‘Domestic policy under Wolsey was a failure’. How far do you agree with this assessment? Wolsey was Henry VIII’s chief minister for 15 years and it’s fair to say that historians have, in general, been disappointed with his lack of achievement in the area of domestic affairs. Most argue that he devoted far too much of his time to foreign policy in order to establish, and then further boost his own personal power and increase his income, implying that more of his time should have been allocated to reforming social and economic policy and using his vast intelligence to improve the way government operated in England at the time.
However there was very little contemporary discontent with the way the country was being run in the first place. So perhaps these expectations are anachronistically minded as the vast majority expected very little from the government; Rather than radical change in the systems of government they expected a maintaining of law and order along with an upholding of the power the Crown and Church held. Domestic achievements were never going to influence the status and prestige of England nearly as much as foreign politics, and as long as Henry craved foreign glory it was to be Wolsey’s focus.
On the other hand though, certain efficiency in tax collection was needed to fund the adventurous foreign policies Wolsey needed to impose and of course stability in government was needed for diplomatic success. Not to mention the character of the man himself, he was unlikely to not want involvement in all political matters in government, whether foreign or otherwise. This natural zealous could go down as the reason for one of Wolsey’s key failing [in domestic policy] in that he took on far too much in terms of cases in the Court of the Star Chamber and failed to finish plans for reform.
And so to the assessment; ‘Domestic policy under Wolsey was a failure’, when considering how far we agree with this statement it must first be considered, obviously, what a failure in these terms is; As mentioned, there was little contemporary disappointment that Wolsey did not do more in terms of reformation and so this lack of the normal Wolsey excellence alone cannot be considered a failure.
However it would be entirely inaccurate to say that because of this Wolsey’s failures in domestic policy were none existent because in fact they very much were existent, from a lack of success long lasting in the regulations regarding enclosures to arguably weakening the English Church there are weaknesses and failures. Yet, there are positives o be taken throughout also, for example Wolsey’s obvious craving of a fairer justice system is evident even when concluding he may have manipulated the legal system for his own purposes. Failure can be interpreted in different ways and one must be careful not judge situations anachronistically when assessing failure. Wolsey’s circumstance must also be taken into account when assessing the validity of this claim.
Wolsey knew that his power and influence lay with Henry, he was not likely to be pleased if Wolsey was ploughing all his time and effort into reforming the way the country was run if it meant no time was set aside for plans of military prestige, and so Wolsey was performing a juggling act with the juggling balls- to continue the metaphor- being Henry’s wants, and hence his own power, and an entirely successful domestic policy. One must allow for some mishaps in domestic policy when it’s considered how unimportant it was compared to other things.
Justice and Legal reform Wolsey’s largest success and one of his major failing lie in this area of Domestic policy. Wolsey has been commended by historians for his attempts at bringing about a fairer justice system in England, from 1515 onwards in his role as Lord Chancellor he was active in both the Court of Chancery and the Star Chamber and devoted a considerable amount of time and attention to this aspect of his working life and indeed presided over many a case himself, with the centre of his legal activities lying in the Star Chamber.
The success mentioned earlier can be showcased by the fact that anyone was able to bring their case forward to the Star Chamber, regardless of wealth or status. He seemed genuinely interested to see justice prevailing throughout the land by not only through the afore-mentioned ‘equality based’ proceedings but through advancing civil law over common law, which was undoubtedly a move towards a more just judicial system. He took pleasure in overturning verdicts made by common law, when they went against what he thought was natural justice.
However, it must not be omitted that Wolsey was much less determined in the ‘pursuit of justice’ than he was in the pursuit of his own personal gain; it is clear he was manipulative and exploitative in using the system to further his own interests. An often used example to case this point is his revenge on Sir Amyus Paulet. After having been humiliated by Paulet upon entering his first benefice Wolsey kept the event stored in the back of his incredible mind for more than a decade.
He exacted his revenge upon being granted the position of Lord Chancellor by summoning Paulet to appear before him at the Star Chamber. Spitefully, he kept him in daily attendance for more than five years under the threats of the consequences of contempt of court if he were to not turn up. Wolsey used this as a public reminder of what would happen to those who crossed him. There is also no doubt that more resentment was caused by Wolsey’s action in the Star Chamber, especially among nobles who were targeted for abusing their aristocratic privileges.
It’s also worth noting the lack of long standing institutional reform in this area, his achievements did not outlast him. Perhaps suggesting that in this area, domestic policy under Wolsey was a failure [for England] as he merely used the reforms he made as a vehicle to carry out his own wants rather than to impart and long lasting institutional reform and his success in the form of increasing the percentage of cases that ended with fair results for anyone was just another vehicle used to continue his vendetta with nobility.
He did not introduce any institutional changes that would have ensured his approach would have continued after he was no longer there to champion them and so when in 1529 he was no longer in office there was a very large backlog of cases in the Star court that had to be sent back down the courts. Social and Economic issues Once again legal reform was on Wolsey’s mind, this time on the subject of enclosures. His legal action with regards to enclosures have been defended by historians like Scarisbrick and Gwyn as the issue is highly complex and has been much debated by economic historians.
Enclosure, essentially, involved fencing off common land that could be used for arable farming by the community, by rich noble people in order to graze sheep on the land-which lead to a bigger profit for them personally, which lead to depopulation and poverty. Three laws had been passed against it prior to Wolsey’s chancellorship but they’d largely been ignored. Wolsey of course though, displayed his usual drive and panache when tackling the problem; between 1518 and 1529 legal action was taken on a total of 264 people many of whom were forced to rebuild houses and return land back to arable farming.
Again though as in other legal action Wolsey took part in, he had no fear in going after the highest men of the realm, 9 peers, 3 Bishops, 32 knights, 51 heads of state and several oxford colleagues faced prosecution. These actions are interestingly mysterious at face value; he made no financial gain and didn’t prosecute or make an example of anyone who’d crossed him, when it came to enclosures. And so, proof perhaps, that Wolsey did have a moral compass, a conscience and a sense of duty towards all his royal subjects; he wasn’t solely trying to further his own powers and wealth.
He was not afraid of what was clearly another dangerous attack on the upper classes or a lack of popularity among them. Once more Wolsey had strived to bring great men to justice and challenges the power of aristocracy but on the other hand, once again the long term benefits of these actions have to be questioned. Enclosure continued to take place and rural poverty continued to climb. So it would be fair again, to say that, along with a lack of definitive action on trade and a severely flawed attempt at debasing England’s coinage, Wolsey had failed in this area of domestic policy.
However there are again, certain positives to be drawn, he has, like in the case of legal reform displayed an inner desire to bring justice to the people and ‘challenge the power of aristocracy’ which could be considered a success when one considers once more, his need to concentrate his efforts of foreign policy. Finance Finance is yet another area of domestic policy that was a mixed bag in terms of the question. There were things that he did well but there were also things that went catastrophically badly.
Wolsey’s greatest success in financial policy was his reformation of the taxation system in England. This was something that he did well. The transfer from the old fifteenths and tenths system to the new fairer subsidy based system went smoothly and is another example of Wolsey’s soft spot for the less fortunate in the country. The new system was income dependant and wasn’t just a fixed charge, it worked better and was essentially just fairer.
His popularity among the richer circles was at an all-time low already although this did not help. Another thing that can go down in Wolsey’s favour is his dealing with parliament; he managed to force loans out of them and get away with it even though he and Henry were already in debt to them, and in the context of Wolsey’s aim of feeding Henry’s passion for military prestige this monetary gain goes down as a success. However it was not all plain sailing in the financial sector of Wolsey’s workings.
It has been argued by historians such as G. R Elton that his greatest weakness was his lack of financial ability and his little understanding of economic facts. The amicable grant was a casing point of a failure outweighing positives in Wolsey’s reign as chancellor. Although we can again find excuses for Wolsey’s actions as he was just trying to keep up with Henry’s demands, it still doesn’t erase the fact that a bad decision of his led to rioting and a policy was overturned.
Finance was clearly not his greatest are of expertise and it showed in his introduction of the amicable grant whilst it is fair to say that he was a subject of his circumstances it cannot be denied that this was a massive failure and is actually widely regarded as the beginning of the end for Wolsey. Although the introduction of a new fairer tax system seems now a very successful move from Wolsey It doesn’t outweigh the failure that every one of his time and in our own can take from Wolsey’s financial policy. The Church The final part of the Domestic policy was reforms in the Church.
A number of problems present themselves when considering Wolsey’s domestic policy regarding the church. Firstly, there were many areas of the church that needed reform both in the regular and secular sections of the church. It was a large job to say the least and as questions were looming over where his loyalties truly lay the job was only made harder. Although he was a devote catholic who performed mass twice a day ,which when considering he only slept for 4 hours a night was a lot, it cannot be argued that he didn’t ever use the church for his own gain to further his power and fulfil his ambitions.
In the Secular church, there was a big gap, in terms of income, between the higher and the lower clergy. You had to have a university education and administrative experience to be able to become an archbishop and most of the rich ecclesiastical figures used to pay the clerical servants employed by it, showing corruption was clearly rife in the Church, as simony had become more and more common while nepotism, absenteeism and pluralism were all prominent themes.
It was getting out of hand, the taxes paid by the common man were no longer deserved by the church and the benefits of being part of the church weren’t either; power or legal privilege (Benefit of the Clergy). Wolsey held bishoprics in plurality but he was unable to be there for all of the jobs. He never visited Lincoln, Bath or Durham and only went to York after his fall from grace. Wolsey was arguably looking to exploit the Church for personal financial gain as despite having an Ecclesiastic Council.
In the Regular Church, the priests and monks were becoming greedy in gathering rents and fees, they were also breaking the rules of abstinence and so monastic reform was not possible as it would have to be on such a scale that all other things must be side lined, Wolsey knowing Henry was always his master could not afford to do this. However, there were some successes during Wolsey’s attempts to reform the Church. His significant achievement came in education as he dissolved 20 decaying monasteries worth ?1800 a year to build Cardinal College and a further seven monasteries to add ?200 a year to build a grammar school in Ipswich.
Wolsey also dissolved some 30 houses of monks, canons and nans and sent the proceeds to build colleges and schools. These achievements though were nothing special as he could not finish building the school in Ipswich but Cromwell managed to save Cardinal College. He managed to also sponsor lectured in Oxford by the famous humanist Juan Luis Vives and Cardinal College became a centre of Humanist studies. This can also be viewed as a failure as the college then became a hub for Lutheranism.
He was a non-resident at times and absenteeism didn’t change for him even though he should’ve set the example, as he was legate a latere. His legatine authority was never exercised for anything other than his own greater profit and glory. Overall the Church reforms were a failure as there was not much he could do anyway. The Church needed reforms on a grand scale and Wolsey was not prepared to do this despite Sir Thomas More saying that reform was possible.
In Conclusion I would say that Domestic Policy under Wolsey was a failure, as a number of hiccups; amicable grant, and selfish acts; legal and parliamentary reform, prove, however it is also clear to see that there are valid counter arguments available. Wolsey had his hands tied behind his back, he had to please everyone and under the circumstances did an okay job. The argument that his lack of innovation being a measure of failure is also invalid as innovation isn’t necessarily a measure of success. The danger of judging event anachronistically can skew the scale on which he failed.