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Excerpts, Part 12: The Downfall of Wolsey and the Battle in Parliament

Henry was informed by the pope that he must not attempt to pursue the matter further before the Legatine Court which, in view of the recall of the case to Rome, had no further jurisdiction in the matter. He was also cited to appear by attorney before the papal court under pain of a heavy penalty of 10,000 ducats. Henry considered this to be an insult and instructed Wolsey to devise an expedient to prevent the instruction being served on him, and to keep it from the knowledge of his subjects. Wolsey managed to persuade Queen Catherine to agree that Henry need not appear and achieved what the king required, but this final success did not restore him to the royal favour. It became evident to all at the court that the cardinal was in disgrace, and that those who were prudent should distance themselves from him. He was no longer invited to court; his opinions were not asked on matters of state; letters addressed to him were intercepted and given to Henry to read. In a last desperate attempt to win back the royal favour he managed to persuade the king to receive him. To the general surprise, when he knelt the king raised him up with both hands, led him aside in a friendly manner and conversed with him for a considerable time. Later that day Henry sent for him again, spoke to him in private, and told him to return the next day. This infuriated Anne Boleyn who hated Wolsey, and she obtained from her lover a promise never to see his chancellor again. When the hapless cardinal returned the king had already left the court on horseback with the Lady Anne to dine at Hartwell Park. After that day the king and the cardinal did not meet again.

In October 1529 Cardinal Campeggio set out for Dover and met with an unprecedented affront for a man who possessed diplomatic status as a legate of the pope. Customs officers burst into his lodging and charged him with being in possession of treasure belonging to Wolsey, and searched his luggage in an effort to find it They apologized and allowed him to sail when no treasure was found. Their true object was to seize documents which it was felt would be useful to the king, but no such documents were found. Wolsey's worst fears were realized in the same month, and on 16 October 1529 the Great Seal was taken from him, and Sir Thomas More replaced him as Lord Chancellor. On 4 November 1530 Wolsey was arrested for high treason. The unhappy cardinal managed to save himself from execution by dying in Leicester Abbey while on the way to the Tower. He made an admission, which will be cited infra, that he had put the service of the king before his duty to God, and received the last rites of the Church before expiring in a state of evident penitence.

Henry arranged for a petition signed by the lords spiritual and temporal to be sent to the pope asking for a verdict in his favour. John Fisher and Thomas More refused to sign. In October 1529, the so-called Reformation Parliament met. In its eight sessions between 3 November 1529 and 14 April 1536 the relations between Church and State were revolutionized. This Parliament was packed, like most, if not all, of the Tudor Parliaments, and immediately the court party showed its hand. If the pope refused to do as Henry wished then the Church would suffer. The Commons launched an attack upon clerical abuses, fastening on excessive fees and fines and exactions on the part of the clergy. These were abuses which it was well known that John Fisher had refused to tolerate in his pastoral visitations, and so he was in a strong position when he stood up in the Lords to defend the Church. He did not deny that there were abuses that needed to be remedied, but this was the concern of convocations and not of laymen. 49 In 1525, in a Synod of Bishops summoned by Cardinal Wolsey, Fisher had expressed his disappointment that no remedies had been suggested for the scandals that lay so heavily upon the Church:

Who hath made any proposition against the ambition of men whose pride is so offensive, whilst their profession is humility? or against the incontinency of such who have vowed chastity? How are the goods of the Church wasted? the lands, the tithes, and other oblations of the devout ancestors of the people thrown away in superfluous riotous expenses. How can we exhort our flocks to fly the pomps and vanities of this wicked world when we that are Bishops set our minds on nothing more earnestly than that which we forbid? If we should teach according to our doings, how absurdly would our doctrines sound in the ears of those who should listen to us, and if we preach one thing and do another, who believeth our report . . . We preach humility, sobriety, and contempt of the world, and the people perceive in the same men who preach this doctrine pride and haughtiness of mind, excess in apparel, and a giving up of ourselves to all worldly pomps and vanities; and what is this other than to see the people at a stand, whether they shall follow the sight of their own eyes or the  belief of what they hear . . . What have we to do with the courts of princes? If we are in love with Majesty, is there a greater excellence than Him Whom we serve? If we are in love with stately buildings, are there higher roofs than our cathedrals? If with apparel, is there a greater ornament than that of the priesthood? or is there truly better company than communion with the Saints?


There is no more evident example of the type of secularized churchman condemned by John Fisher than Cardinal Wolsey who had convoked the synod at which the bishop made this impassioned plea. His love of wealth was subordinate only to his love of power and his establishment was on the most princely scale, comprising of eight hundred individuals. As chancellor and papal legate he derived a considerable income from the courts over which he presided. Hc was archbishop of the wealthy diocese of York; he farmed the dioceses of Hereford and Worcester which had been granted to foreigners; he held the bishopric of Bath which he exchanged for the richer diocese of Durham when it became vacant, and then exchanged Durham for the still richer diocese of Winchester; he held in commendam the abbey of St. Albans; 50 and also received large pensions and lavish presents from foreign princes. Wolsey was prepared to set aside any and every right of the Church in the hope of pleasing his royal master. "A statesman rather than a Churchman, Wolsey had devoted his life to the aggrandizemeru of his king and country, fostering the development of royal absolutism in politics as well as in ecclesiastical matters." 51 The cardinal did, however have many good qualities. There was no more consummate statesman in Europe and his diplomacy was almost invariably beneficial to the interests of his country. His principal objective in his foreign policy was to preserve the balance of power between the King of France and tht Emperor. His judgements in the courts over which he presided were universally admitted to be fair. He established courts of requests so that the poor could pursue their claims without expense and dealt severely with those who defrauded the revenue or oppressed the people. Wolsey was a notable patron of literature who invited foreign scholars to teach at Oxford and Cambridge, and he endowed seven lectureships in tht former university. He founded Christ Church College in Oxford whicn still exists as a splendid monument to his memory. 52

Wolsey's subservience did not save him when he failed to obtain an annulment for the king. His final and most abject surrender was to accept that the king was entitled to arraign him before a secular tribunal, despite the fact that every cleric had the right to be tried only by an ecclesiastical court. Monsignor Hughes stressed the significance of this surrender:

The cardinal could have refused to appear, denying the King's jurisdiction over a man in holy orders; even more he might have denied that a man could be made answerable to an English court for acts done by virtue of his diplomatic quasi-sovereign status as legate a latere of the pope. Instead, however, he set the Ecclesia Anglicana its first example of surrender on the grand scale. Wolsey, as though the privilegium fori 53 had never existed, acknowledged the King's right to try him, and appeared before the court in order to plead guilty to charges the punishment for which was life imprisonment, and to throw himself on he King's mercy. And it was no ordinary Churchman who thus made the great surrender, but the legate, the Pope's alter ego, betraying in this way the most spectacular of all papal acts of jurisdiction. The legate of the Apostolic See himself it was, who now admitted the layman's claim to be the cleric's judge; the layman's claim, indeed, to judge by what papal laws and practices he, the layman, need be bound. The alter ego accepted the lay contention that the pope had not the right to appoint whomsoever he would to English benefices, nor the right to decide these matters in the courts of the Church and by the canon law. The surrender was a great defeat; it was the reversal of all that St. Thomas of Canterbury signified, and of the clerical habit active for five hundred years and more. This is indeed a fall, the real fall of Wolsey, and in falling he pulled down a whole established order, disliked perhaps, and feared, but regarded hitherto as sacrosanct and intangible. 54

In his last days Wolsey realized how wrong he had been to put the service of the king before that of God, and he accepted what had befallen him as God's just judgement. He felt sure that if he had served God "as diligently as I have done the king he would not have given me over in my grey hairs. How be it, this is the just reward that I must receive for my worldly diligence and pains that I have had to do him service, only to satisfy his vain pleasures, not regarding my godly duty." 55


During the 1529 session of Parliament the Commons passed bills dealing with probate, mortuaries, and pluralities. The significance of this legislation lay not in its provisions, which were aimed at evident abuses, but that the Commons was attempting to bring under its authority what had until then been strictly within the province of the Church. Fisher opposed the legislation in Parliament, but not to defend or perpetuate abuses. He saw that the campaign against the Church being waged in Parliament, "this violent heap of mischief, offered by the Commons" was aimed not at abuses but at the freedom of the Church. He told the House of Lords that unless they resisted manfully theywould be instrumental in bringing the Church "into servile thraldom like a bondmaid, or rather by little and little to be clean banished and driven out of our confines and dwelling-places." Subsequent events were to prove him prophetic. Fisher had no doubt as to the true motivation behind the attacks upon the clergy made in the House of Commons:

These men now among us seem to reprove the life and doings of the clergy, but after such a sort as they endeavour to bring them into contempt and hatred of the laity. And so finding fault with other men's manners, whom they have no authority to correct, they omit and forget their own, which is far worse and much more out of order than the other. But if the truth were known, you will find that they hunger and thirst after the riches and possessions of the clergy rather than after the amendment of their own faults and abuses.

How right he was! It was not the poor of England but the gentry represented in the Commons who benefited by the dissolution of the Monasteries and the alienation of Church property. The outraged Commons protested to the king, claiming that the bishop had called their faith into question and implied that they were heretics, or even worse, that "the wisest men of all the shires, cities and boroughs within the realm of England" were "infidels and no Christians, as ill as Turks or Saracens, so that what pain or study soever they took for the commonwealth, or what acts or laws soever they made or established, should be taken as laws made by paynims and heathen people, and not worthy to be kept by Christian men." The king summoned John Fisher to appear before him and explain his words. He also summoned the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops. Fisher insisted that the interpretation the Commons had placed upon his words was unjustified, and this was confirmed by all the bishops present, and so the king could take no action. The bishop kept up the struggle in Parliament, and persuaded the Lords to reject the bills which had come up to them from the Commons. This was due to the influence that he had exerted upon the bishops, the Lords Spiritual. 56 A subsequent joint meeting of the two Houses put the bishops into a minority and Parliament surrendered to the king.

49. The Convocations of Canterbury and York were the two ancient provincial assemblies of the clergy in England, and were the means by which the clergy decided what level of taxation they would impose upon themselves and offer to the crown.
50. An ecclesiastical benefice was held in commendam (Latin, commenda, a "trust" or "custody") when its revenues were allocated to an individual, who could be a layman, who did not perform the duties relating to the position in person but appointed someone to represent him, who would receive a portion of the revenue. This was one of the abuses which had considerably undermined the Church before the Reformation. Exemplary clerics such as Campeggio (who had been given the see of Salisbury by Henry VIII) found the practice acceptable. Even the Council of Trent did not feel able to suppress the practice, but simply expressed its confidence that "the Roman Pontiff in his piety and prudence" would, so far as he saw the times could bear it, set over monasteries at present held in commendam (by seculars) monastic persons belonging to the respective orders, capable of representing and ruling the communities. Of the 755 monasteries in France on the eve of the French Revolution only 130 were not held in commendam. In many cases the revenues of these monasteries were allocated by the king to any man he cared to choose.

51. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 1977), p. 1496.
52. When founded in 1525 it was named "Cardinal College". It was refounded seven years later as "King Henry the Eighth's College". In 1545 it was dissolved and reconstituted in 1546 by Henry VIII as Christ Church (Aedes Christi).
53. The privilegium fori, i.e. the full immunity of clerics from secular jurisdiction.
54. Hughes, op. cit., pp. 208-9.
55. P. Gwyn, The Kings Cardinal (London, 1990), p. 637.

56. The Anglican bishops, who now occupy the ancient Catholic sees usurped during the reign of Elizabeth I, still sit in the House of Lords.


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