The Earlier Tudors, 1485-1558

By J. D. Mackie | Go to book overview

IX
THE CARDINAL

FOR more than fifteen years the history of England was dominated by the great personality of Cardinal Wolsey. Seldom in England has a subject enjoyed such power. Thomas Becket, indeed, had been both chancellor and archbishop, but the powers which he exercised had been in his person mutually opposed, and if he served the king well as chancellor, he defied him to the death as archbishop. In the fifteenth century Henry Beaufort had been cardinal, chancellor, and legate a latere; but he was not an archbishop and his career was run at a time when neither the English monarchy nor the papacy was in full vigour. Thomas Wolsey held power at a time when the realm of England was flourishing and when the papacy, albeit in danger of becoming an Italian state, still exercised great influence on European affairs. He was at the same time chancellor, archbishop, cardinal, and legate a latere, and in his capable hands the powers belonging to each of his offices were welded into a single compelling force which defied all authority save that of the king of England, who might sometimes be hoodwinked, and that of the pope, who might sometimes be disregarded. Before the rulers of Europe he stood forth as the man who controlled England's destinies. 'This cardinal', said a Venetian ambassador who, by the year 1519, had been in England for four years, 'is the person who rules both the king and the entire kingdom.' The cardinal, he alleged in another letter, might be styled ipse rex.1 Cardinal d'Amboise, who did everything for Louis XII -- 'leave it to Georges', they said -- may be regarded as a prototype, but the real parallel to the greatness of Wolsey is that of Richelieu, who ruled France by his own personality and by the agency of commissioners dependent upon himself.

To the chariot of the state Wolsey harnessed mettlesome horses of different breeds and different tempers; guiding their course by the whip of authority and the rein of expediency, he seemed himself to be the true type of a Renaissance prince. Yet they were wrong who thought that the king was but his

____________________
1
Pollard, Wolsey ( 1929), pp. 102-3, quoting Venetian Calendar.

-286-

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