally to Cardinal. This climb was matched on the secular side, as during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign he was all too happy to hand over responsibility (he didn’t think of it as power then): 1515 also saw Wolsey named Lord Chancellor of England. This remarkable rise is attributed to “his high level of intelligence and organization, his extremely industrious nature, his driving ambition for power, and the rapport he was able to achieve with the King.”
Less than ten years later, though, he would die in disgrace, stripped of his government office and property and on his way to London to face charges of treason. All because he couldn’t get Henry VIII the divorce he needed from Catherine of Aragon. It should have been a slam dunk, and in the very early days Wolsey assured the King that it would be. Of course, that was when Wolsey was still assuming that Henry would marry a French princess to counterbalance the insult to Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V of Spain. It was also before Charles’s army had taken possession of Rome and held the Pope prisoner in his rich palace. Once it was clear that the Church was implacably against the divorce from Aragon, Wolsey became obsolete and his ultimate fate was sealed.
But still he might have survived through a quiet life spent ministering to his flock. That he was not allowed to do so was a direct result of the hatred that Anne Boleyn bore to him. Why? Great story.
In 1523, when Anne had just returned to England from the French court, she became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine and started a romance with Henry Percy, the heir to the earldom of Northumberland. Percy apparently proposed marriage to her, despite the fact that it had already been decided that he would marry the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The story goes that the King had already taken a secret interest in Anne, and didn’t want her married off and leaving court. Unfortunately for Wolsey, he chose an insulting way of fixing the problem. He summoned Percy and chastised him in public for entangling himself with “that foolish girl yonder in the court, I mean Anne Boleyn.” Had Anne been simply the diversion that Wolsey assumed her to be, nothing would have come of this. Instead, Anne became Henry’s obsession and she used her power to work against him with everything she had. Revenge was an important element of Tudor politics.
But that is for another day. For now, let us raise a glass to a man at the height of his career and hope he enjoyed it while he had it….
For Further Reading:
As always, Wikipedia is a good source for a miniature biography. And see EnglishHistory.net for the full description of the Percy affair (the page offers the full account written by George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman-usher).
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There were many waiting for the first crack to appear in Wolsey’s defences, chief among them Anne Boleyn’s uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk. Wolsey was resented by the ‘old school’ nobility who believed that high public office was their birthright, and to see the son of an Ipswich butcher so elevated and favoured by Henry was more than they could bear. Anne was a convenient weapon to use against Wolsey, and she herself was too ambitious for the crown to realise (or care) that she was being used. So while it is accurate to ascribe Wolsey’s immediate disgrace to his inability to persuade the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine, there were other forces at work. Wolsey was his own worst enemy when it came to the wealth, pride and ostentation that made him look like a rival to Henry himself, and Norfolk and the Boleyns were awaiting their chance.