Henry, who was to become the incarnation of Machiavelli’s Prince, was as yet an innocent novice in international politics. He recognized his need for guidance, and sampled the men around him. More was brilliant, but only thirty-one, and inclined to sanctity. Thomas Wolsey was a mere three years older, and was a priest, but his whole turn was for statesmanship, and religion was for him a part of politics. Born at Ipswich, “of low extraction and despicable blood” (so the proud Guicciardini described him),8 Thomas had covered the baccalaureate course at Oxford by the age of fifteen; at twenty-three he was bursar of Magdalen College, and showed his quality by applying adequate funds, beyond his authority, for the completion of that hall’s most majestic tower. He knew how to get along. Displaying a flair for management and negotiation, he rose through a succession of chaplainships to serve Henry VII in that capacity and in diplomacy. Henry VIII, on accession, made him almoner—director of charities. Soon the priest was a member of the Privy Council, and shocked Archbishop Warham by advocating a military alliance with Spain against France. Louis XII was invading Italy, and might again make the papacy a dependency of France; in any case France must not become too strong. Henry yielded in this matter to Wolsey and his own father-in-law, Ferdinand of Spain; he himself was at this time inclined to peace. “I content myself with my own,” he told Giustiniani; “I wish to command only my own subjects; but on the other hand I do not choose that anyone shall have it in his power to command me”;9 this almost sums up Henry’s political career. He had inherited the claim of the English kings to the crown of France, but he knew that this was an empty pretense. The war petered out quickly in the Battle of the Spurs (1513). Wolsey arranged the peace, and persuaded Louis XII to marry Henry’s sister Mary. Leo X, pleased with being rescued, made Wolsey Archbishop of York (1514) and Cardinal (1515); Henry, triumphant, made him Chancellor (1515). The King prided himself on having protected the papacy; and when a later pope refused him a marriage easement he deemed it gross ingratitude.
The first five years of Wolsey’s chancellorship were among the most successful in the record of English diplomacy. His aim was to organize the peace of Europe by using England as a makeweight to preserve a balance of power between the Holy Roman Empire and France; presumably it also entered into his purview that he would thus become the arbiter of Europe, and that peace on the Continent would favor England’s vital trade with the Netherlands. As a first step, he negotiated an alliance between France and England (1518), and betrothed Henry’s two-year-old daughter Mary (later queen) to the seven-month-old son of Francis I. Wolsey’s taste for lavish entertainment revealed itself when French emissaries came to London to sign the agreements; he feted them in his Westminster palace with a dinner “the like of which,” reported Giustiniani, “was never given by Cleopatra or Caligula, the whole banqueting hall being decorated with huge vases of gold and silver.”10 But the worldly Cardinal could be forgiven; he was playing for high stakes, and he won. He insisted that the alliance should be open to Emperor Maximilian I, King Charles I of Spain, and Pope Leo X; they were invited to join; they accepted; and Erasmus, More, and Colet thrilled with the hope that an era of peace had dawned for all Western Christendom. Even Wolsey’s enemies congratulated him. He took the opportunity to bribe11 English agents in Rome to secure his appointment as papal legate a latere in Britain; the phrase meant “on the side,” confidential, and was the highest designation of a papal emissary. Wolsey was now supreme head of the English Church, and—with strategic obeisances to Henry—ruler of England.
The peace was clouded a year later by the rivalry of Francis I and Charles I for the Imperial throne; even Henry thought of flinging his beret into the ring, but he had no Fugger. The winner, as now Charles V, briefly visited England (May 1520), paid his respects to his aunt Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s Queen, and offered to marry Princess Mary (already betrothed to the Dauphin) if England would promise to support Charles in any future conflict with France; so unnatural is peace. Wolsey refused, but accepted a pension of 7,000 ducats from the Emperor, and drew from him a pledge to help him in becoming pope.
The brilliant Cardinal achieved his most spectacular triumph in the meeting of the French and English sovereigns on the Field of the Cloth of Gold (June 1520). Here, in an open space between Guiñes and Ardres near Calais, medieval art and chivalry displayed themselves in sunset magnificence. Four thousand English noblemen, chosen and placed by the Cardinal and dressed in the silks, flounces, and lace of late medieval costume, accompanied Henry as the young red-bearded King rode on a white palfrey to meet Francis I; and not last or least came Wolsey himself, clad in crimson satin robes rivaling the splendor of the Kings. An impromptu palace had been built to receive their Majesties, their ladies, and their staffs; a pavilion covered with gold-threaded cloth and hung with costly tapestries shaded the conference and the feasts; a fountain ran wine; and space was cleared for a royal tournament. The political and marital alliance of the two nations was confirmed. The happy monarchs jousted, even wrestled; and Francis risked the peace of Europe by throwing the English King. With characteristic French grace he repaired his faux pas by going, early one morning, unarmed and with a few unarmed attendants, to visit Henry in the English camp. It was a gesture of friendly trust which Henry understood. The monarchs exchanged precious gifts and solemn vows.
In truth neither could trust the other, for it is a lesson of history that men lie most when they govern states. From seventeen days of festivities with Francis, Henry went to three days of conference with Charles at Calais (July 1520). There King and Emperor, chaperoned by Wolsey, swore eternal friendship, and agreed to proceed no further with their plans to marry into the royal family of France. These separate alliances were a more precarious basis for European peace than the multilateral entente that Wolsey had arranged before Maximilian’s death, but it still left England in the position of mediator and, in effect, arbiter—a position far loftier than any that could be based on English wealth or power. Henry was satisfied. To reward his Chancellor he ordered the monks of St. Albans to elect Wolsey as their abbot and dower him with their net revenue, for “my Lord Cardinal has sustained many charges in this his voyage.” The monks obeyed, and Wolsey’s income neared his needs.
He was, on a grander scale than most of us, a fluid compound of virtues and faults. “He is very handsome,” wrote Giustiniani, “extremely eloquent, of vast ability, and indefatigable.”12 His morals were imperfect. Twice he slipped into illegitimate parentage; these were peccadilloes readily overlooked in that lusty age; but, if we may believe a bishop, the Cardinal suffered from the “pox.”13 He accepted what might or might not be called bribeslarge gifts of money from both Francis and Charles; he kept them bidding against each other with the pensions and benefices that they offered him; these were courtesies of the time; and the expensive Cardinal, who felt that his policies were serving all Europe, felt that all Europe should serve him. Beyond doubt he loved money and luxury, pomp and power. A large part of his income went to maintain an establishment whose surface extravagance may have been a tool of diplomacy, designed to give foreign ambassadors an exaggerated notion of English resources. Henry paid Wolsey no salary, so that the Chancellor had to live and entertain on his ecclesiastical revenues and his pensions from abroad. Even so we may marvel that he should have required all the income that came to him as holder of two rectories, six prebends, one provostship, as Abbot of St. Albans, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Archbishop of York, administrator of the diocese of Winchester, and a partner of the absentee Italian bishops of Worcester and Salisbury.14 He disposed of nearly all the major ecclesiastical and political patronage of the realm, and presumably each appointment yielded him a gratuity. A Catholic historian has estimated that Wolsey at his zenith received a third of all the ecclesiastical revenues of England.15 He was the richest and most powerful subject in the nation; “seven times more powerful than the pope,” thought Giustiniani;16 he is, said Erasmus, “the second king.” Only one step more remained to be taken—the papacy. Twice Wolsey tried for it, but in that game the wily Charles, ignoring promises, outplayed him.
The Cardinal believed that ceremony is the cement of power; force can gain power, but only public habituation can cheaply and peaceably sustain it; and people judge a man’s altitude by the ceremony that hedges him in. So in his public and official appearances Wolsey dressed in the formal splendor that seemed to him advisable in the supreme representative of both pope and king. Red hat of a cardinal, red gloves, robes of scarlet or crimson taffeta, shoes of silver or gilt inlaid with pearls and precious stones—here were Innocent III, Benjamin Disraeli, and Beau Brummel all in one. He was the first clergyman in England who wore silk.17 When he said Mass (which was seldom) he had bishops and abbots as his acolytes; and on some occasions dukes and earls poured out the water with which he washed his consecrating hands. He allowed his attendants to kneel in waiting upon him at table. Five hundred persons, many of high lineage, served him in his office and his home.18 Hampton Court that he built as his residence was so luxurious that he presented it to the King (1525) to avert the evil eye of royal jealousy.
Sometimes, however, he forgot that Henry was king. “On my first arrival in England,” Giustiniani wrote to the Venetian Senate, “the Cardinal used to say to me, ‘His Majesty will do so and so.’ Subsequently, by degrees, he forgot himself, and commenced saying, ‘We shall do so and so.’ At present he... says, ? shall do so and so.’ “19 And again the ambassador wrote: “If it were necessary to neglect either King or Cardinal, it would be better to pass over the King; the Cardinal might resent precedence conceded to the King.”20 Peers and diplomats seldom obtained audience with the Chancellor until their third request. With each passing year the Cardinal ruled more and more openly as a dictator; he called Parliament only once during his ascendancy; he paid little attention to constitutional forms; he met opposition with resentment and criticism with rebuke. The historian Polydore Vergil wrote that these methods would bring Wolsey’s fall; Vergil was sent to the Tower; and only repeated intercession by Leo X secured his release. Opposition grew.
Perhaps those whom Wolsey superseded or disciplined secured the ear of history, and transmitted his sins unabsolved. But no one questioned his ability, or his assiduous devotion to his many tasks. “He transacts as much business,” Giustiniani told the proud Venetian Senate, “as that which occupies all the magistracies, offices, and councils of Venice, both civil and criminal; and all state affairs are likewise managed by him, let their nature be what they may.” 21 He was loved by the poor and hated by the powerful for his impartial administration of justice; almost beyond any precedent in English history after Alfred, he opened his court to all who complained of oppression, and he fearlessly punished the guilty, however exalted.22 He was generous to scholars and artists, and began a religious reform by replacing several monasteries with colleges. He was on the way to a stimulating improvement of English education when all the enemies he had made in the haste of his labors and the myopia of his pride conspired with a royal romance to engineer his fall.