Saturday, February 28, 2009

Do you agree with the view that opposition from 'an aristocratic party' was the main cause of Wolsey's fall in 1529?

During the Tudor dynasty between 1509 and 1529, Thomas Wolsey was probably the most influential person in England, sometimes more so than the king, Henry VIII. But in 1529, he was removed from power. It could be said that Wolsey’s underestimation of the nobility’s opposition led to his fall, as his pomp and power created jealousy among the nobility. However, it is possible to argue that his fall was caused by other reasons, such as his inability to achieve the annulment, which removed Wolsey from Henry’s graces.

Wolsey, who was a son of a butcher, had become the most powerful figure after the king. He became Henry’s most favoured servant, advising him and counselling him. This had provoked the nobility - Tudor England was a society with a solid hierarchy, and the nobility believed that they were the ‘king’s natural councillors’ and that they had a ‘rightful place’ next to the king. The nobles were angry at the fact that a person from an inferior origin (from their point of view) had become more powerful than them. Their jealousy caused strong opposition against Wolsey, and they wanted to eliminate him to restore the social hierarchy that the Tudor England was firmly based on.

The nobility’s opposition would have been less fierce if his personality was as humble as his origin. The sources clearly oppose this supposition. A poem from John Skelton describes how arrogant he was, where Wolsey looks down and belittles other people. He further says ‘all men must follow his desire’, describing how much power he has. The grandeur of Hampton Court, his residence, further supports this claim. All this caused stronger hatred against Wolsey, as the nobility was not used to have anyone more powerful than them except the king. The nobility was actually quite powerful, and as provoked as they were, they would use their power to bring down Wolsey, however powerful he was. However, they were not able to bring him down for a long time, suggesting that although the nobility viciously hated him, they weren’t able to remove him. This was because Wolsey had managed to remain under Henry’s favour. So it could be argued that events that removed Wolsey from Henry’s favour led to his fall. One such event was Wolsey’s failure to achieve an annulment.

Annulment was a very important issue for Henry. Henry had realised that his marriage with Catherine was against God’s laws. Catherine was his late brother, Arthur’s wife. The book of Leviticus states that if a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing and that he shall not have any sons. This was the actual case with Henry as he only had one daughter, Mary. Fearing that the dynasty might end with no heir, divorcing Catherine and marrying a new wife was crucial to Henry. His anxiety over the issue can be seen when he swore at Wolsey for him not being committed about the annulment, according to Scarisbrick. Henry had a reason to be angry, as Wolsey had conclusively failed to achieve the annulment. He wasn’t able to have an annulment at the Blackfriars, which illustrated the failure of Wolsey’s policy, and he also did nothing to stop the Treaty of Barcelona, which effectively ended any hope of the pope granting the annulment. His inefficiency and incapability on the issue destroyed his 15 years of service to Henry. Henry could not depend on him anymore, and Wolsey was therefore doomed to fall.

Other reasons also caused Wolsey being removed from Henry’s favour. Since 1526, Henry fell madly in love with Anne Boleyn. The fact that he calls himself her ‘most ensured servant’ in his letter to her shows how much influence Anne Boleyn had over Henry. Anyone who displeased Anne Boleyn would be displeasing Henry. Wolsey managed to do just that; he infuriated her with preventing her marriage with Henry Percy, and provoked her further when he was unable to get the annulment, as her letter to Wolsey, which says ‘the wrong you have done me has caused me much sorrow’ suggests. There was another conflict between Anne and Wolsey, where both of them wanted different persons to replace the dead Abbess of the Wilton Nunnery (Wilton Affair). Henry put forward a third candidate so as not to disappoint both of them, but Wolsey ignored this(either deliberately or not) and chose his own candidate, an action which made Henry furious.

The public had also lost faith in Wolsey. The Amicable Grant, which was his effort to supply money for the war against France, caused massive uprisings and rebellions. He also declared war on the Netherlands, which made him further unpopular, as the English economy depended on trading wool and cloth with the Netherlands. As a large portion of the population was associated with this industry, Wolsey was hated by most of the population.

What had led Wolsey, who dominated the English politics for a time, to exile and a lonely death? Certainly, the nobility played a part. But conclusively, they were not able to deliver the knockout punch. As long as Wolsey remained under Henry’s favour, their opposition against Wolsey turned out to be fruitless. This can be seen when the nobility briefly returned to power when Wolsey had gone to France in 1927; when he came back, he won back Henry’s favour again and stayed in power for 2 more years.

It seems that Wolsey became saturated with arrogance and laziness in his later years of power. He had risen to power with his diligence and eagerness to work, to a point where he could almost rival the king. Hampton Court, which was Wolsey’s palace, was bigger than the king’s. Powerful as he was, he became complacent with his work, not realizing how vulnerable his position was. His recalcitrance over the annulment and Wilton affair showed how haughty he had become. His fall was also caused by events that Wolsey had no control of. The events in Europe, such as the Battle of Landriano and the Treaty of Barcelona were the deciding elements of failure of the annulment, which led to Wolsey’s downfall. In this light, the nobility had only a little part to play in his fall.

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