Part One - The First Five Minutes
A Boy King
Henry VIII was seventeen years old when he became King of England after the death of his father, Henry VII, in April 1509. Until the death of his older brother, Arthur, in 1502, he had not expected to be the royal ruler of England.
With the pope’s authority, the adolescent new king was married to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, who was six years older than Henry, on 11 June 1509.
‘The king is young’, lamented the Spanish ambassador in England, ‘and does not care to occupy himself with anything but the pleasures of his age. All other affairs he neglects.’ At first the young king’s father’s aged contemporaries conducted government, but soon they became dominated by a younger and ruthlessly ambitious clerical man, Thomas Wolsey.
Wolsey began the reign as Henry VIII’s almoner but, as the youthful king pursued his gaming pastimes, Wolsey expanded his control and rose meteorically, unchecked, from almoner to papal legate in a few years.
Wolsey Rules England for a Malleable Monarch
Wolsey craved control, and the highest office a cleric could achieve was that of pope. Through the papacy, Wolsey believed, he could rule all of Christendom and restore its authority and prestige to levels not seen since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The houses of Trastámar (from which Catherine of Aragon descended), Habsburg and Valois were the principal ruling dynasties in Europe, and bloody and expensive wars were waged between them. In 1518, Pope Leo X launched an enterprise to bring a lasting peace to Christendom, but Wolsey, using his authority as papal legate, usurped the pontiff’s initiative and supplanted it with a pact of his own design, the Treaty of London.
The following year, however, Maximilian, head of the Habsburg dynasty and Holy Roman Emperor, died. His grandson, nineteen-year-old Charles V, who was already (by his maternal Trastámar inheritance) King of Spain, inherited Maximilian’s Habsburg domains and thus Trastámar and Habsburg united to become a vast empire.
The title of Holy Roman Emperor, the holder of which was guardian of the Roman Catholic Church, was decided by election, and it fell vacant upon Maximilian’s death.
A Bloody Rivalry
By this time, twenty-five-year-old Francis I had been King of France for four years. The union of Trastámar and Habsburg territories now surrounded France – save control of the Strait of Dover. In an effort to rebut Charles’s escalation of power, Francis set himself against Charles for election as Holy Roman Emperor.
Francis lost the election, and thereafter followed an escalation of the intense and bloody rivalry between Habsburg and Valois.
Cardinal Wolsey exploited the tradition that Holy Roman Emperors elect were first crowned King of the Germans at Aachen Cathedral in Germany. Charles lived in Spain, and safe passage between his domains was essential. Wolsey invited Charles to visit England as he sailed from Spain for the coronation. Guarded in the Channel by the English fleet, he was protected from French hostility.
Charles arrived just as an enormous maritime logistics spectacle, arranged by Wolsey, was underway in the ‘narrow sea’ between Dover and Calais. The display was part of the preparations for the famous meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Wolsey had shown himself to be the de facto ruler of England, and he set out to imbue these two young monarchs with a lasting impression. He left them in no doubt about the strength of the English navy in the narrow sea.
While Charles was still in his northern territories, Wolsey’s London peace treaty was breached and the cardinal reappointed himself peacemaker. At a clandestine meeting with Charles in Bruges, he reinforced his position as a critical ally if the emperor were to be an effective ruler of geographically distant lands.
Wolsey's Bid for the Papacy
When the time came for Charles to return home to Spain, it had been agreed at Bruges that the English navy would again protect the emperor from French hostility in the Channel, and, in return, Charles would secure Wolsey’s election as pope at the next conclave.
The Bruges agreement also called for England and the Habsburg Empire to join forces and declare war on France, and this began with attacks on French naval ports as Charles sailed through the Channel.
Wolsey had honoured his side of the bargain and Charles sailed safely back to Spain.
As had been planned at Bruges, a joint land invasion of France began. However, during that incursion in 1523, as the Duke of Suffolk (Charles Brandon) was about to attack Paris, Charles V reneged on his agreement with Wolsey. Having already passed over a first opportunity to see the cardinal raised to the papacy, he let another opportunity slide.
Wolsey was incandescent and, without a word to Henry VIII, changed sides from the Habsburg Charles to the Valois Francis. He embarked on an alliance to build a Valois-backed initiative to make him pope with French support; however, in so doing, he severed the supply line to Brandon and left him stranded south of the River Somme, just when Paris had been ripe for the taking.
To maintain his papal ambitions, the cardinal must rid Henry VIII of his queen, Catherine of Aragon. Ostensibly, Henry and Catherine were happy in their marriage, but Charles V was Catherine’s nephew and so now, to the chameleon cardinal, she was a liability – she had no place in his alliance with the French. Henry must divorce her for a French wife.
The Cardinal Turns French
Wolsey’s change of allegiance to the Valois King of France and his family began with near disaster when Francis was captured during the battle of Pavia and then held prisoner by Charles in Spain. Wolsey, however, was quick to take advantage and formed a bond with Francis’s mother, Louise, and his sister, Marguerite d’Angoulême.
Wolsey began a process of tireless work in support of the French negations for Francis’s release, and his efforts unified the two nations against Charles. Francis was eventually freed and, as soon as he was back on French soil, he formed a league against Charles.
Cardinal Wolsey and Francis had set themselves together as bitter enemies of Charles.
Wolsey probably had Francis’s sister, Marguerite d’Angoulême, in his mind to marry Henry, but the French princess was too shrewd for that ploy and instead, with a little genealogical conjuring, nominated her protégé Anne de Boulogne.
The cardinal convinced Henry and Anne that he could secure a divorce sanctioned by the pope. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, Pope Clement fled to the clifftop hideaway of Orvieto, in south-western Umbria. During the pope’s exile, Wolsey advocated that papal authority should be transferred to him, which would have given him the authority to rule as he wished concerning Henry’s marriage. Wolsey went to France and incited the opposing sides on mainland Europe, but, while he was away, the de Boulogne faction tightened its controlling grip on Henry. Anne, her father and her brother – aided by Louise and Marguerite d’Angoulême and Francis – gradually stole the naive king from Wolsey, manoeuvring him into their clutches.
Wolsey dashed home – he must at least delay if not scupper the divorce and remarriage entirely – but it was too late; he had over-reached himself.
The Blackfriars trial of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine famously collapsed without a decision in July 1529. Wolsey had failed his king. The legal arguments were an irrelevance anyway, they always had been. Wolsey’s only chance, and remote one at that, of succeeding with papal sanction for the divorce was to obtain the papacy for himself. Catherine was Charles’s aunt. Charles was the most powerful man in Christendom, and he was guardian of the pope. Even if hell were to freeze over he still would not have allowed such a humiliation to be inflicted on his family.
The End of the First Era of the Reign of Henry VIII
Worse, for Wolsey, his machinations on the Continent were foiled by Archduchess Margaret (aunt of Charles V) and Louise de Valois (mother of Francis I), who saw through his treacherous schemes and united. To the exclusion of the cardinal, they negotiated a peace agreement between nephew and son, the so-called Ladies’ Peace, or Paix des Dames.
Wolsey had fallen between two stools and he was done for.
However, the ramifications of the over-reaching megalomaniac cleric’s actions amounted to significantly more even than creating discord between monarchs. The cardinal’s exploitation of the power he had filched from the church had incensed swathes of the English population.
Henry VIII,the Reign - the Blog