Cardinal Wolsey and the Midnight Crow

Some historians, many historical novelists, and even Cardinal Thomas Wolsey himself, have blamed his displacement from King Henry VIII’s favor on the machinations of Anne Boleyn. Wolsey called Anne “the midnight crow” and seems to have been entirely convinced that it was her influence and hers alone behind his loss of position. However, his fall from grace was not entirely her doing. Cardinal Wolsey had wielded power for too long, and made too many enemies; half the court would have loved to see him brought low once more.

Anne Boleyn convincing Henry to dismiss wolsey

Moreover, even with Anne working against the Cardinal (which she almost certainly was), the king was already angry with Wolsey because, for the first time, Wolsey had failed to achieve the results the king wanted. Henry seems to have become suspicious early on that Wolsey was trying to prevent the successful completion of the the king’s nullity suit against Katherina of Aragon and he willfully ignored the realities of Wolsey’s situation. It was hardly Wolsey’s fault that the Pope could not risk alienating Charles V in order to give Henry his annulment, but the king was like a spoiled child refusing to believe his parents couldn’t REALLY afford to buy him a pony.

In spite of Henry’s vexation, the Cardinal’s fall was not a sudden plunge toward the chopping block; it was more of a descending slither, full of sudden starts and stops. Henry dithered about dismissing Wolsey in spite of Anne’s open animosity toward the Cardinal. The king had grown used to having the support of his Lord Chancellor, and was fond of Wolsey’s toadying. The Cardinal had long known that the best thing he could do with Henry was to “heap praise on his opinions” and this constant reinforcement of his own ideas was pleasing to the king. Nevertheless, Wolsey was in deep trouble because of the delay in the annulment, giving Anne and her faction a chance to encourage his downward trajectory to the best of their abilities. By late September 1529 the king was piqued enough with the Cardinal to command Wolsey to hand over the Great Seal.


This wasn’t the end of Wolsey, however. Henry had trusted and depended on his former Chancellor for a long time and was hesitant to give him up completely. After Wolsey had departed in humiliation, the king sent a messenger after the Cardinal with a ring and the King’s promise that Henry had not really abandoned him. Overjoyed, Wolsey waited for Henry to bring him back to court.

He waited in vain.

In October, the Cardinal was found guilty of praemunire, or supporting Papal authority instead of the King, which would cost Wolsey his head. Yet once again Henry changed his mind and pardoned the Cardinal. Keeping matters ambiguous, the king continued to send him occasional gifts, leaving Wolsey always hoping for a return to royal favor. Wolsey did everything he could to please the King, including bribing all those who might help him with lavish gifts of money.

He even tried to please Anne Boleyn with presents, but she could not be won over and remained firmly against him. Wolsey, at the behest of the king, had forcibly ended the engagement of Anne Boleyn and Henry Percy, the oldest son of the Earl of Northumberland, in 1524 or 1525. A heartbroken Anne had promised to “work as much displeasure” for the Cardinal one day as he had done for her. Wolsey no doubt laughed at the idea of the youngest Boleyn girl being able to hurt him. Nonetheless, the “midnight crow” was ever mindful of the pain Wolsey had caused her and would never like the Cardinal, regardless of the gifts he gave her.

Anne Boleyn plots against Wolsey


Henry, in contrast, proved more easily swayed by pretty things. Cardinal Wolsey, in a wise yet assuredly painful move, even signed over the title of his splendid manor, York Place, to the king in February of 1530. This pleased the king so greatly that he granted his former Chancellor a full pardon and restored him to his former position as the Archbishop of York. This must have infuriated all of Wolsey’s enemies, including Henry’s intended bride. 

All the gifts in the world would do Wolsey no good, because he was busted in an act of treason in the autumn of 1530. Motivated by his hatred of Henry’s new love, the Cardinal foolishly offered his clandestine support to Katherina in order to frustrate Henry’s plan to gain an annulment. Now Wolsey really WAS blocking the annulment, as Henry and Anne had suspected him doing of earlier. Worse, the Cardinal had begun “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” (Starkey; Six Wives).

Committing treason was so stupid one can only assume Wolsey’s hatred of Anne Boleyn meant more to him than his life … or he thought he was so smart he couldn’t get caught.

There are some historians who believe that Anne forced Henry to arrest Wolsey a final time by threatening to leave the king if he did not crush his former chancellor, but this seems like overreach, especially since the Cardinal had clearly dug his own grave with his 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 much more quickly than any coaxing or threats by Anne Boleyn.

In a bit of fitting irony, the man sent to arrest the Cardinal and escort him back to London to face the charges against him was Henry Percy, now the 6th Earl of Northumberland and still bitterly angry about the fact Wolsey had cost him Anne Boleyn’s hand in marriage five years prior.

It will never be known if the king would have relented and forgiven Wolsey once more, because the Cardinal died a natural death during his trip back to London, on 29 November 1530. His last words were theoretically a lament that “if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.” If true, the hypocrisy is breathtaking, because Wolsey had just been committing treason against the sovereign he claimed to have served so ‘diligently’.  


Cardinal Wolsey would suffer a major posthumous insult when Henry changed the name of York Place to Whitehall and gave it over Anne Boleyn, the woman Wolsey hated most in all the world. Did Anne feel a sense of satisfaction when she was at Whitehall, thinking of how unhappy Wolsey would be to know the midnight crow 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?

No one knows, but 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 Boleyn perpetually serves as a scapegoat for the actions of Henry VIII in the centuries after her death, just as she was blamed for all his worst behavior during their relationship when she was alive.

3 thoughts on “Cardinal Wolsey and the Midnight Crow

  1. I always thought Wolsey’s disgrace was caused by his intermediation of Henry the VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *