Cardinal Thomas Wolsey plays a tremendously large part in British history perhaps due more to King Henry VIII’s disinterest in politics rather than to any inherent genius or even ambition of his own. Cardinal Wolsey was lucky enough to find himself in the service of a king who was willing to hand over the administrative details of his government to someone other himself.
The lasting legacy of the reign of Henry VIII—other than providing fodder for a never-ending series of movies about his love life—is, of course, his desire to get a divorce and the refusal of the Pope, resulting in the split with the Catholic Church. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was quite familiar with the inner workings of the Church, of course, having been both a Bishop and Archbishop. Eventually, Thomas Wolsey’s influence with Henry VIII landed him the enviable post of Cardinal and then he even managed to secure special powers from Rome.
These powers effectively gave him control of the direction of every aspect of the English church. With his power, Cardinal Wolsey oversaw all legal matters that related in any way to the Church: from marriages to church appointments. Cardinal Wolsey’s direction for the church was one toward extravagant expenditures. He was as arrogant as Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney in displaying the wealth that his position had brought him and as a result made many enemies on all sides. It was this arrogance and display of wealth in the face of overwhelming poverty among so many that led to the spread of anti-church sentiment throughout much of the English countryside. (Which my lady loves, by the way.)
It was Cardinal Wolsey’s intense Karl Rove-like devotion and loyalty to Henry VIII—incurred doubtlessly because unless he did remain loyal he would lose all his wealth—that probably afforded him little choice but to acquiesce when King Henry VIII asked Cardinal Wolsey to secure for him a divorce. Thomas Wolsey, as a powerful prelate of the Catholic Church, probably would have preferred privately that King Henry give up this idea, especially upon finding out that it just wasn’t destined to happen. At least not in the way in which Henry VIII hoped.
Cardinal Wolsey found himself caught between both sides of his enemies, both those who felt he was being disloyal to the Church and those who felt he was the personification all that was wrong with the Catholic Church. Cardinal Wolsey’s alienation of people on both sides effectively eradicated any chance he possibly had for securing the divorce Henry VIII so eagerly sought and doubtlessly his failure was a primary contributor to the eventual breakdown between Henry VIII and the Pope, leading to the eventual split with Rome and the establishment of the Anglican Church.
Of course, the establishment of the Anglican Church in no way ended the country’s religion problem, but that’s a story for another time.