Wolsey’s Treason

Wolsey, motivated by his hatred of Henry’s new love, then foolishly offered his clandestine support to Katherina in order to frustrate Henry’s plan to gain an annulment. The Cardinal’s pride must have meant more to him than his life, since he went so far as to commit treason. Wolsey began “advising foreign powers on the best tactics to use against his sovereign” in an attempt to “foment unrest in England” and “coerce Henry into leaving Anne”[1].

henry and wolsey

There are some historians who believe that Anne threatened to leave the king if he did not arrest his pernicious former Chancellor[2]. This seems like overreach, since Wolsey had clearly dug his own grave with his back-handed rebellion against his monarch. There is no evidence that it was Anne who initiated Wolsey’s arrest for treason on November 4, 1530. Finding out Wolsey was plotting against him would have spurred Henry into action as much as any coaxing by Anne Boleyn.

It will never be known if the king would have relented once more, because Wolsey died a natural death on the trip back to London, on November 29, 1530[3]. The Cardinal would suffer one more posthumous insult. Henry changed the name of York Place to Whitehall and gave it over to Anne’s use[4]. Did Anne feel a sense of satisfaction when she was at Whitehall, thinking of how unhappy Wolsey would be to know his worst enemy was enjoying the home he worked so hard on? Did she feel this would “work as much displeasure” for the Cardinal as she felt after Henry Percy was torn away from her? Who knows? The lack of information as to Anne’s true feeling has not stopped historians for assuming she orchestrated and reveled in Wolsey’s downfall, however. Anne perpetually serves as a scapegoat for the actions of Henry VIII.

The Cardinal’s arrest was a scandal and the tales doubtlessly grew in the telling. Shortly before Wolsey’s death, Chapuys wrote to Charles V to tell him an item of gossip he had gleaned from Wolsey’s personal physician. According to Chapuys, the doctor had admitted to him that Wolsey had urged the Pope to excommunicate the king unless he sent Anne away and that the Cardinal hoped to “raise the country and obtain the management” by these intrigues[5]. It is completely understandable that the Cardinal would want to rid himself of Anne Boleyn but it seems doubtful he was planning to take over England by force. Chapuys was desperate to coax Charles V into an invasion of England in the hopes of placing Princess Mary on the throne. It seems far more likely that Chapuys would take any rumor of a plot to overthrow Henry and exaggerate it for fullest effect.

A Spanish invasion of England was nonetheless not such a far-fetched possibility that it could be ignored. Two years earlier, in November of 1528, an English agent had written to Wolsey in order to warn him that the Spanish Chancellor had bragged that “if we wished we could expel [Henry] from his own Kingdom in three months. What force had the King? his own subjects would expel him”[6]. This was probably bravado on the part of Spain. In spite of Chapuy’s claims and the Spanish Chancellor’s boasts, the people of England were not so eager to get rid of their king. When the words of the Spanish Chancellor were reported in London they were received poorly and turned popular opinion against the Emperor. A letter from one English nobleman to another stated that Charles V “lost the hearts of one hundred thousand Englishmen” that day[7].

(Excerpted from Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII)


[1]  Starkey, David. 2003. Six Wives : The Queens of Henry VIII. Chatto & Windus. 

[2]  Starkey, 2003:429-430 

[3]  Starkey, 2003:432 

[4]  Lindsey, K. 1995. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

[5]  Froude, James Anthony. 1891. The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon: The Story as Told by the Imperial Ambassadors Resident at the Court of Henry VIII … Longmans, Green & co.

[6]  Froude, 1891:82 

[7]  Froude, 1891:83 

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