Why Did Thomas Wolsey Fall from Power in 1529?

Cardinal Wolsey by an unknown artist c.1520 from the National Portrait Gallery.
Cardinal Wolsey by an unknown artist c.1520 from the National Portrait Gallery.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was Henry VIII’s chief minister from his accession in 1509 until his dramatic fall in 1529. The reasons for this sudden fall are hotly debated amongst historians – was it his inability to give Henry VIII a divorce from Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn? Or was it that the nobility were jealous of Wolsey’s huge amount of power and influence? Or was it just bad luck? At what point did his fall become inevitable? These ideas will be discussed in the following short essay.

The issue of Henry VIII’s divorce or “great matter” has taken over the history of this period. This and the break with Rome seem to almost characterise the Tudor dynasty. However, there was so much more to it than fame. Henry VIII’s desire for Anne Boleyn brought down his chief minister, and led to England’s division from the Papacy in Rome. It also led to the idea that a king could marry for love. This had only happened twice before – Edward III married his mistress, Katherine Swynford, and Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville. However, Henry VIII was the only king to marry for love more than once. Henry VIII had asked Wolsey to get a divorce for him, but Wolsey and all of his agents couldn’t persuade Pope Clement VII to grant it. He was too much in the sway of the Emperor. It was the international situation rather than any ineptitude on Wolsey’s part which meant that the divorce wasn’t granted. Even after Wolsey’s death Henry VIII had to break away from the Catholic Church for the divorce to be granted. This was the most important reason for Wolsey’s fall from power because it was the main change in his life. This was the catalyst.

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait

Wolsey had made many enemies over the time of his rise to power. Many of these were nobles who resented his base origins (as the son of an Ipswich butcher) and the fact that Henry VIII showered so much wealth and so many titles on him. Wolsey wasn’t only Henry’s chief minister, but also his chancellor, a Cardinal and a papal legate. This gave him immense power, not just in England, but also in Europe. He used this power to great effect in France and the Empire, as well as within the Papal States. Nevertheless, the nobles saw their own power as being depleted and given to Wolsey. It has been suggested that some nobles like the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk joined together in order to bring Wolsey down. However, there is no evidence for this. Similarly to the fall of Wolsey, the fall of Thomas Cromwell in 1540 was also attributed to a conspiracy by nobles resentful of his power. With this comparison, it is unsure how accurate either of these views are. However, this wasn’t as important as his failure to get a divorce because he always had noble enemies, but them alone wasn’t enough to bring Wolsey down.

Bad luck did play a part in Wolsey’s fall. He was undermined by factors and events outside his control. He might have been able to get Henry VIII his divorce if troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and nephew of Katherine of Aragon, had not sacked Rome in 1527. This put the Pope directly in Charles’s control, and the emperor would not let the pope grant the divorce. Of course, this is speculation, but we can be fairly certain that this is how it happened. Other issues of bad luck include the failure of the Blackfriars trial in 1529, as it has been suggested that Campeggio had secret instructions from the pope not to come to a decision and to revoke the case to Rome. No doubt Wolsey was unaware of these secret instructions, but this was the final straw for Henry VIII and Wolsey was arrested not long after the trial ended. Bad luck affected his actions and decisions several times over his last few years, but it combined with the failure to get a divorce in order to bring him down.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

Wolsey’s fall became inevitable from the case of the Abbess of Wilton in 1528. This was because Wolsey had no choice but to accept that Henry VIII loved Anne Boleyn. She had more influence over Henry than Wolsey did. This was most clearly demonstrated by the Abbess of Wilton case where Anne triumphed over Wolsey. It was at this point where Anne’s influence was so obviously more than Wolsey’s that his fall became inevitable. Until that point he could have clawed it back in my opinion. There were several instances where Wolsey seemed to have failed before this point: the divorce had already dragged out for a year, the Amicable Grant fiasco of 1525 or the Sack of Rome in 1527. None of these were as important as the case of the Abbess of Wilton, as no one affected Henry VIII in quite the same way as Anne Boleyn, and the Wilton case was this power demonstrated at its most influential.

To conclude, Thomas Wolsey fell from power largely because of his failure to get a divorce. There were other contributing factors, but the failure to get a divorce was definitely the catalyst. The opposition of the nobles to Wolsey and sheer bad luck were other factors, but they combined with his main failure of the divorce in order to bring him down. His fall became inevitable from the Abbess of Wilton case in 1528, because that demonstrated just how strong Anne Boleyn’s hold was over Henry VIII, and how her influence trumped Wolsey’s. Anne Boleyn was the reason for Wolsey’s downfall.

George Cavendish ‘The Life of Cardinal Wolsey’
Eric Ives ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn’
Leanda de Lisle ‘Tudor: the Family Story’
Alison Weir ‘Henry VIII: King and Court’

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