The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9

Author: John Richard Green  | Date: A.D. 1529

Great Religious Movement in England;
Fall of Wolsey

A.D. 1529


The "New Learning" which had been slowly spreading from Italy over all Europe, did not markedly affect England until the sixteenth century. There the long Wars of the Roses had not only gone nigh to exterminating the old nobility, but had so distracted men’s minds from more peaceful pursuits that little note was taken of the intellectual movement abroad. Under Henry VII and Henry VIII all this changed. These Tudor monarchs were indeed tyrants over England, but they brought her peace—and time for thought. Under the leadership of the celebrated Dutch scholar Erasmus, and the almost equally renowned Englishmen, Sir Thomas More and Dean Colet, the land awakened about 1500 to a new life of study and of culture, whose principles spread rapidly among the upper classes.

When news of Luther’s religious revolt reached England, the leaders of the New Learning were at first inclined to favor his ideas. But the two movements, one scholarly and calm, the other impassioned and intense, soon parted company, as Green shows in his justly famous account.

The true ruler of England at the time was the great cardinal," Wolsey, whose brain long enabled him to play upon King Henry as a toreador does upon a bull, guiding at will the frenzied rushes of the mighty brute. In 1521, the period when the following account begins, Wolsey was fifty years old. He had risen from being the studious son of a grazier and wool merchant to be a dean of the Church under Henry VII, and a bishop, cardinal and lord chancellor, of England under Henry VIII. His ambition to be pope was thwarted by the emperor Charles V, but he was cardinal legate," having control of the Catholic Church throughout England; and it was said of him that in all European affairs he was "seven times more powerful than the Pope."

In England Luther’s protest seemed at first to find no echo. King Henry VIII was, both on political and on religious grounds, firm on the papal side. England and Rome were drawn to a close alliance by the identity of their political position. Each was hard pressed between the same great powers; Rome had to hold its own between the masters of Southern and the masters of Northern Italy, as England had to hold her own between the rulers of France and of the Netherlands. From the outset of his reign to the actual break with Clement VII the policy of Henry is always at one with that of the papacy. Nor were the King’s religious tendencies hostile to it. He was a trained theologian and proud of his theological knowledge, but to the end his convictions remained firmly on the side of the doctrines which Luther denied. In 1521, therefore, he entered the lists against Luther with an "Assertion of the Seven Sacraments," for which he was rewarded by Leo with the title of "Defender of the Faith." The insolent abuse of the reformer’s answer called More and Fisher into the field.

The influence of the "New Learning" was now strong at the English court. Colet and Grocyn were among its foremost preachers; Linacre was Henry’s physician; More was a privy councillor; Pace was one of the secretaries of state; Tunstall was master of the rolls. And as yet the New Learning, though scared by Luther’s intemperate language, had steadily backed him in his struggle. Erasmus pleaded for him with the Emperor. Ulrich von Hutten attacked the friars in satires and invectives as violent as his own. But the temper of the Renaissance was even more antagonistic to the temper of Luther than that of Rome itself.

From the golden dream of a new age wrought peaceably and purely by the slow progress of intelligence, the growth of letters, the development of human virtue, the reformer of Wittenberg turned away with horror. He had little or no sympathy with the new cult. He despised reason as heartily as any papal dogmatist could despise it. He hated the very thought of toleration or comprehension. He had been driven by a moral and intellectual compulsion to declare the Roman system a false one, but it was only to replace it by another system of doctrine just as elaborate and claiming precisely the same infallibility. To degrade human nature was to attack the very base of the New Learning; and his attack on it called the foremost of its teachers to the field. But Erasmus no sooner advanced to its defence than Luther de clared man to be utterly enslaved by original sin and incapable through any efforts of his own, of discovering truth or of arriving at goodness.

Such a doctrine not only annihilated the piety and wisdom of the classic past, from which the New Learning had drawn its larger views of life and of the world; it trampled in the dust reason itself, the very instrument by which More and Erasmus hoped to regenerate both knowledge and religion. To More especially, with his keener perception of its future effect, this sudden revival of a purely theological and dogmatic spirit, severing Christendom into warring camps and ruining all hopes of union and tolerance, was especially hateful. The temper which hitherto had seemed so "endearing, gentle, and happy," suddenly gave way. His reply to Luther’s attack upon the King sank to the level of the work it answered; and though that of Bishop Fisher was calmer and more argumentative, the divorce of the New Learning from the Reformation seemed complete.

But if the world of scholars and thinkers stood aloof from the new movement it found a warmer welcome in the larger world where men are stirred rather by emotion than by thought. There was an England of which even More and Colet knew little, in which Luther’s words kindled a fire that was never to die. As a great social and political movement Lollardry had ceased to exist, and little remained of the directly religious impulse given by Wycliffe beyond a vague restlessness and discontent with the system of the Church. But weak and fitful as was the life of Lollardry the prosecutions whose records lie scattered over the bishops’ registers failed wholly to kill it. We see groups meeting here and there to read "in a great book of heresy all one night certain chapters of the Evangelists in English," while transcripts of Wycliffe’s tracts passed from hand to hand.

The smouldering embers needed but a breath to fan them into flame, and the breath came from William Tyndale. Born among the Cotswolds when Bosworth Field gave England to the Tudors, Tyndale passed from Oxford to Cambridge to feel the full impulse given by the appearance there of the New Testament of Erasmus. From that moment one thought was at his heart. He "perceived by experience how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue."

"If God spare my life," he said to a learned controversialist, "ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost." But he was a man of forty before his dream became fact. Drawn from his retirement in Gloucestershire by the news of Luther’s protest at Wittenberg, he found shelter for a year with a London alderman, Humfrey Monmouth. "He studied most part of the day at his book," said his host afterward, "and would eat but sodden meat by his good-will and drink but small single beer." The book at which he studied was the Bible. But it was soon needful to quit England if his purpose was to hold. "I understood at the last not only that there was no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England."

From Hamburg, where he took refuge in 1524, he probably soon found his way to the little town which had suddenly become the sacred city of the Reformation. Students of all nations were flocking there with an enthusiasm which resembled that of the crusades. "As they came in sight of the town," a contemporary tells us, "they returned thanks to God with clasped hands, for from Wittenberg, as heretofore from Jerusalem, the light of evangelical truth had spread to the utmost parts of the earth."

Such a visit could only fire Tyndale to face the "poverty, exile, bitter absence from friends, hunger and thirst and cold, great dangers, and innumerable other hard and sharp fightings," which the work he had set himself was to bring with it. In 1525 his version of the New Testament was completed, and means were furnished by English merchants for printing it at Cologne. But Tyndale had soon to fly with his sheets to Worms, a city whose Lutheran tendencies made it a safer refuge, and it was from Worms that six thousand copies of the New Testament were sent in 1526 to English shores. The King was keenly opposed to a book which he looked on as made "at the solicitation and instance of Luther"; and even the men of the New Learning from whom it might have hoped for welcome were estranged from it by its Lutheran origin. We can only fairly judge their action by viewing it in the light of the time. What Warham and More saw over sea might well have turned them from a movement which seemed breaking down the very foundations of religion and society. Not only was the fabric of the Church rent asunder and the centre of Christian unity denounced as "Babylon," but the reform itself seemed passing into anarchy.

Luther was steadily moving onward from the denial of one Catholic dogma to that of another; and what Luther still clung to, his followers were ready to fling away. Carlstadt was de-nouncing the reformer of Wittenberg as fiercely as Luther himself had denounced the Pope, and meanwhile the religious excitement was kindling wild dreams of social revolution, and men stood aghast at the horrors of a peasant war which broke out in Southern Germany. It was not therefore as a mere translation of the Bible that Tyndale’s work reached England. It came as a part of the Lutheran movement, and it bore the Lutheran stamp in its version of ecclesiastical words. "Church" became "congregation," "priest" was changed into "elder." It came too in company with Luther’s bitter invectives and reprints of the tracts of Wycliffe, which the German traders of the Steelyard were importing in large numbers. We can hardly wonder that More denounced the book as heretical, or that Warham ordered it to be given up by all who possessed it.

Wolsey took little heed of religious matters, but his policy was one of political adhesion to Rome, and he presided over a solemn penance to which some Steelyard men submitted in St. Paul’s. "With six-and-thirty abbots, mitred priors, and bishops, and he in his whole pomp mitred," the Cardinal looked on while "great baskets full of books were commanded; after the great fire was made before the Rood of Northen (the crucifix by the great north door of the cathedral), thus to be burned, and those heretics to go thrice about the fire and to cast in their fagots."

But scenes and denunciations such as these were vain in the presence of an enthusiasm which grew every hour. "Englishmen," says a scholar of the time, "were so eager for the Gospel as to affirm that they would buy a New Testament even if they had to give a hundred thousand pieces of money for it." Bibles and pamphlets were smuggled over to England and circulated among the poorer and trading classes through the agency of an association of "Christian Brethren," consisting principally of London tradesmen and citizens, but whose missionaries spread over the country at large. They found their way at once to the universities, where the intellectual impulse given by the New Learning was quickening religious speculation.

Cambridge had already won a name for heresy; Barnes, one of its foremost scholars, had to carry his fagot before Wolsey at St. Paul’s; two other Cambridge teachers, Biliiey and Latimer, were already known as "Lutherans." The Cambridge scholars whom Wolsey introduced into Cardinal College, which he was founding, spread the contagion through Oxford. A group of "brethren" was formed in Cardinal College for the secret reading and discussion of the Epistles; and this soon included the more intelligent and learned scholars of the university. It was in vain that Clark, the centre of this group, strove to dissuade fresh members from joining it by warnings of the impending dangers. "I fell down on my knees at his feet," says one of them, Anthony Dalaber, "and with tears and sighs besought him that for the tender mercy of God he should not refuse me, saying that I trusted verily that he who had begun this on me would not forsake me, but would give me grace to continue therein to the end. When he heard me say so, he came to me, took me in his arms, and kissed me, saying, ’The Lord God Almighty grant you so to do, and from henceforth ever take me for your father, and I will take you for my son in Christ.’"

In 1528 the excitement which followed on this rapid diffusion of Tyndale’s works forced Wolsey to more vigorous action; many of the Oxford Brethren were thrown into prison and their books seized. But in spite of the panic of the Protestants, some of whom fled over sea, little severity was really exercised. Henry’s chief anxiety, indeed, was lest in the outburst against heresy the interest of the New Learning should suffer harm. This was remarkably shown in the protection he extended to one who was destined to eclipse even the fame of Colet as a popular preacher. Hugh Latimer was the son of a Leicestershire yeoman, whose armor the boy had buckled on in the days of Henry VII, ere he set out to meet the Cornish insurgents at Blackheath Field. Latimer has himself described the soldierly training of his youth.

"My father was delighted to teach me to shoot with the bow. He taught me how to draw, how to lay my body to the bow, not to draw with strength of arm as other nations do, but with the strength of the body."

At fourteen he was at Cambridge, flinging himself into the New Learning which was winning its way there with a zeal that at last told on his physical strength. The ardor of his mental efforts left its mark on him in ailments and enfeebled health from which, vigorous as he was, his frame never wholly freed itself. But he was destined to be known, not as a scholar, but as a preacher. In his addresses from the pulpit the sturdy good-sense of the man shook off the pedantry of the schools as well as the subtlety of the theologian. He had little turn for speculation, and in the religious changes of the day we find him constantly lagging behind his brother-reformers. But he had the moral earnestness of a Jewish prophet, and his denunciations of wrong had a prophetic directness and fire. "Have pity on your soul," he cried to Henry, "and think that the day is even at hand when you shall give an account of your office, and of the blood that hath been shed by your sword."

His irony was yet more telling than his invective. "I would ask you a strange question," he said once at Paul’s Cross to a ring of bishops; "who is the most diligent prelate in all England, that passeth all the rest in doing of his office? I will tell you. It is the Devil! Of all the pack of them that have cure, the Devil shall go for my money; for he ordereth his business. Therefore, you unpreaching prelates, learn of the Devil to be diligent in your office. If you will not learn of God, for shame learn of the Devil." But Latimer was far from limiting himself to invective. His homely humor breaks in with story and apologue; his earnestness is always tempered with good-sense; his plain and simple style quickens with a shiewd mother-wit. He talks to his hearers as a man talks to his friends, telling stories such as we have given of his own life at home, or chatting about the changes and chances of the day with a transparent simplicity and truth that raise even his chat into grandeur. His theme is always the actual world about him, and in his simple lessons of loyalty, of industry, of pity for the poor, he touches upon almost every subject from the plough to the throne. No such preaching had been heard in England before his day, and, with the growth of his fame grew the danger of persecution. There were moments when, bold as he was, Latimer’s heart failed him. "If I had not trust that God will help me," he wrote once, "I think the ocean sea would have divided my lord of London and me by this day."

A citation for heresy at last brought the danger home. "I intend," he wrote with his peculiar medley of humor and pathos, to "make merry with my parishioners this Christmas, for all the sorrow, lest perchance I may never return to them again." But he was saved throughout by the steady protection of the court. Wolsey upheld him against the threats of the Bishop of Ely; Henry made him his own chaplain; and the King’s interposition at this critical moment forced Latimer’s judges to content themselves with a few vague words of submission.

What really sheltered the reforming movement was Wolsey’s indifference to all but political matters. In spite of the foundation of Cardinal College in which he was now engaged, and of the suppression of some lesser monasteries for its endowment, the men of the New Learning looked on him as really devoid of any interest in the revival of letters or in their hopes of a general enlightenment. He took hardly more heed of the new Lutheranism. His mind had no religious turn, and the quarrel of faiths was with him simply one factor in the political game which he was carrying on and which at this moment became more complex and absorbing than ever. The victory of Pavia had ruined that system of balance which Henry VII, and, in his earlier days, Henry VIII, had striven to preserve. But the ruin had not been to England’s profit, but to the profit of its ally. While the Emperor stood supreme in Europe, Henry had won nothing from the war, and it was plain that Charles meant him to win nothing. He set aside all projects of a joint invasion; he broke his pledge to wed Mary Tudor and married a princess of Portugal; he pressed for a peace with France which would give him Burgundy. It was time for Henry and his minister to change their course. They resolved to withdraw from all active part in the rivalry of the two powers.

In June, 1525, a treaty was secretly concluded with France. But Henry remained on fair terms with the Emperor; and though England joined the Holy League for the deliverance of Italy from the Spaniards which was formed between France, the Pope, and the lesser Italian states on the release of Francis in the spring of 1526 by virtue of a treaty which he at once repudiated, she took no part in the lingering war which went on across the Alps. Charles was too prudent to resent Henry’s alliance with his foes, and from this moment the country remained virtually at peace. No longer spurred by the interest of great events, the King ceased to take a busy part in foreign politics, and gave himself to hunting and sport. Among the fairest and gayest ladies of his court stood Anne Boleyn. She was sprung of a merchant family which had but lately risen to distinction through two great marriages, that of her grandfather with the heiress of the earls of Ormond, and that of her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, with a sister of the Duke of Norfolk.

It was probably through his kinship with the Duke, who was now lord treasurer and high in the King’s confidence, that Boleyn was employed throughout Henry’s reign in state business, and his diplomatic abilities had secured his appointment as envoy both to France and to the Emperor. His son, George Boleyn, a man of culture and a poet, was among the group of young courtiers in whose society Henry took most pleasure. Anne was his youngest daughter; born in 1507, she was still but a girl of sixteen when the outbreak of war drew her from a stay in France to the English court. Her beauty was small, but her bright eyes, her flowing hair, her gayety and wit soon won favor with the King, and only a month after her return in 1522 the grant of honors to her father marked her influence over Henry.

Fresh gifts in the following years showed that the favor continued; but in 1524 a new color was given to this intimacy by a resolve on the King’s part to break his marriage with the Queen. Catharine had now reached middle age; her personal charms had departed. The death of every child save Mary may have woke scruples as to the lawfulness of a marriage on which a curse seemed to rest; the need of a male heir for public security may have deepened this impression. But whatever were the grounds of his action we find Henry from this moment pressing the Roman see to grant him a divorce.

It is probable that the matter was already mooted in 1525, a year which saw new proof of Anne’s infiuence in the elevation of Sir Thomas Boleyn to the baronage as Lord Rochford. It is certain that it was the object of secret negotiation with the Pope in 1526. No sovereign stood higher in the favor of Rome than Henry, whose alliance had ever been ready in its distress and who was even now prompt with aid in money. But Clement’s consent to his wish meant a break with the Emperor, Catharine’s nephew; and the exhaustion of France, the weakness of the league in which the lesser Italian states strove to maintain their independence against Charles after the battle of Pavia, left the Pope at the Emperor’s mercy. While the English envoy was mooting the question of divorce in 1526 the surprise of Rome by an imperial force brought home to Clement his utter helplessness.

It is hard to discover what part Wolsey had as yet taken in the matter, or whether as in other cases Henry had till now been acting alone, though the Cardinal himself tells us that on Catharine’s first discovery of the intrigue she attributed the proposal of divorce to "my procurement and setting forth." But from this point his intervention is clear. As legate he took cognizance of all matrimonial causes, and in May, 1527, a collusive action was brought in his court against Henry for cohabiting wfth his brother’s wife. The King appeared by proctor; but the suit was suddenly dropped. Secret as were the proceedings, they had now reached Catharine’s ear; and as she refused to admit the facts on which Henry rested his case her appeal would have carried the matter to the tribunal of the Pope, and Clement’s decision could hardly be a favorable one.

The Pope was now in fact a prisoner in the Emperor’s hands. At the very moment of the suit Rome was stormed and sacked by the army of the Duke of Bourbon. "If the Pope’s holiness fortune either to be slain or taken," Wolsey wrote to the King when the news of this event reached England, "it shall not a little hinder your grace’s affairs." But it was needful for the Cardinal to find some expedient to carry out the King’s will, for the group around Anne were using her skilfully for their purposes. A great party had now gathered to her support. Her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, an able and ambitious man, counted on her rise to set him at the head of the council board; the brilliant group of young courtiers to which her brother belonged saw in her success their own elevation; and the Duke of Suffolk with the bulk of the nobles hoped through her means to bring about the ruin of the statesman before whom they trembled.

What most served their plans was the growth of Henry’s passion. "If it please you," the King wrote at this time to Anne Boleyn, "to do the office of a true, loyal mistress, and give yourself body and heart to me, who have been and mean to be your loyal servant, I promise you not only the name but that I shall make you my sole mistress, remove all others from my affection, and serve you only." What stirred Henry’s wrath most was Catharine’s "stiff and obstinate" refusal to bow to his will. Wolsey’s advice that "your Grace should handle her both gently and doulcely" only goaded Henry’s impatience. He lent an ear to the rivals who charged his minister with slackness in the cause, and danger drove the Cardinal to a bolder and yet more unscrupulous device.

The entire subjection of Italy to the Emperor was drawing closer the French alliance, and a new treaty had been concluded in April. But this had hardly been signed when the sack of Rome and the danger of the Pope called for bolder measures. Wolsey was despatched on a solemn embassy to Francis to promise an English subsidy on the despatch of a French army across the Alps. But he aimed at turning the Pope’s situation to the profit of the divorce. Clement was virtually a prisoner in the castle of St. Angelo; and as it was impossible for him to fulfil freely the function of a Pope, Wolsey proposed, in conjunction with Francis, to call a meeting of the college of cardinals at Avignon which should exercise the papal powers till Clement’s liberation. As Wolsey was to preside over this assembly, it would be easy to win from it a favorable answer to Henry’s request.

But Clement had no mind to surrender his power, and secret orders from the Pope prevented the Italian cardinals from attending such an assembly. Nor was Wolsey more fortunate in another plan for bringing about the same end by inducing Clement to delegate to him his full powers westward of the Alps. Henry’s trust in him was fast waning before these failures and the steady pressure of his rivals at court, and the coldness of the King on his return in September was an omen of his minister’s fall. Henry was in fact resolved to take his own course; and while Wolsey sought from the Pope a commission enabling him to try the case in his legatine court and pronounce the marriage null and void by sentence of law, Henry had determined at the suggestion of the Boleyns and apparently of Thomas Cranmer, a Cambridge scholar who was serving as their chaplain, to seek, without Wolsey’s knowledge, from Clement either his approval of a divorce or, if a divorce could not be obtained, a dispensation to remarry without any divorce at all.

For some months his envoys could find no admission to the Pope; and though in December Clement succeeded in escaping to Orvieto and drew some courage from the entry of the French army into Italy, his temper was still too timid to venture on any decided course. He refused the dispensation altogether. Wolsey’s proposal for leaving the matter to a legatine court found better favor; but when the commission reached England it was found to be "of no effect or authority." What Henry wanted was not merely a divorce but the express sanction of the Pope to his divorce, and this Clement steadily evaded. A fresh embassy, with Wolsey’s favorite and secretary, Stephen Gardiner, at its head, reached Orvieto in March, 1528, to find, in spite of Gardiner’s threats, hardly better success; but Clement at last consented to a legatine commission for the trial of the case in England. In this commission Cardinal Campeggio, who was looked upon as a partisan of the English King, was joined with Wolsey.

Great as the concession seemed, this gleam of success failed to hide from the minister the dangers which gathered round him. The great nobles whom he had practically shut out from the King’s counsels were longing for his fall. The Boleyns and the young courtiers looked on him as cool in Anne’s cause. He was hated alike by men of the old doctrine and men of the new. The clergy had never forgotten his extortions, the monks saw him suppressing small monasteries. The foundation of Cardinal College failed to reconcile to him the scholars of the New Learning; their poet, Skelton, was among his bitterest assailants.

The Protestants, goaded by the persecution of this very year, hated him with a deadly hatred. His French alliances, his declaration of war with the Emperor, hindered the trade with Flanders and secured the hostility of the merchant class. The country at large, galled with murrain and famine and panic-struck by an outbreak of the sweating sickness which carried off two thousand in London alone, laid all its suffering at the door of the Cardinal. And now that Henry’s food itself became uncertain Wolsey knew his hour was come. Were the marriage once made, he told the French ambassador, and a male heir born to the realm, he would withdraw from state affairs and serve God for the rest of his life. But the divorce had still to be brought about ere marriage could be made or heir be born. Henry indeed had seized on the grant of a commission as if the matter were at an end. Anne Boleyn was installed in the royal palace and honored with the state of a wife. The new legate, Campeggio, held the bishopric of Salisbury, and had been asked for as judge from the belief that he would favor the King’s cause. But he bore secret instructions from the Pope to bring about if possible a reconciliation between Henry and the Queen, and in no case to pronounce sentence without reference to Rome. The slowness of his journey presaged ill; he did not reach England till the end of September, and a month was wasted in vain efforts to bring Henry to a reconciliation or Catharine to retirement into a monastery.

A new difficulty disclosed itself in the supp6sed existence of a brief issued by Pope Julius and now in the possession of the Emperor, which overruled all the objections to the earlier dispensation on which Henry relied. The hearing of the cause was delayed through the winter, while new embassies strove to induce Clement to declare this brief also invalld. Not only was such a demand glaringly unjust, but the progress of the imperial arms brought vividly home to the Pope its injustice. The danger which he feared was not merely a danger to his temporal domain in Italy—it was a danger to the papacy itself. It was in vain that new embassies threatened Clement with the loss of his spiritual power over England. To break with the Emperor was to risk the loss of his spiritual power over a far larger world.

Charles had already consented to the suspension of the judgment of his diet at Worms, a consent which gave security to the new Protestantism in North Germany. If he burned heretics in the Netherlands, he employed them in his armies. Lutheran soldiers had played their part in the sack of Rome. Lutheranism had spread from North Germany along the Rhine, it was now pushing fast into the hereditary possessions of the Austrian house, it had all but mastered the Low Countries. France itself was mined with heresy; and were Charles once to give way, the whole Continent would be lost to Rome.

Amid difficulties such as these the papal court saw no course open save one of delay. But the long delay told fatally for Wolsey’s fortunes. Even Clement blamed him for having hindered Henry from judging the matter in his own realm and marrying on the sentence of his own courts, and the Boleyns naturally looked upon his policy as dictated by hatred to Anne. Norfolk and the great peers took courage from the bitter tone of the girl; and Henry himself charged the Cardinal with a failure in fulfilling the promises he had made him. King and minister still clung indeed passionately to their hopes from Rome. But in 1529 Charles met their pressure with a pressure of his own; and the progress of his arms decided Clement to avoke the cause to Rome. Wolsey could only hope to anticipate this decision by pushing the trial hastily forward, and at the end of May the two legates opened their court in the great hall of the Blackfriars.

King and Queen were cited to appear before them when the court again met on June 18th. Henry briefly announced his resolve to live no longer in mortal sin. The Queen offered an appeal to Clement, and on the refusal of the legates to admit it flung herself at Henry’s feet. "Sire," said Catharine, "I beseech you to pity me, a woman and a stranger, without an assured friend and without an indifferent counsellor. I take God to witness that I have always been to you a true and loyal wife, that I have made it my constant duty to seek your pleasure, that I have loved all whom you loved, whether I have reason or not, whether they are friends to me or foes. I have been your wife for years; I have brought you many children. God knows that when I came to your bed I was a virgin, and I put it to your own conscience to say whether it was not so. If there be any offence which can be alleged against me I consent to depart with infamy; if not, then I pray you to do me justice."

The piteous appeal was wasted on a king who was already entertaining Anne Boleyn with royal state in his own palace; the trial proceeded, and on July 23d the court assembled to pronounce sentence. Henry’s hopes were at their highest when they were suddenly dashed to the ground. At the opening of the proceedings Campeggio rose to declare the court adjourned to the following October. The adjournment was a mere evasion. The pressure of the imperialists had at last forced Clement to summon the cause to his own tribunal at Rome, and the jurisdiction of the legates was at an end.

"Now see I," cried the Duke of Suffolk as he dashed his hand on the table, "that the old saw is true, that there was never legate or cardinal that did good to England!" The Duke only echoed his master’s wrath. Through the twenty years of his reign Henry had known nothing of opposition to his will. His imperious temper had chafed at the weary negotiations, the subterfuges and perfidies of the Pope. Though the commission was his own device, his pride must have been sorely galled by the summons to the legates’ court. The warmest adherents of the older faith revolted against the degradation of the Crown. "It was the strangest and newest sight and device," says Cavendish," that ever we read or heard of in any history or chronicle ill any region that a king and queen should be convented and constrained by process compellatory to appear in any court as common persons, within their own realm and dominion, to abide the judgment and decree of their own subjects, having the royal diadem and prerogative thereof."

Even this degradation had been borne in vain. Foreign and papal tribunal as that of the legates really was, it lay within Henry’s kingdom and had the air of an English court. But the citation to Rome was a summons to the King to plead in a court without his realm. Wolsey had himself warned Clement of the hopelessness of expecting Henry to submit to such humiliation as this. "If the King be cited to appear in person or by proxy and his prerogative be interfered with, none of his subjects will tolerate the insult. To cite the King to Rome, to threaten him with excommunication, is no more tolerable than to deprive him of his royal dignity. If he were to appear in Italy it would be at the head of a formidable army." But Clement had been deaf to the warning, and the case had been avoked out of the realm.

Henry’s wrath fell at once on Wolsey. Whatever furtherance or hinderance the Cardinal had given to his remarriage, it was Wolsey who had dissuaded him from acting, at the first, in dependently; from conducting the cause in his own courts and acting on the sentence of his own judges. Whether to secure the succession by a more indisputable decision or to preserve uninjured the prerogatives of the papal see, it was Wolsey who had counselled him to seek a divorce from Rome and promised him success in his suit. And in this counsel Wolsey stood alone. Even Clement had urged the King to carry out his original purpose when it was too late. All that the Pope sought was to be freed from the necessity of meddling in the matter at all. It was Wolsey who had forced papal intervention on him, as he had forced it on Henry, and the failure of his plans was fatal to him. From the close of the legatine court Henry would see him no more, and his favorite, Stephen Gardiner, who had become chief secretary of state, succeeded him in the King’s confidence.

If Wolsey still remained minister for a while, it was because the thread of the complex foreign negotiations which he was conducting could not be roughly broken. Here too, however, failure awaited him. His diplomacy sought to bring fresh pressure on the Pope and to provide a fresh check on the Emperor by a closer alliance with France. But Frands was anxious to recover his children who had remained as hostages for his return; he was weary of the long struggle, and hopeless of aid from his Italian allies. At this crisis of his fate therefore Wolsey saw himself deceived and outwitted by the conclusion of peace between France and the Emperor in a new treaty at Cambray. Not only was his French policy no longer possible, but a reconciliation with Charles was absolutely needful, and such a reconciliation could only be brought about by Wolsey’s fall. In October, on the very day that the Cardinal took his place with a haughty countenance and all his former pomp in the court of chancery an indictment was preferred against him by the King’s attorney for receiving bulls from Rome in violation of the Statute of Provisors.

A few days later he was deprived of the seals. Wolsey was prostrated by the blow. In a series of abject appeals he offered to give up everything that he possessed if the King would but cease from his displeasure. "His face," wrote the French ambassador, "is dwindled to half its natural size. In truth his misery is such that his enemies, Englishmen as they are, cannot help pitying him." For the moment Henry seemed contented with his disgrace. A thousand boats full of Londoners covered the Thames to see the Cardinal’s barge pass to the Tower, but he was permitted to retire to Esher.

Although judgment of forfeiture and imprisonment was given against him in the king’s bench at the close of October, in the following February he received a pardon on surrender of his vast possessions to the crown and was permitted to withdraw to his diocese of York, the one dignity he had been suffered to retain.

Not less significant was the attitude of the New Learning. On Wolsey’s fall the seals had been offered to Warham, and it was probably at his counsel that they were finally given to Sir Thomas More. The Chancellor’s dream, if we may judge it from the acts of his brief ministry, seems to have been that of carrying out the religious reformation which had been demanded by Colet and Erasmus while checking the spirit of revolt against the unity of the Church. His severities against the Protestants, exaggerated as they have been by polemic rancor, remain the one stain on a memory that knows no other. But it was only by a rigid severance of the cause of reform from what seemed to him the cause of revolution that More could hope for a successful issue to the projects of reform which the council laid before parliament.

The "Petition of the Commons" sounded like an echo of Colet’s famous address to the convocation. It attributed the growth of heresy not more to "frantic and seditious books published in the English tongue contrary to the very true Catholic and Christian faith"than to "the extreme and uncharitable behavior of divers ordinaries." It remonstrated against the legislation of the clergy in convocation without the King’s assent or that of his subjects, the oppressive procedure of the church courts, the abuses of ecclesiastical patronage, and the excessive number of holy days. Henry referred the petition to the bishops, but they could devise no means of redress, and the ministry persisted in pushing through the houses their bills for ecclesiastical reform. The importance of the new measures lay really in the action of parliament. They were an explicit announcement that church reform was now to be undertaken, not by the clergy, but by the people at large. On the other hand it was clear that it would be carried out in a spirit of loyalty to the Church. The commons forced from Bishop Fisher an apology for words which were taken as a doubt thrown on their orthodoxy.

Henry forbade the circulation of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible as executed in a Protestant spirit. The reforming measures, however, were pushed resolutely on. Though the questions of convocation and the bishops’ courts were adjourned for further consideration, the fees of the courts were curtailed, the clergy restricted from lay employments, pluralities restrained, and residence enforced. In spite of a dogged opposition from the bishops the bills received the assent of the House of Lords, "to the great rejoicing of lay people, and the great displeasure of spiritual persons."

Not less characteristic of the New Learning was the intellectual pressure it strove to bring to bear on the wavering Pope. Cranmer was still active in the cause of Anne Boleyn; he had just published a book in favor of the divorce; and he now urged on the ministry an appeal to the learned opinion of Christendom by calling for the judgment of the chief universities of Europe. His counsel was adopted; but Norfolk trusted to coarser means of attaining his end. Like most of the English nobles and the whole of the merchant class, his sympathies were with the house of Burgundy. He looked upon Wolsey as the real hinderance to the divorce through the French policy which had driven Charles into a hostile attitude; and he counted on the Cardinal’s fall to bring about a renewal of friendship with the Emperor and to insure his support.

The father of Anne Boleyn, now created Earl of Wiltshire, was sent in 1530 on this errand to the imperial court. But Charles remained firm to Catharine’s cause, and Clement would do nothing in defiance of the Emperor. Nor was the appeal to the learned world more successful. In France the profuse bribery of the English agents would have failed with the University of Paris but for the interference of Francis himself, eager to regain Henry’s good-will by this office of friendship. As shameless an exercise of the King’s own authority was needed to wring an approval of his cause from Oxford and Cambridge. In Germany the very Protestants, then in the fervor of their moral revival and hoping little from a proclaimed opponent of Luther, were dead against the King. So far as could be seen from Cranmer’s test every learned man in Christendom, but for bribery and threats, would have condemned the royal cause.

Henry was embittered by failures which he attributed to the unskilful diplomacy of his new counsellors; and it was rumored that he had been heard to regret the loss of the more dexterous statesman whom they had overthrown. Wolsey, who since the beginning of the year had remained at York, though busy in appearance with the duties of his see, was hoping more and more as the months passed by for his recall. But the jealousy of his political enemies was roused by the King’s regrets, and the pitiless hand of Norfolk was seen in the quick and deadly blow which he dealt at his fallen rival.

On November 4th, the eve of his installation feast, the Cardinal was arrested on a charge of high treason and conducted by the lieutenant of the Tower toward London. Already broken by his enormous labors, by internal disease, and the sense of his fall, Wolsey accepted the arrest as a sentence of death. An attack of dysentery forced him to rest at the Abbey of Leicester, and as he reached the gate he said feebly to the brethren who met him, "I am come to lay my bones among you."

On his death-bed his thoughts still clung to the Prince whom he had served. "Had I but served God as diligently as I have served the King," murmured the dying man, "he would not have given me over in my gray hairs. But this is my due reward for my pains and study, not regarding my service to God, but only my duty to my Prince."


Related Resources

King Henry VIII of England

Download Options

Title: The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: John Richard Green, "Great Religious Movement in England; Fall of Wolsey," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022,

MLA: Green, John Richard. "Great Religious Movement in England; Fall of Wolsey." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Green, JR, 'Great Religious Movement in England; Fall of Wolsey' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 9. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from